Migrant Lives

Refugees: Escaping Syria Is More Dangerous Than Entering Europe

The dangerous sea and land crossings that Syrian refugees are making to Europe have been well-documented. Less well known are the equally perilous journeys people take to leave Syria itself.

In Oncupinar, Syria, trying to enter Turkey.
In Oncupinar, Syria, trying to enter Turkey.
Firas Alwani

Amal, a 28-year-old Syrian-Palestinian refugee, who managed to make it safely to Germany with her family, says making it from Damascus to the border with Turkey, "was the hardest of all" the chapters of her migrant journey to Europe.

Syria remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Nearly half of the population has been internally displaced or has fled to other countries, and the war has claimed the lives of close to half a million people. Over the past five years, Syrians have devised countless ways to escape the killing and violence.

While residents of towns and cities in northern Syria have relatively easy access to Turkey, the journey for those who live in the country's center or south is much more dangerous. Syrians traveling out of Damascus must cross dozens of active battle lines and navigate hundreds of government and armed opposition checkpoints before they reach the Turkish border.

The danger and difficulty of the journey has increased dramatically since the autumn of 2015, when Turkish authorities sealed the border with Syria.

And while most international media outlets focus intensely on refugees travelling by sea from Turkey into Europe, they have overlooked the similarly dangerous, and illegal journey from Syria into Turkey and other neighboring countries, a trip that often results in detention and, sometimes, death.

Others make the trip because they are wanted by the Syrian government, either because of an arrest warrant issued by one of the security branches or for mandatory military service, which means the person cannot legally leave Syria.

"An agreement with the smuggler on the destination of the trip is not enough at this point," says Ahmad, a 22-year-old from the capital. "The deal must include guarantees of no ID checks on government checkpoints."

Ahmad tells Syria Deeply that despite multiple attempts, he had been refused another permit to delay his obligatory military service after graduating from the Commerce Institute of Damascus. "I couldn’t imagine myself as a combat officer in the army that has committed war crimes against my people," he says. "I had to risk the journey. It was a choice between life and death."

Different rates for different routes

The cost of the trip differs depending on the nature of the journey and the person being smuggled. While Amal’s trip with her brother and her two little daughters cost nearly $1,800, the same journey cost Ahmad, who is wanted by the Syrian government, about $2,500 because the bribes he needed to pay at various government checkpoints were significantly higher.

The smugglers usually take the roads that lead from Damascus to the border through Idlib, Aleppo and Hassakeh. But there is also a more expensive, and less-traveled, air route from Damascus Airport to Qamishli Airport, with the smuggler responsible for getting the "client" into Turkey after arriving at Qamishli Airport.

Other routes cost more or less depending on the situations of the smugglers and the passengers, as well as ever-changing battle lines. While overall costs may fluctuate, the people interviewed for this story said there has been a surge in the cost due to the newly imposed visa regime for Syrians wishing to travel to Turkey.

Adib, 33, made the journey from Damascus to Qamishli. It was his third attempt to leave the country. His first attempt failed after the smuggler suddenly apologized and told him he couldn’t finish the trip. "He was a good man, though; he returned the $1,000 fee for the trip," says Adib.

The second attempt cost him a three-week detention in the government’s military security branch in Hama Province. "I am a Palestinian-Syrian. I’ve never been politically active and I am not wanted by government forces. I finished my military service a decade ago," he says.

For Adib, the reasons for his detention still escape him. "I was traveling with around eight other people, mostly Palestinians," he recalls. "As soon as the officer on the checkpoint saw our IDs, he asked us if we were intending to escape to Turkey, and said he would be taking us somewhere else."

"The three weeks I spent there made me confident in my decision to leave the country," Adib, now safely in Turkey, adds. "Therefore I chose to leave from Qamishli Airport, which is comparatively safer, knowing that it was the most expensive route." That route costs about $2,000 in total, Abib explains.

Caught in the crossfire

The illegal journey out of Damascus and into Turkey has become famously difficult. According to Ahmad, originally from Damascus, the scariest moments were when they were stopped at government checkpoints on the way toward the border.

"Every time we stopped at a checkpoint, I felt my heart skip a beat," he says. "Even though we passed through open conflict zones and areas where there was shelling, particularly in northern Hama, the moments when we were stopped at government checkpoints were definitely still the hardest."

Ahmad, now in the Netherlands, recalls the darkest scene along the journey. At one point during his three-day trip to the border, they passed by the remains of a minibus. "It was transporting passengers just like us. Most of them died when a mortar shell hit it," he says.

Not all of the members of his group completed the journey. Some gave up halfway through, and one fellow passenger died from an asthma attack after the group had been forced to hike a long distance across the border.

Amal’s clandestine journey from Damascus to Turkey more than 48 hours, nearly five times longer than the trip used to take before the war. Her group, consisting of dozens of people, moved from a stable to an abandoned coal factory, spending a night in the home of one of the smugglers before moving back out into the open. "We walked a lot. Sometimes we rode in minibuses, at other times we were transported in covered trucks," she says.

They had to adapt to different opposition-controlled areas, Amal explains. On approaching a checkpoint manned by the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, she was told to don the hijab. "I’ve never done that in my entire life," she says.

Amal says her group's journey was handled by a network of smugglers, not just one person. They were handed over from one smuggler to another. "It’s a booming trade that is dependent on the smugglers, government institutions and some of the opposition factions," she explains.

Amal's 48-hour journey was filled with horror: government checkpoints, arrests, snipers. She recalls passing through Maarat al-Numan, a city in Idlib controlled by al-Nusra Front. The once thriving community now looks likes a "ghost town," she says.

"The hardest part, though, was the nine-hour walk before reaching the Turkish border, interrupted by bullets every now and then," says Amal, speaking from Germany. "We stood before a massive mountain and had to cross it on foot. We ran out of water halfway through. I was carrying my two-month-old child. Without the help of my brother and the other passengers, I would have given up and collapsed."

Both Amal and Ahmad, who have since taken the journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, agreed that the journey out of Syria was the hardest part. And while no statistics or accurate numbers exist on the number of people who fail to complete the dangerous journey out of Syria, the stories of those who do make it serve to highlight the horrors of fleeing from a country at war.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher 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.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, 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) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But 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. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

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. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

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. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

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.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

-------------------------------------------------------------

Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