The events in this article took place in the first two weeks of August 2015
This is the story of a Syrian family’s journey to freedom in Europe and the small part I played in helping them. Along the way I saw and learnt a lot about what refugees face as they escape from war-torn countries and political oppression.
Fadl and his family were introduced to me through Muhannad, a mutual friend. He asked me if I would be prepared to help Fadl and his family get from Greece to a particular European country. After some consideration, I decided to try and help them. The family is from the Aleppo region of Syria and before the war they had their own restaurant, they were a middle class family. His wife Majelina, who had to stay behind to look after ageing grandparents, was a university professor of English literature. Then, because of the war and ISIS (daesh) they had to leave it all behind. There was no future for them in Turkey, where finding work is extremely difficult, the only option left was to try and go to Europe. Along with Fadl was his mother in law, his niece and nephew. Forgive me for not giving their names but I think you can understand why.
The family had crossed from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos by a small boat run by Turkish people smugglers. They were charged 3000 euro per person for the crossing and the boat was cram packed with refugees, dangerously so. After being processed in Kos they were free to go, they made their way to Athens, which is where I met them.
The night before leaving Athens I wanted to see if I could find where Syrians socialize, I was directed to the Albasha Syrian Café. The place was packed with Syrians, drinking tea and smoking shisha. I’m sat outside drinking tea, watching the world go by, I was the only non Syrian in the place but everybody was polite to this stranger. There was a constant stream of fresh Syrian arrivals from Kos making their way along the road, it seems this is the area of the city they head to and can find somewhere to sleep. In fact, the owner of the café would often direct groups of new arrivals to where they could find a place for the night. All of a sudden, 4 police motorbikes arrived, lights flashing and the atmosphere became extremely tense. Not having any idea what would happen next I just sat there and watched, half expecting the police to come and check everybody’s documents. Instead they waited on the other side of the road about 20 metres down from the café and soon all became clear. Two big buses arrived and needed to turn off the road and through some gates, the police were there to control the traffic. When the buses arrived almost everybody in the café got up and headed toward them. The buses were for the Syrians, to take them north to the border with Macedonia and the Greek police were helping them on their way. At this point, I understood the Greek authorities know the Syrians don’t want to stay in their country and only use it for transit and so helps them on the next stage of their journey. Another thing I noticed was the person who was obviously in charge of the buses, he was Greek, not Syrian. He was another person in the chain of those who are making a fortune from Syrians as they head north. The Greeks want the Syrians out but they are also making a fortune in the process of sending them on their way. It is a mafia.
In the morning, we set off and the drive to the Macedonian border was uneventful. When we arrived close to the border the family got out of the car and had to walk across country for about 2km to our rendezvous point on the other side. After leaving them, I drove across the border and waited, and waited, nothing. I had shown them very clearly on the map where we were to meet. After 2 hours I decided to drive into the small town of Gevgelija, Driving around, I saw the train station was teaming with refugees, I was sure the family must be there but so were the police. I didn’t dare stop, it would look too suspicious, a foreign car in a poor area of a small town full of refugees, the police would be certain to ask me questions. So I turned around and drove off for a while hoping the police would be gone by my next attempt. After an hour I tried again, back to the train station, this time no police, my sense of relief was palpable and there they were waving at me from the side of the road. After getting in the car we drove off, heading ever northwards. To be honest, I was annoyed, we had lost valuable time because they hadn’t followed instructions, instructions which were for their safety as well as for mine. Because other refugees were crossing the border using the same route they had followed them and ignored everything I had said. There seems to be something in the Syrian mentality which I had not noticed before, they stick together and follow the group, but they don’t realize that the group offers them no real protection, not in a situation like this, not when I’m already there to help them. It didn’t help that Fadl’s phone battery had also died and been unable to contact me. At the next border I made sure he had my spare battery pack. I couldn’t risk losing them again for such a stupid reason.
