Words By: Amjad Yamin*
Fareed is one of the thousands of Syrians who decided to move from one refugee camp to another across continents, help plunge into the unknown and risk his life for a promise of a better future for his children.
The first time Fareed* thought of leaving Daraa, Syria was at the end of 2012. He was from the city. His in-laws were from the city. His wife worked as an English teacher at a public school a walking distance from home, and they filled their evenings with the smell of Jasmine trees and (mostly) Yanni music. “We heard there were demonstrations in Daraa, but it felt as if it were happening elsewhere”, Lama* says, describing the beginning of the uprising in Syria as surreal. “It was only until my husband started being harassed that we thought of leaving.”
Fareed was on his way to Sweida, some 15 kilometres east of Daraa, to play cards at a friend’s place on a weekday when government forces beat him up for, what seemed to him, just being there. It was downward spiral from there on.
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At first, they thought if they had not violated any laws they would be safe. But as Fareed regularly travelled between his village and Daraa city, a 25 km round trip, he realised that he, along with everybody else, was at risk. If you shared a surname with somebody merely perceived to be affiliated with any of the groups, you would be on someone’s wanted list. “His name is one of the most common names in Daraa, coming from one of the biggest families there,” Lama said, referring to the multiple times he had been unofficially summoned for interrogation. “Had they caught him, it would not have mattered if it were him they were looking for; they might very well decide he has to stay in some cell forever.”
To untangle the reasons that led him to leave a place where he and his family, and generations before him, had lived was not easy. But a couple of beatings later, Fareed’s name on a wanted list, repeated harassments and interrogation summons for random charges brought him to one of the most difficult decisions in his life. The next day, Lama helped him pack a small brown backpack with a toothbrush, two pairs of pants, two shirts and he was gone. Fareed joined the many other Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring Jordan.
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Thousands were leaving Daraa to Jordan daily at the time and Fareed’s journey was relatively easy.
“It took me a couple of days to get in. Back then, everybody were allowed to enter Jordan.” Lama followed him mid-2013 and they both settled in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. More than 400,000 Syrian refugees have passed through the camp since its establishment in summer 2012. The third largest in the world, some 80,000 Syrian refugees continue to call it their temporary home. Zaatari is a large sprawling camp in the northeast of Jordan that grew almost overnight to support the thousands of Syrians that were fleeing to Jordan.
For Fareed and Lama the life in the camp was tough and they soon acquired permits from Jordanian authorities to leave the camp. Fareed found work in Ma’an, 220 kilometres southwest of the capital Amman, working illegally for six months before the authorities caught him. Like most of the more than 520,000 Syrian refugees living outside of formal camps he had not been able to get a work permit, and feared they would be deported. “But the policemen were nice enough to send us back to Zaatari instead,” Lama explains.
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Back in Zaatari Fareed tried to make a better life for the young couple and tested various ways of earning some income. Lawyer by profession, he sold falafel or worked on an ice cream cart. “You would never hear him say ‘I am a lawyer, this is beneath me’; he did any job he could, but nothing ever worked out for him here,” Lama said. Then came the news – Lama was pregnant. In a hospital inside the camp Lama gave birth to their first daughter. “Maha was the reason he woke up every day in the morning.”
Maha is 18 months now and Lama managed to find work as a teacher with one of the international organisations working in the camp. “With my job and his attempts to earn something here and there, we were managing,” Lama says, “but then I got pregnant with our second daughter. And the realisation that we cannot establish a normal life in the camp dawned upon Fareed”.
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Fareed and Lama analysed, argued and debated for weeks. The central question was how to support themselves and their children. Since he left Syria, fate did not provide him with an opportunity to deal with anything that was thrown in his direction; the crisis in Syria is much bigger than him to solve, the situation in Zaatari as well. His second approach eventually triumphed; there needs to be a move to another place, for now with promises of a better future.
