Roughly a million people smuggled themselves to Europe by sea in 2015, fleeing wars and crushing poverty and thousands died along the way. In the first month of 2016, more than 20 times the amount of people arrived in Greece than in the same time last year. Some say this could mean the European refugee crisis could be just beginning.
Last year, VOA’s Heather Murdock traveled one of the routes refugees take from the Syrian border to Germany. This is the story of five young men she met on the journey of their lives, taken to save their lives.
DAY 1: IZMIR, TURKEY, 1,150 kilometers from Syrian home
Omar and Manaf, 20-year-old college students from Syria, met their first scammer before they left the airport in Turkey. A man sold them a mobile phone card for $35 – $10 over the store price. And the card was fake.
The two guys are dressed in sharp, sporty clothes with fresh haircuts, but my Syrian translator Shadi and I know they are refugees because they carry overstuffed backpacks.
They hear Shadi switching between Arabic and Turkish.
“You speak Turkish. Can you help us?” asks Omar, urgently leaning over the counter toward him.
After Shadi speaks to the store clerk, we all head over to Basmane , an area of this western Turkish city that teems with smugglers and with refugees arranging their passage to Greece. The three young men laugh as they walk, appearing more like they are heading to a beach party than a refugee crisis.
Shadi and I are going to meet people to interview for our story. Omar and Manaf are looking to hire smugglers.
On the way, we tell stories about other scams we’ve seen in recent days. Desperate people everywhere are taking advantage of the outpouring of sympathy for Syrian people after a photo was published of a small boy’s body being lifted off a Turkish beach.
But the trip is still dangerous, and the stakes are high. Entire families and neighborhoods in Syria scrape together the thousands of dollars it takes to get one person to Germany, the usual destination of choice.
Young men often go because, for many of them, the alternative to fleeing Syria is being forced to fight. They take with them the hopes and dreams of the parents, grandparents, siblings and the neighbors they leave behind. For nearly all of them, success in Europe means one day rescuing their families.
When we arrive in Basmane, Manaf giggles. Scores of Syrian men sit at outdoor tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. The only people speaking Turkish are waiters.
“I thought I came to Turkey, but this looks like Syria,” he whispers to his friend.
Making deals in Basmane
Part market, part café, Basmane reminds me of tumbledown bars in old pirate movies. Roaming salesmen hawk odd items like balloons and duct tape to wrap cell phones, college records and money. People openly talk about smuggling, the best sea routes and when the winds will change.
Minutes after we arrive, Shadi notices Modar, an old friend of his from Facebook.
“His mother is from my city,” Modar tells me, draping one arm over Shadi’s shoulder.
Modar, 24, wears black-rimmed glasses and a wry smile. This is his first time outside of Syria, where he repaired iPhones and computers. He jokes that the civil war is making him lose his hair.
“See what they did to me,” he says with a laugh, pointing to a slightly thin patch in the back.
The moment of levity quickly fades, and Modar sighs. This trip is lonely, he says, but he is keeping old friends he encounters in Basmane at arm’s length.
'Can't trust anyone here'
For instance, he just ran into a school pal in the hotel lobby, but he didn’t stop to chat. The horrific war in Syria has changed many people. And everyone knows almost everybody here has thousands of dollars to pay smugglers strapped somewhere to their bodies.
“We can’t trust anyone here,” says Modar. “Even people you knew in the past.”
If his money is stolen, Modar could lose his only chance to escape the war. Refugees say their biggest concerns are being robbed, being arrested and sent back, or drowning in the sea – in that order.
“Maybe when we live in a safe place, we’ll all be happy again,” Modar whispers. “But if I lose the money, I will have to go back to Syria.”
Modar introduces me to his brother Majd, who wears a cowboy hat, shorts and a suspicious smile. He tells his brother it is not safe to let journalists put his name or image in the news.
I promise not to publish any pictures of his brother. Majd relaxes and sits down on the stoop.
“So you are going on the rubber boat with us?” he says and laughs sadly.
While I can easily catch a plane or a ferryboat to Europe, almost everyone around me is jittery, facing a dangerous journey organized by smugglers that answer to no one.
