A death toll of 150,000, including 50,000 civilians and 8,000 children. Over 26,000 people gone missing, or taken hostage. Torture, beheadings, cluster bombs on residential areas, lifeless children and elderly people dug up from the rubble every single day. There is no end to the horrors of the Syrian civil war. The outside world has slowly gotten used to the cold statistics of yet more victims. At the end of this year the total number of dead may well reach 200,000. By then, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects, four million Syrians will have left their country.
Millions of Syrians are fleeing the brutality of the three-year war. They want to leave the country where political and religious extremists are killing each other, and where the dividing line between safety and lethal danger has long ceased to exist. In Syria, respect for human life is severely lacking.
The war is pushing men, women and children across the border to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Living in crowded refugee camps, many dream of a new life in the safety of Europe. But there, the prevailing atmosphere is far from compassionate and immigration measures are tightened. No one is willing to take on more asylum seekers.
This includes the Netherlands. So far, 90 Syrian families formerly residing in Jordan, among them some 60 children, prepared for life in the Netherlands by way of so-called ‘inburgering’ or integration courses. These courses were provided by the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers in Amman – the Jordanian capital. The families arrived in the Netherlands in the course of July 2014. They are part of the 250 Syrian refugees who were granted asylum in the Netherlands at the request of the UNHCR .
Apart from this group, thousands of Syrians have filed asylum applications in the Netherlands. According to the government, most of these requests are granted, at least for a temporary stay.
Those allowed to come to the Netherlands are the happy few. Meanwhile an exodus is taking place of refugees trying to reach other parts of the continent. Border guards in Bulgaria and Greece – the south-eastern gates to the European Union - are ordered to ‘turn the tides’. Violence isn't shunned by them. Migrants from Syria – and other problem areas – are literally pushed back, beaten and sometimes shot at.
The human tragedy at the gates of Fortress Europe remains heartbreaking. Syrians recounting their stories are emotionally tormented. Take 30-year old Abdu from Damascus, who is now trying to forge a new life in a Dutch village. He was lucky, but feels guilty. His two sisters are still stuck in Syria.
These are the stories of Suhkran, Mohamad, Abedjoha, Gwan, Malek, and Mohammed Nur. Two teachers, three students, and a doctor. Ordinary people from a country torn apart where the horrors of war continue every day.
Tents everywhere. Smelly portable toilets lined up in a row. And children, so many children. This is Islahiye, one of the 21 refugee camps in Turkey, close to the Syrian border. A ‘temporary’ city with 10,000 inhabitants.
Suhkran (47) is one of them, a stately-looking primary school headmaster from Aleppo. She arrived in Islahiye with her husband and four sons in September 2013. Her youngest child is 15 and her eldest is 21 years old. Her daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter followed later. In the first weeks, they didn’t have a roof over their heads as there was no tent available. The whole family slept in the open air. Suhkran, wearing a green-and-white headscarf, smiles politely as she tells her story in the tent where she is now staying, heated up by the beaming sun.
Life in the overflowing camp is hard, but Suhkran does not want to complain. Everywhere is better than war-torn Aleppo, where she worked as a teacher and school headmaster for 28 years. Before the war, life was good. She loved her job. ‘I would drive to school every day.’
The war put an end to it. Before her eyes, Aleppo was transformed into one of the most dangerous places of Syria, where people live in fear for their lives. The first bomb in 2012 fell next to her daughter’s house. The devastation was enormous. ‘You get used to the sound of bombs, but not to fear. I was constantly afraid to loose a child. During the last months we all slept together in one room.’ Suhkran sighs. She can still feel the fear of those days. Her school had been closed a year before. The pupils were too afraid to come. It really was too dangerous: a bomb could be dropped anytime. Despite all the fear and misery, Suhkran and her family decided to stay in Aleppo. They didn’t want to flee, leaving their home, city and country.
Until September 2012 that is, when Suhkran was arrested and thrown into jail by soldiers of the regime. She had been out delivering aid supplies in an area controlled by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. She stares ahead. It was terrible, too terrible for words. ‘They treated us like animals. There I have seen things a human being should never have to experience.’
‘They just left her body in the cell. To scare us.’
Suhkran sobs. She was put in a cell with 42 other women. It was packed, they could hardly move. One woman died from her injuries. ‘They just left her body in the cell. To scare us.’ She recalls a woman who lost her mind after she had been raped by the guards. She describes the old woman who had her burka pulled off and her hair forcibly cut. Suhkran kissed a guard’s hand, begging him to let her go. He hit her and pushed her away. After eight days in detention the nightmare ended. Suhkran’s family managed to bail her out for 3,000 dollars.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Suhkran’s journey on the map
They decided to leave Aleppo immediately and flee to Turkey. Nowadays, Suhkran is back in the classroom, at the UNICEF school in the camp. Teaching helps her momentarily forget the misery. In fact, she can’t do without her work. And the children need her. Only last week a six-year-old girl told her she had seen her baby sister die in front of her eyes. She is also from Aleppo.
Suhkran in the classroom.
Suhkran rubs her tears away. What should she do? When she thinks of Syria, she can only cry. The family dreams of a new and better life. In Europe. Over there, the streets are safe. You’re not in danger of kidnapping and torture. In Europe you can build a life.
Suhkran’s son-in-law Tamer listens attentively when the conversation turns to Europe. It seems like the world’s best-kept secret, he thinks. The road to a normal existence. How, as a Syrian, do you enter Europe legally? Nobody can or is willing to answer him.
Suhkran listens. To herself and her husband, it doesn’t matter anymore. First and foremost, she wants a future for her children. The eldest ones all went to university. What are they to do here, in this godforsaken and crowded camp, with new arrivals coming in every day?
He is sick and tired of it. He just needed to graduate and he would have been an engineer. But now he has nothing. Nothing to prove he studied at the University of Homs for four years. Mohamad, 24 years old, recounts his story sitting on a pillow in a container; it is his ‘home’ in the Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria, close to the Turkish border.
On 17 July 2013, he sees his university and his friends in Homs for the last time. The second semester exams are over. Mohamad takes the bus to Qamishli on his way home. The route is not without danger, passing many checkpoints.
