On a perilious journey to Europe

Posted on 02.03.2015.

More than 87,000 people entered Italy by boat in the first seven months of 2014. A high number, it equals approximately the number of inhabitants of the German city of Schwerin. An abstract number that one can easily get upset about. A high number – incredibly high – of people that left their home countries via sea. Sometimes, on TV or on photos, we see a few of the faces that belong to these numbers. For a few seconds, their facial expressions, their gazes allow us to perceive a vague impression of what they have gone through. Like sidelights they disappear quickly again from sight and remain what they have been before: nameless numbers. Yet, there is a face and a unique story behind each number. [b]Memories of a past life[/b] Ahmad and Dana, these are the names of two out of 500 refugees that were rescued off the Sicilian coast on June 17, 2014 after a 15-days-lasting trip. They want to tell their story, a part of their story – about the journey of their lives from Syria to Europe. Eight months after their arrival, the couple and their six-year-old son live in a German refugee home. The walls are bare, there are neither photos nor paintings on the walls. The furniture could be found in any guest house. Nothing in this room reveals anything about the people that live in it as they have lost everything. The only remaining memories, a few photos of their past are saved on a Samsung smartphone. The couple has deleted many pictures, the burden of memory weighs heavy. Their son Samir, three years at that time, can be seen on one of the pictures. He is wearing a suit, he smiles. “This was our house”, says Ahamd, 35. To protect their families in Syria, they do not want to see their family name, picture and current place of residence published. Ahmad speaks English, his wife Dana, 25, understands English, but hardly speaks any. He tells most parts of the story and translates from Arabic whenever she speaks. “We had just finished the construction works when a bomb hit our house”, he points at the detail of the photo where his son is standing. It was located in the outskirts of Damascus. In fear of more bombs, they escape and stay with Ahamd's parents. They only take along some clothes and important documents. Before the war started, Ahmad used to work in a garage, now he repairs cars on the streets. He earns enough to sustain is family and soon after their escape they can afford to stay in a flat on their own. They feel quite safe. As a young man, Ahmad had done military service and worked in the security service, but had avoided to take sides ever since. In 2012, Assad's army wanted to recruit him. “For me there is no difference between Syrians, I cannot kill my fellow country men whether they are rebels or not.” Objecting to the join the military service, he would be severely punished, it might cost him his life. He sells his cars and flees to Egypt with his wife and child. He promises his father to bring him to Egypt as soon as he earned enough money in Egypt to pay for the journey. In 2013, conflicts in Egypt rose and following the overthrow of President Morsi, life becomes difficult for Syrians residing in Egypt. The borders are being closed, Ahmad cannot send money to Syria anymore, he and Dana do not get permanent residency. [b]Travel preparations[/b] A friend had told them about life in Europe and Ahmad and Dana decide to move even further away from their home. “I was afraid of the sea, but the man who organized everything for us, calmed us. The ship was safe, we should enjoy the trip. There would be good food and in abundance”, says Dana. They talked to friends who were in Europe already, but they just talked about their new lives “as if that trip did not exist.” The calls to Europe were expansive, that's why they did not inquire in depth about the trip laying ahead of them. Ahmad pays the trafficker with the money he has earned in the meantime in Egypt. 5,000 US-Dollars for the trip, additional 500 US-Dollars for three life vests. They would be deposited for them in their cabin, the man said whose real name they do not know. They look at each other and laugh – about their own naivety. The family stays in a hotel in Alexandria. Every day, they have to be ready at six o' clock in the morning, it could be any day from now. A second set of clothes and some food, that is all they are allowed to take along. One day, they are transported to a hall where they wait for hours with 400 other people. Nobody answers their questions. At the end of the day, they are driven back to the hotel. The next day, they have to enter a bus again, after a two-hour drive they wait all day before being brought back to the hotel. Ahmad and Dana are unsatisfied and anxious. Ahmad tells one of the watchman that they want to go home to Syria instead of going to Europe. But there is no turning back anymore. The armed men make it unequivocally clear that they have to enter the boat – whether they want it or not. [b]On the high seas[/b] They finally leave the next day. They are driven to the beach, small boats of the size of rowing boats are waiting for them. Thirty persons are squeezed on each boat. “There were only families, we were all afraid for our children. I asked for the life vests, but I was told we would only go a very short distance on this small boat and then change to another bigger boat. The life vests had been placed there.” The boat protruded only a few inches above the water, Dana says and shows it with her hand's breadth. The sea is not calm, water swills aboard. Moreover, the boat is leaking. Desperately, they use cups and mugs to scoop water from the boat. Even the smallest children feel the danger. “Dad, why did you bring me here, a crying little boy asked,” Ahmad remembers. He makes Samir sit between his legs, protecting him with his arms. After a while, the overtired child falls asleep. An hour later, they finally see a big boat. It is not the kind of boat they were expecting: what they see in front of them is a dirty ship with a shelter but no cabins. Some hours later, they have to change again to a much smaller boat. It is about 20 meters long and had two levels. Dana and Ahmad cannot find their life vest anywhere. For three days, they do not move at all, waiting for 200 people to join them. It is cold and stormy, Dana often gets seasick. Finally, the other boats arrive and with 300 people aboard they leave for Europe. There is not enough space below deck, only women and children are allowed to stay there. Nobody is allowed to take any pictures. Everything is strictly regulated, armed men enforce the implementation of the rules. Dana is having a skin infection, the blisters burst and become infected. Ahmad sees