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The odyssey of a 27-year old Syrian refugee, who had been accepted to attend graduate studies in Germany, which the war made impossible, and who fell into the claws of human traffickers, lost all his money, but managed to gain asylum and is now assisting his persecuted countrymen through humanitarian initiative "Bridges".

Boat metanastes

He had completed his studies at the Syrian Physical Education Academy and was working as a volleyball coach. He wanted to continue with graduate studies in Germany, but the war made his trip to Europe virtually impossible. His only option was to turn to human traffickers . They brought him to Athens two years ago, but were unable to get him into Northern Europe, even though he had given them all of his money. Karam, who is now 27 years old, tells of his experience with the traffickers and his adventure in Greece up to the point where he received asylum.

In the winter of 2012 I applied for graduate studies in Germany. I was accepted, but a short time later they closed the German Embassy in Syria, as well as the Goethe Institute, so I was not able to complete my registration at the university or attain a student visa. I went to Turkey in an effort to complete that there. They recommended that I go to the UN offices and request asylum so that I could submit a new application to the university. That would take at least another year. I returned to Syria. The war escalated.

My neighborhood in Damascus was becoming increasingly dangerous. Meanwhile, since I could not continue my studies, my postponement from being drafted into the army had expired. I had to enlist. I do not consider myself a fighter and I do not like to see Syrians killing each other. I decided to leave. My parents encouraged me.

I had to find a way to get back into Turkey. This time it was harder because I had been proclaimed as a deserter. If the army checked my status then I would be arrested. If the rebels checked my status it would be dangerous because I belonged to a different religion and tribe. I found a driver, gave him 3,000 Syrian pounds (at that time about 150 Eur) and he drove me safely to a city that was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. When I passed the gate and had my passport stamped on the Turkish side, I felt very relieved.

I had an uncle who lived in Greece for 14 years, my aunt's husband, who I had never met in Syria. I asked him to help me get to Europe. We looked for a trafficker who had slightly larger, safer boats, even though it would cost more. There was an option to travel in a luxury yacht, which cost 2,600 Eur, but I would have to wait for months until that was available. We found an acceptable solution that would cost 1000 Eur, which my uncle would pay as soon as I crossed over. Today, a similar journey would cost 3,500-4,000 Eur. Everything would be arranged over the phone. One day I got a call from the trafficker who told me to go to a hotel and wait there until everyone who would be on this trip gathered. There were 37 of us, mostly Syrians and four Tunisians. We were instructed over the phone to get into a truck. It was driven by a Turk who would drive us to the coast. He was nervous and scared because if we were caught there would be severe repercussions. It was July and it was very hot. He drove for about ten hours without stopping. We were all piled up on one another in the darkness as the windows were covered with paper. I stood the whole time and tried to hold on to something. It was hell

We arrived and got out onto a field next to the sea. They told us we were at Izmir, but I had no way of verifying that. We waited there for two or three hours. The police was patrolling the area so we had to stay hidden. Whoever had food shared with the others. We were only allowed a small bag with the bare essentials. A change of clothes, a cell phone, money and documents. I had about 300 Eur, my diploma and other educational certifications, my Syrian ID, and my passport.

 

Another truck arrived with two Turks. They were very nervous, constantly yelling. One of us lit a cigarette and they began yelling at him. It was dangerous because the police might see the embers. At some point they brought us a box in which the boat was folded, a pump, and two five-liter cans of fuel. We inflated the boat, assembled it, and hid it for another hour until we were sure that the police was not nearby. A Tunisian offered to drive the boat. In exchange, the trafficker told him, he would not have to pay. They took the boat for a ride to test it and then we set off.

The distance from the Turkish shore to Lesvos should not have been more than half an hour for a boat like ours. It took us eight hours. The sea was rough, the waves kept pushing us back and the boat was full of water. We took our shoes off and tried to empty the water out with them. I was dizzy. "My God", I thought, "if you want me to die,, do it now. If you want me to get there, let it be soon."

