'Four years, no football, no dancing, no weddings': young Syrians fleeing home tell us their stories


LEROS, Greece—On a grey afternoon on an island off the western coast of Turkey, 23-year-old Hussein sat on a bench gazing out at the sea he had just crossed. In the tumultuous waters of the Mediterranean, 3,772 people like this young Syrian refugee died on that journey in 2015 trying to make their way to Europe from Turkey and North Africa.

“I don’t know how I did it,” he told me, half laughing, shaking his head. Hussein wore a hoodie, his curly brown hair held back from his face with a wire headband, a fashion choice that’s lead to some hassling from other Syrians along the way. “I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll wear what I want.”

With his wife and one-year-old daughter, he boarded a rubber dinghy in the Bodrum Peninsula with a few dozen others in hopes of finally reaching mainland Europe. It’s only an hour and a half or so across the sea, but sturdier boats have sunk in the notoriously turbulent waters. Right at the end, he told me, the group–which included Syrian men, women, and children of all ages and a father of four with only one arm—punctured their own raft and swam toward the shore as Greek guards shot rifles in the air and shouted for them to turn back. Hussein paddled for land holding his daughter aloft in one arm, his plastic-wrapped bundle of cash, passport, and cellphone in the other.

“The first hour is OK, and then you start to feel a little anxious,” he said. While he’s relieved to be in Europe, he told me he still won’t really sleep until he reaches Germany.

“Stay in Syria and wait for what, wait to be killed?” he said. “Not a difficult decision.”

Leros is an island with steep, dramatic hills scattered with buildings that are remnants of its ancient past. One pathway leads to a medieval castle, and every winding road overlooks a marina or a beach with translucent blue waters. Asylum seekers have arrived here by the thousands most weeks since last summer. The week I spent there in November was relatively quiet thanks to storms that put off even the hastiest people smugglers—but a few hundred people did arrive, with rain belting down and notoriously strong winds whipping around them. Hussein and the other young people I met (whose names have been changed) told me they had no choice.

“Stay in Syria and wait for what, wait to be killed?” he said. “Not a difficult decision.”

The refugee crisis gripping Europe and the Middle East reached a fever pitch in 2015. It felt as if each ship making its treacherous path across the Mediterranean was accompanied by one bleak image after another—of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed ashore in Turkey after the vessel carrying him and his family sank; of the Syrian father, running from Hungarian border police while holding his child, tripped by a television news camerawoman as he tried to escape; the countless photos of bleary-eyed people at border towns.

But as the weather cooled, so did compassion for their plight, and the dozens of journalists who descended on Leros, and its neighboring islands in the south-eastern Dodecanese of Greece, packed up and left. On a trip to the islands of Leros and Kos, I didn’t come across any international media. Thousands like Hussein are still arriving, still greeted by makeshift procedures put in place by NGOs and local governments, and constantly changing policies from European governments about who, and how many, will be allowed to move through Europe and find a place for a fresh start.

Last year, 856,723 asylum seekers arrived on the Greek islands. Of those, 91% were from the top 10 refugee-producing countries in the world. And 57% were from Syria. In the last four months, the numbers of arrivals have dropped from a peak of 10,000 on one day in late October to between 2,000 and 5,000 in Greece most days in December and January. There have already been 35,455 arrivals since the beginning of this year.

Leros has an island population of about 8,000; 30,983 people arrived by sea from Turkey in 2015 alone. That, roughly, is like the entire population of Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States, moving through a city the size of Seattle, the country’s 20th-largest.

The Syrians I spoke to had all passed through Turkey on their way to Europe. Some had stayed for days just to make arrangements with people smugglers for their crossing; others stayed for months working odd jobs to earn enough cash for the rest of their journey. “Turkey is not a place to stay,” Hussein told me. The trip from Turkey to Greece, a few hours in a rubber dinghy or a wooden boat, costs around $1,000 per person—a little less in a smaller dinghy, a little more in a sturdier boat if one is available.

Getting a complete picture of what Syrians fleeing to Europe are going through is challenging. That’s partly because so many are concerned about recrimination if they tell their stories—either against their families in Syria or themselves—somewhere along the route. And the sheer number of those crossing continents is hard to track.

Case in point: The first landing point for these Syrians is the Greek military island of Farmakonisi, where they’re held by the Greek government before being taken to Leros to be registered by police. Like so much of these refugees’ journeys, it’s hard to establish what exactly conditions are like on Farmakonisi (because of the lack of access for media and NGOs to the island), but the asylum seekers I spoke to said they’d been held there for between one and four days without adequate food, water, or shelter.

Getting a complete picture of what Syrians fleeing to Europe are going through is challenging. That’s partly because so many are concerned about recrimination if they tell their stories

But so far, agencies working in the region have been unable to confirm stories they have heard about conditions on the island. In my time in Leros, I heard plenty of these stories. Hussein told me that Greek soldiers tossed a packet of biscuits to around a hundred refugees, and that there were definitely not enough to go around. Another Syrian, 23-year-old Qasim, told me he and a few others had resorted to eating an octopus they caught in the waters off the island. Others said tanks of water intended for drinking contained layers of scum.

