A refugee’s tale: from professional career to a camp in Athens

Out of Syria: a new column written from inside a refugee camp in Athens

Refugees carry their belongings in front of riot policemen during a police operation at a refugee camp at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis/EPA

Refugees carry their belongings in front of riot policemen during a police operation at a refugee camp at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis/EPA


It’s the time of year when my mother’s jasmine would be in bloom, with its magnificent white flower and not uniformly popular sweet bouquet.

Like most of the hundreds of thousands of people in camps across Europe I would describe myself foremost as a human who wants a safe and secure life for my family. I am an Arab. I am a Muslim.

I’m a Syrian, but, first, I’m a 35-year-old man. I am a son. I am a brother. I’m a husband, a friend and, for the past three years, a father. My ethnicity, my colour, my religion do not define me.

I realise that one of the words I’ve used elicits fear in many: “Muslim”. This upsets me, but I understand its source as the connection of certain events with those who promote them based on their warped interpretation of Islam.

I understand that if you live in Paris or Brussels you’ve had experiences that could strike fear into anyone. It’s easy for me and my fellow migrants to empathise. We’ve shared that experience.

We’re fleeing a country where, for years, outrages like those in Europe, except on a greater scale, have been happening weekly. In Syria 500,000 lives have been lost, more have suffered dreadful injuries, and millions of us have fled.

Today I live in a camp on a port in Athens. Most of us are Syrians, but there are Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds, plus a few Iranians, Libyans and others from Africa and the Middle East. Many are professionals or tradespeople, and most have left a good standard of living for fear of their lives.

Most here share a fundamental belief: that no religious doctrine warrants taking human life. In recent weeks, when senior Islamic State figures have been reported killed, there has been quiet satisfaction among us at its loss. Equally, the Syrians want the regime to fail and those in charge brought to justice.

This may not comfort those who regard all Muslims with suspicion. Atrocities committed in the name of Islam are an abomination. They frighten you and humiliate us. There’s nothing in our faith that justifies engaging in violence. Those who do pervert the teachings of Muhammad.

They’re already in your midst. They’re at best misguided, at worst a force for evil with an appetite for death and destruction that wishes only to engender fear of all Muslims, better to turn man on man.

My upbringing

Our upbringing was perfect. My father was a schoolteacher – of English as it happened. We lived in a spacious apartment. There was no excess, but it was comfortable. We never wanted for the important things: the love of our parents and wider family; a peaceful neighbourhood where people looked out for one another. We ate well because our mother was a good cook and proud of how she fed her family.

It was unremarkable. I remember how, when I talked sometimes over coffee or a beer with an Irish colleague, he would say how similar it appeared to his own upbringing, in Cork.

I worked overseas for six years, returning regularly to visit. My father had died in 2008, and I needed a good job to support the family. It was no hardship. I liked the work and loved the lifestyle.

At home the bombing had been increasing. Pro-government militia, ostensibly there to protect the city from Islamic State, had started to behave as militia tend to in these situations. The people whom they had claimed they were there to protect had started to fear them.

My mother is in her 70s; since my father’s death she had lost confidence. She had relied on him. My younger brother had already migrated and was in Germany. I travelled home to spend a few days with her and my sister.

While I was in Syria I attended a peaceful protest against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Two days later I was arrested. I had no convictions. I had never had any involvement in any form of armed resistance or violence. I got a bail of sorts but couldn’t leave.

I was regularly brought in for interrogation. The questioning was neither hostile nor aggressive, just repetitive. It focused on why I’d chosen to work overseas and suggested that I’d been agitating against the regime. I came to realise that as long as I stayed in Syria I’d be harassed.

That and the ferocity of the war helped my wife and I make our decision. Syria would never be the place where our children could get the upbringing that she and I had enjoyed.

I was in shock. I’d had a fulfilling life over the past six years. I worked hard and was well paid. I had colleagues and clients of all nationalities and creeds. I’d grown accustomed to an open way of life.

The bribe


We deliberately took a circuitous route to the border. I wanted to go to Antakya, in southern Turkey, where I thought I could get work. It is small but peaceful, and Arabic is widely spoken there.

It was October. The days were warm. My wife was not feeling well – we were to discover later that she was pregnant – and I carried my daughter on my shoulders or in my arms. Progress was slow. There was intermittent shelling, and the nights were cold. Within four or five days we crossed the border and reached Antakya. I could get no work, so after a week we took a bus to Iskenderun, a larger port city.

I worked in a small fish factory with other refugees. Our employers knew we were desperate. It was illegal to employ us. They offered us €18 for a 16-hour shift, and I was happy to take it.

At the end of the first week my boss paid me €30 for six days and said he would pay the balance the following week. I believed him. The same happened a week later. When I challenged him he told me to “f**k off back to Syria if you don’t like it”.

After three weeks of earning €5 a day I gave up. He didn’t care. There would be others more desperate who would replace me.

