A Syrian refugee tale: Egyptian prison, rubber boats and refugee camps

Samir was a social revolutionary aiding refugees in Damascus; he didn’t imagine that their story would become his.

Samir and his companions bathe in a stream in Macedonia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Samir and his companions bathe in a stream in Macedonia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Four years ago, Samir was aiding refugees in Damascus. It was one of his responsibilities as a member of the Communist Party.
“We had many refugees, Lebanese people from the 2006 war [with Israel], Somalis and Sudanese,” says Samir, 25, whose real name is concealed for the safety of his family in Syria.
“Every mosque in Damascus had a charity box for them. Who would have thought that one day I would become a refugee?” Escaping the secret service: First stop, Egypt I met Samir in Cairo in November 2014. At this point he had been out of Syria for a year, but he still held on to his youthful communist ideals. He spoke of Trotsky, Che and others.
He sounded like a 1960s idealistic American, protesting the war in Vietnam. With his spectacles and shaggy hair, he looked like a college student who had just stepped out of campus on his way home, waiting to go back.
“I believe in equality, and that’s what we wanted to achieve in the Syrian revolution,” he says, “that’s actually why I’m here in Cairo. I had to flee because of my involvement.”
A few months later Samir disappeared into thin air, leaving his friends confused and unaware of his whereabouts. An explanation arrived later in an email: “Sorry I didn’t answer your message, I’m now in Germany, I entered Europe illegally with a rubber boat.”
In a phone interview, he told me about the journey from Egypt to Europe.
“I was working and making a life in Egypt, until the Mukhabarat (Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate) showed up at my friend’s apartment and asked some questions about me. This was a short time after I was participating in political activities and demonstrating in front of the Syrian Embassy.
“Hearing this from my friend pushed me to fly to Turkey immediately, where I lived in a flat with my cousins for two weeks. They wanted to leave to Europe, and I decided to join them.”
Stranded at sea, stuck on an island: From Turkey to Europe
Turkey has been hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, close to two million. Although (according to the UNHRC report) the Turks are excelling in absorbing refugees, the numbers are overwhelming.
In a country where one out of 10 Turkish citizens is unemployed, the government is reluctant to give the refugees work permits. As a result, many refugees are working illegally for low wages, and the downtown areas are full of Syrian beggars. This situation is pushing many refugees to journey on to Europe, despite the risks.
“Four times we tried to reach Europe by boat, and it cost us $900,” Samir says.
“On our first venture we met the Greek coast guard at sea. They took our motor and told us they will return with a bigger boat to bring us to Greece. We waited for five hours, during which we called them a few times. They just said ‘We’re coming’ and laughed on the phone.
Walking in Greece. (photo credit: Courtesy)
“So we called the Italian and Turkish coast guards for rescue. The Italians were waiting for approval from the Greeks to cross their territory and bring us to Italy.
By the time they got it, we were already on the Turkish boat. The Turkish coast guards told us the Greeks had no intention of bringing us into their country.
“On the second time we had to cancel the trip because of bad weather. The third time the driver lost his directions and called the Turkish coast guard for rescue. We went back to Turkey again.
“We insisted on making another attempt on the planned time, despite bad weather. On April 20, we embarked on our fourth journey. We were hurled into a storm and landed on an uninhabited Greek island with only one police station.
“We waited all night until the policemen sailed from the mainland and arrived at their island post. They were surprised to find us there, and sent us to Athens. From Athens we took a bus to Thessaloniki.”
Over the summer months the number of refugees leaving from Turkey increased dramatically, coinciding with a sharp drop in smuggling prices and fairer conditions on the water to reach Greece. More than 150,000 migrants entered Greece by sea from January to August of this year. From September to the end of October, over 500,000 people made the treacherous voyage, according to UN figures.
The raft used by Samir and his companions washed up on a deserted Turkish island. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Go through the forest, we didn’t see you’ “Then we walked to Macedonia, crossing the mountains,” Samir continued.
“For seven days we ate what grew on the trees, and we bathed in the rivers.
