While browsing on Facebook I ran across a post from my friend and colleague Mnar Muhawesh. The post from Humans of New York who has decided to post a series of stories from Refugees. When I started reading these my first thought was to help Humans of New York and Mnar tell the world about these stories. I share some of them here.
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean, we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband. (Kos, Greece)
“I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!'” (Lesvos, Greece)
“They fired rockets from a mountain near our house. They were very loud, and every time he heard them, he’d run into his room and close the door. We’d tell him fake stories. We’d tell him that there was nothing to worry about, and that the rockets were far away and they would never reach us. Then one day after school he was waiting in a line of school buses. And a rocket hit the bus in front of him. Four of his friends were killed.” (Kos, Greece)
For context on the upcoming stories, it is important to understand the ‘plastic boat.’ The plastic boat is a central figure in the story of almost every refugee coming to Europe via Turkey. Every day, thousands of people arrive to the Greek islands on these boats. They represent one of the only ways that refugees can bypass immigration restrictions and throw themselves at the feet of Europe. The journey is extremely dangerous and many have drowned in the past few months. Despite paying Turkish smugglers $1500 per person, the refugees are loaded into boats that are filled to many times their capacity. The boats usually leave at night to avoid detection. Often the refugees arrive carrying nothing but horror stories. Unfortunately there is little waiting for them on the other side. If they are lucky, a handful of volunteers will meet them on the beach with a bottle of water. In Lesvos, where this photo was taken, the refugees will then begin a 50-mile walk to the port where they can register. The UNHCR and several NGOs are scrambling to provide bare necessities, but their resources are stretched to capacity. They can offer little beyond a guarantee of survival. The initial elation of the refugees at having reached Europe will quickly subside as many realize they cannot even afford the price of a ferry to get off the island.
“After one month, I arrived in Austria. The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!’” (Kos, Greece)
“There is no security in Baghdad. We lived in constant fear. We started receiving text messages one day. They said: ‘Give us money, or we will burn down your house. If you tell the police, we will kill you.’ We had nobody to turn to. We are poor people. We have no powerful friends. We don’t know anyone in the government. The text messages continued every day. We were so afraid that we could not sleep. We had no money to give them. We could barely afford to feed ourselves. So we said to ourselves: ‘Maybe they are lying. Maybe they will do nothing.’ Then one night we woke up and our house was on fire. We barely escaped with the children. The next day we received a text message. It said: ‘Give us money, or this time you will die.’ I replied that we’d pay them soon. We sold everything we owned, and we left. We thought we’d rather die in a plastic boat than die there.” (Lesvos, Greece)