Not welcome in Turkey

I believed it was not a place where I could bring up my family. I would have to consider going all the way to Europe. That scared me too. The journey would be hazardous, and by now we knew my wife was pregnant.

I had some friends who were in Izmir, in western Turkey. It was a long journey – more than 1,000km – and at first I thought it would be too hard for us.

The more time I spent in Iskenderun the worse things became. The hostility towards us Syrians shocked me. I had not expected it. I felt humiliated, hurt and at times desolate. I had always been a positive person, but I found I could imagine only the worst.

Our parents had given us a great upbringing. I was an educated man, but in just a few months my world had unravelled.

I was desperate for a fresh start that would allow me to give my children the upbringing that I’d had. The more desperate my longing for this the more hopeless my situation appeared. I felt that I was becoming unstable. I was physically well, but inside I was in torment.

The smugglers

One night she said to me, “The prophet Ibrahim left his wife and son in the desert, and so you must go in search of our new life.”

I wept. She did not, because she wanted to be strong for me, and it was then that we decided to go to Izmir, to be closer to Greece and Europe.

Izmir is a large, cosmopolitan city. My friend was able to get me a job, and I worked as a waiter in a small restaurant near the port. I was paid €15 a day and earned a little more through tips.

I like to work. I like being busy. The wages were poor, but it meant that we were able to get some rest before I’d prepare for the next part of the journey. I was nervous.

Sometimes I felt panicked by the decision that my wife and I had taken, but I knew that for us to have any hope of realising our dream I had to do it.

Smugglers roamed the parts of Izmir where Syrians were most in evidence. I spoke with them. They were all the same. They were vultures. They encircled their refugee prey and waited until we were worn down with anxiety. Then they swooped. A passage cost $1,000. There would be no negotiation.

Through persistence and by bringing a group of 10 together I got the price down to $800 each. We were told to be in Didim, two hours’ bus ride away, on an afternoon in early March, and to be at a particular spot at 11pm. There would be no more than 30 in the boat, they said, and the journey would be about 15km.

The journey

There was some light from the almost full moon, but it was quite dark. It had all happened so quickly that at first our boat swung violently to one side before, because I was closest, I took control of the motor.

There was no immediate panic. Quickly, one friend told people to stay calm and asked me to keep the boat on course. He had a compass on his phone and used that to ensure we were going in the right direction. Once he’d established that we were heading towards Greece he asked people to trust him and me to get them to safety.

I know people who believe that we all have the capacity to react well in a crisis. I had never steered a boat in my life. Somehow it seemed the most natural thing for me at that moment. When I looked at the silhouettes of adults and children crouched on the boat in front of me I saw my wife and daughter. To keep myself calm and focused I imagined that every adult was my wife and every child my darling little girl.

About an hour later we were approached by a large vessel. It had lights. It was the Greek coastguard. It was our first piece of good fortune.

Good to be in Europe

When I think back to that moment it was as if we had won. That was the overwhelming feeling. Somehow, after seemingly endless months of being beaten back at every turn, we had claimed a victory that was notable because it was rare.

It felt good to be in Europe, and when the coastguard then brought us to the island of Leros I believed I would soon be settled somewhere and be able to send for my wife and daughter.

But within days we were on the water again, this time on a ferry to mainland Greece and the port of Piraeus, on the capital’s edge. The 50 of us who’d been thrown at the mercy of the Aegean by the smugglers had formed a bond, and we travelled as a group. On March 11th we arrived in Athens.

Facing a long stay in Athens

My vision of what would await us once we reached Greece receded to no more than that: a vision of something that could never, it seemed, become real. My friends felt it too. When we talked on those first nights in Athens we let slip how our fears had returned.

Some wanted us to go immediately to the border, but I wasn’t sure. There seemed to me extra security in being in the Greek capital, and no one knew what the position was at the Macedonian border. Were we to move as a group, children included, we needed to be certain that it would be a quicker and safer route to our ultimate aim. I undertook to go and establish the situation. I did, and it was grim. Political developments and the unconscionable agreement between the EU and Turkey had left us facing a long stay.

I’m now 11 weeks in Athens. My wife, now heavily pregnant, and daughter are in Turkey. My mother and sister are in Syria, and my brother is in Germany. The family is geographically splintered but intact. It is an Arab family, a Muslim family, but most importantly it’s just a family – and one that, wherever life’s journey takes us, will remain committed to its belief in the primacy of human life.

Whether you’re Christian or Muslim, whether you read the Koran or the Bible, life is sacred, and your duty is to protect it and value it above everything. I do. My wife does. My brother and sister do. Our mother does, and our father did.

The West must allow those of us fleeing violence to become part of their communities. We are frightened. We are running away from precisely what it is that the extremists use to strike fear into the West. When I’m trying to sleep I think about how I want to contribute to that effort. That, my family and my mother’s jasmine plant.

In conversation with Fintan Drury

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