“It was a disaster,” said Fatima, 42, who told me she drank salty sea water because it seemed like the safer option. She was on Farmakonisi for two days. By the time she was taken to Leros on a dark, rainy night, all she wanted was something to eat, some water, and a shower, she said, but for others it was worse. Some said they were kept on Farmakonisi for up to five days, surviving off those meager biscuit rations they’d had thrown at them.

When the authorities move asylum seekers from the island to Leros, they’re taken on government ferries and then buses to what used to be a passenger shelter at the port. Under an awning that barely keeps the water out when it’s wet and stormy, asylum seekers with documents are fingerprinted and their passports taken by Greek police for registration before letting them move on through the EU.

Up until last year, any asylum seeker would be obliged to apply for refugee status in the nation where they arrived under the Dublin Regulation (an agreement between EU nations), but many countries have suspended that rule—because realistically, the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in Greece are heading for Germany, which has adopted a welcoming policy to provide refuge for most Syrians, at least.

It had been a harrowing week for every asylum seeker I met at the refugee camp on Leros, a collection of temporary sheds and tents located on the site of an old, abandoned mental asylum. The hospital building is painted with the traditional Greek blue and white, with crumbling ceilings that have a tendency to leak under the slightest weight of rainfall. It’s being used by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and volunteer groups as a makeshift headquarters to provide medical check ups and distribute supplies until a permanent reception center or “hot spot” is set up in line with a recent Greek government order, to be coordinated by the European Union, the UNHCR, and MSF.

On the steps of the dilapidated building, I sat with 20-year-old Nabil, a third year medical student from Idlib, in northwestern Syria. He made friends easily, laughing with me and three other young Syrians about all the girls (mostly volunteers at the camp from Denmark and Sweden) he’d developed unrequited crushes on. Wearing his white baseball cap, he’s like any skinny 20-year-old college kid, and gossiping with him about a crush felt completely natural.

“We’re laughing so much,” he said, catching his breath for a second, “We haven’t laughed in a week. Normally though I laugh a lot.”

“Even when the military police took me, they were beating me, and even then I was laughing. They said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ and beat me more, but I just couldn’t stop laughing,” Nabil said. “You know in our city in Idlib, we have a problem with Daesh [Islamic State],” he started, when one of the women we sat with, 21-year-old Amira, interrupted him in Arabic.

“She’s telling me not to tell you about that,” Nabil told me. “She says she wants to see you laughing always.”

That “problem with Daesh” has worsened in the last two years, with the terrorist group making advances on Syrian territory since merging with the Nusra front—an Al-Qaeda-related group in Syria—in 2013. ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks in November, has killed Syrians, Iraqis, and others of countless denominations alike, and has been widely denounced by Muslims around the world.

But the situation in Syria pre-dates the rise of Daesh. Since 2011, a civil war has been raging between President Bashar Al Assad’s military forces and separatist groups trying to put an end to his despotic rule. Like in many civil wars, there is no clear-cut “good side” protecting regular Syrians in this landscape. Civilians have been subjected to barrel bombs, chemical weapons attacks, gunfire, and torture from all sides, according to international human rights groups. Roughly 12 million Syrians have either been displaced from their homes by the conflict, or killed, since 2011. And the majority of Syria’s remaining population of about 17 million is under the age of 35, according to the CIA’s latest estimate. World Vision tells us that among other collateral, somewhere between “5,000 to 14,000 schools have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied since 2011.”

Like in many civil wars, there is no clear-cut “good side” protecting regular Syrians in this landscape.

For Hussein, being caught between these warring sides became a violent reality a few years ago when his uncle, the man who essentially raised him, was killed. He’s still unsure who is responsible. And when he returned to the town his uncle lived in after his death, he was kidnapped and beaten by men who demanded to know, “Do you support the military police or the Free Syrian Army?”

He said they cut him with knives across his torso. Hussein lifted his shirt, revealing scars on his stomach and back—clear, raised lines that look like they were carved with steady, careful hands. “I told them, ‘Fuck you all.’”

One of Nabil’s new friends, Qasim, who taught high school in Idlib, is a gregarious 23-year-old with a mischievous smile who likes to tease his travel mates (his sister, Amira, and his new wife, Nabilah). Standing outside the old psychiatric hospital building, he watched young kids in the camp playing soccer with a small improvised ball. “For four years, no football, no dancing, no weddings,” he told me, with a frustrated sigh. “You stay inside, you don’t know when—always the bombing.”