What drives Fareed and Lama are “basic rights”. What they mean by that is not the typical economic or political considerations—like minimum wage, unemployment benefits, college-loan programmes—they talked about safety, dignity, some vision for the future for their family with modest income, children able to go to school and not have to worry about who they are and where they came from. That is why Fareed made a decision that was even more difficult than the one he made three years prior. He is moving: Going to a place where those aspects are present can make a big difference to a family’s prospects.
“Ironically, for the second journey, Fareed packed the same items in the same brown backpack,” Lama said. “We had to borrow a lot of money to pay for the journey and the smugglers, and he struggled for a permit from the Jordanian government,” necessary to be able leave Jordan as a refugee.
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Fareed booked a flight from Amman to Turkey, and arrived in Istanbul on 2 August. He had been told he needed to get to one of the coastal cities near Greece for smugglers to be able to “help” him. Once in Izmir, the third most populous city in Turkey, he was told to go to a well-known plaza. “You do not need to know the smugglers, they will find you,” says Fareed, describing a rather elaborate system that is already in place. An escrow service has been set up and is run by an insurance office. “We will only pay the smugglers once you arrive in Greece. You have to call us and tell us your code,” the insurance officer explained to Fareed after giving him a code that he should use as a proof of life. Fareed thought this was a sufficient guarantee for the smugglers to care about whether he would live or die. He liked the chances his 1,000 dollars bought him.
“We stayed in Izmir for over 15 days. It took us seven attempts across the sea to arrive in Greece, with three near death experiences against the unforgiving waves.”
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Fareed and other friends, some of whom he met on the way, found a seemingly random bus driver in Greece who was willing to take them to the other end of the country. Once in Europe, mobility seems the only apparent obstacle. The smugglers all around the continent appeared to mostly know each other. “I do not think they all came from the same organisation, but some of them clearly knew each other well.” Fareed spent the next 15 days travelling northwards.
“The bus driver took us as far as Macedonia, then we spent the next six hours walking across to Serbia.” Once in Serbia, Fareed found himself at a collection point where he stayed for seven hours in a camp before a bus took him and others to the north of the country.
By then, we had walked for more than 20 hours combined. But from Serbia on, “the trip became easier. We took a bus to Kecskemét in Hungary, walked for 25 km to another place the name of which I do not recall. Another smuggler helped us and put us in a taxi to Budapest which cost somewhere around 400 euros. We joined thousands of refugees and slept in a bus station for a couple of days”.
From Budapest, Fareed and his remaining 16 friends took the train to Austria. “Usually, the trip to Austria would have cost us some 600 euros, but we were lucky and paid nothing.” Another train took Fareed to Frankfurt and another again to his destination in Amsterdam.
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Fareed has a lot of time now to reflect on the journey. “I thought it would be easier than this. I did not expect it to be this hard and dangerous. Some of the people who were with me died of dehydration and some drowned at sea. The whole journey lasted 32 days and cost me over 6,000 dollars to pay the smugglers, transport, food, and accommodation,” Fareed recounts, now in a refugee camp in the Netherlands.
Fareed and Lama hope to reunite in the Netherlands as soon as possible. “I checked online before leaving, and saw that the reunification application takes some six months. I do not want to stay here without her and my daughters.”
As for whether they will return to Syria or not, they are not entirely sure. To them, both options have merit. If places like the Netherlands have great opportunity, it is in part because of culture and community. Neither of these were theirs, but they were willing to accept them if that meant a decent life for themselves and their children. But Syria, now unsafe and unstable, still promised better integration if the crisis is resolved.
At the moment, the Netherlands promises to their children all of what Syria used to have: Food, shelter, the benefit of education in a decent school and youth largely free of hatred and violence. For the adults, however, the benefits are less obvious: They leave behind their home, family and their Jasmine tree.
The fact that Fareed may have lived in one place for his entire life, or became attached to a set of long-standing traditions, does not mean that he needs to return to that place, or reconstruct those traditions elsewhere. It also, however, does not necessarily mean that he will give up on the dream of return.
*This piece was originally published on the Norwegian Refugee Council website.
**Names have been changed to protect the identity of those featured in this piece.