Ahmed was eating dinner in his family home before he was forced to flee Aleppo in April 2012. As he sat down at the table with his mother and brother, a message came through on the loud speakers of their local mosque. They were informed that they had six hours to be out of their houses before the city was to be invaded by the army in a government-sanctioned attack upon its own citizens.
Of course, they were prepared for this. Aleppo had seen refugees flowing in from cities such as Homs. Soldiers were seen in the streets, people were being arrested – it was no wonder the Aleppians were on edge. There were increasing accounts of soldiers shooting civilians. Young men like Ahmed and his brother, eligible for military service, were being called upon to join the army.
Then there came shortages of resources throughout the country. Famous for its soap, olive oil and textiles, the war interrupted production in Syria. Many factories, warehouses and shops have been destroyed. As a result, many Aleppiens have no income, no basic supplies and no international relations. With its centre of production out of service, the rest of Syria is also suffering.
Prior to the forced evacuation, Ahmed’s family was short of bread and fuel during the icy Syrian winter. Given it would only be a matter of time before Ahmed was called up for military service or they were unlucky enough to have a bomb fall on their house, Ahmed decided to ask for help from the international community. The Australian and UK governments were offering help to Syrians with expedited visa services, which didn’t require a migration agent. Ahmed was delighted with the news that Australia had made it easier for asylum seekers and applied both in person and online, using the official forms,.
“The UNHCR didn’t help. I went to the Australian government and they didn’t let me in to see them, they hired very rude staff. I tried to contact them and sent them [my application for a humanitarian visa] and after five months they got back to me.” They told Ahmed that the file size of his photo attachments was too big. It seems that only people with migration lawyers and money were able to get the visas. “If I were a doctor they may be interested, so when they say “have humanitarian asylum” I guess that’s not true.”
“There is something beyond stress: hopelessness”
In the end, Ahmed’s family had to leave their all of their worldly possessions that night in Aleppo, after the Free Army’s six-hour warning, and follow the hundreds of thousands of Syrians escaping to Jordan. The streets of Aleppo were full of people trying to escape. Ahmed and his family crossed about ten checkpoints before reaching the Jordanian border. Each checkpoint cost them dearly – Ahmed’s mother gave her life savings in jewellery to get them out of the country, but it was only when they reached Jordan that their struggle really began.
The life of a refugee is a miserable one: stateless for over a year, his home looted, his town bombed. Ahmed hasn’t been employed for two years and has no right to work. He has no chance to marry and he’s discovered there is something beyond stress: hopelessness. Those who have access to television and internet find it hard to watch what The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is doing to their countries. Many Syrians and now Iraqis have taken the dangerous route to freedom and escaped to Europe, an option out of the question for families but a feasible choice for single people.
After living without permanent accommodation in Turkey on a very small amount of money, Ahmed left his family, borrowed €3,000 and paid a network of smugglers to take him to Greece. Ahmed hoped to use this gateway to western Europe to seek refugee status in Sweden and earn some money to send to his family.
Unfortunately, the two-day journey into Greece turned out to be a perilous six-day nightmare. Ahmed was locked in a room in Istanbul waiting alongside thirty-two other escapees, including five Afghans, five Syrians, two Eritreans and several Iraqis. His phone and money were removed for “safekeeping” and never returned.
The thirty-two desperate people were crammed into a small truck and driven towards the Turkish border. Ahmed was given only two bottles of water and bread for the long journey.
Led by a large, aggressive Iraqi smuggler who seemed more interested in collecting his fee than getting the refugees to safety, the group were lost and without water or food. The journey was prolonged by four days because they had to hide from vigilant border control and eventually ended up walking in circles. Upon arrival in Athens, the surviving refugees were locked in a filthy room with blood stained walls until their payment was delivered from a guarantor whose details were given to the smugglers before the journey began. The only items in this concealed room were ropes, bread and one cell phone between them with no credit. The task of communication was made almost impossible with this system; 30 people trying to receive calls at once, and those who experienced delay in contacting their sponsors were beaten.
Ahmed awaited his fate in a small room alone. He was lucky to have his sponsor call in time to escape severe beatings from the smugglers. But where to now? The Syrians could not stay in Greece, as the bankrupt country has its own demons to fight without worrying about providing benefits for more than 20,000 refugees who have arrived recently from Syria, most of whom rely upon the Greek Orthodox Church for donations.
The saddest part is that Greece reminds Ahmed of his country: “The trees, the food, the buildings – it’s a bit like Syria.” But his village and loved ones now destroyed forever, he will never be able to go home.
After four attempts with false passports, Ahmed finally made it to Sweden. The Swedish government currently offers protection to all Syrians upon arrival. It’s hard to be processed as a refugee without any identification but this is one of the many difficulties faced by refugees when they flee war-torn countries.
Ahmed was lucky to have friends in foreign countries who acted as a character reference, but one can only guess the trials other refugees must go through to get legitimate papers.
There is still little foreign assistance available despite the United Nation’s pleas for help. Sweden leads the way in providing Syrian refugees with a home in Europe, as neighbouring Turkey and Jordan’s resources are stretched to the limit with a mass exodus of refugees flooding over the land borders. The rest of the world sits and watches Syria and Iraq suffer as ISIS take over their homelands.
How many more will have to pay with their lives before we help them?
Terry Elward is an Australian freelance writer working in Asia and the Middle East. She has been documenting the conditions of Syrian refugees since 2012.