An aid worker tells the harrowing story of one Syrian family’s escape to Greece

Thousands of refugees are beginning their journey to Europe via the Greek island of Lesbos.
Thousands of refugees are beginning their journey to Europe via the Greek island of Lesbos.
Image: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra
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In Lesbos, the sun is rising—illuminating a sea that hides tragedy below its surface. We are carrying family tents designed for humanitarian relief through the site, looking for empty spaces to set them up, when a man approaches our group and asks if we could use a hand. Two young boys stand at his side, eager to assist.

“I don’t want anything in return,” he says. “I just want to help.”

It’s another 90-degree Fahrenheit day under the Mediterranean sun on this small Greek island. Only six miles from the western shore of Turkey, Lesbos is the main gateway to Europe for thousands of families who arrive daily from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 258,000 migrants have arrived on the shores of Greece since the start of 2015. Almost half that number—122,400 as of Sep. 6—has come via Lesbos. For a small, picturesque Greek island with a local population of only 86,000 people, the influx of newcomers is overwhelming.

Summer days like this one see 2,000 to 3,000 new arrivals on average. Rubber dinghies pull up on idyllic beaches next to tourists lunching at waterfront cafes. This August, the island received well over 50,000 arrivals—its highest intake ever. Most of these refugees have no intention of staying. There are no jobs, and they see no future here. They leave Lesbos as fast as they can, heading north. Most dream of Germany, but first they must wait.

Kara Tepe transit camp, where I work setting up tents for refugees, sits on a bluff a little over two miles from the port town of Mytilene. It is a relatively small plot of land, part olive grove, authorized for use by the local authorities and designated for Syrian refugees only. Conditions here are dire.

Trash covers the fields and streets and the smell of human excrement fills the air. A handful of inadequate toilets and showers serve thousands, and tarps used as makeshift shelters and dilapidated tents set up in haste by the municipality flap in the breeze. There is no one in charge of Kara Tepe. Humanitarian-aid organizations move in and out as they are able, providing whatever assistance they can. I work with ShelterBox, a UK-based disaster relief organization, distributing 100 large tents for families. It is a drop in the bucket in the midst of this calamity, but the tents provide shelter, privacy and a small amount of dignity to at least 1,000 people who wait here.

The man, Nizar*, who offered to help me, wears a straw fedora. It has “GREECE” printed along one side—cheesy tourist fare—but it keeps the sun off, and against his tan, weathered skin it looks almost dapper. He came from Deir Ezzor, where his extended family is still caught in the crossfire as the Syrian army and Islamic State vie for control. He has a wife and four sons. The oldest is respectful, but has the indifference of an 16 year-old. His younger brother, at 15, is energetic. Then there are the twins—both 11. One has a clever smile, the other is quiet.

Nizar tells me the story of how they escaped.

They landed on a beach in Lesbos on Aug. 28, 2015—19 days after crossing the Syrian border into Turkey, and four and a half years after first fleeing their hometown. Their story is not unique, in this sense. After years of conflict, over 12 million people, or half of Syria’s original population, have been killed, displaced from their homes, or have fled Syria for safer shores. They flee the constant bombing and sniper fire in the streets of their city neighborhoods and rural villages. They leave their homes as they run out of money and are no longer able to afford the exorbitant food prices that befall towns under siege. They run from the Islamic State, its extremist views, and the terror it inflicts on those living under its control. Syrian mothers press their sons to leave before they are conscripted into Bashar al-Assad’s army, knowing they will be imprisoned or killed if they refuse. The battleground shifts daily, the alliances are complicated, and there is no safe side.

His wife is one of these mothers. Here in Kara Tepe, she wears a fashionable headscarf and large sunglasses. Nizar calls her “the boss.” She smiles frequently, though occasionally a tear rolls out from the corner of her eye. She’s scared, but she knows the journey has been worth the pain and fear.

Like many Syrians who are now refugees, their family once lived a peaceful, middle-class life. Their journey took them from Deir Ezzor, on the edge of the Euphrates, to Damascus, then to Raqqah. When their money began to run low, they went home to Deir Ezzor, unsure of where to go next. Their house was ransacked, but they stayed for the time being. Then the Islamic State arrived. They were accused of not being “Muslim enough”—of not understanding the Quran. They were threatened and terrorized by foreign fighters whose views they could not comprehend.

They left quickly, making their way through a seemingly endless string of villages, sleeping in the homes of friends and strangers, and negotiating their passage with the official forces controlling each area until they reached the border with Turkey. There, they paid bribes to Syrian mafia on one side and Turkish mafia on the other. They slept in a rented house in Istanbul. Nizar sought out traffickers and paid $6,600 for six spaces on a small boat that would travel from Turkey to Greece—$1,100 per person. It was a formal business transaction, not unlike an escrow account. He brought cash to a nondescript office. They gave him a pin number and told him to call it in when he landed on the other side. Then, the money would be paid.

After two weeks in Istanbul, a call came telling Nizar that it was time to go. After a six hour bus ride, they were let off two hours from a beach run by traffickers in western Anatolia, to which they walked under cover of darkness.

“Stay here,” the traffickers said, once they were near the shore. “We will come back for you.”

Ten hours passed as they sat, cold and hungry, in the middle of a forest on the edge of the sea with 40 others who had paid the same hefty sum for a chance at freedom. As the sun rose, the traffickers returned.

“Get ready. We are going soon.”

Turkish forces swept in on them just after dawn, rerouting the travelers to a police station where they were told to hand over their passports and get on their knees.

Once again they were told to wait, this time by the Turkish police commander.

After 10 hours at the police station, they were sent back to Istanbul by bus, where they finally went to sleep again only to be woken by another phone call a few hours later. The trafficker was back.

“Let’s go.”

