I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates with whom I would become great friends and stay in touch arrived.
When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.
But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.
The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey.
Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be.
Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.
Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 12, 2015
As we move away from Turkish waters, everything becomes smaller behind us: the houses, the hills, the beach….but it seems as though we’re not getting any closer to the Greek island.
We can see it floating on the azure serene water, and the boat is moving well, but nothing is becoming bigger and we feel as if we’re stuck between two waters; neither of the two shores seems near.
We see what seems to be another boat of refugees and wave our hands but get no answer. Some of us agree they are refugees; others say it’s just a fishing boat. This “small dot” seems to be not moving anyway, with no response at all.
We try to forget the time by talking about different things – our previous lives, our future destinations. Some prefer to sing, others try to force themselves to sleep. I keep receiving calls from the guys on the Turkish side, checking that everything is going well.
After two hours we start to feel hope again: the Greek island of Lesvos starts to get clearer; one could see smiles starting to shine on everyone’s faces. An old man at the front of the boat starts to give us “directives” about where exactly to go next!
As we approach the island, waves start to get a bit higher, so our two great captains make use of their 2-hours’ experience to make some maneuvers which turn out to be successful. While celebrating one of these successful maneuvers, we see a huge ship coming very fast towards us, so we stop the move until it passes to avoid the huge waves it causes.
We keep our eyes on it as it passes about 600 meters in front of us – really fast in relation to its huge size. Then, as expected, the biggest waves start to rock us and this time we feel the boat might flip upside down. I wasn’t really afraid because I can make to the shore somehow, but the majority of those on board have never been to the sea before, even for swimming.
We make it again thanks to our “veteran” captains. Everybody claps and some guys stand up to dance or make cheers of happiness, forgetting that if they fall the Captains can’t do anything this time!
I keep receiving calls on my nylon-wrapped mobile, keep answering “30 dakika icinde orda olacaz….ama emin degilim” (“We’ll be there within 30 minutes….but I’m not sure”). I added “I’m not sure” again and again for about an hour and a half – it always seemed to me we’d hit the mirage-like shore within 30 minutes maximum.
After a while of meditational silence while the boat kept moving forward, we see a fast boat heading towards us. The captains decide to let it pass, but instead it moves directly towards us. “What’s this all about?” we stand amazed. As it comes closer, we hear a voice shouting through the speakers “Stop the engine, we came to save you!”
I see the word “Limeniko Soma” and tell the guys it’s the Greek Coast Guard. We didn’t really know what to do, but we decide to stop because we have no other choice. Sometimes having no choice is the best choice, because it makes us avoid a lot of thinking and accept facts as they are.
They ask us to tie our boat to theirs, and repeat the phrase “Don’t worry, we will save you” in English. We followed their instructions, and everything seemed to be alright.
As we began to climb onto their boat, they start to shout with an aggressive tone in order to keep things in order. Syrians (like most “Third World” people) usually lack a sense of general discipline for the collective interest; they act very chaotically in such situations.
The Coast Guard perforates the rubber boat and it starts to sink – with our stuff still on it. I decide to use my good knowledge of Greek, which I always wanted to be a language of music, of food, of love etc.: “Mipos boroume na paroume tis tsantes mas parakalo?” (“Can we take our bags, please?”) I asked one of the crew members.
The guy looked at me happily: finally they found someone to help them keep discipline onboard. He told me that one of us can jump to the slowly sinking boat and throw up all the bags. One of the Syrian guys volunteers quickly and saves what were our “precious treasures” at the time!
I start to play my new role as a mediator to help the crew keep things in order. “Please sit down,” I say to one guy. “Please remain silent,” I say to others. “Please put the bags there, please don’t move,” the crew threatening jokingly all the while that it’s easy to send us back to Turkey if we don’t keep things in order.
And yet – it seems that we are moving towards Turkey. “Maybe they are not joking,” I think to myself. Did they really mean it? Everybody panics. Some of the guys even wanted to throw themselves into the water – seriously. They are determined: no going back.
At this moment one of the crew members uses me as a mouth to tell the guys to remain calm: “We’re NOT going back to Turkey; we’re going to save another boat of your fellow Syrians.” Everyone becomes quiet again, while crew members start talking to each other about the next rescue steps.
While moving towards “saving” the other boat, my ear catches that one of the crew members is called “Sotiris:” it’s another optimistic sign, like the Tango in the Izmir park, I said to myself. “Sotiris” means “Savior.” We’re really saved.
