Saturday, 28 December 2013

Man #4: An Alternative Route

Man #4 took an alternative route to Europe than most I have met.  From Syria to Turkey and smuggled on a boat to Greece was what I had heard of time and time again.  The problem with this way is getting stuck in Greece; the strict border controls make problems for leaving to another country which hasn't an economic crisis big enough to justify refusing asylum seekers.

This alternative route took him, and thousands of others in the same position, from Syria to Lebanon and on to Egypt.  When Egypt could not provide a safe haven nor opportunity for work, the shining promise of a brighter future was once again put in the hands of greedy, money-making, careless smugglers.

Man #4 would pay a smuggler to join a boat heading north through the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.  The prices varied, he had to barter and beg; there were so many more who would pay a higher price or have better connections with more trustworthy smugglers.  After three weeks of networking, he managed to find space on a boat where the price was 3000€ per person.  The only instructions were to stay in one particular place until the boat would be ready around one week later and to leave all belongings behind.

The rushed meeting in the darkness of night then running to the shore to jump on the boat without making a noise was the most exhilarating moment of his life.  Optimism filled him and he felt higher than the clouds as adrenalin rushed through his body making his heart beat so loudly he was almost afraid the sound would alert anyone watching.  "It was the first day of my new life; a wonderful feeling."

The smuggler quickly organised the people filling the boat and everybody followed orders so efficiently it was as if they'd practiced hundreds of times before.  "There were thirty of us in there.  But the boat was barely big enough for ten.  Who can complain or question?  Whoever did would have lost their place in the boat, so everybody kept quiet.  I could see in everybody's eyes they could see the danger just as well as I could."

The boat set off and managed to leave the shore without being spotted by any coast guard patrols.
"Then we just had to sit and wait and look at nothing but each other and the endless sea around us."
After 22 hours there started to be problems with the engine.  It stopped and started and stopped and started over and over again.  The waves were getting bigger and the wind overtook the remaining warmth from their bodies.  People were getting more afraid by the lack of control the driver had.
"Suddenly the boat capsized.  I was waving my arms and legs up and down to try to swim but I didn't know how to do it properly.  I was thrown to the surface and took a big breath.  The first thing I did was take a breath instead of looking for my wife and children.  I had lost that short time to see them, to grab them.  Once I knew how to wave my legs to keep me upwards, all I could see was other people.  Not my children.  Not my wife.  I was shouting to them but I couldn't hear them.  I looked under the water for them but I couldn't see them.  I don't know what happened to the other people after that, I took no notice."

Man #4 sat alone on the upturned boat looking outwards and beyond the horizon for hours.  He reached land eventually.  The land was Italian land.  He absent mindlessly followed the steps he had so carefully planned before his departure from Egypt and within a few days made it to the Netherlands where he claimed asylum.  This was the country his and his families future was supposed to begin.  He had made it. But he was now left with no purpose or family.

This is the story of the best friend of my good Syrian friend who I met in Greece.  It's an incredibly tragic one but also one that has been repeated more times than anyone cares to count.  With most of the European countries accepting any asylum seeker from Syria who arrives on it's land, the rightful support needed is there for these innocent people who do not deserve for their lives to be ruined by war.  I write Man #4's story, among the others, to highlight the struggle they are forced to go through alone and by dangerous and illegal means.  This kind of smuggling can be irradiated if legal and safe ways of arrival to Europe are provided.  The war in Syria is impossible to stop, but the provision of safety for these people is in European hands.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Man #3: My Worst Memory

It was 5pm when the Assad Militia came to take over his neighbourhood. Shouting and gunfire filled the air. Afraid to look out of his window, Man #3 hid quietly with his wife and two children, afraid inside of their own home. Nobody slept that night.

By 6am the militia had finished their nights work and the results were left for the ordinary people to find.

Man #3 stepped outside apprehensively.
"People were taking photos and videos of what had happened. I asked why. `They're human beings not objects, we must move them to their families.` I told them."

[Warning. This video contains shocking footage. I have added it to this post as proof of this story, and in the hope that the horrendous reality of the situation in Syria will be noticed by my readers.]

Can't see the video? Follow this link to YouTube: [LINK]

"I went to move the young boy first. The one in the white jacket at the back of the video. Another man picked him up by the shoulders and I held his ankles. Straight away I noticed big holes in his legs and his blood started pouring all down my hands and arms. I was red all over. We took his body to his grandmother, he lived with her in the building next to mine. Before walking up the stairs, the other man and I switched sides, and I looked at the boys face the whole way up. It was the same; holes and blood everywhere, his face was destroyed. She cried as we set his body down on her floor. She kept asking what to do now that God has taken him. That boy was only 17 years old.

Returning to the pile of bodies, they noticed one of them was face down. To know where to take the body they turned it over to see who it was. The other man suddenly stepped back and gasped. "It's my brother. I didn't even know he was here." They carried him in the same way, this time to the man's own home. Despite his loss, he returned again with Man #3 to continue to help.

Upon noticing a commotion going on around a car parked nearby, Man #3 went to find out what was happening. A woman was crying so much that she could hardly speak. She pointed to two of the bodies; one man and one woman.
"Their child is inside," she said. "She was sleeping when the militia took her parents outside and shot them dead. She went to sleep with parents and has woken up with none. A six year old little girl!"
Man #3 asked where the rest of the family lived.
"I don't know, they only moved here a week ago from their last home where they said it was too dangerous to live" she replied.