After repeating another harrowing bus ride, they walked to the same beach.

Again, the refrain: “Stay here. We will come back for you.”

They waited. The mother cried. Fourteen hours passed.

“Now. Hurry.”

With their illegal guides, they rushed toward the surf. The rubber dingy was rapidly inflated and a motor was attached. Desperation and fear took over and the group of refugees lunged for a place in the boat as husbands and wives clung tightly to one another and their children. Their belongings tumbled into the water—extra clothes, passports, food, and their cell phones—their lifelines to family back home and to information in the future. Everything sank as the Turkish trafficker quickly told one young Syrian how to work the motor, then pushed them out to sea and pointed across the water.

“Now! Go!”

UNHCR estimates that 2,860 people have been lost at sea since Jan. 2015. Five died on their way to Lesbos this week—the Greek Coast Guard retrieved the survivors. The small, flimsy boats are packed beyond capacity and quickly begin taking on water. Motors fail, or are stolen by pirates. Crossings often begin at night, without light and out of view of officials, when the waves are choppy. Many passengers cannot swim.

By the time we meet, they have spent three days on the streets of Lesbos. They were fortunate. They landed safely on the beautiful beaches of Molyvos on the north side of the island. A pair of entrepreneurial Greeks met them on the beach to snatch the boat’s motor and carry it off. This was not an anomaly. The people-trafficking trade has become a business for many, particularly in cash-strapped Greece.

Exhausted, emotional and without food or water, they hiked up the beach to the nearest town, where they learned that hotels on Lesbos do not take refugees without registration papers. Taxi drivers don’t either. Local authorities have banned it, referencing Greek laws, which forbid the housing and transportation of undocumented migrants. They slept that night in a public garden.

The next day they caught a bus arranged and paid for by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to the crowded, chaotic port of Mytilene. It is here, 40 miles south, where all refugees are sent to register with the police. Many walk the whole distance, as the port authorities shut down the buses when conditions become overcrowded—a scenario that plays out almost daily.

Tired, confused and frustrated, they slept that night in a parking lot full of trash, and smelling of urine. There were no blankets, no toilets, no officials to explain the process. The scene at the port is the result of Greek bureaucratic infighting and political indecision—a reminder that Greece is a poorly run country, further complicated by an economic crisis, a political crisis and, now, a refugee crisis.

There are not enough ferries to get those with papers off the island. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, sleep in small pop-up tents, which have become a specialty in Mytilene tourist shops. They bathe at a nearby beach, or in public fountains. Children slip into small spaces between cars to go to the bathroom.

The next morning two police officers took their places in a booth meant to process the thousands of refugees waiting at Mytilene port. There was a rush toward the line. Nizar jumped in, pressed up tight between two others. The line snaked around the port. The sun was unrelenting. At last his time came to register. He gave his wife and sons’ names, showed their passports and received a small slip of paper with a number.

Later that day, they boarded a bus at the port to take them to Kara Tepe, where they waited for the police to return and hand them their registration papers—their ticket to mainland Europe. As the bus pulled up, the driver said, “Wait here. They will come back for you.”

It was night when they get to the camp. By the light of the full moon, they wandered through the olive grove among pop-up tents and people sleeping on the ground. Another family offered to share their tent with them. Families smile upon other families with children. They seem safer than single men.

The next morning is when we meet. He helps us work to erect tents for new families. Our goal is to house as many as we can. The boys are industrious. In the disorder of Kara Tepe, they pitch in wherever they can—translating for aid workers, cleaning up garbage, setting up tents—whatever needs to be done.

Nizar’s wife sits under a tree with other women—new friends—as children run this way and that and babies fuss. Occasionally, she checks our progress and ensures her sons are contributing satisfactorily.

Nizar waits with large crowds of men for the police officials, who arrive each day around two o’clock in the afternoon. When refugee numbers are low it takes a day or two, maybe three. This week, with the mayor estimating at least 25,000 refugees on the island, and conditions reaching a point of extreme crisis, the wait for many is longer—a week, perhaps two. Papers often come back haphazardly—a mother’s document arrives, her son’s is missing. There is no one to ask, no official to help sort out the confusion. Everyone must wait.

At last, as conditions in the camp begin to deteriorate further, and an estimated 5,000 refugees pack the small space originally designed to hold 700, the police shout Nizar’s name. He hurries back to the port to find ferry tickets, waiting again in long lines outside travel agencies to purchase tickets that will take them to the mainland. It’s peak tourist season and many of the regular boats have been booked up for weeks in advance. Occasionally, special ferries for refugees are arranged from Athens, but their arrival is never certain, and tickets sell out in moments.

There is no altruism here. Refugees pay at every turn. A ferry ticket on a regular line costs 40 euros per person. The irregular ferries can charge whatever they want, and tickets at times reach well over 100 euros. A day later, he calls me. They are leaving at noon, traveling to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, and then north through Macedonia by train and, eventually, on to Germany.

It is a relief to be leaving Lesbos. The situation has reached a point of crisis never seen before. Days later, protests will break out among refugees who, though carrying olive branches as they march, refuse to wait any longer. A fire will be set to partially-erected registration containers at Kara Tepe in protest of a registration process that has been suspended for days. Riot police and high-level officials will be flown in from Athens to alleviate the humanitarian disaster that has been building for weeks, or in truth, for years.

But today, they take their tickets and move on with their journey. The uncertainty of the next step is daunting. There are reports of tear gas, riot police with batons, razor wire enclosed camps on the Hungarian-Serbian border and train lines shut down in Budapest to keep refugees from leaving.

“Will you go back to Syria one day?” I ask.

“Inshallah,” Nizar says. God willing.

I nod and bite my lip. I feel we’ve failed them.

*name has been changed.