Three Wounded Syrian War Veterans Flee to Europe

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Oct. 10, 2015 - Sid, Serbia: More than ten thousands of refugees wait in huge queues fror 13 hours to one day, sufering in the cold and in the rain, in order to cross the borders from Serbia to Croatia. Half of the migrants are children. Fortunately, many volunteers have come to help the exhausted refugees psyclogically, offering them tea, blakets, clothes. (Maro Kouri)

The night they finally left for Europe, on October 4, Asem Hasna, Ahmad Orabi, and Deeb Al-Khateeb took a taxi from Izmir, Turkey, to a patch of forest overlooking the Aegean shore. The three men had each left $1,000 in escrow with a middleman back in town, who’d told them to go to the woods after midnight. This broker, who like the three travelers was Syrian, was in contact with Turkish human traffickers who were coming to meet them at midnight. The traffickers, who knew the local coastline, would show the way to a cove where a boat would be waiting.

The three friends waited at the handoff point, unsure who was coming for them. A tense hour passed. Hasna dialed the broker, who didn’t pick up.

On the fourth call he finally got hold of him but was only told to stay put and keep quiet. The wait was particularly difficult for Hasna and his friends. All three men, veterans of Syria’s civil war, have physical disabilities. Two years before, Orabi was blinded by a sniper. Around the same time, Hasna, 19 at the time, lost a leg. He had been serving as a medic with what he described as a neutral emergency response group. Though not sympathetic to the regime—his father would be arrested and held for months without charge—Hasna said, “I treated everybody. I saved the lives of many government soldiers.” His ambulance came under attack as he responded to a call, and an explosive took his left foot and most of the shin above it.

Al-Khateeb, 28, partially paralyzed from a gunshot wound, was the most anxious as they waited in the woods. Hasna could hear his breathing, heavy and irregular, he said earlier this month.

When the smuggler finally arrived, he was hard to see in the dark. Asem believed him to be armed but did not ask.

The smuggler told them not to use their phones or light cigarettes to avoid detection from other smuggling gangs or the police. The coast near Izmir is widely known for human trafficking, and rival trafficking gangs were rumored to have shootouts, Asem said. The Turkish coastal police were also heavily armed. “If [Turkish police] catch a smuggler, he will be done,” said Asem.

Soon, mercifully, a van carrying nine other refugees rolled out of the darkness, and the smuggler ordered Asem and his friends in. The van carried them about a mile and a half along a steep cliffside, where they were unloaded and led to a stand of trees beside a secluded, rocky cove. Among the trees were three more smugglers. These men were obviously armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles—Asem, Ahmad, and Deeb all know what those look like—and guarding 43 more people. Ten were small children, Asem recalled.

But surrounding them were armed men. The middleman had told Asem he could back out of the deal once he saw the boat. “But then he throws you in the middle of nowhere, some beach, and you hide in the forest surrounded by men with guns.” At that point, “going back is even more dangerous than going forward,” he said. “You think, ‘If I try to leave, maybe the bullet comes.’ ”

Once the boat was prepared, the Turkish traffickers announced they would not be piloting the boat. A Kurdish man, Asem judged by his accent, was designated to man the outboard motor. It seemed to be a deal arranged beforehand, but Asem couldn’t say for sure.

The Kurdish man received a half-hour’s instruction in operation of the vessel; then it was time for everyone to board.

“We left at 2:30 a.m.,” said Asem. “The smuggler said we’d be in the sea [during] daylight, but that was a lie.”

The quarter moon had risen but was low in the sky behind them. Asem, Ahmad, and Deeb; 42 other adults; eight toddlers; and two six-month-old infants set off in the dark. “We were lucky,” Asem said. “The water was calm that night.”

“In 2013 my father was arrested by the regime,” Asem recalled. “Then they started to look for me.”

Asem started working as a medic in 2012, shortly after protests against Syria’s government began to be violently repressed. With his father’s arrest the following year, he was forced to flee his hometown. He fetched up in opposition-controlled territory in southern Syria and resumed his paramedic work at a makeshift field hospital housed in an underground former vegetable warehouse.

Asem and colleagues were trying to reach two people wounded in a bombing when his ambulance was attacked. His wounds were life-threatening, and as soon as he was stable enough to travel he was transferred, via a network the opposition maintains for such purposes, to Jordan. “It was the nearest country from the town I was in,” he explained in fluent English. “I couldn’t go to Damascus” for fear of arrest.

