Two Syrian refugees who attempted to swim part of the way to Europe recounted why they wound up making such a dangerous journey.
The more than four million Syrians who have fled the country's civil war since 2011 have dominated headlines over the past few months. While many have remained in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, a growing number have begun trying to reach Europe, where they hope to be granted asylum in the face of rising anti-immigration sentiment from Hungary to the United Kingdom.
Many of those who make it onto European soil enter via Italy and Greece, on the shores of the Mediterranean. At the mercy of people smugglers and enduring perilous conditions along the way — including taking to the sea on unsafe old boats and dinghies — many have died.
Syria Deeply spoke to two men who took the Mediterranean route, but without any boat. They'd decided, instead to swim from Turkey to Greece.
Hisham Muaddamani, 24, left his war-torn hometown of eastern Ghouta with the dream of finding security in Europe and continuing his university studies. "This was the first time I had ever left Syria," he said. "I left because the fighting and the government-imposed blockade left me hopeless."Like many rebel-held parts of the country, eastern Ghouta is under siege by government forces. "Leaving home was extremely difficult and dangerous," recalled Muaddamani. But after several failed attempts, he managed to find a truck driver to smuggle him into Jordan. Upon arriving at the border, the Jordanian authorities seized all of his documents and detained him for 12 hours before deporting him back to Syria, where he stayed in Daraa for a few weeks before entering Jordan,. There, Muaddamani was able to pay a border guard $400 to return his identity card and other documents that had been seized previously.
"The following day I met a Syrian man named Firas â€¦ on a plane to Turkey," he said. "He was also going to Europe." Smugglers informed the men that it would cost them $1,000 per head in order to get from Turkey to Greece.
"We didn't have the money, so I decided to swim," he recalled matter-of-factly.
Firas and Muaddamani checked a map, surprised to find out that the distance was only five miles. They purchased life jackets and ziplock bags for sealing their documents and money for the journey. Then, one night at around 9 p.m., they approached the shores of the Mediterranean and prepared themselves. "Firas is a good swimmer," Muaddamani said. "I am not so skilled. I told him I'd swim next to him for 50 meters, and that he should continue without me if I couldn't go on.
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Hisham Muaddamani — Photo: Personal file/Syria Deeply
"The water was so cold, and it was very dark outside," he recalled. After swimming for a long time, Muaddamani says that his partner kept encouraging him to stay strong and press on. "After six hours of swimming, we were too tired to continue."
The men thought they saw an island in the distance, but were disappointed when they arrived to find that it was only a large rock. "We were scared, exhausted and frustrated, but we decided to take a rest," he said. Two hours later, they saw a light far off in the water. "I took out my laser pen and signaled it," Muaddamani commented. "It turned out to be a ship. They contacted the Greek coast guard for us, and it arrived just a few minutes later."
Once in Greece, the men were provided with medical treatment and given six-month residency permits. But only two days after their arrival, they were well enough to travel and caught a bus to the Macedonian border.
"We walked for hours from the last village to the border," he said. "We took a break under some trees. I was shocked when my phone picked up service — I saw a message from my mother telling me that my father had died. I was devastated.
More than ever, Muaddamani was determined to make it to Germany. "Continuing my studies was my father's dream for me," he said
Along the way, Firas and Muadammani were forced to bribe Serbian police officers — a mere 10 euros each. "We walked another seven hours before arriving in Hungary, where the police detained us. They said we had to go back to Serbia or apply for asylum there in Hungary."
The men started the application process, but decided to continue their journey before completing it. Having spent most of their money along the way, they were unable to afford to pay a smuggler to take them from Hungary to Germany. So they took a taxi to the border, where the driver was arrested for transporting refugees to the border.
"We had been worried that they wouldn't accept our asylum applications because we had already initiated the process in Hungary."
According to the Dublin Regulation, an agreement between EU countries, refugees must apply for asylum and reside in the first EU country in which they arrive. Yet, in August 2015, Germany suspended its participation in that agreement for Syrian refugees, which means applications can be processed there directly.
When the men arrived in Germany, 35 days after leaving Syria, the local police detained them for hours, "But when they learned that we're Syrian, they just said, â€˜Welcome to Germany,'" he recalled. "That was the happiest moment of my life."