MYTILENE, GREECE - The first picture was messaged to my WhatsApp account at 3:51 a.m. The group of men were on a dark beach with wet clothes, smiling with their fingers held up in victory signs.
The night before they had marched off with backpacks and life jackets in a risky bid to be smuggled from Turkey to Greece by rubber boat. The eight men barely knew each other before they decided to travel together. Omar and Monaf, two college students and the youngest in the group, grinned and puffed their chests, miming quickly beating hearts.
Thousands of people have died on this journey as they hurtle toward Europe. Others are robbed of their life savings by smugglers or thieves and left trapped in war zones with no money. There are countless people stranded right now, left broke and homeless after risking, and losing, everything.
When I saw the photos, I knew these eight were — so far — among the lucky ones.
The group had survived years of war, escaped from Syria and had spent days planning. They had slept in the street the night before and were about to attempt the trek from Greece to Germany, where they hope to find a future.
Their text message said, “We made it.”
The next day I traveled to meet the group, taking a commercial ferry from Greece to Turkey for $20. The men had paid smugglers $1,200 each.
When my boat came ashore, I walked through customs into downtown Mytilene. They walked for 2½ hours from the beach. Mobile phones with GPS service are a must for any refugee who can afford it.
“The city is not safe and the hotels are all full,” said a local taxi driver outside customs. He flicked his hands at the refugees loitering by the port, some with plastic tents. “These people,” he said with exasperation.
The streets of Mytilene were crowded with refugees, and Arabic was the only language heard in the worn-down tourist destination.
Many people were buying cheap shoes on the streets, having ruined theirs on the rubber boats. The shops sold tourist items like T-shirts and knickknacks, unlike the Turkish side, where shop windows displayed life jackets, knives and other equipment for crossing the sea.
The first hotel was only minutes from the port, and I lined up at the reception desk. While I waited, two young men entered behind me wearing backpacks, practically the uniform of this portion of this human wave.
“All full?” the men said in English.
“Full,” the receptionist replied.
When it was her turn to help me, I told her: “I know you are full, but .... "
She interrupted. “You need a room? I have a balcony room with a sea view. It is 72 euros.” I felt embarrassed but I took the room.
Ice cream cafe
An hour after I arrived, Modar, an iPhone repairman-turned-refugee, came back online on WhatsApp, telling me his group was sitting in an outdoor ice cream parlor. He texted the location.
The group, now larger, had finished their coffees and waters before I arrived. Omar was curled up in his chair asleep, while some of the other men excitedly told their tale. After driving four hours and carefully avoiding the police, they had walked through the woods for an hour in pitch darkness. Smugglers hurriedly gave directions to the 32 passengers in English, repeating, “Go, go, go!” at every new phase of the trip.
One of the smugglers was a blond Turkish girl in her 30s, said Modar.
When they arrived at the beach, they saw four people sleeping there, and even 8-year-old Mohammed knew why they were there. “Their smuggler had stolen their money from them,” he later said.
“Go, go, go!” the smugglers repeated, 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. On the road from Syria to Europe, fear is dismissed as only for the weak. And after more than four years living in a humanitarian disaster, many people say they are too numb to feel much of anything.
Now that they had finally arrived in Greece, they were in a hurry to get to the next border. Everyone knows Hungary is passing new anti-immigration laws and building a wall, and they want to get in and out of the country while it is still possible.
At the mention of Hungary, eyes clouded over at the ice cream shop. Besides the danger of illegally entering a hostile country, they said that having come so far, the idea of failing in Hungary was unbearable.
“Hungary is hard,” said Omar, now awake, dipping his forehead into his hands.