A short encounter with Syrian migrants and an exchange of travelers’ tales
09/19/15 Edirne, Turkey
Abd al-Hamed’s irresistibly big smile emanates from deep behind his thick black beard as he finishes telling a funny story. It’s midnight and we are still drinking chai under lamplight in the attractive city-center of Turkey’s western border town, Edirne. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne now sports a delightful clash of 15th century mosques and hip cafes. It is outside one of these busy cafes that five of us – young men from different countries and backgrounds – have come together over chai.
Kiyan is on month seven of a lackadaisical bicycle ride from his home in London to Iran – where his only goal is to spend some quality time with his aging grandmother. Coincidently, Xavier has also arrived in Edirne tonight by bicycle. He however, is almost finished with his month-long ride from Zurich to Istanbul. In a couple days he will fly back to Zurich where his university classes have already begun for the semester.
I have taken a decidedly simpler journey from my home in the U.S. to Istanbul, via Lufthansa Airlines. Today a comfortable bus carried me the three hour journey west from Istanbul to Edirne – just 20 kilometers from both the Bulgarian and Greek borders. In a couple days I plan to cross the border to Bulgaria and continue wandering across the Balkans as part of my yearly holiday.
It was just outside of Edirne that the bus slowed, and I woke from a nap to see media vehicles lining the highway. The object of their reporting lay just beyond them: hundreds of people sitting on blankets spread out across the highway-side embankment. At first glance, one could have been forgiven for mistaking the crowd for Sunday afternoon picnickers. A closer look at their worn expressions and unwashed clothes, however, revealed a different story.
“Suriya,” the young Turk sitting next to me, simply stated.
At the bus station, and later when I reached the city center, it was the same story: hundreds of migrants from Syria, living in tents, on blankets, sleeping directly on the ground; crowding the bus station and a small pedestrian park beside a city-center mosque.
It is in this small park that Abd al-Hamed and quiet friend Ghaith sleep each night. They estimate they share the open-air space with about 400 other migrants. There is no privacy other than a few small tents and a handful of blankets some families have hung to separate themselves from the family beside them. Most people, like Abd al-Hamed and his friends, just spread a mat on the ground and sleep side by side under the relentless city lights. The nearby mosque offers toilet facilities and water for washing.
It is English and the common thread of travel that brings us together, really.
“Hey, you guys speak English! What are you doing?” queries a friendly Kiyan from across the crowded pedestrian mall. Xavier and I have just met at the hostel and are now in search of dinner in the lively city center.
Kiyan had earlier met Abd al-Hamed and Ghaith when he went to investigate what was happening at the crowded park. Now the three of them are also looking for a cheap place to eat. We instantly band together, and four hours later the five of us are still swapping travel stories.
Of course, the most poignant stories are shared by the Syrians. Ghaith mostly keeps quiet; a gentle smile and sad eyes revealing more than his mouth. Abd al-Hamed does most of the talking, but both are obviously eager to share stories of their journey from Aleppo to Edirne.
“What was Aleppo like?” asks Kiyan. Abd al-Hamed thinks for a moment.
“Lots of BBQ parties,” he replies. Abd al-Hamed recalls a time when life was normal. A time when he was studying computer engineering at university with his good friend Ghaith. But all that was before the civil war. Before Bashar al-Assad’s regime began really oppressing the people. Before ISIS. Now life is not normal.
“In Syria, if the police decide to stop you, ok, they stop your car. They say, ’Give me license! Get out of car! I don’t like you!’ Ok, bang! They shoot you. Then they say, ‘Oh, this is nice car. Yes, very expensive car. I like. Ok, I keep it.’
“Assad is bad,” continues Abd al-Hamed, “But ISIS is worse. All Muslims hate ISIS.”
Abd al-Hamed’s quiet friend Ghaith, pulls out his smartphone and shows me a YouTube video of what appears to be recorded by someone walking a long boulevard. At the end of the boulevard smoke is billowing out of a tall building. Suddenly a missile crashes into a nearby building and the whole thing explodes in a fiery flash.
“This is my university,” explains Ghaith. “The Syria army did this.”
Between Assad’s regime and ISIS, there is no way to live a normal life in Syria any more, agree Abd al-Hamed and Ghaith. That’s why they have fled.