When we arrived we destroyed the boat with a knife, as the trafficker had requested, so that the police could not force us to return if we were caught. We climbed up a mountain, hid for a while, then found a road and began to walk. We walked for fifteen hours. We got to a village where we ate and drank. We had a father and daughter with us and they were sick. We found the police station where they told them that they were Syrians without and documents and they asked them to put them in jail or to notify the Red Cross, anything that would end their ordeal and could provide some type of protection. "There is nothing we can do" was the response. "Ask the church across the street." At the church they showed us the bus stop for a bus to the port, so we took it. I, along with three others who had passports, purchased boat tickets and arrived in Athens. I later found out that the others came with another ship.

 

In Athens I stayed with my uncle near Attiki square. I began looking for traffickers so I could go on to northern Europe. We found someone and I followed my uncle's advice to pay 5,600 Eur to an office that acted as intermediaries. As soon as I was able to leave, I would send the man at the office a text message with a code that we would have agreed upon, signifying that I had arrived at my destination and in turn he would pay the trafficker.

 

The trafficker gave me a false ID and a ticket to Geneva. However the ID was of poor quality and I was discovered right away. "Leave," said the policeman at the airport, "this is a fake. Try again." "Of course I will try again, I have no choice," I replied. "I will catch you every time" he said. I tried once more, but I failed. Now I know how things work. I know that a fake ID costs 40-50 Eur. The trafficker told me it cost 900. I know that he purchased the ticket for 152 Eur. I know that in some cases they just simply hack into someone's credit card and use it to charge the amount.

 

I just stayed home. Whichever trafficker I asked, they told me to stay indoors because if I was caught I would be in a lot of trouble. I had no papers, just my passport, which was about to expire. That is how six or seven months passed by. I studied German so that I would be ready when I got to Germany.

 

One day my uncle told me: "We lost the money." The owner of the office took the money and disappeared. I should have known, I had trusted someone I did not know, even though he was my uncle. My parents kept sending some money, 200 Eur per month, so I survived. They offered to send me more so that I could leave and go to Germany. I told them to keep it; I had four siblings in Syria that they had to take care of. I would find my own way.

 

I met a Greek of Syrian descent and together with his wife we created an organization to help Syrians who came to Greece. We named it "Bridges". And I continued to seek asylum. That was an adventure in itself that lasted for months. Within a ten-week period I went to the Asylum Service on Katechaki Avenue 32 times. That is where I learned two Greek words very well, the ones that I had heard the most in my time in Greece: "leave" and "tomorrow". One day I was fortunate enough to be selected to enter. But when I reached my turn at the counter in order to get a number for an appointment, they told me that they had run out of numbers.

 

I had had enough, so I went to Lesvos. At the holding center there was branch of the Asylum Services and at least there was no line there. I was interviewed and was about to receive the asylum application form but the Internet was down on the island due to a malfunction and they could not issue the form. I was forced to wait another two weeks at risk of being arrested by the police. Finally it seemed that I was fortunate and I succeeded. I have been recently acknowledged as a refugee even though I do not have the right to travel due to the delay by the authorities in deciding which travel documents they would issue to refugees. Consequently I sometimes feel like Greece has become a type of prison for me.

 

I was not prepared for this drawn out ordeal. I read about the Dublin Regulation, I tried to find out how to request asylum and how to re-apply to the university. I did not consider how I would get there or what I would face. I was content just to be in Europe. Everything was simple, you could expect to have your rights respected. That is what we knew. The problem lies with European governments that offer the right for us to be refugees in Europe, but they do nothing for us to get there. It is as if they push us towards the traffickers. They support them. However, I may have been one of the more fortunate ones.

 

I have heard stories of refugees who were expelled at the borders, who were shot at by the coast guard, and who drown in the Aegean. However, I have this question: if we are not offered the right to travel legally by the European states, so that we have access to the refugee rights that they supposedly recognize, then what is the point? Why don't they just repeal the asylum? Why do they give us hope?

 

(Article by D. Aggelidis, "Efimeridas ton Syntakton [Editors' Journal"] on 21/08/2014)

 



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