Migrant crisis: one refugee family’s terrifying journey from Damascus to Bavaria
It took Jamil and family two months – and $30,000 – to find a new home in Germany
Residents waiting in line to receive food aid distributed in the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus, in January 2014. Many Palestinian refugees fled the camp after it was overrun by al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. Photograph: United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images
The choppy, dangerous sea at Izmir, Turkey. On two occasions the family travelled in small rubber boats that sank as they tried to reach Greece. Photograph: Lora
The family walking in Bodrum, Turkey: Jamil (left), Carla and Leila (with backpack): Photograph: Lora
“The journey began on 9/11 and ended on 11/9,” said Jamil with a wry smile. A smuggler driver, contacted weeks earlier, rang on September 10th last year and asked, “Are you ready?”
“When?” Jamil demanded.
They prepared their bags and said goodbye to their father and friends near St Thomas’s Gate in Damascus’s Old City. Jamil (32), his mother Leila (51) and sisters Lora (27) and Carla (21), hefted 25kg backpacks into the minibus and joined another nine Palestinians, several of whom had also fled the Yarmouk camp south of Damascus, which was overrun by al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in December 2012.
When the minibus paused at the first Syrian army checkpoint at Harasta, they claimed they were going to visit relatives in the Palestinian camp near Aleppo, even though those on duty knew “we were fleeing”, says Jamil.
At Salamiya, the men had to present military cards showing they were not draft dodgers. Small bribes were paid in Syrian lira and cigarettes as they progressed from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Jamil explains: “When we reached Aleppo, we said we were going to Ain Arab [Kobani, on the Turkish border].” As they drove through a wide belt of dead land between the army and Islamic State (IS), the three women put on black cloaks, headcoverings and double veils.
At al-Mahdoumeh (a word that means “destroyed”), a giant man in Afghan dress instructed them to call it Maamourah (“rebuilt”).
At Jarabulus, after they changed to a second minibus for the journey to the border, they were left on the roadside until the driver checked out the situation.
“He came back and said the US was bombing so he took us to his place where his wife offered us food. It was an old house with a toilet outside. We had to hurry into the house when we heard the roar of a passing motorbike.” They thought it might carry IS spies.
“If there was nothing the next day they would take us back to Damascus,” says Jamil. They slept the night at the village.
Black and white
“A school was named after Osama bin Laden,” Jamil says. “There were only men in the streets.”
They passed through Nusra and government-held territory to an IS-controlled area where severed heads had been planted on stakes at a checkpoint. “Thank God, my mother and sisters could not see through their veils,” says Jamil.
Outside IS territory, the women lifted the veils but kept on head coverings and cloaks. After Bab al-Salameh, a red-painted urban bus landed them in an olive grove near the Turkish border where there were sand berms, coils of razor wire, Turkish sentries every 100m and troops patrolling in Cobra armoured vehicles.
“They took us to another place and told us to run . . . We scaled the sand mounds, crept through a hole in the wire and entered a trench where Carla was trapped by her backpack.
A Turkish soldier pushed the barrel of his rifle into Jamil’s chest and ordered them to go back. “We waited another three or four hours to find a new place.”
As the sun set, they crossed the border at Bab al-Salameh, running through trenches until they reached a Turkish village. Another minibus took them to Kilis where they caught a public bus to Ankara and another to Izmir where they stayed in a hotel in the Basmaneh quarter, a smugglers’ base. The family shifted from Izmir to Bodrum to Didim and back at the pleasure of a smuggler boss they never saw.
“We only heard his voice,” says Jamil. The family dealt with Syrian intermediaries.
Life jackets were bought but discarded so they could wear tyre tubes. Two backpacks were left with a clerk at the hotel. They waited at a place “in the middle of nowhere”, near the shore. “The waves were too high that night so we stayed there.” In the morning they were told to walk in a line to the coast where there awaited a rubber boat, 6m-long and 2m-wide – the cheapest option.
The Turkish coast guard rescued them and took them ashore where they were fingerprinted.They gave false names to the police and were told to go. Their identity documents were not checked; smugglers and police colluded.
A second rubber boat also sank after two minutes, with 45 people on board. The captain shouted, “It will not work out, not work out!” before he and another man plunged into the water. Jamil and his family reached shore and walked for more than an hour before they found a supermarket and called a taxi.
A third rubber boat, was larger and equipped with a Yamaha engine.
“After 40 minutes we reached the territorial waters of Greece. We all shouted, ‘Allahu Akhbar! We are in Greece now!’ We proceeded towards the island by the light of a red-orange moon. Passengers slashed the rubber boat so it could not return them to Turkey and the Greek coast guard picked us up from the water some distance from the shore.”
Jamil adds: “My mother is afraid of water and had a life vest and a ring to keep her afloat. She held above her head a plastic bag holding shawls to keep her children warm once we arrived.”
At a military base on the island there was a German officer who called for German speakers among the Greeks. Jamil kept still as he was not fluent in German. The refugees slept in a “stinking” barracks without food or water and in the morning went to Leros, where they stayed the day, presented their identity papers and recuperated.
At the police station they were given an “expulsion order”, which allowed them to spend just six months in Greece, Jamil says. This hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles while they were in that country.
The new arrivals were put on one ferry then another that carried them from Leros via another island to Pireaus, from where they travelled to Athens. They lodged in a hotel in the Acharnon neighbourhood, another smugglers’ haunt. Jamil says the family intended to stay there until they could find a reliable smuggler and, hopefully, a reasonably safe route to Germany. It was a tense and difficult time: they feared their money would run out and they would not succeed in their quest before they would be deported.
During their stay, they visited the Acropolis and met friends and relatives also seeking asylum in Europe. They encountered few Greeks – some cautious, some friendly – as the area where they stayed “was full of foreigners from India, Pakistan, China, Sudan, and other countries who were running their own businesses there,” Jamil says.
“The reason we chose to take the ferry to Venice is that the land routes through the Balkans were shut by both Macedonia and Albania, who detained and imprisoned many people we know. So we could not risk it and decided to wait and find a safer way out.”
They set off from Athens to Patras where they took a ferry to Venice, spent the night there and then boarded a public bus to the German border, crossing without being checked by immigration.
They were collected by a minibus with Bulgarian plates but, after travelling on to Munich, the vehicle was intercepted by German police and taken to a police station near Nuremberg. But their journey’s end was near. After two weeks in the asylum processing system, they were taken to a village in Bavaria where they were given a well-furnished two-bedroom flat.
The journey had cost $30,000 – the family’s entire savings – including $11,000 meant to fund Jamil’s expenses at a British university where he had a scholarship for graduate study.