At 6:30 p.m., the bus with Kurdish students is stopped by Islamic rebels - men with long beards and huge knives. The fear in the bus is tangible. Everyone has to get off. The rebels joke around: whose head will they cut off first? Mohamad: ‘“This head is mine!” one cried. They were young lads. Brainwashed and utterly unpredictable.’
The students are taken to a prison in a nearby village. They are scared to death of what is to come. ‘I was convinced that they would kill us.’ They are kept in the prison for four days. Then, suddenly, the group is released. Is it the result of negotiations with the Kurdish PJAK, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan? Mohamad doesn’t know.
Back in Qamishli, his family (his mother, brother and two sisters) are overjoyed. They, too, had been terrified. Terrified of never seeing Mohamad – the youngest of the family – again. Terrified of the cruelty of the Islamic rebels. His mother has made up her mind. They are leaving Syria now. ‘“You can only be this lucky once”, she said.’
Mohamad does not want to leave. He wants to return to Homs, finish his degree. But his mother’s word is law and on 3 October 2013, the family crosses the border into Turkey. They are going to Europe, this much is certain. It’s common knowledge that Turkey doesn’t like Kurds very much. The family travels on to Istanbul, to Aksaray.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Mohamad’s journey on the map
They needn’t look long for a trafficker. For 400 euros a head he takes them to the Bulgarian border and points to the forest: that is Bulgaria. The family starts to walk. Soon other Syrians appear, all on their way to the promised land of Europe. ‘Eventually, we were a large group of nearly eighty people, including families with small children.’
Mohamad and other Syrian refugees during their journey in the Bulgarian woods.
After a strenuous hike through the woods they arrive in Bulgaria. They meet two border patrols, but they are not Bulgarians. They wear a European flag on their shoulder, Mohamad remembers. They are friendly and tell the Syrians not to worry. The group feels immensely relieved: they made it.
But their joy dissipates rapidly when they arrive at the crowded, improvised detention centre near the border. Men and women are separated. Syrians are placed with Syrians, Africans with Africans. Why? Mohamad doesn’t know. ‘We were put in cage-like enclosures and treated like animals.’ He also remembers the Bulgarian agent who hit a Syrian boy asking him for some water. Not exactly the reception he had expected in Europe.
After two days the group is transferred to Elhovo, another detention centre, where they are officially registered and their fingerprints taken. Next is Harmanli, a refugee camp. Bulgaria isn’t prepared to take care of so many people and just about everything is lacking. The migrants sleep in tents and make fires to keep warm. There are only a few toilets for hundreds of people. They are not allowed to leave the camp.
Mohamad smiles. That was then. Much has improved since. Refugees are allowed to leave the camp. Containers have replaced the tents, meals are provided twice a day, and there’s a Doctors Without Borders clinic. The camp’s inhabitants are largely self-sufficient: some distribute the food packages, while others have set up a school. Mohamad is one of the teachers.
The influx of new refugees has almost completely come to a halt. ‘There are now over 1,500 guards patrolling the border’, Mohamad says. He knows how hard it is to enter Bulgaria. Many are driven away, sometimes forcefully. Syrians are unwanted in Bulgaria, that much is clear.
By late April 2014, after months of waiting, Mohamad and his family receive their much-anticipated residence permits. The family moves to Kazanlak, a town of 50,000 inhabitants about 100 kilometres from Harmanli. ‘We are still waiting’, Mohamad relates over the phone from Kazanlak. ‘We’ll get a passport in June.’ Life in Bulgaria is tough. They have no work and money is running out quickly. Syrians are charged higher rents than Bulgarians.
Once they have their passports, the family wants to move to Germany as soon as possible. Mohamad is hoping to build a new life there. ‘I have to finish my degree first and then, maybe in two years time, I can bring my girlfriend over from Syria.’
His shoulder is still bruised from his latest run-in with the Bulgarian police on the other side of the border. In a little café in the Turkish city of Edirne, close to the Turkish-Bulgarian border, Malek (30) tells his story. His anger alternates with tears and bitter laughter sparked by the sheer misery of his situation.
He left the hospital in Deir Ezzor, where he was working as an anaesthetic, in mid-October. After two years he just couldn’t bear it any longer. Malek: ‘The hopelessness. New victims arriving every day. People dying because there is just one oxygen tank or the power has been cut again. It seemed so pointless.’ As a doctor he had to make more life-or-death decisions than ever before, but they were based on the severe shortages and rationing of medical supplies. The same every day. Which patient is entitled to oxygen? Whom to treat first? Malek describes the stress of a full intensive care unit with sixteen patients and the overcrowded waiting room with anxious family members who kept banging on doors and windows, demanding to know whether their loved-ones would live.
He will never forget the boy who was shot in the chest and brought in bleeding heavily. ‘I’m dying, I’m dying’, he kept saying. Malek tried to comfort him. The surgeon would remove the bullet, he was still young, there was hope, he told him. But two minutes later the boy’s heart stopped beating. His internal bleeding was more severe than the doctors had been able to diagnose in the chaos.
Also etched in his memory is the image of his friend Adnan dying in his arms. It didn’t happen in the hospital, but at home in his apartment. ‘There was an explosion and Adnan was badly wounded. His arm and leg were ripped off and his face was completely unrecognizable. I lifted him up from the street and carried him to my apartment. He passed away there and then. Later, his brother called to ask where Adnan was…’, Malek recounts.
"Adnan was badly wounded. His arm and leg were ripped off and his face was completely unrecognizable."
Malek shakes his head. Disturbing images flash in his mind’s eye. Yes, the war has changed him. In the first few months he often cried, but his tears have dried up. You get used to seeing people, children even, dying in agony. ‘My heart has turned into stone,’ he says.
On 15 October 2012 he decided to leave the hospital and the war – and Syria. Malek crossed the Turkish border and got on a bus to Istanbul. From there he called his mother and informed her he would travel onwards to Bulgaria, to join his wife and family-in-law. A few months before, his wife had left Damascus with her brother and parents, ending up in a Bulgarian camp. Malek intended to take the same route and once in Istanbul contacted the trafficker who had previously taken his wife across the border to Bulgaria. He was told to immediately continue to Edirne. For 400 dollars he would be taken to Bulgaria that very night.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Malek’s journey on the map
Malek was not alone. Three families including nine children, and three other young men (all Syrians) took off together through the dense woods. ‘It was like a jungle’, he remembers. ‘Cold and wet.’ Soon the refugees split up into two groups. They walked continuously for over ten hours.