Here on Leros, there’s a moment of relief. A brief pause on the journey where these young Syrians might begin to come to terms with what’s ahead, not to mention what they’ve left behind, before carrying on to Athens, Macedonia, and finally Germany. They’re relieved to be in a place with friendly faces, food, and water, and shelter to keep warm. Next, there’s the challenge of reaching Germany and its welcoming policies, for now eased by European Union agreements to let Syrians pass between borders to reach their final destinations. But until they’re on German land and applying for refugee status, most of the people I spoke to told me they will not really sleep.

“For four years, no football, no dancing, no weddings,” he told me, with a frustrated sigh. “You stay inside, you don’t know when—always the bombing.”

As darkness descended on Leros, I sat again with Nabil, Qasim, and Amira on the steps of the converted hospital, watching kids run around. I asked them if they miss Syria, and if they think they’ll ever return home.

“Yes, I miss Syria. My country is very beautiful,” said Amira. “But I will never go back. It’s changed now.”

In another corner of the dirt compound, a couple of Moroccans drumming on garbage bins started singing and dancing with the kids in the camp. A couple of Syrians joined in, taking turns with songs from each of their countries.

“That’s a song you sing at weddings,” Nabil explained to me at one point as we watched. No one has wedding parties in Syria anymore, he reminded me, you just go to the civil office and sign a certificate. But for what must have been first time in years, Qasim was dancing. He was smiling, his eyes wide, his face glowing in the fluorescent lights that illuminated the camp at night.

Though they had arrived in Europe, and were so close to the protection they’d been seeking, the Syrians I spoke to were careful or reluctant to talk about Daesh, or the Assad regime, in specifics. Part of that, they told me, was fear about repercussions against the family members and friends they’d left behind. And part of it was, possibly, just part of trying to keep on moving in the face of severe trauma.

In the last few months, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has launched psychological first aid programs in three parts of Greece where people are arriving from war-torn nations, some also surviving shipwrecks on their way across the Mediterranean.

“They have positive qualities in their personalities and they have stronger weapons in their bags, and they are ready to continue their lives, and lead their lives as they want them to be.”

It’s a delicate situation for MSF psychologists like Anna, who works on Leros, because they want to offer support without reopening wounds they won’t be able to help them deal with down the road—most of the people passing through Leros are only here for a few days. But if someone opens up to her about a difficult experience, she’s there to listen. We walked down the street away from the refugee camp in the late morning, to a seaside cafe with strong black Greek coffee. She told me the story of a man whose mosque in Syria was bombed.

“He saw three hundred peoples’ cut limbs spread everywhere, and told me how they used plastic bags to put the limbs inside, and as they gathered these things one of them pulled up a head of a man, asking ‘Does anybody know him?’ And then this person’s children came running, shouting, ‘Baba, baba!’ And he described how he felt that he was already dead as he was driving people to the hospital.”

Anna (who also preferred that we not use her last name), a calm, perceptive Greek woman in her thirties with long black hair, walks around the camp every day saying hello and introducing herself, tentatively leaning into the doorways of tin sheds that serve as shelter for the newly arrived. She looks for obvious signs of psychological trauma. For some, it manifests in anxious behavior, asking lots of questions, looking nervous. Others withdraw into themselves, sometimes rocking back and forth, sometimes holding their heads in their hands. But often it’s not that obvious, and that’s where Anna’s special skill in approaching people in a kind, empathetic way is essential. She’s not there to hand out diagnoses.

“The need is for them to feel of course that someone is listening to them, and understands what they have been through,” she said. “But also life is going on. They have positive qualities in their personalities and they have stronger weapons in their bags, and they are ready to continue their lives, and lead their lives as they want them to be.”

And that is what every Syrian I met was most looking forward to: getting on with having normal lives. Fatima, who used to be a university-level English teacher in Damascus, was midway through a law degree before she had to flee. She just wants to get to Germany and start studying and working again.

“I can’t sit and do nothing,” she said.

For this generation of Syrians, their lives have been ripped apart at a time when most twentysomethings are choosing a path, starting careers, figuring out their adult lives. Qasim told me he’s seen friends die in bombings. Everyone stays inside as much as they can, he said, because bombings are constant and they’re not easy to predict. For young people like Nabil, Amira, and Qasim, their surviving friends and siblings are spread across the Middle East and Europe, in a state of uncertainty as they cross borders, wait for paperwork, begin to see how the next step in their lives might unfold.

Nabil told me his two best friends from med school begged him not to leave. “They came to my house on the last night and said ‘Don’t go!’, especially because the sea is dangerous,” he said. “But I wasn’t scared. I like the sea, I like the ocean.”

Despite the upheaval, and the uncertain journey ahead of him, he was upbeat about his future. “I want to be a cardiologist,” he told me. He was excited to learn German, go back to school, pay his debts and build a stable, happy life. But even as he plans for all of those things, his parents are still in Idlib, and with bombings and the unreliable infrastructure that follows it’s hard to know what’s happening there. He’s been able to speak to them just once since leaving.

“All I know is they are still alive,” he said.

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