After many discussions and phone calls, they managed to find a young couple who had no children of their own yet and would take the newly orphaned child in as a daughter. As for the unknown dead parents, a car came later on to take them to a mass  grave to be buried with all the other unknowns the town had found in the past.

Man #3s solemn expressions had grown in intensity as his explanation of this gruesome and horrifying memory came to an end.
"I didn't sleep for three months after that. I couldn't forget it. I never will.
I'm not somebody who likes death and blood. I don't like it, I don't want it on my hands, I don't want to see it. But I was there and had to do something. It's changed me forever."

He continued with more stories; those from inside Syria as well as those on his journey to escape. He gives me details for every memory. I realise Man #3 has more than one or two blog post stories inside of him...

Friday, 6 December 2013

Man #1: The One With All The Hope

Man #1
Age: 40s

"How long ago did you leave Syria?" I asked him.
"Two months ago.  I left my wife and children there.  I think about them every single day, every morning when I wake up.  I think about how they are in danger and I must keep on going so I can save them."  His cheeks had become flushed, his eyes watery, and his hands were trembling as he spoke these words.

Taking out his phone, he showed me pictures of his wife and three children; a seven year old boy and two girls at six and eight.  Videos of them playing widened his grin and made him giggle with pride.

He surprised me with one photo: "This is my brother. Somebody killed him but I don't know why."  The picture was of a lifeless man; swollen and colourless, his face marred by bruises and grazes.  I didn't ask why he had taken that photo.  [Maybe as some sort of evidence for a future UN human rights tribunal.  No?]  He lifted his head, looked into my eyes and reminded himself out loud that any day his family could be killed, that he needs to get to northern Europe quickly so he can save his family.

When the fighting reached his home in Syria, he and his family packed the possessions they needed, took a quick video of their house as a small reminder of the place they had lived so happily together, and headed to a safer area in Damascus.  He knew that if there was any chance of saving them, he had no choice but to leave them behind and take the treacherous and illegal journey to find asylum in Europe.  He took long distance buses and walked secretly between checkpoints in order to reach the west coast of Turkey, then had to wait weeks and barter extremely high prices with smugglers before he found a space on an illegal boat heading to Greece.

The boat was too small for the sixteen people who were crammed inside.  They set off when night had come to avoid being seen by sea patrol guards.  When only half way across the sea the engine cut out and without any life jackets they knew that whatever happened next was God's decision.  They sat in the boat and waited in the dark for the entire night, seeing nothing and hearing only waves crash around them.  As if by fate, the tide had pushed them to the coast of Greece before sunrise.  Sixteen people had been successful in escaping war stricken Syria and reaching Europe.  Ten more died the day later when their boat capsized and there was no luck or fate around to save them.

For these sixteen people their journeys still haven't ended.  Greece has one of the lowest rates in Europe of acceptance for asylum seekers.  They must try to make it to northern Europe where their chances of acceptance are higher.

I'm sat here with Man #1 in Athens, only days after he first arrived in Greece.  He has put his fate, and the remainder of his money, in the hands of smugglers and fixers who have assured him he will get to Austria, his choice of country to begin a new life.  He doesn't know how he will get there yet; "I just do everything they say and..." he shrugs.
"I believe that if a man has enough will, he can do what he wants.  God is with me, but it is my will that keeps me going every day.  It's taken two months already, that's fast, but I need to keep on going fast until I get there."

Once he arrives in Austria and applies for asylum, if he is accepted (currently less than 50% chance), his wife and children will be allowed to travel to Austria legally and join him there.
"I will keep on going," he repeated, "and in the end I will save four souls."

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Gateway to Safety

I'm in Athens.  The capital city of Greece; the gateway between Asia and Europe.  When I arrived I immediately began to notice people from Syria in the streets, those injured in someway and therefore vulnerable and with no alternative, easily forced to beg for money.  I looked into the Greek policy on asylum seekers and was shocked to find how inhumane it was how they dealt with the illegal immigrants they found.  That's all a different story, of which I'm sure I will be able to share more specific and individual stories with you later on.

What is happening now is that, for some unknown worldly reason, I have found myself accepted into a circle of Syrians who have escaped their country and are trying to make it to northern Europe, to countries where they will have a very good chance of being accepted as asylum seekers.

I have been given the utmost privilege of getting to know them, to learn about their families, their journeys from Syria to Greece, their plans for the near future, their stories of survival.

I have a predicament in which I do not want to give too much away; this is a public blog and I do not want too much information available on the internet for those who would want to stop these people from saving themselves and their families.  But I believe that what I know, and what I am still learning every single day that I meet these people, is so important and worth while to write about.  Every day I am incredibly humbled by their stories and the awful situation at hand that I can't even dream that merely writing some stories for my few followers to read could change anything for these people.  That is too ambitious and naive.  But who knows, maybe even one person reading this will be as outraged as I am, stop everything they are doing, stop thinking about themselves for one minute, and commit themselves to SCREAMING SO F***KING LOUDLY that what is happening is wrong, that it can be stopped and should be right this minute, until something changes.

In this hope, I share with you their stories; one by one...