As Syria’s civil war shows no sign of easing, and with much of the country blanketed in destruction, more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees. Many have remained in neighboring countries, including Turkey and Lebanon, while others have continued on to Europe, where they hope to be granted asylum.
In recent months, large numbers of Syrian refugees have entered Italy and Greece via the Mediterranean. At the mercy of people smugglers and enduring perilous conditions along the way – including taking to the sea on unsafe dinghies – many die, however, before reaching Europe’s shores.
Syria Deeply spoke to two men who took the decision to swim from Turkey to Greece.
Hisham Muaddamani, 24, left his war-torn hometown of eastern Ghouta with the dream of finding security in Europe and continuing his university studies. “This was the first time I had ever left Syria,” he recalled in an interview with Syria Deeply. “I left because the fighting and the [government-imposed] blockade left me hopeless.”
Like many rebel-held parts of the country, eastern Ghouta is under siege by government forces. “Leaving home was extremely difficult and dangerous, but I was desperate and had decided to leave no matter what,” recalled Muaddamani, who is now in Germany. “After three failed attempts, I finally made it out.”
Muaddamani found a truck driver to smuggle him into Jordan, although the driver warned him that “the trip is very dangerous.” This was borne out in Austria, where authorities found 71 lifeless bodies of Syrians in the back of a truck on August 27. They had died of suffocation in the rear of the 18-wheeler.
“The moment we took off there were bullets flying around us, and the driver was speeding to the border,” Muaddamani remembered, adding that he thought he would die along the way.
Upon arriving at the border, the Jordanian authorities seized all of his documents and detained him for 12 hours before deporting him back to Syria, where he stayed in Daraa for a few weeks before entering Jordan, this time illegally. There, Muaddamani was able to pay a border guard $400 to return his identity card and other documents that had been seized previously.
“The following day I met a Syrian man named Firas … on a plane to Turkey,” he said. “He was also going to Europe.” Smugglers informed the men that it would cost them $1,000 per head in order to get from Turkey to Greece. “We didn’t have the money, so I decided to swim,” he said simply.
Firas and Muaddamani checked a map, surprised to find out that the distance was only 5 miles.
The men purchased life jackets and documents – their documents and money they then placed in ziplock bags. Then, one night at around 9 p.m., they approached the shores of the Mediterranean and prepared themselves. “Firas is a good swimmer,” he said. “I am not so skilled. I told him I’d swim next to him for 50 meters, and that he should continue without me if I couldn’t go on.
“The water was so cold, and it was very dark outside,” he remarked. After swimming for a long time, Muaddamani says that his partner kept encouraging him to stay strong and press on. “After six hours of swimming, we were too tired to continue.”
Syrians often enter Europe by sea because it is cheaper than flying. Many are motivated to take dinghies because they do not have passports or due to the difficulty of obtaining a visa from European countries. They often pay between $2,500 and $4,000 for smugglers and travel costs. Muaddamani and Firas, however, had found a way to make it to Europe for a fraction of the cost.
The men thought they saw an island in the distance, but were disappointed when they arrived to find that it was only a large rock. “We were scared, exhausted and frustrated, but we decided to take a rest,” he said. Two hours later, they saw a light far off in the water. “I took out my laser pen and signaled it,” Muaddamani commented. “It turned out to be a ship. They contacted the Greek coastguard for us, and it arrived just a few minutes later.”
Once in Greece, the men were provided with medical treatment and given six-month residency permits. But only two days after their arrival, they were well enough to travel and caught a bus to the Macedonian border. “We walked for hours from the last village to the border,” he said. “We took a break under some trees. I was shocked when my phone picked up service – I saw a message from my mother telling me that my father had died. I was devastated.
“I had to go on and make it to Germany,” he said. “Continuing my studies was my father’s dream for me.” Recalling a “massive number of people” waiting to cross into Macedonia, Muaddamani says he and his comrade instead took another road and walked with 200 others for eight hours until they reached another border crossing.
“We were allowed to enter legally and were given 72-hour permits to stay in the country,” he noted. “We headed straight for the capital city, from where we took a taxi to the Serbian border. We waited till nightfall and entered illegally.”
Along the way, Firas and Muadammani were forced to bribe Serbian police officers – a mere 10 euros each. “We walked another seven hours before arriving in Hungary, where the police detained us. They said we had to go back to Serbia or apply for asylum there in Hungary.”
The men started the application process, but decided to continue their journey before completing it. Having spent most of their money along the way, they were unable to afford to pay a smuggler to take them from Hungary to Germany. So they took a taxi to the border, where the driver was arrested for transporting refugees to the border.
“We had been worried that they wouldn’t accept our asylum applications because we had already initiated the process in Hungary.”
According to the Dublin Regulation, an agreement between E.U. countries, refugees must apply for asylum and reside in the first E.U. country in which they arrive. Yet, in August 2015, Germany suspended its participation in that agreement for Syrian refugees, which means applications can be processed there directly.
When the men arrived in Germany, the local police detained them for hours, according to Muaddamani. “But when they learned that we’re Syrian, they said simply, ‘Welcome to Germany.’”
“That was the happiest moment of my life – after the 35-day journey,” he said.
Top photo: Associated Press