‘It was like a jungle. Cold and wet.’
The group breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching the Bulgarian village of Razdel. They had made it. An undoubtedly better life seemed within reach. But their fates turned when local villagers warned the police. The officers were enraged as they arrested the ragged Syrians. ‘No Bulgaria, no Bulgaria’, they said. And: ‘Keep silent.’
Malek and the other three young men were immediately taken back to the border where they joined the three Syrian families, watched over by border guards. The children were crying. The exhausted refugees were denied water, let alone some compassion. Eventually, Turkish border patrols arrived to take them back to Turkey. The Turks had inadvertently kept the refugees waiting for hours because their van had broken down on the way. Nevertheless, they were gentlemen compared to the rough Bulgarians. They handed over the refugees to the detention centre in Edirne. The next day, Malek was free to go.
Meanwhile, his wife was still in the Harmanli refugee camp, just across the border in Bulgaria. ‘She was worried sick and so sad.’ But Malek had no choice but to return to Istanbul, to the neighbourhood of Aksaray, in search of a different trafficker. Finding someone trustworthy is difficult. ‘They are all big liars.’ Malek speaks from experience.
Back in Syria Malek was an anaesthetic, but in Turkey he has to survive on a petty job working for a textile merchant who pays him 700 Turkish liras (ca. 200 euros) for 13-hour shifts, six days a week.
In January 2014, Malek tried his luck once more, together with Ali, a Syrian he had gotten to know in Istanbul. Again, he was taken to the border, this time in a BMW. Again they started out on the long hike across. But after just a few hours they walked straight into the arms of the Turkish patrols. The déjà vu of a failure. As he his recounting his story, Malek shakes his head in disbelief: ‘It was back to Edirne.’ The trafficker even kindly reimbursed his 1,200- dollar fee.
Malek wasn’t ready to give up his ‘assault’ on Fortress Europe. In February 2014, he made another attempt, for another 1,200 dollars. But on the way to Edirne he learned that the smuggler was planning to bring him and the other Syrians with him to the Greek border. Malek got out of the car immediately. What was he to do in Greece when his wife was in Bulgaria?
And so he found himself back in Edirne, disillusioned and disheartened. Through the manager of his hotel he got in touch with yet another, Syrian Bulgarian, trafficker. His rate was 600 euros, arrival in Bulgaria guaranteed. Malek: ‘I set off with two brothers, Adnan and Mahmud from Damascus. Children really, they were only twelve and sixteen years old. I just didn’t want them to undertake this journey by themselves.’
And so for the third time, Malek started the long hike through the borderlands. It rained. The two brothers could hardly keep up with him and the youngest cried and complained of stomach ache. But after walking for hours on end they crossed the border. On his mobile phone’s GPS, Malek could see they were in Bulgaria. It wouldn’t be long now before he would be with his wife.
Suddenly the Bulgarian border guards appeared out of nowhere. ‘Shut up and look down!’, one of them shouted in English. Malek felt the truncheon hitting his back hard. They were pushed into a car and Malek was hit again. He told the Bulgarians he was a doctor, from Syria, but they didn’t care. Malek pauses for a moment and lights a cigarette.
He was brought back across the border together with the two brothers. Utterly exhausted, they started their long journey back to civilization. Finally, after four hours, they arrived in a sleeping Turkish village in the middle of the night. A dog started barking. A farmer appeared and invited the three Syrians in. Malek was relieved to see the man’s wife and daughter who had also awoken. An ordinary family, he thought, and he even asked the farmer whether he could take him and the brothers to Edirne.
But just as Malek went to the toilet, he saw the man snooping in his backpack. ‘Next he took my phone and walked into another room.’ Malek got angry and demanded his phone back, upon which the farmer came at him with a knife. That was the last straw. Malek, dead-tired from the long hike, cried: ‘Do you think I’m afraid? I’m from Syria. I’ve lost everything. Just kill me right here and now. What do I care.’ The two boys were petrified.
The farmer demanded Malek’s money. After Malek paid him 50 dollars, he and the boys got away. They slept in a shed next to the village mosque. Early in the morning they continued their journey. They walked: nobody was willing to give them a ride. On the way to Edirne someone stopped and took them to the city, but he charged them 100 dollars for the 10-minute drive.
"Just kill me right here and now. What do I care."
‘I was so tired, angry, sad. It felt like being in a bizarre film.’ He flung 50 dollars at the man and with the two boys got out of the car. Back to the hotel. The next day, the two brothers left for Istanbul. Malek stayed behind in Edirne.
He looks at his mobile phone: a message from his wife. After five months, she and her family have received a Bulgarian passport and they are soon leaving for Germany. They have relatives there. ‘They waited for me for so long, but life in Bulgaria is difficult. Syrians are unwanted’, Malek knows.
Europe: So near and yet so far. It seems out of reach. Solidarity with fellow human beings in need turned out to be different than the young doctor had imagined. ‘The whole world feels for Syria and for us refugees. But nobody does anything. I was beaten up like some sort of criminal in Bulgaria. Why?’
‘Learn Turkish, learn Turkish!’, a Syrian boy shouts, a stack of Turkish-Arabic dictionaries in front of him. You can buy anything at the metro exit in Aksaray, Istanbul. It is a place of boundless possibilities, with little regard for Allah’s rules. Many Syrians who fled their country dreaming of Europe end up in Aksaray almost immediately. The neighbourhood is teeming with commerce. A Syrian snack bar, a Syrian phone shop and a Syrian coffee house, all on the same street. Arabic can be heard everywhere.
Further down is the large square. Men loiter near the fountain in the middle. Men only. As everyone knows, this is the place to be for a one-way ticket to Europe.
‘When you stand about over there, someone will come up to you within minutes. It’s very open.’