“My family is still in Aleppo,” explains Abd al-Hamed. “It is too much money to come to Turkey.” As Abd al-Hamed explains it, the Turkey-Syria border is officially closed, but if one has enough money, they can bribe their way across the border. For $200-$300, Turkish fixers with connections to the border guards will arrange a crossing.
Abd al-Hamed made his way to Istanbul where he found a job that put his degree to use. For the past year he has worked at a computer repair company performing data recovery. However, he claims he was treated poorly by his employer and was having a difficult time living on his minimum wage salary of about $270 per month. By contrast, neighboring Greece has a monthly minimum wage of about $700, while Luxembourg sports Europe’s highest minimum wage at more than $2000 per month. That’s why Abd al-Hamed is now sleeping in a refugee camp in Edirne. He, along with thousands of other refugees are amassing at this border crossing with hopes of making it first into Greece, then further into the European Union. Personally, Abd al-Hamed has set his sights on Luxembourg.
“Most people want to go to Germany; I want to go to Luxembourg,” he says.
He already tried once. Just recently Abd al-Hamed walked a risky 100 kilometers “through the forest” across the Turkey-Greek border. All he had to sustain himself were a couple Snickers bars.
“All you need is one Snickers. It is best energy!” Abd al-Hamed happily reveals with a massive grin.
In Greece, he tried to board a train at the first town he entered. Walking up to the ticket counter, Abd al-Hamed smiled his big sheepish grin and asked for one ticket. The ticket agent looked at him suspiciously and asked for a passport.
“Ummm…. I don’t have a passport!” he exclaimed and broke out into another sheepish grin.
Abd al-Hamed looked around the station and noticed there were soldiers everywhere. Suddenly he felt scared. A police car was called, and Abd al-Hamed was taken to jail for the night and the next day deported back to Turkey.
“In jail they made me pay 5 Euros for one piece of food. Five Euros, and they take all the paper off the food. If you keep any paper from Greece, then you can show the UN you go to Greece. They aren’t supposed to send you back to Turkey. But they do. Everything 5 Euros. One Coke, 5 Euros,” he rambles on.
Speaking of Coca-Cola reminds Abd al-Hamed about a neat trick he learned in Syria during confrontations with Assad’s soldiers.
“Coca-Cola is good!” he exclaims, his eyes sparkling. “You can put it in your eyes when the police make tear gas. Very good. No more crying.” He makes a mental note to be sure to bring Coca-Cola with him the next day during a planned mass march to the Greek border – in case the police bomb them with tear gas, he explains.
The plan is for a delegation from the camps to leave at 3am the next day for Ankara, Turkey’s capital, in a bid to meet with leaders. The delegates will try to convince national leadership to come to an agreement with Greece to open the border. Later in the day, about 5000 refugees from the camps around Edirne will start a mass march along the 20 kilometers to the Greek border.
All this talk about Snickers and Coca-Cola gets us to joking about writing to the junk-food manufacturers and recommending they use refugee themes for advertisements. We laugh at our imagined advertisement where a refugee trying to climb the Hungarian border fence “bonks” from exhaustion and gives up. Another refugee however, after eating a Snickers bar, suddenly has the energy to lithely scale the fence and jump to his freedom inside Hungary. Abd al-Hamed really gets into the spirit of this imagined advertisement and eyes twinkling, takes the storyline a step further:
“I am climbing fence and sniper shoots at me. But I eat Snickers! So I catch bullet and throw it back at sniper,” he laughs like a silly kid.
While most of our talk is light-hearted banter, a strong sense of solemnity pervades all our thoughts. Xavier, Kiyan and I have willingly left our respective home countries to temporarily travel other lands, but these new Syrian friends of ours have left their homeland out of desperation; perhaps never to return. The thought penetrates our emotions. I, not knowing what else I can do, buy all the guys dinner. Xavier, in a touching gesture, offers his touring bicycle to Abd al-Hamed if it will help him on his journey deeper into Europe.
“When you see people traveling out of need, and you are traveling for fun… It makes you feel really bad,” Xavier later confides to me.
Kiyan simply disappears into a mini-mart and soon returns with a box full of Snickers bars.
Twenty-four hours later I read on the news that Turkish police have blockaded the highway to Greece to prevent a group of about 5000 migrants from marching toward the border. I think of Abd al-Hamed and Ghaith, and hope they have enough Snickers for the journey.