The drive through Macedonia towards Serbia was simple but I was tired from driving and wanted to stop for the night. There was a hotel near the border with Serbia in Tabanovtse but we couldn’t stay, the hotel didn’t want Syrians staying unless they had a transit visa from the Macedonian police which gives them 72 hours to pass through the country, so we had to push on. I turned off the highway at the last point before border control, other Syrians were there, preparing to walk across country into Serbia. We arranged to meet in the Serb town of Preshevo, this time it was a longer walk, about 8km and it was starting to get dark. I crossed the border and drove to Preshevo, the place was absolutely packed with refugees, not only Syrian but also Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis. There must have been at least a thousand of them but despite all this the atmosphere in the town was relaxed. In many ways I think the local economy must be booming. Before travelling, many refugees make sure they have enough money for the journey and they spend it as they go, they need food and water. One shop keeper, who spoke a little English, said “no problem, they don’t steal, they pay for everything, the only problem is the mess”, finding a place to go to the toilet and wash is very difficult and litter just gets dumped. However, a thousand new refugees arriving every day brings in money, while the arrivals from the previous day move on. Watching the police was interesting, they weren’t making problems for any of the refugees and looked very relaxed. In Preshevo is a train and bus station, from here they can head north to the border with Hungary. This is where things got ugly. This is where I thought I had lost the family.
A relative of the family had crossed the border into Hungary from the Serb town of Horgos a couple of days previously and sent us a map showing his exact route but to be honest I had misgivings about the family making the crossing from here from the moment I saw the situation. The terrain was not in their favour but it is used by many refugees because this is where the buses bring them and there must be at least a dozen buses arriving every day. On the other side of the border in Hungary is the village of Roszke which has a train station, from there refugees try to get on trains to the north. We arrived in Horgos and were taking a drive around to look at the situation, the sun was close to setting, little did I know how long that night would be. Fadl stopped to talk to some of the many Syrians for information but I had the impression that they didn’t really know what they are doing, trying to succeed only through sheer weight of numbers. Suddenly, we saw Serbian police loading Syrians into vans, no friendly smiles here, we had driven into the middle of a police operation, which also seemed to be coordinated with the Hungarian police as later became apparent. Turning around, I drove back to a quieter area and told the family as strongly as possible that trying to cross the border tonight was a bad idea and that I really didn’t like the location. But Fadl’s mother in law, who is as stubborn as a mule was determined to make the crossing, now or never. When she got out of the car and started walking to join another group of Syrians who were about to attempt the crossing, the rest of the family had no choice but to follow her, I could see disaster looming. Again the herd instinct kicks in and because they see a large group they think they must be doing the right thing. What could I do? I was tired from 12 hours of driving, I wanted to take them to another area of the border which was quieter, a place where the buses didn’t drop off the refugees, where the police would not be expecting them. In Horos, hundreds of refugees arrive every day, of course the police are ready for them, what do they expect! But the herd instinct seems to overwhelm them and they are blinded by the all consuming desire to cross the border. To be honest, it reminded me of the migration of wildebeest when they have to cross the river and the crocodiles are waiting for them, they just go, taking their chance in weight of numbers. There didn’t seem to be any real logical process to what they were doing. And here we were, having arrived the night the police had decided to put on a massive operation to stop and capture as many refugees as possible. It was madness and I have to be honest I was very annoyed and part of me thought they deserved to be captured for being so stupid. The tiredness didn’t help my mood either.
As they were getting out of the car Fadl gave me his money to look after, some 900 euro, he thought the police might steal it if they caught him, but if they caught him I would never be able to give his money back and told him to keep it, plus he might need it for an emergency. That was a crucial moment, if he had left his money with me their story would not have ended well.
