Geopolitics

A Tale Of Two Syrians Who Tried To Swim To Europe

Two Syrian refugees who attempted to swim part of the way to Europe recounted why they wound up making such a dangerous journey.

A coast guard boat carrying rescued refugees approaching the Greek island of Lesbos
A coast guard boat carrying rescued refugees approaching the Greek island of Lesbos

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 â€" including taking to the sea on unsafe old boats and dinghies â€" 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 … 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.

Hisham Muaddamani â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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, ‘Welcome to Germany,’” he recalled. “That was the happiest moment of my life.”

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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