First Asem stayed at a refugee camp just on the other side of the border. The severity of his injuries was too much for facilities there, however, and he was soon transferred to the capital, Amman, where he underwent a series of surgeries and, with the aid of crutches and a prosthetic lower leg, began walking again.

Later in 2013, Jordan began requiring all new arrivals from Syria to live in camps, but Asem, Ahmad, and Deeb, who met in Amman through mutual friends, were allowed to stay in Amman, where they continued to receive occasional care for their injuries. Starting in 2014, most of Asem’s time was spent undergoing surgery, recovering from surgery, and being fitted for his new leg. As he adapted to it, he became part of a rehabilitation program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, that trained him and 211 other Syrians to be prosthesis technicians, helping to provide new limbs for him and around 100 other war amputees. At the end of 2014, Asem found work with an NGO that trained them as technicians in 3-D printing.

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The jobs paid enough of a salary to begin saving money. The three injured friends had gone as far as the Jordanian health system could take them, and they had heard medical technology was better in Germany, particularly for prosthetics and partial paralysis. The idea took hold of making the dangerous trip to Europe, as hundreds of thousands were by then doing, often at great peril. It would be nearly a year before they saved enough for commercial flights to Turkey, the smuggler’s fee, and fares and tickets for the as-yet-unknown combination of buses, trains, ferries, and taxis they would take to Germany.

In the Amman airport, Asem was taken aside and questioned by a Jordanian official. Syrians in Jordan experienced harassment in many places they hadn’t expected it, he said; interactions with the police could be unpredictable. “They know you’re Syrian, and you know they know, but it’s like a game,” Asem said. He answered rote inquiries about the purpose of his trip. The man who had been ahead of him in the line, whom he didn’t know, was now off to the side, on the floor, being beaten by another Jordanian officer. “I was not scared,” Asem said. “But it is very strange; you are answering questions and see this happening right there.” After several long minutes, Asem was waved through to his flight.

Greece had become the preferred route for Syrians and others—more than 200,000 people would make the crossing in October alone, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. But the recent flood is really an expansion of a mass migration across the Mediterranean that started more than a decade ago from places including West Africa and Eritrea, now augmented by war refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

It would cost $2,000 each to get all the way to Germany, Asem estimated. But he had overcome financial challenges before. ”When I left Syria I only had my I.D., my phone, and $100,” he said. Now he had the money for a plane ticket out and the start of the journey north.

His father was incarcerated only six months, charged with working with the opposition—his son. He was punished for Asem’s work with the medical team, Asem believes. “Most of the people are arrested randomly,” he said. The other 59 people Asem’s father was arrested with were all executed in the jail. “I knew all of them. It is a small town.”

Many migrants and refugees are given a QR code when they pay for the crossing from Turkey to Greece. When they land safely, they call the middleman they paid for their crossing and provide the code; only then is the money released to the smuggler who arranged the journey. (Photo: Anonymous)

As the small, overloaded skiff neared Greek territory in the dark, the motor failed, leaving the 45 adults and 10 children at the mercy of the Aegean currents.

The Syrian go-between hadn’t paid the Turkish smugglers yet. When the three veterans paid him the $1,000 each for their crossing—migrants and refugees pay a range of fares to cross from Turkey to Greece, depending on the quality and hence safety of the vessel—the middleman handed Asem a slip of paper with a QR code. He told the men to scan it only after the crossing was complete and they were standing on Greek soil—and, crucially, within the borders of the European Union. “The Syrian guys just collect people and make the deal because it’s easier to communicate,” Hasna said. “Then they hand you to the Turkish guys.” When the Syrian middleman received the QR scan, that was his signal to release the payment to the Turkish smugglers, minus a small commission for himself.

A GPS and an iPhone app tracked an overloaded raft’s crossing from Turkey to Greece on the night of Oct. 4. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The illegal crossing would be tracked by friends in another boat, via the GPS on Asem’s cell phone, a separate GPS device, and location-sharing via Whatsapp—enabling those in the other boat (TakePart agreed not to identify them) to follow the raft’s progress and, in case of a problem, offering a slim hope of rescue.