Khaled - clean-shaven, neat shirt – smiles. He is happy to explain the procedure. A few years ago he was an accountant in Damascus. Nowadays he is a dealer in Aksaray. He installed six bunk beds in his rental apartment and rents them out by the week to young Syrians. Most of them don’t stay for long. They all want to go Europe, as quickly as possible. Khaled is happy to help them find their way. He waves his iPhone about. It’s filled with the numbers of traffickers. Khaled knows the popular routes and whom to trust.
Bulgaria is closed off, he claims resolutely. Border patrols literally kick everyone back across the border. Greece is currently the favourite destination. The safest way is to cross the river Evros, which borders Turkey, then take the bus to Athens and from there fly to elsewhere in Europe. Total costs: 6,000 to 7,000 euros. Or via Izmir and the Greek islands, which is cheaper but more dangerous. People with a lot of money fork out 10,000 to 15,000 euros for a fake passport and fly directly to Sweden.
Whether he makes any money himself from issuing this kind of ‘travel information’? Khaled denies it. After all, these traffickers are liars, mafia. ‘Some of them smuggle groups of ten to twenty people across the border every three days. Do the math. It’s big business.’ The proceeds don’t go directly to the traffickers, however. Anyone who closes a deal with a smuggler here in Aksaray takes the money to the office of a man called Ali, who issues a code in return. Only once the refugees have reached their destination does the smuggler obtain the code to collect the money with Ali. Khaled nods. It is a good system, because things do go wrong sometimes. There are those who run off with people’s entire savings.
The courtyard above which Ali has his office.
Ali’s office is nearby, beautifully located in a monumental inn on the way to the Grand Bazaar. It is a stark contrast: downstairs in the courtyard tourists sip from Turkish coffee as they flip through their travel guides, while upstairs in the small office Syrians pay for a single to Europe.
Not every Syrian wants to leave Turkey as soon as possible. Three years ago Mohammed Nizan Bitar, an entrepreneur from Damascus, started out with nothing. Nowadays he owns three restaurants and a bakery in Istanbul, producing thousands of Syrian breads every day. His wife, formerly a civil servant at the Ministry of Tourism in Damascus, runs her own travel agency.
Bitar loathes the traffickers. They make money from the misery of his compatriots, he thinks. He put up a notice board in his restaurant, which reads in Arabic: ‘The owner cannot be held responsible for deals made here.’
Bitar shakes his head. He does not even consider leaving Turkey. ‘If you work hard in Turkey, you achieve more than you ever will in Europe’, Bitar knows. ‘Syrians who want to go to Europe are lazy’, he continues. ‘They want to make easy money, but that’s not how it works.’ He has warned many young men. Don’t go, he advises them. Come work here or finish your education in Turkey. Learn the language.
He only employs Syrians himself. Bitar wants to stay close to his homeland. As soon as things quiet down he will return. ‘Those who go to Europe, will not.’
The grey jeep of the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee bumps along a narrow road across the Bulgarian countryside. The inhabitants of Lesovo are unfazed by the vehicle with a Dutch number plate. The owner of the village café waves, as does Age Boorsma. In everyday life, Boorsma is a group commander with the Marechaussee (or gendarmerie) in the Dutch town of Harlingen, where he controls the ships on the North Sea. At present however, Boorsma (45) is driving around the Bulgarian-Turkish border with his colleague Erik van Essen (36).
Until November 2013, the Bulgaria-Turkey border was one of the ‘biggest holes’ in Fortress Europe
The two blonde Dutchmen have been ‘lent out’ for a month to Frontex, the European border police. Here in the border area, they are supporting their Bulgarian counterparts. Turkey is a mere three kilometres away. Until November 2013, the Bulgarian-Turkish border was one of the ‘biggest holes’ in Fortress Europe and many hundreds of Syrians crossed it illegally. Whereas Bulgaria received 1,000 asylum applications annually over the past few decades, in 2013 this number soared to 7,100. ‘Last October over 100 people a day filed an application’, says the Bulgarian officer in the back seat of the jeep. Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, decided to take measures. Over 1,500 police officers were mobilised and sent to the long border with Turkey.
‘Bulgarian police officers are posted about every 200 metres’, Boorsma explains. In addition, Frontex teams drive around just behind the border. The Dutch work in 12-hour shifts and survey an area of almost 40 kilometres. Beyond that, colleagues from Rumania, Poland, Finland, and Portugal take over. Some teams use thermal cameras to trace refugees in the dark.
The jeep drives on, closer to the border. For the Syrians, exhausted by the war, Bulgaria is paradise, the beginning of a new life. In order to step across this border, they pay human traffickers in Istanbul hundreds of euros.
‘He is armed.’
Suddenly: ‘Hey look, there’s somebody there’. A man with a backpack walking along a cart track is halted. A Syrian? No. The man claims to be from France and shows his passport. The Dutch officers inspect it meticulously. Where is he going, where is he from, the Bulgarian officer also wants to know. The French man says he flew to Athens via Belgium and from there took the bus to Sofia. Where he is headed now, is unclear. In turn, he wants to know what the Dutch police are doing in the Bulgarian countryside.
Meanwhile, Van Essen discusses the matter over the phone with his colleagues in the Netherlands, passing on the man’s passport number. ‘I am standing in a field in Bulgaria. Class 1 and 2. He is internationally registered’, Van Essen is heard saying from behind the jeep. And: ‘He is armed.’
Age Boorsma and Erik van Essen patrolling the Bulgarian border
Boorsma, a tall man, smiles and moves a little closer to the Frenchman. In the meantime, his Bulgarian colleague calls for assistance. ‘My colleagues at the station want to ask you a few more questions.’ The man nods and smiles nervously. A police car approaches. Van Essen asks the man if he is armed. He nods again and produces a sizeable knife, tucked away in a holster attached to his belt. He hands it to the Bulgarians and gets into the police car.
Back in the Dutch jeep, Van Essen thinks it is a strange story. Surely, the French man is not a tourist and then there is the international registration. The Bulgarian officer doesn’t trust the situation either. ‘Maybe he did get here through Turkey. He had a long beard on his passport photo. And did you hear his ringtone? It sounded Arabic.’
Today’s excitement is unusual. For the last three weeks, they only met Syrians once. Three young men who seemed relieved when they heard they were in Bulgaria. The officers gave them some water and fruit and took them to the detention centre.