The brothers, Shadi, the two college students and I crowd around a card table. Everyone drinks tea and most of us smoke. The men tell me stories of the families and lives they left in Syria, before excusing themselves to prepare for their trip.
As we leave the area, Shadi notices that one conversation is dominating the chatter around us: "Did you find a boat? When are you going?"
Watch: Video by Hamada Elrasam
DAY 2: IZMIR, TURKEY
The dark hair on Modar’s arms rises visibly when he hears the news: The smuggler has called, and they are getting on a boat tonight.
The young men buzz around each other, wrapping their passports, money and college records in layers of plastic, then stuffing them into red balloons. Under the table lies a pile of backpacks and garbage bags filled with life vests. Phones and chargers are in waterproof satchels dangling from the guys’ necks.
Overnight, they had formed a group consisting of the four young men we drank tea with yesterday and a couple of new friends. They use the word “group” in English because it has passed into Arabic through social-media speak. On the road to Europe, your group and your social media are the ways to keep safe.
The most important tool refugees need to stay alive and reach their destination is a smartphone, or at least a friend with a smartphone. From finding borders to finding each other, it’s useful. When traveling at sea in a crowded rubber boat, it can be the difference between life and death.
Some safety-conscious smugglers keep in touch with passengers at sea over the text messaging service WhatsApp, and are prepared to call either the Turkish or the Greek police if the boat starts to sink. Travelers with less scrupulous smugglers prepare to send messages directly to friends or rescue workers.
Omar, who looked like a wide-eyed kid yesterday, is tense, rearing to get going. He hunches over and shows me the new switchblade knife he has tucked in his pocket. It’s a less important but still necessary tool in the business of being a refugee. “All of us have one for protection,” he explains. “Also, we‘ll stab the boat.”
Damage rubber boats
When refugees land in the Greek islands, they pop the rubber boats they came on so no one can force them to turn back. Later in the journey, they may need protection from robbers or thugs because they may have to cross some borders in the forest at night. When they are in a safe place, they will throw out the knives.
I ask if they’re afraid now that the trip is really happening. They laugh, unconvincingly.
“Our adventure has started,” says Ahmed, a bearded 22-year-old in a red baseball cap. Ahmed just graduated from college in Syria, hoping to play professional football (soccer). Instead, he faced conscription into a war he had no hand in making. He sold his house and escaped.
WATCH: The men begin their journey
As we sit around the table, the men go over what could go wrong in the coming hours. The police could catch them and send them back to Turkey. The boat could collapse before it takes off. There could be trouble at sea, forcing them to abandon their few possessions. Or they could drown.
One young man shows me a video everyone here has been talking about for days. A Hungarian camerawoman appears to be attacking refugees. “Look,” says Omar, pointing at the image. “She’s kicking a man with a baby.”
No one suggests canceling the trip. Rather, they reassure themselves it’s a good idea.
“We can’t go back,” Ahmed says, tossing up his hands and grinning. “So we have to continue.” We take group selfies, and other refugees jump in our pictures. If they don’t make it, they want to be remembered, too.
Most of the men in the group call their families back home to tell them they’re getting on a boat.
“What did she say?” I ask Omar when he hangs up with his mother.
“She went to start praying immediately,” he says.
When the final call comes, the men grab their bags from under the table. They don’t know where they will be kept while the boat launching site is chosen, how long they will have to wait in the woods while it is inflated or even which Greek island they are going to.
As we march down the cobblestone alley to meet the smugglers, Omar and Manaf’s eyes have grown large and glassy. Their smiles are too large, and their chests heave. Manaf pats his chest rapidly, demonstrating how fast his heart is beating.
“If something happens to us,” Omar whispers to Shadi, “can we send you a message on WhatsApp and will you ask the police to rescue us?”
Shadi and I say goodbye and good luck. Shadi wishes he were going with them. I wish they wouldn’t go.
DAY 3: LESBOS, GREECE, 1,400 kilometers from Syria
The first picture is messaged to my phone at 3:51 a.m. The group is on a dark beach with only slightly wet clothes, smiling with their fingers held up in victory signs. The text message says, “We made it.”
