Worth The Risk, Syrian Refugees Have Their Say

Refugees approaching the Greek shore after making the crossing from Turkey
Refugees approaching the Greek shore after making the crossing from Turkey
Subhi Franjieh

BODRUM â€" When the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body spread around the world, the plight of Syrian refugees suddenly came into focus like never before. Yet Kurdi was just one of many who have died making the perilous journey to Europe, where they hope to attain asylum as the ongoing Syria civil war in their homeland continues to claim countless civilian lives.

Turkey, which currently hosts some 1.8 million exiled Syrians, has increasingly become a departure point for a perilous sea journey toward Greece in flimsy rafts and ill-equipped boats to get inside European territory.

Sayeed, a construction worker and father of two children, aged four and nine, hopes to make it to Greece and then continue on to elsewhere in Europe. Explaining that he cannot afford to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment, Sayeed says he and his family sleep in the bus station in Bodrum as they wait for a smuggler to contact them with instructions.

“I am hiring the same smuggler who helped my brother make it to Europe a couple of months ago,” he told Syria Deeply. “We already agreed on costs and a date. He was supposed to provide us with a room to sleep in here in Bodrum, but the hotels were already full. We’ve been sleping in the bus station for the last four nights.”

According to refugees who have already made the journey, it takes some 10 hours and costs anywhere between $1,000 and $2,240 per person. Children aged six years and younger usually travel for around half that price.

According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Fleeing shells and barrel bombs, more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees and another 7.6 million are internally displaced within the country’s borders, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Right to a normal life

Walking the streets of virtually any western coastal city in Turkey, one finds hundreds of Syrians. While some stay in motels, those who lack financial resources are on the sidewalks, with their children and bags, awaiting their departure date.

Back in Syria, Sayeed lived a happy life with his wife and kids in Zabadani, a city near Damascus, until government forces bombed his home. “There is no longer any life left in Syria,” he said. “It’s only death and destruction everywhere. I want my kids to live in a safe place.”

Sayeed sold all his family’s possessions and borrowed money from friends and family. “These kids deserve to go to school and live a normal life,” he continued. “It might sound strange that I’m willing to put them in such danger in order to reach safety, but this way we are in danger for a matter of hours. In Syria, we face death ten times a day.”

Souad, 48, used to be a teacher back in Syria. When she decided to travel to Europe to seek asylum, her husband refused to join her. Along with her 12-year-old son, she waits in Bodrum for their smuggler to confirm their departure date. “Our situation in Syria was very bad,” she says. “After my husband was fired from a regime-owned media channel for his pro-revolution views, we spent all of our savings to survive. Life was becoming unbearable.”

Although she held out hope for four years that the war would end, she said she eventually realized there was no solution in sight. “My son has the right to a normal life, the right to play and to go to school,” she said. “I don’t care about myself, really, but my son is still young. Was I supposed to just let him die in the war?”

Failing time and again to convince her husband to come, she eventually sold her jewelry and borrowed money from relatives to finance the escape. “This is about my son having a chance to live in peace and dignity,” she added.

In Izmir, another Turkish city in the western Anatolia region, the picture is similar: Syrians sleeping in clusters in the streets, waiting each day in the hope that their turn to move on has come.

Khaled, 24, says that restaurant owners often force Syrians to purchase something in exchange for allowing them to use the restroom. Arriving in Izmir after leaving a Syrian refugee camp elsewhere in Turkey, he only recently decided to move on to Europe.

“I had never thought about going to Europe before,” he told Syria Deeply. “Then my mother, who is in Jordan now, was diagnosed with cancer. Her treatment is going to be very expensive, so I want to go to Germany so I can get a family reunion visa for her and hopefully have her treated in hospitals there.”

“I don’t want her to die,” Khalid concluded. “This is the only way I can help her.”

While many Syrians are weary of smugglers who profit from their displacement, the fact remains that these smugglers provide a service to refugees who see few alternatives as European border laws make it difficult to take a legal route into many countries.

Abu al-Majd, 33, has been working as a smuggler since 2005, six years before the war broke out in Syria. Defending the work, he argues that he has helped hundreds of Syrians safely reach Europe, where they can start new lives.

Al-Majdh considers imself a humanitarian, insisting that he charges about half the going rate. “The trips I organize aren’t dangerous,” he said. “The boat is in very good condition and I don’t overload it. There are never more than 45 people allowed on my nine-meter 30-foot long boat.”

Abu Majd and his associates do not man the boat themselves, however. They train one of the refugees to sail the boat “for a few hours” before departure. “The trip doesn’t take a lot of experience,” he claimed. “It’s a straight shot. If something goes wrong, they are supposed to contact the Turkish coast guard or Greek coast guard. But our duty ends the moment the boat pushes off.”

The smuggler’s claims appear to clash with reality, as the news of more capsized boats and drowned refugees becomes a daily reality. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that more than 2,500 people have died this summer alone while attempting to make the crossing.

Safety tips on Facebook

Among those anonymous tragedies was one crossing on Aug. 18, where six Syrians, including an infant, died after a boat carrying 67 people capsized while still in Turkish waters. Samir, a 20-year-old who was on the boat, was saved by the Turkish coast guard.

Speaking to Syria Deeply, he recalled the chaos that ensued as the boat began to sink and an inflatable raft burst. “In moments like those, people can’t think,” he remembered. “Many of them didn’t know how to swim so they just tried to hang on to others, but they ended up drowning.”

Ahmad, a 21-year-old who just made it to Germany, says he saw his life flash before his eyes when the boat he was on with more than 50 others began to go under. “It was a boat only made for 30 people at most,” he said. “Water started to leak onto the boat and the engine died the moment we entered Greek waters. We were lucky that the coast guard came and saved us.”

Many European countries are struggling to agree on a policy for Syrian refugees. Hungary has launched a border crackdown as a record number of Syrians enter the country. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has lashed out at those who advocate taking in the refugees. “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” he told journalists outside the European Union headquarters at Brussels last week.

Rafi Abbara, 27, was a pharmacist back in Homs before fleeing via Turkey and Greece to Germany in 2014. Happy that Germany will allow Syrians to stay, he nonetheless warns of the mortal dangers. Along with more than 150 of his compatriots, he was on a boat designed for 60 people. “After we got in the water, we saw that there was no food, no water and no life vests,” he recalled.

Like so many other boats, his vessel began to sink. “Thankfully, a civilian ship rescued us and took us to the Greek coast,” he said. After making it to Germany, he started a Facebook group that advises Syrians on safety matters while making the journey. Abbara recently heard from a teen who said he was saved because of advice he'd posted. "The happiest moment of my life came when he called me up and thanked me,” he said.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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