He spent eight days on a boat with another 200 Syrians. He feared for his life, but he made it. Abedjoha managed to enter Fortress Europe and now lives in a small village in the Netherlands.
There is a sofa, a table, and a couple of upright chairs. A new matrass in the bedroom. That is all 30-year old Abedjoha has. He walks around his new living room, still a little uneasy. Outside, it is calm, very calm. The sun is shining, a man is walking his dog, a woman with a shopping bag cycles past. An ordinary Dutch neighbourhood in an ordinary Dutch village on an ordinary Tuesday. Since a day, this is the new house of Abedjoha from Syria – though not quite yet a home.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Abedjoha’s journey on the map
The difference with Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, is almost surreal. Since late April 2014, Jobar has been the scene of heavy fighting between the army and insurgents. Air strikes have become a daily occurrence. A year ago, chemical weapons were employed. Tens of inhabitants were gasping for air, in vain. Abedjoha was lucky. He had left a month before.
Abedjoha tells his story in the home of his aunt. ‘Tante Samira’ (auntie Samira), he calls her in broken Dutch, though they admit they are not even related. Friends of friends. A human lifebuoy. Samira, who has lived in the Netherlands since 1980, has been looking after the young Syrian. Right now, she is acting as interpreter together with her sister Widat, as Abedjoha still only speaks Arabic.
In March 2013, he fled to Beirut. A perilous journey for young men like him, with many checkpoints of both the army and rebels. Passing these unharmed is like a lottery. Once in Lebanon, he immediately boarded a flight to Egypt, to his aunt.
He stayed in Cairo for five months, spending most of that time in search of a trustworthy trafficker able to help him. That was hard. Most of them are liars looking to get rich from other people’s despair. But Abedjoha knew he wanted to go to Europe. That was his goal when he left Jobar.
His two brothers had fled before. To Libya, just as chaotic and corrupt. Abedjoha looks sad. The war has cast his family adrift. His parents left for Egypt. Only his two sisters and their families still live in Jobar. Not by choice: they are stuck there because of the war that is waging in and above their neighbourhood. He is safe here, in the Netherlands; in Syria, his family has to fear for their lives every day.
‘Children were crying, there was nothing to eat.’
His journey to safety was dangerous. In September 2013, he paid a trafficker in Cairo the then-current rate: 5,000 euros. They left in the middle of the night, to Italy. The trip was said to take two days, but it lasted for eight. Eight long, devastating days.
They were more than 200 Syrians: families with small children and many young men. A small ship was waiting for them, but they had to wade to be able to get on board. When it reached deeper waters, the whole group transferred to a larger ship. Abedjoha: ‘Children were crying non-stop, there was nothing to eat. Everyone got seasick. The ship was overloaded with people.’
A storm on the Mediterranean only made things worse. Abedjoha did not think he would live to tell his story. He was terrified.
Unlike the hundreds of boat refugees who die at sea, however, this group was lucky. One of the Syrians on board managed to alert the Red Cross in Italy with a satellite phone. When all hope seemed gone, Abedjoha suddenly heard a helicopter hovering over the ship. ‘A moment I will never forget.’
‘I know I have been very lucky. Many Syrians don’t survive the journey to Europe.’
He had never been this happy and relieved. Two Red Cross ships took the group safely ashore. Abedjoha says he cannot remember the name of the Italian island where he first set foot on European soil.
Abedjoha on the sofa at his ‘aunt’ Samira’s house. "He looked awful."
A day later, he left for Milan with a friend, who had family in Germany. They came to pick the two men up in Rome and took them to Germany. Once there – again Abedjoha does not remember where exactly – ‘aunt’ Samira in the Netherlands was contacted. He arrived on her doorstep on 28 September 2013. He looked awful, she remembers. Emaciated, his face yellow from exhaustion ‘He’s such a good boy.’
Abedjoha doesn’t understand Samira’s Dutch, but looks up at her gratefully. ‘She is like a second mother to me’, he says later.
Abedjoha ended up in the asylum procedure, went to the application centre in Ter Apel (a village in the northern province of Groningen), spent a few months in an asylum seekers centre in (the southern city of) Nijmegen, and now has his own house.
His life in the Netherlands is ready to start, although his mind is elsewhere, in Syria. Yes, he is aware that he is an exception and has been very lucky. Many Syrians do not survive the journey to Europe. He could just as well have been shot death on the way to Lebanon or drowned somewhere at sea. But his life was spared and now he wants to learn Dutch as soon as possible. Abedjoha hopes to be able to finish his degree in screenwriting at the Dutch Film Academy. He just may have a story to tell.
Sitting on a pillow in a small room – pink paint is coming off the walls – in the heart of Istanbul, 24-year old Gwan tells his story. He shares his cramped quarters with three Syrians his age. They are all dreaming of Europe. Gwan does not want to give his real name. It is risky; his family is still in Syria. He sounds determined, a restrained look on his face. He will reach Europe. He knows full well it is not paradise, but to stay in Turkey? No way. People here don’t like Syrians, let alone Kurds.
Looking back on his university days in Damascus fills him with melancholy. It was such a carefree student life. When the revolution started and the demonstrations were put down more and more violently, he fled to Kurdistan, to Dirbêsiyê, close to the Turkish border, where his parents live. He stayed for a month, but felt the tension rising. He was restless. ‘I didn’t want to fight’, he says. ‘I can’t stand blood. I found that out back in Damascus.’
He fled across the border to the Turkish town of Kiziltepe, where he worked in construction for two months. Gwan needed money to pay his way to Europe. A lot of money. After those two months he went to Izmir, from where boats full of refugees leave for the Greek islands – to Europe!
For seven months, he worked in a textile factory until he had saved up enough. In August 2013, it was time. He paid the trafficker 1,500 euros. He wasn’t given a date of departure. Tomorrow, the trafficker kept promising. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Gwan remembers how he was lying on his bed reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, when he finally received the much-anticipated call. Coelho’s story of a young shepherd in search of a treasure, who tries to achieve his own legend, somehow seemed very appropriate.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Gwan’s journey on the map
There was an island in the distance. The young student is still convinced that the Greek military had long spotted the group, but it took hours until the coast guard sent out a boat to pick up the refugees.
