Escaping Syrian Turmoil In Europe

25 minutes ago

In the wake of Greece’s Defense Minister threatening to flood Germany with a “wave of millions of economic migrants” including “some jihadis of the Islamic State” I sat down with a Syrian refugee who had been smuggled into Greece to understand how and why a record number of people are trying to make the journey between the two countries.

I met Ahmed at a former hospital-turned-refugee center where he is living, about an hour outside Berlin. As he told me, he left Syria after his niece was detained for protesting at the start of the revolution. The authorities denied having her in custody, but after a video of her arrest was broadcast on international news channels she was subsequently released. His family lived close to Bashar al-Assad’s neighborhood in Damascus, under constant surveillance, and before long his relatives were all being rounded up for questioning, which he feared might invite a ghastly end... “They are not human,” he said of the regime’s security agents.

Near the end of 2011, he fled with his wife and kids to Jordan to wait out the revolution, expecting it would take only a matter of months, like in Libya and Egypt. Over the next few years, he watched from a distance as Syria fell apart. “When someone, they have raped his wife or his daughter in front of him, you convert that normal man to a devil,” he said. Brutality begets brutality.

Dividing to rule, Assad fomented sectarian strife, giving rise to a common enemy in his battle against the Free Syrian Army: the Islamic State. Ahmed, a Sunni, considers the extremist group an ally of the regime. “Finally, in the night, ISIS and Bashar al-Assad, they are the same,” he said. Foreign fighters streamed in, and the country became a patchwork of checkpoints manned by the competing factions. “There is no gray-- white or black. And the white is not white and the black is not black.”

>A gemologist who had worked abroad in the region for years, Ahmed landed a job offer in Dubai. But his visa application there was denied, as it was in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. With his savings running out, he decided he would try to make his way to Europe— either Germany or the Netherlands.

Friends who had already made the journey connected him with a smuggler in Turkey, who showed him the route from a border town through the forest into Greece. He set off at night. It took him six hours on foot, then two buses to reach Athens. There he retrieved the cash he had deposited with a money transfer service and spent a week shopping around for a new smuggler to get him out of Greece. One offered a route to Germany through Paris, another via Italy, another Spain. But Ahmed met many people languishing in Greece who had been trying to reach northern Europe for years but kept getting caught.

Although 26 European countries have eliminated internal border controls to encourage the freer movement of goods and people, an EU regulation allows asylum seekers to be returned to the country where they first entered Europe, most often Greece—a country where chronic delays in asylum application process are the norm. Estimates put the number of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece at around one million, nearly ten percent of the population.

In the end, Ahmed found a smuggler who could make forged travel documents. Ahmed asked for details, but the smuggler refused to divulge anything until the ride to the airport two days later. In the car, the smuggler handed him an official-looking Italian I.D. card and introduced him to two other Arab clients who would be trying to make it on a flight to Rome along with him.

Both had darker complexions than Ahmed and were caught before they could board the flight. They claimed to be Syrians and were released on a note of encouragement: “better luck next time, try again tomorrow” (Ahmed says he’s met Algerians and Egyptians pretending to be Syrian because people empathize with Syria’s plight).

Once he landed in Rome, Ahmed called the smuggler, who asked him where he wanted to go next. Frankfurt, Ahmed said. But there were no available flights. The smuggler booked him a flight to Berlin and Ahmed landed that evening at Tegel airport. As instructed, he destroyed his forged documents, presented his Syrian passport at the police station, and told them he wanted to apply for asylum.

“This is the first time in my life I did crime,” Ahmed told me. “But life is precious. I should do something to protect my life, my family’s life.”

In the months since, he has been granted the right to work in Germany for three years and devoted himself to learning the language, working as a volunteer at the agency that runs the refugee center. He’s currently looking forward to reuniting with his wife and kids, who have applied with the German embassy in Jordan.

William Wheeler reports on immigration as a 2014-2015 German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.