‘Your life is worth taking risks for’: The journey of 2 Syrian refugees

‘Your life is worth taking risks for’: The journey of 2 Syrian refugees

https://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom/8211986232

It is just like any other day.
Your alarm clock goes off at 7 a.m.
You roll out of bed.
You head downstairs to have breakfast.
You join your family at the table.
Coffee is poured. Plates are full. Dad is reading everyone the newspaper.
You hear a plane.
You hear sirens in the distance.
Everyone freezes.
You look at your Mom. Then at your Dad.
You reach out for your brothers and sisters.
Your parents have never looked more terrified.
The ground shakes.
A bomb drops next to your house.
You close your eyes.
It explodes.
You open your eyes.
You are on the floor.
There is loud ringing in your ears.
Walls have caved in.
You are no longer in your kitchen.
Rubble is surrounding you.
Your home is gone.

Wikimedia Commons / Bo yaser

Life in Syria

We were living in the war. We experienced bombings. We experienced snipers.”

Miray is 26-years-old. She was born and raised in Syria.

Syria was her home, her country but now a war zone.

The Syrian Civil War started in March 2011 when anti-government peaceful protests turned violent due to government forces fighting back.

In Aleppo, many see smoke rise into the sky due to the many airstrikes. Flickr / Freedom House

We heard everyday of one of our neighbors, our relatives, who passed away from the bombings. The hardest part is when you hear about one of the neighbors or friends that got killed and to us you feel shocked and do not know how to react.”

More than 400,000 Syrians have died during these six years and over six million Syrians are displaced and more than 13 million are in need of aid in the country.

When there was bombings by our house, we always thought that this was the last time for the bombings. That they will be no longer. This was the hope that we had. We believed it but it was not true.”

Miray was worried. Worried for her life. Worried for her family and friends’ lives.

“You reach the point of ‘do I have feelings anymore?’ It was confusing and very sad. You were thinking ‘when will my turn be or will i survive,’” she said. “In 2014, the war hit a new level where I realized that I can’t live there anymore, that I can’t stand living without access to food, water and electricity. What was threatening us is life instinct. Our hope was to go somewhere else.”

She is not the only one who felt they needed to flee. It is estimated that 11 million Syrians fled their homes since the start of the war.

“I did not expect that I would be living outside of Syria in my entire life. My life plan was to find a good job in Syria and stay with my friends and family.”

Leaving their family behind

“It wasn’t an exact moment when I decided that it was no longer safe for me and that I wanted to travel. It built up gradually. And every time I made the decision that I wanted to leave, I went back and I changed my mind.”

She hesitated a lot. She contemplated if leaving was really worth it. If leaving her job as a school teacher was worth it. If leaving her family was worth it.

“Every time there was a bombing near the house, that always changed my decision and pushed me toward the traveling,” she said.

In 2014, Miray could not take living in Syria anymore. She could no longer deal with having limited access to food and water and living without electricity. After a lot of thinking, Miray turned to her family to try to find a way to leave. At the time, her brothers were living in Turkey working and asked them for help trying to find a job outside of Syria.

“I asked my brother how I can travel outside of Syria. He connected me with someone who was a manager in Cardiff for a Turkish organization. I did my interview and I traveled to Turkey in November 2014.”

Many Syrians who decide to leave their homes, escape to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, which border Syria. According to the UNHCR, there are approximately 3 million registered Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

Miray enjoyed her job in Turkey. She was able to work with Syrian refugee children and gained a lot of experience working with children. But this was only for a short time.

“After a while in Turkey, I started thinking of leaving the country because my job was temporary and not permanent and because I did not have my human rights in Turkey. I started asking my friends, family and everybody I knew how I can travel to a place I can stay for long term because I do not want to keep traveling.”

Miray expressed her feelings to her family. They discussed numerous scenarios but only one was reoccurring. They found that the only way she could leave Turkey was through hiring and paying a smuggler to take her to Europe so she can bring normality back to her life.

“We were able to find someone, a smuggler, through people and connections.”

Her family was not comfortable with the idea of Miray going on this journey by herself. Miray’s mother, Micheline, felt that it was best that she went with her daughter and that they embark on this journey together.