Their relief was short-lived. The Greeks seized mobile phones, passports, and money. The refugees were taken to the island of Farmakonisi, uninhabited but for a military base. Gwan was put in jail, without his identity papers. And without food: he just got some biscuits past their expiry date. From 2012, he still remembers. His lip was bleeding. Gwan had been hit hard in the face.
Two days later, the group was pushed back onto the ship, which the Greek coast guard then towed back to Turkish waters. They never saw their passports, money, and mobile phones again. Eventually, the Turkish coast guard picked them up.
Izmir is full of stories such as these, Gwan knows by now. The injustice, the powerlessness, it makes him angry. Refugees have no rights. To whom should he turn to file a complaint? Who would believe him when he says the Greek coast guard robbed them? He tries some poetry to express how he feels. ‘We are like thirsty gazelles, forced to drink from a river teeming with crocodiles.’
So it was back to the textile factory in Izmir. Then to Istanbul, to make more money. Because Gwan will try again. He cannot give up on his dream of Europe. But what is next? Bulgaria is not an option: Syrians are treated like dirt there, that much he knows. Might he go back to Greece, which treated him so badly? ‘Maybe.’
Three days later, Gwan is gone. He boarded a plane with a false passport. To Paris.
He was dreaming of a Master’s in Religious Studies in England. The uprising in Syria, however, turned his life around. Mohammed Nur is no longer yearning to go to Europe. He wants to fight for his future at home. ‘My country, my people need me now’, he says.
For three months now, Mohammed has been living in Gaziantep, the largest Turkish city on the Syrian border. Locally, it is known as Little Aleppo. A rather fitting epithet, as in the past three years more than 160,000 Syrians have flocked here. This figure excludes 30,000 refugees that are living in camps in the province of Gaziantep. In other words: one in ten of the region’s inhabitants are Syrian. Gaziantep can hardly cope with the influx of people. Problems in the areas of for instance safety, public health, and education are piling up, not to mention a completely disrupted economy with tens of thousands of extra unemployed. Life is exceedingly hard on Syrians arriving now. There no longer is any work and the rents are sky-high. In addition, many Turks would rather see them go.
Mohammed (30) relates his story in a Syrian restaurant in the centre of Gaziantep. In February 2014, he crossed the border with tears in his eyes. He left his country and fellow combatants against his will, but he was forced by his mother and wife, he admits. They did not want him to continue fighting. Too many people they knew had already perished.
Mohammed shows a photo on his mobile phone. It is the corpse of his 25-year old brother, shot by a sniper three months ago. Just like Mohammed, his brother fought alongside the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. He had just spent a few weeks at home and had only returned to the front two days earlier, when he was fatally hit. ‘My family went through a lot of trouble to retrieve the body and bring it back to be buried in our village’, Mohammed says dispassionately.
Still, the war has hit him too, in the depths of his soul; like any Syrian since the war erupted three years ago.
Before the revolution, Mohammed worked as a teacher in Damascus. He taught at a secondary school while pursuing a Master’s in Religious Studies. No, not because he is that religious himself, but because it interests him. He was planning to continue his studies in Great Britain, dreaming of an academic career.
It sounds unreal when Mohammed speaks of the ambitions he once had. It seems so long ago. His dreams are utterly unfeasible now.
Before he would be able to study abroad, Mohammed had to fulfil his military service in Syria. Four months before the revolution broke out, he enlisted in the army. He was stationed in a training camp near Aleppo when the first demonstrations against the regime of president Assad started. ‘I was pleased. I have always despised him.’
In secret, he and other young soldiers kept track of developments. Mohammed was in luck. He was sent to the Lebanese border, not to fight, but to teach English to the son of a general. While on leave in Damascus, he watched the revolution grow. Together with a fellow comrade-in-arms he decided to defect and join the rebels of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. Soon, the former tutor of the general’s son was firing a Kalashnikov at the soldiers of the regime.
Click on the arrows next to the photo to track Mohammad’s journey on the map
‘I hate weapons. I don’t like to shoot’, Mohammed says. The first time, the adrenalin buzz literally made him tremble. However, the nerves and fear soon dissolved. Mohammed’s aim is perfect, he doesn’t waste much ammunition.
Again he takes out his mobile phone to show some photos of himself as a fighter of the Free Syrian Army, with a beard and a gun. The man now sitting here is hardly recognizable.
Mohammed shares some of his experiences, such as when he was involved in a shootout with Assad’s troops that took days. It was war in all its madness. Mohammed saw young boys dying in front of his eyes. A friend went to wash himself in the river when a grenade exploded. He was split into two. Mohammed will never be able to erase the horrible image from his mind.
"I feel guilty. I’m not doing anything here and I’m letting my people down."
Mohammed counts the hours in Turkey. He cannot endure it any longer. He feels guilty towards his comrades who are still fighting, often with their backs against the wall now that the Syrian army is gaining ground again. Mohammed: ‘I’m not doing anything here and I’m letting my people down.’
In two days, he is going back. Back to his family in Syria and to his wife, who is expecting his child. ‘I think I will have to fight again. The country needs me now. Only recently, the army massacred an entire village. People were thrown into a well alive. It is not just the army, but also those radical islamic groups such as Islamic State. They are even worse: they cut off heads and impale them on poles by the side of the road.’ Mohammed keeps silent for a moment and sighs. It is very dark in his country.
His dream of Europe? It has evaporated. Mohammed longs for a peaceful future in Syria, so he can go back to teaching. To secondary school students, to children in Damascus. How long that might take? He doesn’t dare to say. Five years? Thirty years?
The sun is blazing down; dust is blowing in the wind. It is quiet in the village, 30 kilometres outside the Jordanian capital of Amman. The heat and the Ramadan are keeping people inside. Not that there is much happening anyway in this sandy place. Mohammed steps out from one of the houses. ‘Good morning’, he says in Dutch. His hard practice resounds in his words. It is the first time 42-year old Mohammed can put into practice his Dutch lessons of the past months.
The living room is empty. Carpet on the floor, cushions against the walls. His daughter Rawaa (6) extends her hand in greeting: ‘Good morning.’ – again in Dutch. His youngest son Majed (2) enters yawning.