The engine failure was soon apparent, and the second boat attempted to reach Asem’s. Time was short: If the already terrified, crammed-in passengers panicked and started moving from their seats, it could capsize the small vessel in open water, and there had been instances of larger refugee boats overrunning rafts in the dark, or overtipping them with their wake.

The smuggler throws you in the middle of nowhere, some beach, and you hide in the forest surrounded by men with guns.

Asem Hasna, 21, Syrian refugee

Finally, a lucky break: The engine coughed and roared back to life. Asem thinks the outboard motor, pushing a heavy load and operated by the inexperienced pilot, had overheated.

“It was the longest three hours of my life,” he said. “With three or four kilos of metal in my leg, I can’t swim.”

They reached shore as dawn broke. “It’s the most emotional moment in the whole trip,” Asem said. “Even more than arriving to Germany.” When everyone was ashore, he scanned the QR code and sent it to the Syrian middleman back in Izmir. “If you don’t die, you have three days to call or Whatsapp.” He didn’t want to wait, he was so excited, and he wanted to get the night’s terrifying experience with the smugglers and the waves behind him. “They said, ‘Did you arrive? Scan the receipt right now.’ ”

The transfer, $1,000 apiece, went through.

They were in Europe.

A rubber raft similar to the one Asem Hasna and 55 others traveled in on the night of Oct. 4. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The trio was housed in a U.N. refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos while they awaited permission to board a ferry to Athens. Children played among the tents. A camp administrator with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told one of the group that more than 4,000 people had arrived in Lesbos in just two days.

The three veterans would travel from Lesbos in a group including nine others: eight who had coordinated to meet up in Turkey and the girlfriend of the go-between who’d arranged the passage from Izmir. “You only travel with people you know. All of the people who were with us, they were from my town,” Asem said. (A Greek photojournalist, Maro Kouri made the trip with them.)

Moaead Arafa, left, and Ahmad Orabi, who is blind, in Athens, getting off the ferry from Lesbos. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The group was soon allowed to board a regular passenger ferry to Athens. It was a relief after the overloaded skiff just days before. “After you get to Greece, you feel 70 to 80 percent of the danger is behind you,” Asem said.

From Athens, they headed north on a bus through Macedonia and into Serbia. They had all seen news reports of border guards beating refugees at the border crossings ahead.

Hasna rests at the Evzoni refugee camp in Greece on Oct. 9, just before crossing to Gevegelija, Macedonia. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

“We were concerned, OK, but when we crossed from Macedonia and then to Serbia, some of the concern went away,” Asem said. “The border guards, with us, were really friendly.”

Local gangs were a different matter. Reports of kidnappings along the route were rampant, with men separating refugees from their traveling companions and ransoming them back. “Of course, you can’t trust anyone in these situations,” said Asem.

Hasna adjusts his prosthetic leg on a bus through Macedonia. As a medic in the Syrian civil war, he was wounded when an explosive struck his ambulance. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The buses were a private racket, operated by profiteers looking to benefit from the economy springing up around the sudden mass of people moving through the Balkans. “New job opportunities, you know?” joked Asem. “Thirty-five euros [each] for 10 people; bring 10 refugees, get one for free!”

There were also scams. “Others say you can pay 100 euros, and you don’t have to do the registration” required of refugees crossing intra-European borders. “But they are liars. If they catch you, you go back to the registration center, and you lose your 100 euros.”

The scene at the makeshift bus depot on the Serbian border was chaotic: Refugees negotiated prices with bus drivers while others kept an eye on the exhausted children among them. “There are all these buses, and all these guys, all of them really bad characters,” Asem said. It was hard to tell who was there to help them for a fee and who was hoping to prey on them.

At four in the morning, they made their deal with one of the drivers to cross Serbia. “Inside the bus, it’s warm,” said Asem. “For two or three days before that we didn’t sleep more than one or two hours, so when I arrive to the bus, I slept until 10 a.m.”

Families of refugees waiting to board a bus across Serbia late on an October night. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The bus journey of nearly 300 miles across Serbia was broken by stops for cigarettes and coffee, and talk sometimes turned to what they’d left behind.

The trees along the route reminded Asem of his family’s olive orchard in Syria, which had been with them for four generations. Soldiers from the regime army cut down the olive trees for firewood during the winter of 2012. His grandfather’s health deteriorated almost immediately, and permanently. When he died, Asem said, “he was destroyed. His father had planted those trees,” said Asem.