“I could have stayed in Turkey with my sons. We had a nice apartment, and we were in a good city with a nice lifestyle,” Micheline said. “I could not leave Miray to go by herself because I know that this was very risky and I needed to be there for her if anything happened or were to happen, it would happen to both of us and not just Miray. This my motherly instinct to protect my kids.”

There was hesitation. They questioned if they picked the right man to trust to take them to Greece. If this even was the right decision to make to leave everything they know behind.

“We went back and forth a millions time before we made this decision because we hesitated to trust this smuggler because he was dishonest. We were contemplating if I should stay in Turkey or go somewhere and take this risk. My mom and I were thinking together and decided to go with this guy.”

The UNHCR found that approximately 158,456 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean sea in 2015 and arrived in Greece.

Miray and Micheline started to then prepare for their journey. Though they had their doubts, they continued to prepare.

“I believed I was putting my life in jeopardy and I came to the conclusion that I will survive 50 percent if I took a 50 percent risk. I knew I might die but I took this risk.”

Trusting a smuggler

“He looked weird. He did not even smile. It was very dark, completely dark.”

Miray and Micheline met their smuggler and began their journey to Greece. The smuggler told them before they left that they had to leave everything they packed behind and only bring their passports.

“He was asking us before we left the apartment to not take anything with us, not even a bag or something. We went to the smuggler’s car and there were two others with us. We did ask him a couple of times ‘when do you think we will arrive to the island in Greece, an estimated time,’ or ‘how much time does it take for the boat to get there.’ He did not answer. He looked at us like ‘shut up.’ That was at 1 a.m.q.”

In the dead of night, the smuggler drove them to an unknown destination. It was a long drive before they stopped.

“He asked us to get out of the car and to walk down to the road and sit and not say anything. He yelled at us saying, ‘You guy are not allowed to talk. Just go down and sit.’ So we went down, sat and held each other’s hands.”

Miray and Micheline have never been more scared.

“It was the four us and we were thinking, ‘If he had the gun, he could have killed us and no one would have noticed because there was no phone service.’ We were so scared.”

30 minutes.

30 minutes of darkness.

30 minutes of not having the right to talk.

30 minutes of sitting in silence, holding each other and wondering if they will make it to the next day.

“Other people started to come to the same area. We saw that two boats were coming from far away. After a half an hour, he showed up with a black plastic bag with four life safety jackets.”

Miray and Micheline hesitated. Miray’s brother had already provided them with two new safety jackets that they planned to use. Even though they already had new ones, the smuggler did not let Miray and Micheline use them.

Life jackets that Syrian Refugees use will crossing the sea. Photo by Emily Janny

 

“He gave us bad quality ones. It was now just me, my mother and our passports.”

Crossing the Sea

Miray and Micheline watched as the boats headed toward them. Miray looked at her mother in disbelief. The boats approaching were not the boats they were promised.

She turned to her mother and said,”I think we should turn back. This isn’t safe.”

The boat that showed up was too small for them. It was not safe. It could hold up to four people safely. The boat they were promised was supposed to be one of better quality.

They were lied to.

The smuggler was so mean to them.

”We should consider not going and heading back,” Miray had told her mother.

Fear flooded Miray and Micheline’s bodies.

The smuggler gave them assigned seats. Miray and her mother were assigned to sit on top of the boat. The rest of the passengers sat on the back of the boat.  

“The top of the boat was more dangerous because it was windier. We could have fallen but there was no choice for us. He said,‘You guys sit here.’ We had to listen to him.”

Miray and Micheline were the only women on the boat.  

The wind picked up. The water was rough. It was freezing. They had no coats.

They had nothing to hold onto to stop them from falling in. If they fell in, they had torn life jackets to try to keep them afloat.

The only option was to hold onto each other.

They were petrified.  

Smugglers provide small rafts and boats to take refugees across the sea. Flickr / Freedom House

 

Micheline had been wearing a scarf throughout the journey. She took the scarf off her head and wrapped it around Miray and herself. The scarf prevented them from seeing what was going on around them.