The same procedures are repeated with the second boat, which is nothing but that far floating dot about which we had the discussion. The guys on the other boat were really in a miserable situation. Their engine had stopped after one hour of moving, and they couldn’t do anything but keep going with the flow until a miracle happens.
Thanks to modern technology, this miracle happened and the Greek Coast Guard spotted them, and spotted us. I called all the members of the Greek crew “Sotiris” and forgot which one of them was the real “Sotiris.” They were all saviors at this point.
Now we’re heading to Lesvos, quickly this time: everything is getting bigger faster on the land. We were about 15 minutes from the shore. During this time I took a scanning look at the faces of the tired refugees enjoying this moment of relief. “No way,” I say to myself: I recognize one of the faces from the other boat as one of my acquaintances from my hometown in Syria.
The last update I heard about him said that he was detained in an unknown place by the secret service. I was really happy to know that he made it here. He recognized me at once, but we preferred to remain silent until we reached the shore.
As we headed to the shore, I had casual conversations with the crew members:
“Why do you know Greek?” “What’s your destination?” “How much did you pay for this journey?” “What’s happening there that made you leave everything behind and come here?”
Soon we are in the port. We get off quickly, but the guys in the port are not as nice as the Coast Guard crew: they are very aggressive and screamy. Again I was asked to mediate and explain everything to the Syrian fellows. It was a hard time because the tension was so high!
After standing in lines, we head to a closed sports hall near the port of the city of Mytilini where they gather us, collect our names and data, and provide medical care to those who need it. After a while I realize this aggressiveness isn’t based on discriminative reasons – it’s the only way to maintain discipline: the same guys who were aggressive acted differently as soon as everything was in order.
At this closed sports hall, there was a nice old lady from the medics team taking care of children and the old people. On the other boat there was a 70 year old lady, and two three and four year old children accompanying a woman who seemed about 35. The children were hers and the old lady was her mother!
We are told we will move to the camp within the next few hours.
It’s been two hours since we arrived. A blue bus comes, we get on, and we go to the camp. As we go through Mytilini, I enjoy the views of the colorful houses, the blue sea, and the beautiful castle.
The camp is a horrible place. It stinks in the heat and is overcrowded by refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other poor countries. There are white tents provided by the government or some organization, but they are really dirty and full of flies.
Other black, small tents are much cleaner and are privately bought for about 30 euros. When a family or a group leaves, they sell their tent to other newcomers.
Hadikun and I decide that we can’t sleep in the camp, and we do not spend too much time in the camp, but move around the city exploring it like very poor tourists. When we go to the public beach to swim, they tell us we can’t swim in shorts but we must buy official swimming suits!
Hadikun is an interesting personality, and I am happy that he was my companion. Originally I was supposed to go with another friend, but he couldn’t come with me because he had other things to finish in Istanbul.
Hadikun is a very quiet person, a visual artist and graphic designer, interested in Japanese culture. These elements made him very comforting to me, because I prefer to avoid close contact with the mainstream Syrian conservative mentality. Hadikun had the same attitude, and was a good match for the journey.
He also had his part of the Syrian misery: his father has been missing in the regime’s prisons since he was arrested the same day he was supposed to go a gulf country based on a job contract. They accused him of “supporting terrorism” because one of his relatives was involved in the “Free Army,” but Hadikun’s father didn’t even know about it.
Hadikun himself also had a taste of this. He was at the wrong place in the wrong time, so the secret service arrested him with accusations of being involved in anti-regime activities. He spent one week in a solitary cell that barely was enough for him, until some officer noticed that this guy is not into this business at all, and opened the cage for him.
In the camp, all kinds of misery is visible, and people are escaping from all different kinds of persecution – wars, poverty, you name it. Unfortunately, the cultural gap is very huge between these people and the ones of the “advanced” nations. The environment is totally different. This is a bad omen for the world.
The majority of humans on earth live in ignorance, poverty, and conflict; in misery that will explode into huge catastrophes, which will make huge and incontrollable migration tsunamis, which will reach the “advanced” world sooner or later.
There is an urgent need to deal with our planet as a whole – soon it will not be possible to have a culturally and technologically advanced minority and a vast majority afflicted by poverty, fanaticism, useless traditions, wars, sectarianism, and other diseases.
It is not a “luxury” of the “rich nations” to help the “poor nations;” it’s a must if the “advanced world” wants to protect itself from such scenarios. “We need a new Planet Comprehensive System,” I repeat in my head each time I hear one of these stories or witness one of these cases that reminds me of this huge gap.