More than 10,000 refugees waited for more than 13 hours in the cold rain to cross the border from Sid, Serbia, to Croatia on Oct. 10. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

The worst night of the men’s migration came when they reached the Croatian border. Thousands of others were already there trying to cross. With fall rains beginning, a six-hour wait became a bone-chilling overnight campout, with only a thin plastic poncho, provided by an aid group, for shelter (some of the children got mylar blankets). Though they were allowed to enter Croatia, their movements were controlled; Croatian authorities boarded Asem and his friends, muddy and still cold, onto transportation to a refugee facility “in the middle of nowhere,” Asem said.

The rain continued through the next day, when they boarded a train to the Hungarian border and on to Austria. Nerves were fraying, but the group had hung together. “All the people are trying to stay with the people you can trust,” Asem said. Traveling with a number of people, he said, “was a really good advantage for us. If you are travelling alone, it is a really dangerous thing.”

In Austria, Asem received medical attention for his tiring leg and prosthetic. Ahmad and Deeb also saw doctors. “You can’t imagine what standing for seven hours means for a partially paralyzed guy or a blind guy or a guy with one leg,” Asem said.

Once in Croatia, Hasna received treatment from the Red Cross for his wounded leg. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

Austrian facilities were “five star” compared with the wet, muddy camps in Serbia and Croatia.

Bunk beds at a refugee camp in Austria.

After Asem’s group left the Austrian camp, a bus took them to the final crossing: the border with Germany, which they entered by walking across a bridge. Disembarking from the bus, they saw an enormous crowd waiting to cross. Most of the people were not from Syria. “After Athens we started to see [other] nationalities,” Asem said. “The Syrians were less than 30 percent” of the people he encountered, he estimated.

Migrants and refugees crossing the border from Austria to Germany at Passau on Oct. 13. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

Asem’s group split up in Germany, with Asem, Ahmad, and Deeb remaining in Berlin and the rest continuing on to Norway and Sweden. Germany only promises three years’ residency to refugees, he said, while the Scandinavian countries allow them to stay permanently. The veterans believe they will get better medical care in Germany. “I still need some surgeries on my leg,” Asem said.

The three young men have been placed in a small hotel in southeastern Berlin, where they are awaiting processing of their applications for refugee status. Meanwhile, they are in the care of the German social services system. “The government is paying for this, for our food, for everything,” Asem said. “We get health care; most things are covered, especially for our war injuries. We can go to school to learn German now that we have ID. The hotel we are in provides food, and we are getting 133 euros every month for transportation or something. It’s not that much but we are surviving. When we get our visa this amount of money will raise up and it will be maybe easier.”

Arafa, Orabi, Deeb Al-Khateeb, and Hasna on arrival in Berlin on Oct. 14. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

Asem is the only member of his family to make the journey to Europe. His two brothers, a sister, and his parents remain in Syria. He’s able to speak with them about once a week. “They are doing good—my town is good compared to other places,” he said. His hometown, which he preferred not to identify, has become a relative safe haven for internally displaced Syrians. “A lot of refugees from destroyed towns in Syria” have come in the last year, he said. “It’s really crowded now.” Once a town of 15,000, it is now home to 50,000, most displaced from areas closer to the front lines.

“Everything is really hard” there, he is told. “Getting food and water. Winter is coming—getting fuel is really hard for them.” His family is barred from leaving Syrian for as long as two years, owing to his father’s arrest, Asem said.

Meanwhile, the lives of Asem, Ahmad, and Deeb are taken up with bureaucracy—the cost of being new arrivals. On Nov. 24, Asem had to get up at 3 a.m. to head to the refugee assistance office and stand in line to renew his permission to stay in the hotel. He likes Berlin, he said, and is grateful for Germany’s hospitality. If it is approved, his asylum status will grant him residency and a right to work anywhere in the E.U. until 2018.

By that time, Asem said, he hopes Syria will be safe enough that he will be able to return home.

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Marc Herman
Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado, an account of his travels with gold prospectors in the Amazon forest, and The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on his reporting from the Libyan civil war. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Slate, Politico, Matter, the Believer, and GQ. A freelance reporter since 1993, he has lived in worked in Oakland, California, Georgetown, Guyana, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Barcelona, Spain, where he now lives with his family.