“We came across the Macedonian Police a few times, but none of them tried to arrest or deport us. Some of them gave us food and water. Time and again they told us: ‘We did not see you, move on.’ “When we were one kilometer away from the Serbian border, the patrolling police told us to avoid the border crossing and cut through the bush, and again they told us, ‘We did not see you.’ “After cutting through the bush and arriving at the first Serbian town, we took public transportation to Belgrade.
“Belgrade had too many refugees for the police to control and raid. Despite that, we couldn’t avoid encounters with the police, because we needed permits from them to check into hostels.
“We realized in [a very difficult way] that the Serbian policemen were not so fond of Arabs. They called us ‘sluts’ and ‘animals’ and refused to give us the permit, but they allowed us to move freely.
They told us to go to Western Europe, which we [eventually] did. Meanwhile, we found a guest house that was willing to host us without a permit. Other times we slept in city parks.
“Then we tried to smuggle [ourselves] across the Hungarian border. We walked for seven hours, avoiding the checkpoints. We were caught by the police, who took us to the border police station. We feared deportation, but the officer was nice and he allowed us to enter Hungary.”
Nearly four months after Samir and his cousins crossed the border, Hungary constructed a fence in an attempt to stop the mass flow of refugees. The Hungarian police shot water cannons, used tear gas and violent force – images of bloody men carrying their children, and women covering their faces from water cannons and smoke flooded the Internet. The Serbian government condemned the Hungarians for their use of force on their side of the border. Politicians debated over who should take more responsibility for the refugees, and countries were classified as “refugee friendly” and the opposite. Samir made his journey months before this issue became the center of such media attention.
“Even back then, refugees were crowding the buses and train stations. We managed to escape the mess because we always went our own way; we did not follow the masses. On the Hungarian- Czech border, we had the option of boarding a meat truck that was overloaded with refugees. We decided not to take this ride, and ended up getting a lift from a private German car. Because it was a German car, nobody stopped us at the borders, and he drove us all the way to Germany through Austria.”
Last stop – German refugee camp On May 13 Samir arrived in Germany and waited one month in a “welcoming camp,” a temporary refugee camp for new arrivals.
“All inhabitants were supposed to be housed in buildings, but the camp was too crowded and many were living in tents. The government has been trying to deal with this problem, and a few more buildings were built. Some of them were burned down by neo-Nazis.”
Although Germany is considered a welcoming country, not all Germans are happy to receive refugees. Anti-Muslim rallies were being held throughout the country, and so far there have been 200 arson and other attacks aimed at refugee camps.
“There is some racism in this town, but the racists are a minority,” Samir says.
“There are local activists and NGOs protecting us and watching over our camps. Once, a car with two suspicious people was parked next to the camp for a long time. Our German neighbors, who saw this, called the police immediately, and they removed the threat.”
After a month in the temporary camp, Samir was moved to a permanent camp and is now applying for political asylum.
Life in Damascus Samir’s story starts in the Syrian revolution of 2011. He was part of an anti- government group that didn’t get as much attention as the other rebel groups (such as the Free Syrian Army, Syrian National Coalition, al-Nusra Front, etc.). His group was inspired by the youth movements of the Arab Spring, yet without financial backing and a military plan, they were easily caught by government forces and thrown into jail.
Samir started his political involvement when he was 16, in a left-wing party. By the age of 18 he left and joined another left-wing party, The People’s Wish. When the demonstrations started in 2011, he was still an active member in The People’s Wish, engaging in political activities and aiding refugees.
“At first, the demonstrations were held by common people who wanted a democratic Syria,” Samir explains. “The People’s Wish were old-school communists, and they were getting their orders from Russia. When the demonstrations started, they received orders not to get involved.
“We used to argue a lot about it. I realized that the old communism had its major faults. They loved to talk and argue, but they never actually tried to solve the society’s problems. So I left, along with four friends, and we contacted Nabud, the organization that arranged the original demonstrations.
By that time, most of their leaders were either arrested, killed, or in exile, and the revolution suffered. We told them we would revive the revolution and reorganize the demonstrations.”