Later, Shadi drops me at a commercial port and I take a ferry to the Greek island of Lesbos for nearly $20. The men paid smugglers about $1,300 each. In a text message, Modar tells me the group walked for hours from the beach to the port city of Mytilene. I go ashore a five-minute walk from the city’s center.
The streets of Mytilene, a worn tourist town, are crowded with refugees and the coffee shops are full. I hear only Arabic spoken.
The first hotel is only minutes from the port, and I line up at the reception desk. Two young men enter behind me wearing backpacks, practically the refugee uniform around here.
“All full?” the men ask in English.
“Full,” the receptionist replies.
When it’s my turn, I tell her: “I know you are full, but. .... "
She interrupts. “You need a room?” she asks sweetly. “I have a balcony room with a sea view. It is 72 euros.” I’m embarrassed, but I take the room.
An hour after I arrive, Modar sends a message to my phone, telling me the group is sitting at an outdoor ice cream parlor.
Empty water bottles and coffee cups are scattered on the table when I arrive. Omar curls up in his chair and sleeps, while some of the other men excitedly tell the tale of their nighttime journey.
After driving four hours and carefully avoiding the police, they walked through the woods for an hour in pitch darkness. Smugglers stationed at points along the way hurriedly gave directions to the 32 passengers in English, repeating, “Go, go, go!” and pointing in the direction they should move.
When they arrived at the beach, they saw four people sleeping in the sand. Even an 8-year-old, now the youngest in the group, knew why they were there. “Their smuggler has stolen their money from them,” he explains to me.
“Go, go, go!” the smugglers said, packing them into the boat and ignoring the four sleepers.
The sea was smooth, and the journey thankfully short, with only an hour and a half on the water. If the men were scared, they wouldn’t admit it.
“This was the captain,” says Majd, introducing me to a man named Mohammed, wearing a gray New York Yankees cap. “And I was the assistant captain,” he adds proudly. Majd’s job was to keep up spirits by reminding everyone they were on an exciting adventure, not risking their lives to flee a war.
When they finally arrived in the city this morning, the group first went to the refugee camp to collect paperwork that would allow them leave Greece. At the camp, Majd says, they skipped the line because aid workers mistook him for a new recruit. Still wearing shorts and a cowboy hat, he looked more Western than Syrian.
They handed him water to pass out to the refugees, and he delivered the bottles up the line to the front, where he deposited his group’s Syrian ID’s on the table, and collected their papers.
They had less luck at the port, and had to wait in line for six hours to buy tickets on a large commercial ship to Athens, their next stop towards Germany. The boat would be departing in the morning and they would sleep in the park.
“All the hotels are full,” says Modar as we sit in the café. “And it’s expensive.” I tell him Syrian refugees were refused at my hotel, but, ashamed, I don’t admit that I took a room anyway.
One restaurant owner nearby our café won’t serve Syrians, adds Modar. On the other hand, the waitress here helped them set up their mobile phones to use Greek carriers.
'Welcome to Europe'
Greece is a whole new world for them, says Majd. He looks around before whispering to me that they saw two people kissing on the street today. This would never happen in Syria.
“Welcome to Europe,” I say.
“Europe!” calls out Majd, now laughing loudly.
“The main thing is we have to get to Germany,” says Ahmed, reminding everyone it is time to sleep. Now that they are in Greece, the group agrees they have only a few days to get through Hungary.
“Hungary is hard,” says Omar, awake but dipping his forehead into his hands. He then startles, as if he has an idea. “Can you stay with us until Hungary?” he asks me. Having a journalist with them may help their chances, he says.
“I don’t know,” I answer. The length of my trip entirely depends on how long my editors remain interested in funding the story.
“But try,” he says.
DAY 4: ON THE SHIP TO ATHENS, 2,350 kilometers from Syria
Cellphone chargers occupy almost every electrical outlet on this ship, and the Syrian girl sitting next to me has her iPhone plugged into my laptop, which is quickly draining power.
Like my group, most of the thousands of refugees aboard arrived in Greece over the past few days on rubber boats. Many slept in parks; others camped in tents by the port.
The poorest travelers didn’t bring phones and other phones were lost at sea. The phones that remain with refugees are readying apps that could later protect them.
