I was born in Saudi Arabia but my parents are from Deir ez-Zor. I used to visit every summer and stay with my family at my grandparent’s house, where I spent most of my time hanging out with my cousin.
To me, Deir ez-Zor meant fun and good company. The thing I miss most is swimming in the Euphrates River. Later, during the fighting, I made friends with Muhammed, who played guitar. We used to sneak out to his parents’ house, now abandoned. But all the furniture was still there, stored in the spacious living room, as if it were an antique shop. And, surrounded by Persian carpets, he’d play to me.
When Muhammed noticed I was more interested in the way he moved his fingers than the songs he played, he started teaching me too.
In 2012, I was hit by shrapnel and wounded in my leg. I have diabetes, which makes it harder to recover. I managed to make to Urfa, a town across the border in Turkey.
After several months recovering in Urfa, I met Muhammed again, who had a family home there. He put me up, and I started learning guitar again. I still remember the first song I could play. It was ‘Nothing Else Matters’ by The Scorpions.
The funny thing is, I’ve loved guitar since I was a kid. But I’d have never thought of playing it if not for that guy, who I met in such difficult circumstances.
When I had recovered, I made my way to Istanbul. I’d studied interior design, but I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t speak Turkish. So I worked in bakeries and as a waiter. I didn’t let it get me down. I saw so many Syrians, from higher classes than me, working in this way.
While I was working in a bakery, I met the woman who became my wife, Amina. It was a sweet relationship. We married in a simple religious ceremony, and I kept working and trying to save enough money to pay the smugglers to take us to Europe.
In 2013 we made our first attempt. A smuggler took a group of us to the Turkish-Bulgarian border, and told us to walk for three hours. There, we were supposed to find another car that would take us to Romania, and then Germany, where we would go our separate ways. At that time, I dreamed of going to France.
But in Bulgaria, our guide lost his way. We trudged in circles for five days, until we ran out of food and water. Slowly, we realised he didn’t care if we were dead. Another young man and I set out on foot alone for seven hours to try and find a village where we could buy provisions. Eventually, we did. But when we returned, we could not find our group.
We searched and searched, but there was no one. All we could see was a small tyre mark on a nearby riverbed. We feared Amina and the other man’s parents had been snatched by the police, or worse, by gangsters.
But when we did find a Bulgarian policeman, he told us nothing about our loved ones. He just told us to get out of the country or we’d be locked up too. And so I headed back to Turkey, without a single word about Amina.
Then, one day, she called me from Sofia, where she was locked up in a Bulgarian prison.
Amina stayed locked up in Bulgaria for a whole month. That is how long it took me to find a Bulgarian man who would bail her out and put her on a plane to Athens. It cost €1,200. The 14th August 2013 is the most important date in my life. It is the day Amina left Sofia.
After I’d paid for Amina’s flight, smuggling was too expensive for me. But I couldn’t leave my wife. And then I heard of a way to travel from Turkey to Greece for free.
I knew I had to leave Turkey on the 13th August to get there in time to meet Amina. I went to a small holiday resort on the coast, Güzelçamli. There, I prepared for my journey. I had flippers, goggles and an inflatable ring.
Ahead of me, across the sea, I could see the lights of the Greek island of Samos. Then I started swimming towards it.
I swam and swam. I swam for five hours. I was so exhausted from swimming, that I even slept at sea for a while, buoyed up by the inflatable ring.
I reached Samos in the morning, and hitched a ride to the police station. The driver asked me where I saw from. I said: “I’m from Spain.” And he said: “Hop right in.”
When I reached the police station, I explained the situation. At first, they didn’t believe me, but I showed them the flippers and goggles on the beach.
They put me on a boat to Athens the next morning. I arrived a few hours ahead of Amina, and so I waited in the harbour. And there, finally, I was reunited with my wife.
Seeing my wife again after she’d spent almost a month in prison was amazing. I can hardly describe how it felt to start my life again. That whole day was so beautiful.
We tried and tried to fly out of Greece, but eventually we exhausted our chances. So after long discussions, we decided to travel through the forests of Europe. Our route would take us through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and, finally, Hungary. We would travel at night to avoid the police.
We started walking. But it was winter, and after a few days Amina was weeping and shaking with the cold. And we were all starting to starve. Our families sent us some money, but we could not withdraw money from the ATMs in those countries, so we had to ask local people to help us take it from Western Union instead.
Finally, we made it to Hungary. We sat there in the freezing night, and I tried to smoke a cigarette. We couldn’t smoke often, in case the police noticed the light of the cigarette. Just as I finished my cigarette, the police surrounded us with guns.
I lifted my hands. Amina collapsed to the ground. When the police saw her, they apologised and told us: “Don’t worry, you’re safe.”
The police took us to a refugee centre, where we lived for a month or two. The train stations were monitored, but one day we managed to catch a train to Hamburg. We had decided to go to Sweden instead of France, because of the more welcoming refugee policy there.
On the train, a German policewoman opened the compartment door. She asked us where we were going, and I said in my broken English: “We are Americans and we are going to learn German in Hamburg.” The policewoman apologised and shut the door.
From Hamburg, we made it to Sweden. At first we arrived in a big city, but we found a smaller city. We didn’t know anything about it – we just liked how it looked on the map. And there we started to fill in our refugee papers.
I still miss my guitar. I can’t play music freely here, for fear of annoying the neighbours. And it’s difficult for me emotionally. But I am trying, and if God is willing, one day I will enrol in a musical institute and continue that other journey – my journey with music.
A few of my favorite things (cropped) by Wonderlane / CC by 2.0
Puddles at sunset by Borislav Dimitrov / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Turkey. Chamyuva by Vladimir Vofolomeev / CC BY-NC 2.0
Winter in Palics by Timar Noel / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Playin’ by Paolo Martini / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0