Mohammed starts his story. About his life in Syria, in Dara. He worked as an ambulance driver for thirteen years. The revolution made his job dangerous. Every day, he had to duck the bullets coming from everywhere. Literally. Soldiers from president Assad’s army would shoot at ambulance staff when they were taking a wounded civilian inside. Rebels would open fire when they were taking a soldier inside. One day, the ambulance itself was riddled with bullets. Three colleagues lost their lives. Mohammed decided to flee, to Jordan.
"My eldest wanted to use the toilet, but all I could say was: ‘Watch out, hide!"
His children were frightened of the daily bombings, of the airplanes flying above the house. Together with his wife, three sons (12, 9 and 2 years old) and daughter, he came to Amman in 2012. Life in the Jordanian capital is expensive. There are hardly any jobs and no government support. But then they received a liberating phone call, the call that changed everything. The family is welcome to come to the Netherlands. ‘A gift from God.’
It ushered in a busy period: consultations with the UN refugee agency and the UNHCR, medical examinations and a Dutch integration course. Mohammed shows his homework. ‘How are you?’ it says in Dutch on the first page. And: ‘Nice weather today’.
The family will live in the town of Barneveld (central Netherlands). From a bag with the town logo, Mohammed produces a municipality guide and several promotional brochures, and a photo of his new house. He can already point it out on the map. He rubs his daughter’s hair. She will enrol in school in September; she already knows how to bicycle. The 14th of July is the big day: the day they are flying to Amsterdam.
Another photo of a Dutch house, on a table in a busy neighbourhood in Amman, some 40 kilometres away. It depicts a terraced house in Oosterhout (a town in southern Netherlands). Mohammed smiles proudly. This is where he, his wife and four children – Omar (14), Yasmin (7), Mais (5), and Melek (1) – will live. Mohammed, headmaster of a village school near Dara, is grateful to the Netherlands. He wants the Dutch to know that Syrians are civilised people. He has never even touched a weapon.
In 2011, at the beginning of the revolution against the rule of president Assad, Mohammed (42) was arrested during a peaceful protest in Dara. All of a sudden, the army intervened violently; twenty people died. Mohammed was incarcerated for four months. A living hell. He bares his back. Soldiers wrote ‘2011’ on his back with so-called firewater. You can clearly make out the Arabic numbers from the scars. For months, he was tortured. He was allowed to use the toilet twice a day. There were no showers. Ten people would hold and kick him. He was subjected to electroshock and many other horrors. His damaged body is a daily reminder of the torture.
Every day, soldiers would dump bodies on the square in Dara.
Mohammed wanted to die. In September 2011, he was suddenly released. He weighed a mere 35 kilos. His wife had suffered terrible fears. Every day, soldiers would dump bodies on the square in Dara. Prisoners tortured to death, to be picked up by their relatives. Each time his wife was terrified she would find Mohammed. But her husband came home. Broken, but alive.
Two months later, Mohammed decided to flee to Jordan. He crossed the border illegally, followed by his wife and children the following month. Nightmares still haunt him. At the same time, he is dreaming of a new life in the Netherlands, in Oosterhout. Perhaps he can retrain, become an electrician. His eldest son wants to become a football player and watches every Dutch World Cup match. The boy grabs his mobile phone to show a photo of the Dutch king Willem-Alexander and his wife Máxima, decked out in orange.
Hyam lives on the other side of Amman. She is four, has jet-black hair and big eyes. She is the daughter of Ahlam (28) and Bassam (32). They don’t have their own house. They are currently living with family. The rents are too high and they don’t have any income.
They will also be moving to Oosterhout. Hyam’s mother hopes the move will do her daughter good. The little girl still suffers panic attacks. The explosions, the shootings – it was the reason the family fled from Syria, on doctor’s orders. Each time, the fear literally took Hyam’s breath away and left her desperate for oxygen. She still crawls away into a corner and loses her breath when she hears loud sounds.
Ahlam, an English teacher in Syria, hopes Hyam will grow up to be a normal child in the Netherlands. She has experienced more than enough misery. Soon, Hyam will enrol in primary school in Oosterhout. Ahlam can only hope she will get used to things quickly. Her daughter is very withdrawn and prefers to play by herself.
Every day, the family rehearses Dutch vocabulary. Pronouncing the Dutch ‘u’ (the formal ‘you’) proves difficult. ‘How are you? Do you have children?’ Ahlam takes pride in articulating well. Her knowledge of English will be of help. The grammar is similar to Dutch. One day, she hopes to be back in the classroom, teaching.
It is the worst accident between Turkey and Greece to date. On 6 September 2012, 61 refugees – most of them Syrians - lost their lives on the way to Europe. Alan Ramadan lost everything.
“We’re going on board shortly. May Allah be with us.” It was the last text message Alan Ramadan in Damascus received from his wife Lemis, from Turkey. Together with their son Ahmed (12) and daughter Raneem (10) she was on her way to Europe. On her way to a normal life.
Alan Ramadan with his daughter Raneem (l), his wife Lemis and son Ahmed (r).
It is a dream shared by all migrants en route to Europe. ‘From Izmir they would set sail to France and from there travel onwards to Sweden’, says 42-year old Alan. That is what the Syrian Kurdish trafficker in Istanbul had promised them. The costs: 15,000 euros. A significant amount of money; the family had had to sell their house in Damascus. The smuggler was paid part of his fee before they left Turkey, the rest would follow upon arrival in Stockholm.
Right after his wife’s message Alan receives a phone call, from Turkey. A man warns him. His wife and children must on no account board the ship. The smuggler is a crook, the ship is faulty. Alan immediately calls his wife, but to no avail, the line is dead. His panic grows. This is going horribly wrong. He calls the smuggler: "Keep the money, but don’t take my wife and children", he begs of him. But Alan is too late. The ship has left.
‘Keep the money, but don’t take my wife and children’ he begs.
Alan bends his head. The memory of that day hurts. The next morning he watches a breaking news item on TV: a boat full of Syrian refugees has sunk in the Aegean Sea. 61 dead.
Soon after, the phone rings and Alan’s worst fears come true. His wife and children were on board. Alan collapses and is taken to hospital.
The coffins containing the bodies of Lemis, Ahmed, and Rameen.