“The scarf held us together as one person. It was very possible for one of us to fall down but thank god my mom had the scarf because she was able to hold us.”

For an hour and a half the scarf was covering their faces.  

Micheline then took the scarf off because she realized they were in a safer part of the sea.  

“We were curious to see how much time was left for us to get to the island, so we took off the scarf to see what was going on around us.”

They both started not to feel scared anymore.

Once the scarf came off, the smuggler kept shouting there was 30 minutes left of the boat ride. The smuggler then started listing a set of directions for everyone to follow.

“After 30 minutes, I will ask everyone to walk straight until you see the Red Cross. Just walk straight the whole way.”

Once the 30 minutes were up they arrived but they were confused.

The smuggler told them they were to arrive on the beach. They did not arrive any where near the beach. They arrived far from it.

“He asked us to jump in. The water level was up to our necks. He was telling us that you guys should be strong enough and swim until you get to the beach.”

The rocky water was freezing to swim through.

Everyone on the boat had their phones and passports with them. They knew their possessions could not get wet. If they were to get wet, they would be useless. This would have meant that the journey across treacherous sea would have been pointless.

All of the passengers dedicated one of their hands to hold onto their passports and phones and the other hand to swim.

Their journey to land had begun.

Refugees rushing to get out of the sea and start their journey on land. Flickr / Freedom House

Lives in Danger

“We arrived to the beach, to the land and walked two hours. We were so wet. Our clothes and our boots were so wet.”

Miray and Micheline had no change of clothes.

Had no food or water.

It was just them and the other passengers. Walking, following the instructions the smuggler gave them.

As their walk drew on, they heard strange noises. Dogs barking and wolves howling were the most prominent. They were becoming scared. Scared because there was no sign of the Red Cross anywhere.

“After two hours, [we felt] he lied to us again because there was no Red Cross or anything. We walked an extra two hours. In total, we walked for four hours and we were very very wet and did not see anybody until we saw a small cafe shop.”

They were so happy they found a place where they could stop and ask for help.

“We went in and asked for water because we were so thirsty. We asked for the toilet too because we needed to go to the bathroom. The people there gave us some water and wifi and then they kicked us out because we were so dirty and we did not speak their language.”

Miray and Micheline realized that they were not welcomed there. They had no rights in Greece. No rights at all. They realized they needed to continue on to find the Red Cross.

“We were able to find a police office by the cafe. We went there and introduced ourselves by saying we are refugees, we are Syrian. They asked us to present our passports while they took pictures of us and asked some questions. They then took us in a car, a car for livestock not for people, to the Red Cross.”

The Red Cross is stationed all over the world in order to provide aid to the most vulnerable. In Greece, they are working to assist more than 60,000 Syrian refugees in camps.

“The Red Cross gave us food baskets because we were so hungry and gave us water. They took us to a big room with plenty of beds and were saying that we could now rest and sleep here there. [They also said] that we should now stay there [because] we do not have the right to go until they assign us to move to the next step.”

The beds where Miray and Micheline slept while they were at The Red Cross shelter in Greece. Photo Submitted by Miray

 

Miray and Micheline took advantage of the warm beds that were offered to them. They rested. They ate and drank. They slowly gained their strength back and positivity to continue on.

“We tried to be positive and played with the kids because there were so many people [in the camp]. We also cleaned and tried to be active instead of sitting and waiting so the Red Cross management could see that we were active and that we needed to move to the next step because we were not there to stay.”

After a two-day stay, Miray and Micheline had the chance to leave.

“There was someone – one of the staff of the Red Cross, he showed up – and they were calling names. If you heard your name, you were to go because it was your turn to take a big boat and go to Athens, to the capital. We heard our names and so we went up to him and got the ticket to Athens.”

Miray and Micheline were grateful that the Red Cross provided them with new clothes, food, water and so many other resources.

Micheline after the boat journey to Athens. Photo Submitted by Miray

They then embarked on another boat journey to Athens. On the boat, there were people from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The trip was nice. It was a big boat and so many people. We went to Athens and it was like a normal trip. When we got to Athens, we got off of the boat but had no idea what we should do next.”