They started walking at about 20:30, the sun had set and they were walking into the unknown with another group of Syrians. We had agreed that I would wait on the Serbian side of the border until they had crossed, with the police operation they might have had to turn back. I got a message at midnight that they were “Go” and would send me GPS coordinates of where to find them when they had found a safe place to wait. Then we go dark, no more communication. It is my turn to cross the border into Hungary and I have to be honest I was nervous, not only for them but also for me, I had all their baggage in the car which could raise some difficult questions. What I had not expected was the huge wait to cross the border, almost 2 hours, the Hungarians were searching all cars. There was a huge operation that night to stop refugees and I was in the middle of it. As I was waiting to cross into Hungary, one of the border guards was spot checking cars. I noticed that he was interested in me and watched in the mirror as he took a very roundabout route to come up to the back of my car. He tapped on the back of the car, my passport ready in hand was already out of the window waiting for him, he asked “what you do” I replied “what do I do or what am I doing?” It was enough to put him off balance, after a 2 second look in the back of the car he let me pass not realizing all the baggage belonged to the family.
Finally, I received a message with GPS coordinates of their location, so far so good, I took the first exit off the highway after the border crossing, they were close to an antenna with a flashing red light on top but it was in the middle of a field, no way to drive there. What to do? I had already been passed by 3 police vans, it was now 2 in the morning but the level of police activity was very high, they were everywhere. I waited until there was no traffic, stopped on the road parallel to the antenna which was about 300 metres away and put on my hazard lights, this was the agreed signal. I felt like an absolute sitting duck, just as the family also felt. I had thought about what to do if the police asked why I was stopped on the road, with this in mind, I was playing with the navigator on my phone when the police pulled up behind me. Keep calm Russ I said to myself, I told the police I was looking for a hotel after just crossing the border, I was tired and needed to sleep, it was true I was exhausted not that I would have been able to sleep with everything that was happening. The police seemed to accept this and said the nearest hotel was about 30 km away. Knowing there was no way I could now stay on that road and wait for the family, I drove back toward the highway where there was a fuel station and big car park. It was about 2km from the antenna. I sent them a message telling them there was no other choice, they had to get to the fuel station, easier said than done, the area was teaming with police. I was at that fuel station for nearly 2 hours. I honestly thought the family had been caught, even more so when I saw a large group of refugees walk out of the dark into the fuel station, seconds later 2 police vans came racing after them, it was bedlam, they started running in all directions, the police chasing after them, their sticks held above their heads to hit anybody who resisted. I didn’t see anybody get hit but the threat was there, some simply stopped running, they knew the game was up.
Then I got a message to say the family was coming in a taxi, WTF………….. This is where my insisting that Fadl took his money instead of leaving it with me paid off. They were captured by the police after leaving the antenna and the local police chief decided who could pass and who could not and that depended on money, 200 euro per person and the family was 4 so 800 euro, then the local taxi working with the police charged them 100 euro to drive them the short distance to the fuel station. I saw the taxi coming and followed it as it drove slowly past. As the taxi stopped I pulled parallel to it so they could get in directly, I had never seen them move so fast as they jumped into the car. Then we were out of there. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved the family were. Taking care to drive normally, we headed for the highway. The sky was beginning to get light, it had been a very long night.
We drove north, wanting as much distance between us and that border as possible. I had not slept all night but the adrenaline had helped keep me awake. With the adrenaline wearing off I had to stop, I was starting to fall asleep at the wheel. We found a resting place on the highway south of Budapest and slept for a couple of hours. After that we left Hungary, there were no more border controls, found a hotel and basically crashed for a few hours before having a really big dinner. The next day was relaxed and I was able to get them safely to their destination.
For the family, their journey had a happy ending but it is not so for millions of others who feel they have no choice but to flee their countries because of war or oppression. I know that Europe is not big enough to take everybody, it isn’t possible, but they are human beings like you and I and have the same right to a dignified life. The family I helped have relatives in Europe, Fadl has dreams of being able to start a small restaurant. His brother was shot by a Syrian sniper and leaves behind 3 young children in northern Syria, Fadl is sworn to do all he can to support them financially. His wife Majelina had to stay behind in Turkey to look after ageing grandparents but she looks forward to the time she can join her husband. Their story is no different to so many of others. They are flesh and blood with the same hopes, fears and emotions as anybody.