One Syrian refugee’s story

″I could no longer live in Syria″

Syrian refugee Alaa Houd left his job and family and hired people smugglers to make his way to the wealthy countries of Western Europe. Hiring people smugglers was his only way of leaving war-torn Syria. Diana Hodali spoke to Syrian Alaa Houd and recounts his story for him

I had no choice. I could no longer live in Syria. Of course I knew that escaping with the help of smugglers was a matter of life or death. Nonetheless, they provide the means of reaching Europe. In Damascus, I had long been dead anyhow. Every morning I bade farewell to my family - not knowing whether I would return again in the evening. On the way to work, I had to cross seven checkpoints. The escape to Europe at least gave me hope of a normal life, and that would not have been possible without the smugglers. I sold my house for $17,000, even though it was worth $80,000, and my wife and son moved in with my wife's parents.

My employer and local authorities granted me a one-day permit to travel to Lebanon on my own. That is where my long journey began. I fled to Turkey. Before moving on to Izmir, I had met a few Syrian men and we decided to stick together from that point on. When we reached Izmir, we had no trouble finding a smuggler's number. You just ask around. Everyone asks around openly. After one call, contact was established.

Money down

We never actually saw the head of the people-smuggling organisation because communication always goes through a middleman. We still called him a smuggler. He kept stringing us along: one day he said we were ready to go and the next day he claimed we were leaving the following day. In practice, it usually takes much longer, since the smugglers want to round up as many people as possible to fill up a ship. But before I was given further information, I had to deposit a payment for the sea voyage in a currency exchange office: it cost 1,150 euros ($1,300) to go to Greece. The money would stay in the exchange office until I got it back or it would be passed on to the middleman.

If the sea crossing hadn't taken place within the week, I would have been able to get my money back. Otherwise, the money is passed on to the smugglers. The exchange offices charge 50 euros per person for the deposit. And the smugglers constantly maintain communication with them. At some point, I got a call.

Alla Houd in the integration classroom in Germany (photo: DW/Sven Pöhle)
"Swimming in the sea is nothing compared to bombs and bullets raining down on your head ": for three hours Alaa Houd had to survive in the Mediterranean, before he was hauled out of the sea by the Greek coastguard. Asked whether he had been scared to die, he answered, "No, I looked death in the face for three years in Syria."

Rudderless

I was lucky. After three days, it was time to cross the sea. The middleman tells you that everything will go well, that you should not be scared and that the ship is large and safe. What could I possibly fear? I came from Syria and I'd seen it all. However, what the middleman doesn't tell you is that one of us has to steer the boat - someone who had paid less had to assume responsibility for steering. Unfortunately, this man was clueless, so another passenger had to stand in for him. There were 36 people on board a boat that was about six meters (20 feet) long and two meters wide. The only instruction the smugglers gave us was to follow the light on the island in the distance. That was it. That's what we did.

We were almost seized by the Turkish navy because they were performing maneouvres off the Greek coast. But we jumped into the sea and swam for our lives for three hours. I had packed my scant belongings in plastic and balloons. When I arrived in Greece, I had to spend six days in a reception centre to get registered. Then I went to Athens to search for the second group of smugglers.

Making a deal

Once I arrived in Athens, I had no difficulty finding the smugglers because it is a well-known fact that they hang around in a district called Omonia in the centre of the city – in the Cafe Pasha. The authorities in Athens are aware of it but no one does anything – probably because they don't care. Anyhow, I met a middleman there. He gave me the rundown. I had to deposit 4,000 euros at the currency exchange office and then I would be provided with a plane ticket to Germany, a trip to the airport, and most importantly, a fake passport.

Refugee boat en route to Lesbos (photo: Reuters/M. Sezer)
The Mediterranean a mass grave, Greece a transit land for refugees: according to the UNHCR, 30,000 refugees are currently holed up on the Greek islands. The main reason for the growth in refugee numbers is the deteriorating situation in civil war-torn Syria. By the beginning of September, the number of refugees who died crossing the Mediterranean to get to Europe had risen to 2,760 – an increase of over 500 on the same period last year

I haggled down the price to 3,800 euros –it was the best I could do. This time, the head of the smuggler group, an Afghan, wanted to meet me. He told me that my appearance would work in my favour: with suitable clothes, I could easily pass as a Greek or Czech. Sometimes the smugglers buy passports and just replace the photos and sometimes you get a passport of a person who looks like you.

A few days later I was already sitting in the smuggler's car on the road to the airport. I was only allowed to take hand luggage, so I did not have to check in at the counter but I had barely brought any belongings from Syria anyhow. The smuggler gave me my new identity, a fake Czech passport, checked me in at one of the airport kiosks, and made ​​sure that I knew where my gate was. Then we parted ways.

Giving up

In Frankfurt, I threw away my passport and turned myself in to the police. I knew I would not get past them. The Germans are known to recognise fake passports immediately. I wanted to spare myself the embarrassment of having to be arrested in front of everyone at the airport. My friends in Syria often ask me whether they should attempt this journey. Then I tell them what it was like. I think it is up to each person to decide. Ultimately, only fate will determine the success of their journey. Any European or international activities against the smugglers will have no impact on the situation: people in need will always find a way to flee. I would do it again at any time, because in Damascus, I was long dead.

Diana Hodali

© Deutsche Welle 2015

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