After Athens, the people on this ship plan to cross to Macedonia and Serbia before getting to Hungary. They don’t want to stop anywhere along the way and they would rather sneak over borders at night than risk getting fingerprinted before Germany.
If you get fingerprinted in one country and then leave, it can be a way for governments to deport you, even if you have refugee status.
Technically, refugees are supposed to apply for asylum in the first European country they land in. But Greece has shown no interest in doing anything but facilitating the refugees’ swift departure. Hungary briefly tried to register arriving refugees, but the results were disastrous.
People on this boat say the masses ahead of them and the masses behind them eventually will cause European countries to either create new laws or start enforcing the old ones.
Ahmed says the key to success is speed. It’s Saturday today, and the group needs to get past Hungary before Tuesday. As he and his fellow travelers huddle, he tells them the plan is to walk to the train station in Athens, because he heard the bus station is closer to the port and will be packed with refugees. Then they will sleep in the station and be at the beginning of the queue to get the first train out.
“My only fear,” he says, “is that some of us will get conflicting information and go our separate ways. We need to stay together.”
The group assures him they won’t split up prematurely. “When we get to Germany, everyone has the right to go where he wants,” says Omar, “But not before then.”
Modar, Omar and I stroll around the boat, asking people about why they left their homes. Everyone has a story of carnage, from neighborhoods destroyed to entire families lost. But the passengers also survived escaping a war and a rubber boat across the sea. They say now they’re looking forward.
The poorest are from Afghanistan, doubly disadvantaged because there is no translator. While the Syrians and Iraqis discuss strategies and take advantage of the boat’s facilities, isolated Afghan families huddle on the floors on the decks. Modar says they probably cannot read their tickets to know they each have plush seats assigned to them.
I ask if maybe the families have cheap or free tickets. “No way,” he says. “Nothing is free for refugees."
Earlier in the day, a loudspeaker had announced lunch – first in Greek for the handful of non-refugee passengers downstairs, then in Arabic for most of the people on board.
A flood of people, eager to save their money for the dangerous journey ahead, started helping themselves to the buffet. Staff members shouted in English, “Get out, get out!” and waved their arms at the confused crowd.
“I think he wants us to line up one by one,” one man said to his friends as they formed a line. Others suggested maybe the lunch wasn’t free, like everyone thought. The staff continued shouting: “Get out!”
When the dinner announcement blares on the loudspeaker, the message concludes with two words: “Not free.”
People all over the room start laughing. “Not free,” some repeat in Arabic, shaking their heads and smiling. Omar repeats it again in English, “Not free,” he says, as if he wishes if it were really funny.
Arrival in Athens
As the boat docks, we watch the port from the upper deck before joining the crowd getting off. It looks like a large, dark parking lot. When we get on shore, men quickly gather us in groups. They speak in Arabic, saying they are drivers and they will take us directly to the Macedonia border for a little more than $50 per person.
At first, my group is skeptical. It’s a lot of money if it is a scam. But when they see everyone else climbing into buses, they frantically pull out their money and jump on the bus without looking back.
I stay behind to file the stories I wrote on the boat, videotaping thousands of people shuttling out of Athens, leaving only a few of the most impoverished behind. Those families look dazed as they sit with their bags on the concrete in the dark.
An Indian taxi driver tells me if the other journalists he is driving agree, he can bring me to a hotel in the city.
“These people are ruining Europe,” he adds, pointing toward a family on the ground, the children already asleep. “Why are they coming here? Things aren’t so bad in Syria.”
DAYS 5 & 6: MACEDONIA, SERBIA AND HUNGARY, 2,800 kilometers from Syria
Overnight in Athens, I lose touch with the group, presumably because their phones run out of power on the bus. The next morning, I am shocked to see a location text all the way from Serbia. I wonder: How did refugee groups stay together in the days before smartphones?
I was planning to meet the guys on the Macedonia border today, but I’m already too late so I board a plane for Belgrade. Governments, apparently, are suddenly rushing to get the waves of people in and out of their countries, in case a neighbor’s border closes.
The next day in Serbia, while I try to figure out how to catch up with my group, Omar sends messages from a crowded train crossing Hungary. He says he and the others took a taxi out of Serbia and walked two kilometers before getting another taxi into Hungary.