We used to sleep under abandoned trucks, sometimes above them or inside them. Each one of the guys had his favorite place. I even was invited to drink wine on a corner of an abandoned warehouse. Other guys slept on the edges of the main road, others on the beach.
We kept coming back to the camp everyday to check if the “papers” which would allow us to go to Athens were ready. We had to make sure to come over and over again, because if our names were announced in our absence, we’d have to stay there for a few more days until they re-announce them again.
We bought Vodaphone SIM cards for ten euros from a nice guy and two girls who came especially to the camp to sell us these windows to the outer world. Nevertheless, we couldn’t keep in touch with the “world out there,” because we had no possibility of charging our phones except for a small kiosk we visited every morning to enjoy some snack or a drink and charge our mobiles (others had their own alternative ways of charging).
The kiosk-keepers were extremely nice and compassionate, and the kiosk was a platform to hear all kinds of stories from all kinds of refugees. The Eritrean guy escaping from the persecution of the authorities, and the Iraqi guy pretending to be Syrian who had his own story with ISIS (ISIL) who wanted him to fight on their side.
Mustafa’s family (this Iraqi guy) had a history of persecution from different sides, starting from the previous Saddam Hussein regime, passing through the local parties, and finally ISIS! Mustafa was a simple person from a conservative family, he was not “fanatic” at all; he had a good friendly spirit towards everyone.
Another example of misery was an old man from the northern parts of Syria who didn’t know exactly where he was going and kept asking everyone “which country is the best, I have to bring my family?”
On the other hand, there were some examples of people who might become “fanatics,” like a guy who was criticizing the “infidel lifestyle” all the time, so some guys asked him “Why are you seeking refuge in the lands of the infidels then?”
When you see this category of “refugees” you can understand why some people in Europe are afraid of the “Islamification,” especially in that this category might represent all the refugees in the eyes of some Europeans, like the right wing, or the Islamo-/xenophobic movements, who think that everyone coming from the Middle East belongs to ISIS or something like it. This might be partially true, but a huge part of refugees are actually escaping ISIS and its likes!
After four days of sleeping in the nowhere, not having enough water to wash our hands, much less our dirty and stinky clothes, and lacking of clean toilets, we cheered when the guy from my hometown (whom I will call the Egyptian as Hadikun called him, because he looks like an Egyptian and has a name used in Egypt more than any other Arab country) discovered a tap that we can use near the main road. We bought soap and headed directly there just to get rid of the stink a little bit.
I was going to use that tap in the midst of a hot day when I started to hear beautiful melodies, as if somebody was playing Oud (the Oriental Lute). I thought maybe I’m hallucinating because of the heat. However, while I was washing my head, I turned left, and saw a group of eight guys, with the one in the middle playing real Oud.
I did what I expected of myself: I went to the guys and asked them if I could join as a listener, so they welcomed me. After these two refreshing baths (one with water and the other with melodies), I had a nice chat with this group, who had made their trip from Turkey on their own.
They bought their boat and the fuel, mounted the engine, and chose the track all on their own. The Oud player (I’ll call him Moe) is rather a famous professional player (a graduate of the High Institute of Music) who used to live in Damascus.
Of course musicians are very alienated in the times of war, so it’s better to get moving somewhere else where people are interested in playing and listening to music instead of playing reality show Counter Strike.
Another evening as I was strolling in the city of Mytilini enjoying all kinds of beauty – the sea, the smells, the buildings, the whole atmosphere – I met the Egyptian by accident sitting with other friends, so we sat on an edge on the seafront, and had a chat about everything.
He told me his story about how he was accused of being from the “Opposition” although he is trying to avoid politics in every way possible being that he is a peaceful person, and politics in Syria nowadays means losing too many friends and having endless conflicts, most of which are useless and needless.
After hearing about his tragic 66-day journey through different prisons, he said a sentence that made me laugh although it should make me cry, “There is no way I go back to Syria, I would rather working here as a fish, but I will not go back to Syria!”
Each time we hear about some new batch of papers coming, we head to the camp, just to be disappointed that these papers are for Afghanis, Bangalis, or another group of Syrians. At the end of the 4th day, the police closed the camp and asked us to stay inside.
They closed the main gate to prevent anyone from leaving, which we considered a good omen: maybe the next day they would distribute the papers, and we’d be delivered finally. That night we slept on the beach in a tent that our friends had set under a tree in a clean place a bit far from the camp. It was the nicest sleep in a long time.