Miray, Micheline and the others started to ask each other if anybody knew what to do next.

“We were able to speak Arabic and figure plans out. We kind of created our own group. We were a group of people now and not just two people.”

A man in their group said that he had a plan. He explained that he was going to go to a travel agency to book train tickets to Macedonia. He asked Miray and Micheline if they wanted to go with him.

“We had the only option to trust this person because he was with us on the boat, so we went with him to get our tickets to Macedonia.”

They later arrived to the train station.

“We went to the train and even though we had our tickets to sit, there was no seats for us. We had to sit on the floor beside the toilets. It was very dirty and smelly but we wanted to sit somewhere so we sat on the floor.”

Their train ride to Macedonia was anything but peaceful. The train door was suddenly opened and four tall men jumped in.

“They were yelling at us. We did not understand what they were saying because they were speaking a different language. We got really scared because they were yelling at us and they were tall and big people. Everybody started screaming on the train. One of the men started saying “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. He had a knife in his pocket and was threatening us.”

Miray and Micheline did not know what to do. They were terrified and started to search for the police. The officers finally showed up and arrested the threatening stranger.

Things calmed down after that. Miray and Micheline had finally arrived in Macedonia and found that it was very cold there. They found a spot to settle. Others of their group started to make a fire, while police monitored them.  

“Every time when we moved forward with the trip, we thought that we were almost there, but that was not accurate. We were very far from Austria. We were very exhausted and needed to keep moving.”

Refugees with no human rights

“There were so many people and few camps. Small-sized camps.”

Outside of the Macedonia Refugee camp. Photo submitted by Miray

 

Though they did not enter one of the refugee camps in Macedonia, Miray and Micheline’s group made their own campsite beside an area that was dedicated to one. They did not feel safe.

“Somebody grabbed my mom’s foot and tried to pull her inside of the camp. I was able to kick his hand away and run to the Macedonian officers to explain what happened. ‘These people wanted to pull us inside of the camp and we do not even know their faces they just started to abuse us,’ I told the officer.”

Miray was not expecting the police officer to ignore her complaint.

“We thought we would be safe and he would protect us because he is the police officer. He told me it was not his business and that I should deal with my own business. He then went away.”

Miray and Micheline did not have stay in Macedonia long. An officer assigned the pair to join a new group of refugees and walk to the Macedonia-Serbia border.

“We were walking and the officer said that it would be a two-hour walk but it turned out it was a five-hour walk. It was raining, pouring and we were even walking to the point that our feet were deep in the mud. It was very hard to keep walking.”

They struggled. It was hard to see. Hard to keep walking. Hard to breathe.

“After five hours of walking, we saw the bus that we should take [to cross the border]. We took the bus and went to Serbia. We were so hungry. They gave us a can that contained fish. It was just something to keep us alive.”

Their journey was no where near done. Their end goal was to end their trip in Austria. They went from Serbia to Slovenia, then to Croatia. There was lots of walking, many bus rides and tiring days.

“We were moving by groups. Our plan was to stay with our group and not lose each other,” Micheline said.

As time passed and a traveling routine started to present itself, Miray and Micheline realized they were approaching Austria.

“We arrived to the Austrian border and we asked the bus driver if we could get off because we needed to stop here. The bus driver told us no we are going to Germany, we are not stopping here.”

Miray and Micheline were heartbroken. Tears were streaming down their faces. Their positive spirit had shattered. Their travels had exhausted them. They needed to stop. To settle. They did not know anybody in Germany but had a friend in Austria. They needed to stop in Austria.

“The bus driver took us to the Austria-Germany border. The police officer there asked us to go to Germany, to keep going. I went to the police officer and said that I want to stay here, in Austria. That I was not going to Germany. He said, ‘You have no choice here. You are a refugee so you do not have the right to choose which country you want to go to. You need to keep going.’”

Miray and Micheline cried in front of the officers. They begged and put pressure on them to let them stay. The officers would not change their mind.

The pair was  devastated. They steered away from the police and noticed a man was approaching them.

“One person from the Red Cross saw us in this miserable situation. He ordered a taxi for us, saying to take the taxi and go away very quickly and stay in Austria. He saved us.”