"The situation was very good," he texts as I get in a car heading to Hungary.
Unlike the camerawoman shown attacking refugees in the video, journalists greeted them warmly as they entered Hungary, he says.
The police then loaded the refugees onto trains now heading for the Austrian border. Still, the trip across Hungary is hard, Omar adds. Seventy people are packed into cars meant for 30.
Later in the day, I am in Hungary near the border, where I've heard Austrians are planning a crackdown. An endless train passes me, pulling into a village.
A road sign says the border is closed, but at the village train station, I see police escorting silent lines of refugees off the train and toward the border. I don’t see my group.
Hours later, I check into a hotel in Budapest. But before I fall asleep, I finally see a text from Modar. “We are in Vienna,” he says, sending me a frowning selfie and a picture of the guys exhausted on the floor of the train station.
Vienna is considered the first truly safe stop along this trail, but after three days and two nights of non-stop travel, they are too tired to celebrate.
DAY 7: VIENNA, AUSTRIA, 2,820 kilometers from Syria
?When I land in Vienna, I call the guys, but their phones are all off. They may have already gotten a train to Germany.
The station is packed with refugees and other migrants. All that is organized is the hours-long ticket line, guarded by at least six police officers. The line wraps around a large empty space that they keep clear, presumably to avoid desperate refugees rushing the ticket counters.
As I approach, the officers stand aside, apparently assuming I am not a refugee on the way to Germany, but a tourist leaving the station. Slowly I walk the line, surveying the crowd. I spot Mohammed, the “ship captain” I met in Greece in his New York Yankees cap.
“Hello!” I whisper loudly in Arabic while I keep walking slowly. “Where are the guys?”
He subtlety points toward the door. I look behind me. The officers are approaching, and it’s clear I’m not supposed to be here. I walk out the door and they don’t follow. A few minutes later, I find Manaf, Majd, Ahmed and Modar sitting on the street, leaning against the station wall.
We snap a gleeful selfie on my phone and send it on to my Turkish interpreter Shadi. “Where’s Omar?” Shadi replies, anxious to know if the whole group is safe.
The guys tell me Omar is keeping busy, volunteering with aid organizations inside the station.
The men are relaxed and smiling after finally resting last night. In Vienna, they expect no attacks, robberies or arrests. They have already collected all of their knives in a bag and dropped them on a trash pile. It makes me wonder how many baggies full of knives have been thrown out in Vienna garbage bins.
“It’s very, very good,” Manaf says in English. He usually speaks in Arabic, but this is a special occasion.
Rush for tickets
The station is crowded with people mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Volunteers give out meals, clothes and assistance. “Stop Crying, Start Frying,” reads one of the many stands set up to provide food for refugees. “French fries for FREE.”
Translators have handwritten signs listing the languages they speak taped to their vests.
We approach the ticket line and join the group of refugees on the opposite side of the clearing from Mohammad. I want to buy a ticket to Germany, but Mohammad has been waiting in the line for six hours. If I join the back of the queue, their train will be sold out by the time I get to the front to buy a ticket.
“Mohammad!” calls out Modar, “Can we throw her money and passport to you in a bag over the heads of the police?”
The police are between us and Mohammad, and our conversation immediately grabs their attention. Modar is speaking in Arabic, and a translator is called to listen in. The whole thing makes me nervous.
“Never mind,” Modar shouts, “She’s afraid of the police!”
I’m surprised by how quickly their fear of authorities seems to have evaporated.
Only a week ago, most of them had fled Syria, where there was nowhere to hide. No matter what group of men with guns people think you support, they say, there is another group that wants to kill you for it.
Yet in Vienna, Modar is happy to lob cash and documents over the police officers’ heads, confident that no one will be hurt. Mohammad later manages to leave the ticket queue to collect money for my fare. He holds his place by telling police he has to go the bathroom.
“If the police in Syria were like the police here,” says Majd later, breathless after dancing on the street with refugees from Afghanistan. “There would be no war.”
The station basement
While Mohammad waits in the ticket line, the other guys show me around the station. In the basement, hundreds of refugees rest on blankets on the floor, heaped next to their luggage and children. Austria has free dormitories