We woke up fresh, happy that today at five o’clock we’ll finally receive our keys to freedom. While eating, we hear someone calling us to go up to the camp. A friend of friends of mine said that we should go up immediately, because they were announcing the names. We left everything – we didn’t expect this at 12:50!
As we enter the camp, we see a huge crowd of Syrians in the middle, and hear the shouting voice of the police officer, asking everyone angrily to keep order. “If you don’t remain quiet and disciplined, no papers are going to be distributed,” he said, with some Greek swearwords.
We could manage to get the crowd calm, and succeeded to make everyone sit on the ground after about 20 minutes of struggling with this disorder. I start announcing the names with the help of another guy, and the situation becomes easier. It took about an hour before I spotted my name and put my paper in my pocket.
People who didn’t hear their names desperately asked me and the other guy what to do, so we asked the police officers, and they in turn answered that these people should wait, maybe their papers weren’t ready yet. “We’re trying to help as much as possible, but the numbers are huge – it’s getting out of control,” the police officer told us.
As soon as we got our papers we, a long convoy of “armless infantry” occupying about 500 meters of the road, headed directly to the port to catch the ferry to Athens. We took a shortcut through the castle, and there we met a group of girls in bikinis. It had been a long time since I’d been in touch with such a phenomenon.
I approached the girls (but not too much, because my clothes stank) pretending that I wanted to ask them about the way to the port. I don’t know why I did that – I know where the port is, and obviously nothing will come out of it. Maybe I wanted any type of contact with any beautiful ladies?
Some of the other guys – who come from conservative environments where the connections between the two sexes are very constrained, limited and full of needless obstacles and complications; where maybe they hadn’t gotten in touch with any girl (in a sensual-sexual sense) – are very poor in this sense.
While talking to the girls, I kept watching the guys (I think Hadikun was also watching them, because we both were observing the Syrian mainstream culture), and noticed how the guys were amazed by the scene of the girls, but at the same time acted as if they don’t care.
You could see also, we all were happy that some mermaids appeared to us on the road to give us a slush of soothing energy and guidance.
After ten minutes of walking we finally reached the port, stood in line, and booked our tickets. We saw a huge ship arriving from far away, the same type of ship that caused the huge waves when we approached the island five days prior. What was scary then was now our ally.
The Exodus from Lesvos
After 20-25 minutes’ walk (which seemed like ten minutes, but our telephones told us the objective truth) we reached the port, and stood in line to buy tickets, which cost too much for a budget of a refugee (47 EUR, about 52 USD).
Waiting in line I was again reminded of how “orphaned” these refugees are. A huge portion can’t speak even English, so they had difficulties buying the tickets and required the help of others who knew English. They are powerless, like fishes thrown out of water – but who can’t swim.
“I’ve lost 5 EUR in the sea, man, damn it!” I hear someone shouting and, turning around, see it’s Tarek, one of the two Damascene guys with whom we shared the waiting in the Izmir Kultur Parki and the ride thereafter. When I approached, he pointed his finger to a hat floating on water, and laughingly said: “Imagine man, I just paid 5 EUR for this, and it’s gone with the wind….or maybe with the sea!”
While talking about our future plans and how we felt so far, the boarding of two types of travelers – tourists, who were mostly northern Europeans escaping the routine of their lives in their rather cold countries, and refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghanis escaping from their “heated” lives back home, to the routine life of the cold northern countries – began.
Back in humanity, we were treated as travelers on a huge blue ship, while five days ago we were on a small floating rug with a motor. Some of the migrants fell asleep as soon as they saw the comfortable clean seats; others got out on deck to enjoy sea views without being afraid of drowning this time. I joined some new friends and the Egyptian on deck for a coffee and a chat.
While chatting, we felt the need to do a “toilet raid,” based on an order from our bladders. As soon as we reached the bathrooms, the Egyptian decides to take a bath using the hose in the closet! We burst out laughing, but he really meant it and did it! “I can’t stand my smell anymore, man!” he explained.
The next step was to recharge our phones, although no sockets seemed visible. The Egyptian (yes, again him) and another friend of his found sockets behind the TVs, but somebody warned us it was not allowed to use them for personal needs. We plugged in our phones anyway, as we can’t afford staying out of touch.
For the travelers on these journeys, smart phones were a very inevitable tool to keep connection with each other and exchange the needed info. They can even not buy food from time to time, but they must buy smart phones, even if they are used.
After about 3 or 4 hours of sleep, I woke up by the voice of the announcer saying that we will be in Athens within 15 minutes or something like this. Another step forward.