A new life in Austria

Miray and Micheline wanted to end up in Vienna, Austria.

“The taxi took us to a random city, Graz, not Vienna. We wanted to go to Vienna because we knew someone there who promised us he would help us. He is a friend of us.

Graz is a two-hour drive from Vienna.

“We did not know how to take a taxi to go to Vienna and we were very exhausted. We decided to find a hotel so we can stay one night in this city.”

They walked around Graz looking for a hotel to sleep in for the night in hopes of traveling to Vienna the next morning.

“We asked a bunch of hotels to try to make a reservation but when they saw us, nobody welcomed us because we were in dirty clothes and we looked like refugees. So we were not welcomed in these hotels in the city.”

As they were searching for a hotel, one of the receptionists saw how miserable they were and called them a taxi.

The pair arrived in Vienna around 4 a.m. Miray purchased a SIM card so she could call her friend who lived in Vienna.  

The friend picked them up. They stayed at the friend’s house for one night.  

The next morning Miray and Micheline woke up and went right to the police station.

They stayed in the police station for three days.

“They took us to a big room with so many refugees. They locked the door and they were asking us questions.They gave us very little food and water. It was like a jail.”

After three days, they did a long interview and the police gave them temporary IDs.

“We started our life in Austria after a dark three days in that place.”

Miray and Micheline were set to begin their new lives.

“Literally, every month, I feel like i am getting more settled, I am getting used to the culture and I am being more independent. I can feel it because it is like an impossible change. I have a job and now I have friends, I have my community and I like forgot about this whole trip.”

Living in Vienna had to take some time getting used to. They are in a brand new community with people who do not look or speak like them.

“When we went to the church one day, my Mom spoke in Arabic to me about something and the person who was sitting behind us, an old woman, she looked at us and she said you guys are refugees and you speak Arabic. She started yelling at us in German and we just arrived so we did not understand what she was talking about, but it was very clear that she got upset and angry because we spoke Arabic.”

Miray and Micheline have know they are going to experience both the good and the bad.

“We felt that even though this is God’s place, it is for everybody, not just the German people. Sometimes you face this kind of experience. At the same time there were so many nice people who were welcoming us.”

The pair settled into life in Austria.  They never looked back. The only thing on their minds is what comes next.

A life for the future

“My vision for the future, hopefully, I will be eligible to get citizenship so I can travel to see my brother in the U.S., I can go to Turkey, and I can be independent. I also see myself in having a job with the kids. I see myself teaching kindergarten. I am optimistic for the future.”

Micheline is also optimistic about her own future.

Micheline while she was exploring Austria. Photo submitted by Miray

 

“I see myself becoming a tailor. I love to make clothes. It is something that I enjoy and not many people in Austria can do what I do, in terms of sewing clothes. I am passionate about it,” Micheline said.

Though they both find it hard that they are separated from their family.

“We are separated but everybody is safe,” Micheline said. “As a mom, I feel that we are safe even if [my kids] are away from me.”

Miray has one brother in the United States and another in Turkey. Her father and sister still reside in Aleppo, Syria, today. Aleppo is not safe but better than it was before.

“It is very tough and incredibly challenging. We have hope that one day we will get together. I am sure we will.”

Miray is grateful that she is able to have her mom be by her side in Austria. She had first questioned if having Micheline go on the journey with her was the right decision but she found that it was good and bad.

“It is very good because you felt that there was someone you could trust because on that trip you couldn’t trust anybody. Everyone was trying to take advantage of you and you are the most vulnerable. So having someone I could trust, and this person having my back was amazing.”

She felt safe and secure on the journey but at the same time learned a new sense of responsibility.

“But at the same time, having your mom on this trip makes you more responsible to save her as well. And feeling like if something happened, like I am not just responsible for saving my life, my mom comes first.”

Millions of people everyday are leaving their homes to search for a better life. They are leaving behind war. Horror. Sadness. They are leaving behind their home. Their families. Everyday they embark on a dangerous journey. Whether it’s by land or sea, they have no other option to reach safety.

“Your life is worth taking risks for.”