Hiding in Damascus: Life on the run
They established the Rebel Syrian Youth Organization. Despite all the warring and competing factions, Samir’s youth organization was a mix of ethnicities and religions – Christians, Alawites, Kurds, seculars and more – a microcosm of Syrian society. But one thing they had in common: Many of them were socialists or on the communist spectrum, like Samir himself.
Their organization was managed accordingly, and they were all “comrades.”
“We had cells,” Samir says. “Each cell had five comrades. At the head of this organization was the coordinating cell, which also had five comrades. I was in the coordinating cell. Now two of my comrades from this cell are dead, another is imprisoned, and the fourth is in exile.
“It didn’t take long before the Syrian police noticed that there were anti-government demonstrations that were not coming from the mosques, because they lacked the religious language and symbols,” says Samir. “They were more worried and anxious to find out who was behind this. That’s when they started looking for us.”
“First they found my cell partner, Imad din Ghanem. He was thrown into a secret jail and tortured. He died there from a virus. There were rumors in jail that the virus was injected into him.
“That’s when I went into hiding. I slept at my friends’ houses for two months, moving from house to house. Later I lived in a flat in Damascus with my girlfriend. I stayed away from my friends and family to keep them out of harm’s way.
“On the surface, we lived a normal life. We went to cafes. I worked as an office boy under a fake name. We did not take any buses or cabs, because the police used to stop public transportation and check IDs. We went everywhere on foot. Our comrade gave us some money so that we could buy food and cigarettes. We made short films and uploaded them on YouTube.”
8 hours standing, 3 electric shocks: Life in prison
“During that time I went to visit my aunt in Egypt, leaving my girlfriend in Damascus. I sensed from our communications that our relationship was becoming fragile, and this pulled me back to Syria. I was arrested when I arrived at the Syrian border and thrown into jail for 52 days. “We were 50 people in a two- [meter] by five-meter cell. We had to take turns sitting, standing and lying down, because not everybody could lie down at the same time. Each cell mate had to get used to standing eight hours straight.
“They tortured us a lot. They tied us and beat us with sticks and pieces of plastic. I got electric shocks three to four times a day. It was worse for others, who were tied with handcuffs to the wall, with their feet in the air, and were left like this for three to four days. Some of the prisoners were raped by cell mates.
“I was later released for the Id [al-Fitr festival]. This did not stop me from participating in revolutionary activities.
“I went back to the apartment where I lived with my girlfriend. After a short while the relationship ended, and when the security situation got worse, she escaped to Holland.
“To this day, there is a death sentence awaiting her in Syria. I, too, had to leave the country and fly to Cairo, because it was getting too risky. I now have a 15-year sentence waiting for me in Syria.”
Putting the pieces together: Life in Germany
From the welcoming camp, Samir was transferred to the permanent refugee camp. His cousins were granted asylum after three months of waiting. Samir, who applied for political asylum, will have to wait longer. Until he’s granted asylum, he’ll have to remain in the camp.
He now volunteers in two NGOs that aid refugees.
He translates for them and gives lectures in universities and high schools, telling his story.
“In one of the lectures, I was asked about my friends who were jailed and killed, and I almost broke down,” says Samir. “The biggest trigger is an old photo that I show in my lectures, of us playing soccer. To me it represents the normal life we used to have.
“Lately, I’ve been having nightmares from jail. I’m often moody, and the trembling in my hands has gotten worse. I thought I could help myself, because it’s what I used to do while living in Syria, aiding people with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I even accompanied my girlfriend, who was suffering from this, to a psychologist. But now it seems to hit me, and I realize that I need help.”
With the refugee situation reaching a point of crisis, finding a solution to psychological needs could be difficult.
“I tried to seek help from the camp management,” says Samir. “I spoke with a doctor, who put a stethoscope on my heart and said: ‘You’re fine,’ and it ended there. Now the NGO I’m volunteering for is trying to find a solution for me.”
Right now, what’s left from the Rebel Syrian Youth Organization is a website and a Facebook page with a single administrator, the only one left. He’s now on the road, making his way through Europe, and Samir is waiting for him.
“I will return to Syria, after the war is over,” says Samir. “We’ll do this again.”