His younger brother is in Turkey and immediately leaves for Izmir. Once there, he has to identify his sister-in-law, nephew and niece. He recognizes them instantly. His sister-in-law is still holding her daughter in her arms. His nephew has a severe head wound. Broken-hearted, he phones his brother in Damascus.
Only on 14 September, 8 days after the accident, do the bodies of the drowned refugees arrive in their Kurdish village in Syria. Many villagers lost their lives in the accident.
Alan shows a film recording of the funeral on his cell phone. An expectant crowd, a long procession. People are carrying portraits of the deceased with them, including photos of Ahmed and Raneem.
Alan rubs his face. He tells his story in Gavle, Sweden. He is a broken man. Europe has brought him nothing, he says. "I lost everything. Every day new people get on board these boats to die a meaningless death."
The graveyard in Syria where Lemis, Ahmed and Rameen have been buried.
He describes his past life in Syria, talking about his work as a bus driver for a school. About his son, who could read out so well and even gave a speech once on television. His sweet daughter and how he can still hear her voice. How happy they were.
But the advent of revolution quickly changed life in Damascus. "Protests everywhere, the army intervening ever more harshly, the dead." Alan was involved in the ‘resistance’. He hid activists in the unoccupied villa of the rector of his school. Risking his life, he would smuggle people right across Damascus. His wife would take care of food. The situation became more and more dangerous. Lemis could not take it anymore and wanted to leave, with the children. Alan did not want to come along. He was hoping the situation in Damascus would improve soon. He hadn’t lost hope just yet. "But my wife had. At the time, I thought they would be able to return home soon."
Once in Istanbul, Lemis started talking about a journey to Europe. She was dreaming of a better future for the children. In September, the time had come. Alan’s family took a bus from Istanbul to Izmir and went on board for the first time. The trafficker had promised them a ‘tourist boat’ with just 35 passengers. It was far from the truth. The old boat was chock-full.
On the short film that Alan shows of the rocking boat trip – someone shot it with his phone and put it on YouTube – his wife and children are clearly visible. "They were so frightened." But the Greek coast guard soon discovered the vessel. "They weren’t even on their way to Greece, but the Greeks 'pushed' the boat back to Turkey." Lemis immediately phoned her husband. Alan: "She was determined to try again soon."
How are anaesthetist Malek, former rebel Mohammed Nur and screenwriter Abedjoha?
Malek smiles less. The anaesthetist from Deir Ezzor has changed. Nearly a year ago in the Turkish border town of Edirne, he related his attempts to reach Europe. His shoulder had still been bruised from a run-in with the Bulgarian border patrol. He talked about his departure from the hospital in Syria where he had seen too many people die. About his wife he hadn’t seen for so long.
Despite the misery Malek could still smile. The doctor kept his hopes up. Everything would be fine. Now, ten months later, Malek is still in Turkey and he does not know what to do anymore. His wife is in Germany now. Like so many Syrian refugees, she travelled to Germany via Bulgaria. That was before the border controls were tightened. He was so happy when she was granted a residence permit. Full of hope, he went to the German consulate in Istanbul, only to be majorly disappointed. Germany will only consider an application for family reunification if Malek can provide his original marriage certificate. There is no other way to go about it. Malek does not understand. The marriage papers are in Syria, in Deir Ezzor, the city that has fallen prey to Islamic State. Their house is in ruins. ‘It is simply impossible to fetch those documents.’ Each day, Malek works in a textile factory. He irons, for less than 300 euros a month. Six days a week, ten hours a day. ‘Plenty of time to think.’
Almost three thousand kilometres away in Twello, the Netherlands, Abedjoha from Damascus is trying to build a new life. He is grateful to the Netherlands. He likes it here in the provincial village.
Abedjoha often thinks back to the horrific boat trip from Egypt to Italy, on a ship loaded to the brim with Syrian refugees. Never before had he been so afraid. But he made it and now he is vigorously studying Dutch. It is not easy; Dutch and Arabic have little in common. Abedjoha travels to the nearby town of Deventer for language lessons twice a week. One day he hopes to be able to write scripts, make films, as was his dream before the war.
'Abedjoha feels guilty and powerless.'
Back in Damascus, he used to do everything at once. Here in the Netherlands, Abedjoha worries too much. He is concerned about his two sisters and their families, who are still in Syria. His aunt Samira interprets for him: ‘He feels guilty and powerless. There is nothing he can do for them. Luckily his parents are safe, in Egypt.’ She is not really a family member, but Syrian Samira has been taking care of Abedjoha since his arrival in the Netherlands. ‘It is not easy for him. With no job he has lots of time to worry.’
Mohammed Nur with his wife and daughter Sara.
Time. To Mohammed Nur it all seems so long ago. The time before the war, when he worked as a teacher in Damascus. During the war, when he fought with the Free Syrian Army and would walk around with a gun every day. It is less than a year ago. After his brother was shot dead by jihadists, his mother and wife forced him to quit fighting. It was difficult. It felt like betraying his country and comrades.
Now he is trying to build a life in Turkey. In Gaziantep, not far from the Syrian border. It is all but easy. He spent a long time looking for work and a place to live, under mounting pressure: his pregnant wife wanted to come to Turkey. He just had to succeed. ‘I am grateful to Turkey, but many Turks treat us as second-rate people.’ He was lucky and found a job as the concierge of an apartment building owned by a Syrian entrepreneur. It comes with room and board. His daughter Sara was born in August. ‘The most wonderful thing that happened this year. We are over the moon with her.’
He does not dare dream about Syria anymore. ‘I just want peace, that’s all I wish for. Then, I can return to teach and study, and Sara can grow up in a Syria without war.’
Fortress Europe is a De Persdienst (Wegener Media B.V.) production.
Text and research: Jessica Maas
Coordination and Internet: Peter Schong
Graphic design: Jos Diender, Mark Reijntjens, Ruud Willems
Foreign editor: Bob van Huët
Photography: Yoram van de Velde (Turkey, Jordan, Netherlands), Georgi Kozhuharov (Bulgaria), Hollandse Hoogte, Thinkstock
Video: Agata Skowronek, Jessica Maas, Rafik Koushna, Daniela Campo
Editor: Marcha van Schijndel, Mo Prins
Translation: Marjanne de Haan
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