A story in 8 parts
I want to breathe… I want air… My heart is going to stop. I look at my young family at my side, and terror fills me, out of fear that they will lose me…
This is the story of the nights I have spent over the last few months, as the pressure tightened around my neck with each new day.
Those days became colourless – nightmares which grew increasingly hideous every day. Horrible stories of friends dying as a result of torture reached me. The sound of their groans and the pictures of their bodies will never leave me.
There was sadness in the eyes of all the refugees around me. They came from every corner of Syria. You could see them grieving for their children, wives, homes and jobs, and the humiliation that is their existence. The sight of these people became my ‘daily bread’.
Death surrounded me, the smell of blood was everywhere, and cries filled the air. I grew sick of pretending to smile. Of playing the role of the person who tries to see things from a different perspective.
I wanted to scream. I needed to scream. The situation is far from good – in fact, it is terrible. Day by day, everything and everyone was being killed.
Every minute we lived through, we lost a piece of our flesh and our soul. I desperately searched for a tunnel, so I could cling to the light that might be at the end of it, no matter how small or distant that light might be.
Then, the time came for me to save my soul, and so I chose to leave Syria and begin my journey.
Consider this – all the routes out of the country are illegal, and the amount of countries that will grant Syrians legal entry can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The only way out is by crossing illegally.
It is well known that those who work in getting people out of the country can hardly be called human beings at all. My suffering began when I met a people smuggler for the first time in the city of al-Qamishli. I hoped he might help me cross the border into Turkey.
God had blessed me with a small amount of money at that time. So I approached the smuggler with the best reputation (and the most expensive price).That way, I hoped, I wouldn’t escape from one death in Syria to another when I tried to leave it.
The smuggler promised me I would cross the Turkish border, and that a car from the Turkish border guard would be waiting.
So I packed up my belongings and went with him. He drove me to a town called Amuda, where he asked me to wait in a dark spot for a few hours with a group of men and women. Eventually he returned and told us that we would not be able to cross on that day.
That was the first promise he had made, and the first he broke. The next day he suggested that we try again. He took me to a different group of smugglers and handed me over to them. They took me and a few families by car to a distant location in the far north east of Syria. When we arrived at a border crossing they asked us for our ID cards, and presented them to members of the Kurdish Workers Party. They took down our names and asked us to pay so that we could cross to the Turkish side.
I realised this was the point of no return. I had now been documented as someone leaving Syria illegally.
We stepped out of the cars. The smugglers asked us to walk. They told the mothers of the young children to give them sleeping pills, so the Turkish army wouldn’t notice us if the children cried.
I then realised there was no official co-ordination with the Turkish border guards, as the smuggler had claimed.
We walked for more than three hours, until we reached the barbed wire fencing. The smugglers widened the small openings in the fence to allow us to cross. A few of us got caught, and many people’s clothes and bags were torn open too. After crossing we lost sight of the smugglers and began to follow each other, not realising we were lost. Eventually we caught sight of some lights on the horizon, and someone who had been there before told us that they were the lights of a Turkish city.
As we walked through corn fields towards the light, we began to hear the faint sound of gunfire, and calls from megaphones. We were unsure as to whether we were the objects of this attention. In any case, we had no choice but to continue walking. Only when we reached the city lights were we able to breath more freely. We had completed the first stage of our route to life.
I set about examining the situation in Turkey. The experience of other Syrians showed me that the rich can stay there, and that those with next to nothing are only able to live in camps.
This is because the wages for Syrians are low in Turkey, and do not match the cost of living at all.
And that is without considering the exploitation and greed of some Turkish people.
From then on I began to seriously pursue the option of travelling to Europe. It seemed to be the only way to deal with my state of perpetual instability and worry. I hoped to arrive at a point of safety and security, no matter how far away it was.
Once again, I started to search for smugglers. The hard part, however, is finding someone who can convince you that their route is safe. So I imposed some restrictions on myself regarding the routes I would be willing to take.
One of my restrictions was that I would not leave Turkey for Europe except by aeroplane, although this route was the least likely to be successful. The EU has pressurised Turkey to limit the outpouring of refugees from Syria.
I met with a number of people smugglers in the Aksaray area of Istanbul. This neighbourhood is something of a headquarters for the smuggling trade, as well as for prostitution and all other sorts of corrupt behaviour. But all of the smugglers I met had farcical plans. It became clear talking to them was a waste of time.
So, I started investigating the option of a visa. I immediately found a smuggler who promised me a Spanish visa within 20 days, and he was convincing enough for me to agree.
Work began on the Spanish visa. But after 20 days, the smuggler announced that it would take another week. Then after another week, he did the same, and finally, he turned off his phone and stopped replying to calls. I had lost two months to no avail.
I had to keep trying. So, I agreed to a plan proposed by one of the smugglers I met. This involved flying from Istanbul airport on a fake visa, in collusion with a member of the airport staff.
Unfortunately, the plot was uncovered, my passport confiscated and I was even detained for a few hours.
Flying had become seemingly impossible. I thought about going to Greece, as many Syrians do. But I wanted to stick to the promise I had made myself, and keep as far away from the sea as possible.
I soon found a smuggler known as the ‘khawaga’ (foreigner). He was known for smuggling artists, media figures and the rich. He asked me for a considerable sum of money and guaranteed me safe passage to Europe.
I quickly agreed. I had just spent my fourth month in Turkey, and the condition of Syrians there hardly inspired hope. Not only are wages low, and exploitation of Syrians rife, but there were rumours surrounding the upcoming elections and the effect they might have on the future. There were large protests opposing the presence of Syrians in Turkey, and I knew Syrians in some cities were suffering.