how is wife is becoming weaker every day, she hardly eats. There is hardly any food left anyway. Ahamd can get hold of a slice of bread, it's covered with green mold. Carefully, he had scratched off the mold, Ahmad explains and underlines his words with gestures, he roasted the bread on the fire and gave it to Dana. She felt slightly better after having eaten the bread and accompanies him to go outside to get some fresh air. She sees what she has just eaten and feels disgusted, but hunger forces them to eat what is left. Every day, the portions become smaller, there is nothing left from what they had brought. Dana fetches a cereal bowl, eight people were supposed to share a bowl of rice of this size. “You had to eat quickly, you were not supposed to turn around or get distracted, otherwise someone would have eaten your portion.” Though they were desperate, there was laughter on the ship. “We remembered our old lives and how ridiculous it was that we were fighting over a spoon full of rice. Most of us were families from Syria, we were doing well before the war started.” After a week, there is no food left, drinking water is becoming scarce. Every passenger receives approximately 100 ml per day, just enough to stay alive. Some could not stand it and started drinking sea water. Aboard is a net, they use it to catch some fish. Most of the times, they only find octopus in the net, they taste like rubber, but they have no choice. Three doctors are aboard of their ship, one of them gives some medication to Dana and her skin rashes improve. Yet, eight days without food and insufficient drinking water are still ahead of them that will totally exhaust them. [b]Fighting among the traffickers[/b] After ten days on the sea, the boat stops running for an entire day. Ahmad listens to a fight between the captain, the crew and the traffickers that communicate via satellite telephone with each other. “Another, less valuable boat was supposed to pick us up and bring us to Italy, as the Italian government confiscates every refugee boat that reaches their coasts. Out boat was still too valuable to be taken out of service and should go back to Egypt, but the group was quarreling. No boat had been sent from Italy and our captain threatened to throw everyone overboard and go back to Egypt if no boat was sent within two days. We were all very weak, but I mobilized all men on the ship to fight in case they would try to kill us.” The next day, they see a boat, a much smaller wooden boat, 200 people are already on it. There is still some drinking water left, every passenger on Ahmad's and Dana's boat gets a sip. Then, they have to change boats. So far, nobody has died, but many are too weak to climb from one boat to the other. Dana faints and is thrown to the wooden boat in the midst of high waves. “Dana was flying”, Ahmad laughs loudly, Dana joins in. It's an outburst of incredulous laughter that they actually experienced and survived all of this, that they did not wake up at some point, knowing it was just a very bad dream. [b]“We prayed to God that we may die.”[/b] It was his sense of responsibility for his family that kept him alive, says Ahmad, and feelings of guilt that he had got his family into danger. “Many considered the thought to jump overboard and die. Nobody did – how could we leave our women and children behind? But we prayed every day that we may die, so we did not have to live yet another day.” Their journey finally ends after 15 days, an Italian rescue ship takes on board all 500 passengers. Only an old lady has to be reanimated, Ahmad and Dana lost track of her after she was brought to the hospital. Still on board of their ship they receive food and something to drink – the best meal of their life and well-needed to accomplish the climb to yet another boat. They switch on their smartphone on the rescue boat and take pictures. One can see exhausted people, sitting on the ground, too weak to stand on their feet. Samir and other children is on another one. He smiles. He is not suffering from nightmares, his parents say. All adults had tried cover up the danger and organized games for the children. “I tried to make this trip an adventure for my son. We often watched the dolphins and other sea animals. We envisaged all we would eat once we arrived. He wanted Pizza, a Hamburger and ice cream – these were the first things I got him when we arrived in Italy. Till today, he talks about the dolphins.” [b]A new beginning in Germany[/b] They do not reveal anything on how they deal with that experience. Several times they say how cruel and painful it is to be hungry. They now appreciate it to have enough food. Unlike many others, they do not want to remain silent about the hardships of coming to Europe. They tell other Syrians how badly they were treated and what some people are willing to do to others for money. “With my knowledge of today, I would have rather gone to prison in Syria and would not have endangered my wife's and son's safety and health”, Ahmad explains. He shows more pictures on his smartphone. Pictures of his father, of his family, of his friends that he has not seen for almost three years. Before the war started, he had saved about 100 phone numbers in his phone, today only half of them is still alive. Dana's mother is deaf, they can only communicate via sign language, but neither she nor Dana are able to connect to Skype. Tears come to Ahmad's eyes, his gaze wanders to the window. Once he regained his courage, he talks about the future. He had wanted to come to Germany because he wants to be a mechanic at Mercedes. In Syria, he often repaired cars of that brand and knows them well. Dana is pregnant with their second child, they want to give their children the chance to have a good future. One day, when there is peace in Syria again, they want to go back to their home country. To make sure that Samir does not lose his roots, they talk at least once per week to Ahmad's parents and other relatives. Recently, they were given residency in Germany, they want to participate in language classes and Ahmad hopes to get a work permission soon. Until they have found an apartment on their own, they have to share their kitchen and bathroom with other refugee families. People that have different cultural backgrounds, that speak other languages than they do and that have other values. She is looking forward to having her own kitchen, that will still be as clean as she left it when she comes back, Dana says. But they are grateful that they are still alive, living a life without constant threats to their lives. They built a snowman the day before. They took a picture of the snowman – the beginning of a new series of pictures.


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