That particular smuggler offered me the chance to exit Turkey for Greece. I was especially fortunate that his chosen method of transport (the coach) was perfectly safe.
I accepted the amount and set about gathering the necessary money. I even insured my money, in keeping with a peculiar custom of the smuggling world.
The smuggler requested I wear presentable clothes and have with me a large travel bag in good condition. When the agreed time came, I was fully prepared. I boarded the bus, accompanied by Turkish and Greek travellers. It set off at night, but before we got to the border, it stopped.
The driver pretended that the bus had broken down, and then informed me I was to go inside a small compartment which lay directly beneath him. I snuck into the small and completely dark box, which was almost exactly the same size as me. The bus set off again, and the sound of the engine began to gnaw at my head along with the clamour of the bus as it sped along the road.
After an hour, my fingers and toes began to go numb. I wiggled and rubbed them to try to get the blood flowing. The bus stopped a number of times at the border due to a traffic jam. Each time it stopped, I feared that someone would give me away, and I prayed to God that he grant me safe passage.
I recalled my daughter’s face. It was worth experiencing this torture, if she could just live like the rest of the world’s children. She had been born during the war, while we passed through a province that was already suffering because of a blockade. My daughter does not even know what swings in a playground look like.
After six hours, the bus stopped and the driver opened the door to my little compartment. He told me: “You are now in Greece.” We continued on to Athens. But the din of the box kept reverberating in my head for two days.
We didn’t notice a great difference when we reached Athens. It is a warm city, full of beautiful, dark-skinned women and many a face marked with Arab features. What was new to us was the culture of sex and lust. It was everywhere – at metro stations, on the streets and in the narrow alleyways.
But where are the Syrians amongst all this activity? In Greece, more than 30,000 Syrians refugees live in a state of limbo. It really is, as many of us have begun to call it, ‘The Graveyard of the Syrians. Nevertheless, hope remains.
We began to present ourselves to smugglers, as if we were at a cattle market. People smuggling is different in Greece. It is more of an art form. We would go in large groups. The smugglers would ask us to stop and then walk and strut in front of them as if we were slave girls. Eventually, they would choose those with the most European faces and apologise to the rest.
Every smuggler I met told me to wear my hair down and leave it to grow long, in the hope that would make me look slightly more European. Obviously it was important for me to look convincing, so I had no choice but to try.
I tried eight times to leave Greece via the Athens airport. The smugglers gave me Italian passports and ID cards, on the basis that Italians bear the closest resemblance to Syrians. But this was no use. Every time, I was detained by Greek security right at the door to the aeroplane. Sometimes it was because my papers were wrong. Sometimes it was simply because a glance at my features aroused their suspicion.
I spent two months pursuing this to no end, until a European friend of mine, who had always done his best to support me since I met him in Turkey, offered his ID card.
At first I was hesitant. My experience had led me to conclude that leaving by aeroplane was nigh-on impossible. I was also scared his ID card would get lost, and he would suffer unnecessary bother without a positive end result. But he was insistent.
My friend came to Athens, and the extent to which he paid attention to the minute detail of the plan was a pleasant surprise. He had prepared an outfit for me to wear, a bag to carry and even gave me his own sunglasses. We went through a few trial runs in his hotel room. I would put on the outfit he had prepared and attempt to imitate his way of walking. We even went to the hairdressers together, and I had my hair cut to the same style as that in his ID card picture.
Next, we had to study the airport and try and work out what might be the best time for me to travel. Once we had been there, the plan became clearer, and we agreed on the course of action for the last time. He was to travel to his own country ahead of me, and leave me to execute the plan by myself.
For weeks, I woke early every day and put on the travel outfit, and did my hair so it looked like his. I would set out in the early morning and not return until after nightfall, all day trying to work out what the best time to travel might be.
Then, one day, I saw my chance. There was a flight leaving for Paris in ideal circumstances – a very crowded day. I rang my friend and asked him to book me a seat on that flight. I went to the airport bathroom to check that I looked right, got out my ID card and the boarding pass he had sent to my phone, and headed for the departure gate. It was like a dream.
I passed the stewards at the door to the plane without a hitch, and when they wished me a pleasant journey I felt like the world had come to a stop. I was unable to move my feet from joy. When I did make my way to my seat, it was without any sensation or awareness of what I was doing. I took my seat, and wrote a message to my friend informing that the plan had succeeded, but I didn’t dare to send it until the plane had taken off.
The plane soon began to taxi, and as soon as it took off I sent the message and burst into tears. As long as I live I will never forget that moment, for which I have God to thank.
Not content with what he had already done for me, my friend sent one of his friends to welcome me at the airport. As I went out of the airport I felt as if all of the lights of Paris had lit up to celebrate my arrival, and the fact that I had escaped ‘The Grave of the Syrians’ in Greece. Two days later, I took a train to Copenhagen, where I had dreamt of going for so long. Within a few hours, my dream had come true. I arrived in Copenhagen and applied for asylum.
I have placed all my hopes and dreams, and used every ounce of effort in me to reach this small country. I hope I find in it everything I wish for.
I have been granted residency for five years and I have applied to have my family join me here too.
Even, before I got here, I knew that Europe was not heaven. But I wasn’t looking for paradise on earth. I know it’s only to be found in heaven. I just hope to spend the next five years here with my family because it’s safe, and that one day Syria is safe as well.