Escaping Syria: The Journey of Death

The Journey of Death: Escaping Syria. Written by Aghnia Adzkia for

“We can call it the journey of death,” 35-year-old Mohammad Alzen said.

He has come from Syria to seek asylum in England, and he has plenty of stories to tell. Even with all his hardships, he’s quite fortunate — his other countrymen did not survive to tell their own stories.

Alzen was a tailor in a small city in Syria called Idlib. He created his own art from fabrics and earned enough to start his own shop. His passion and his business fed his family too – his wife Aminah and two children Raghda, who’s 7, and Rana, who’s 4.

They were happy. Until war broke.

A mass protest in Idlib, Syria.
A mass protest in Idlib, Syria.

On the night of December 20, 2014, Alzan decided it was his time for the dangerous sojourn to the West. Without his wife and children, he took a bus to Istanbul, Turkey where he stayed in a hostel for two months before starting his journey again.

Syrians come to Turkey for two reasons, the first simpler one being that it’s geographically easy, Syria and Turkey are landlocked beside each other. The second one is that Turkey appears to want them. Turkey supports the Syrian refugee flow and even offered citizenship to skilled Syrians last July. They earned the backing of the European Union which gave them roughly $3 billion to support housing and employment, as well as facilitate their transfer to other countries in Europe. As a bonus, EU also granted Turkish citizens visa-free travel to EU. It’s short of becoming a member of the EU, but Turkey grabbed the offer nonetheless.

But following Turkey’s civil unrest, it has become difficult for Syrian refugees to make a living. A number of them, including Alzen, treats Turkey as a transit point. On March 1, 2015, Alzen crossed the Aegean Sea by boat hoping to reach Greece in the night.

The Aegean Sea
The Aegean Sea

But the boat had too many people.

“They (smugglers) told us (that) there would be 10 or 15 people on a 10-metre boat, but there were 40-50 people were trying to get on a boat,” Alzen said.

More than two hours into the journey at sea, water started entering the boat. It was dark, cold and he froze.

“I was praying, ‘Oh God, we were crying, we had kids with us. Oh God, help us, make our parents happy with us and with the children. Let us arrive safely,” Alzen said. He remembers thinking there was no way he could survive, but he also remembers praying — a lot.

He was carrying a bag from Turkey, but it had to be thrown off the boat to lessen the weight. He remembers their boat just floating aimlessly, until eventually, to his relief, he could see the shore. They made their way to land; he was wet and covered by mud. He had no time to clean up. There was neither food nor water. He was with fifty other people.

After three days in such state, the group decided to continue the journey. They traveled by foot for ten days to reach the border of Macedonia.

The sky was dark and rain poured. He had nothing to eat and nothing to cover his body while he slept in the jungle.

“The journey was hard,” he said.

Even though he was tired and his feet could not feel anything, he kept going to seek a safer country, which he thought would be Macedonia. The moment he reached the border, however, a guy came in a car and picked them up.

“A cab (usually) would fit in 4 to 5 people but the guy put 23 people in one cab,” Alzen said.

They turned out to be cops, who later took them to the court.

“We are Syrians. We run away from death. Where are we going?” Alzen told the police.

He was fined USD100 for entering the border to Macedonia. He had no choice but to pay the fine with the money left in his pocket. After paying the fine, they let him go.

From the Aegean Sea, Alzen went to Macedonia.
From the Aegean Sea, Alzen went to Macedonia.

He decided to walk to the Serbian border, a journey that lasted a week.

“We left for Serbia and we slept on the streets,” Alzen said.

But the Serbian streets didn’t turn out to be his safe shelter either. Officers would come to jolt them awake to say they could not sleep in the streets. They were told to find hostels, but most of them no longer had the money to pay for accommodation.

From Macedonia to Serbia

He moved from one street to another and did the routine for ten days before deciding that Hungary could be a better host. So he walked — again — to the Hungarian border.

Somebody told him he should be able to cross the border in an hour’s walk but the journey took four hours and required crossing numerous rivers while covered in mud. He also didn’t have food with him.

“The trip was so difficult that we were wishing we could just die. We were wishing that there was a plane that would come and hit us,” Alzen said.

The Hungarian border
The Hungarian border

Treated as a Terrorist

Alzen almost died at sea, taunted by police in Macedonia and shooed away in the streets of Serbia like stray dogs. But it was what welcomed him in Hungary that proved to be the worst.

He was treated like a terrorist.

“Police stopped us when we came out of the road. All the police were standing around us, about 500 people, as if we were terrorist,” he said.

The asylum seekers were thrown in a ‘room’ and were kept there for three days. When they got out, they were barred from leaving the country unless they receive an asylum stamp.

“We were put down in a basement or little cage. We slept on the floor, around 70 people. It smelled and (there were) no windows,” Alzen told me.

By this time, some of the people in Alzen’s group were ready to stop the journey. But he wasn’t. “People told me, ‘We want to finish with this and rest.’ I told them, ‘There is no other solution. We have to get an asylum stamp,’” he said.

For all the bad lucks so far, he got a lucky break — an asylum stamp that earned him freedom from the Hungarian police.

But the journey must go on. They decided to walk to the Austrian border and there, they were stopped by a man probing their planned destination. Alzen remembers saying: ‘We do not know. We came here and we are lost, and these are the papers.’

Instead of directions, what they got was ‘basement’ time, again. The Austrian police locked him up for 24 hours.

Alzen described his time in this basement as “(the worst) intimidation that I have never seen in my life.”

A volunteer lawyer fought their case and argued that there was no law that merits their detention. Eventually, he was freed.

He went to Germany then Belgium until he made his way to the migrant camp in Calais, France. Alzen said Calais was worse than ever as the government was shutting down the so called “Jungle.”

Calais, France came to be known in the news as the “jungle” when as much as 7,000 migrants poured into the site and lived in container shelters. Migrants came to Calais to make their way into the UK, which was what Alzen wanted to do himself.

The Calais "Jungle"
The Calais “Jungle”

He survived for three months in Calais when he saw an opportunity. Boxes were being loaded into cars without people checking the content.

“Nobody knows what inside the boxes,” he said. He jumped into one of the boxes into one of the cars that were going to smuggle them out of France and into the UK.

Alzen was one of the nearly 5,000 migrants who managed to leave Calais in the past year. To this day, there remain a thousand people in the Calais jungle.

From Hungary, Alzen went to Austria, then Germany, Belgium and France.
From Hungary, Alzen went to Austria, then Germany, Belgium and France.

Seeking the Freedom

Alzen remembers his first night in London. He stayed in prison for a night then moved to a hotel in London provided by a humanitarian non-profit organization. After a long tough journey, he felt respect.

“They are the ones that told me there is a halal food and I did not have to ask for. That’s why I love this country,” he said, “London’s the best city. We went to Serbia, Hungary, passed by Austria, Germany and then here (in London). The country was great, especially in London, the people who welcomed us with the best greetings, they put me in a great house, and they helped me a lot.”

The United Kingdom works within the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme in resettling Syrian asylum seekers who have managed to enter the country. Alzen was one of 1,000 Syrians who arrived in the UK last year and are to be resettled as part of a pledge of Home Office to welcome 20,000 refugees.

Alzen was first sent to Cardiff in Wales, where the first thing he did was learn to speak English. He found himself a teacher and for a while, Alzen thought he had made it. The journey of death was over.

Having applied for an asylum in Hungary, papers were sent to Cardiff informing Alzen he had to go back to Hungary because that’s where he’s been accepted as a refugee. He didn’t want to go back to the place that made him feel he was a terrorist.

“What made me think the most is my kids kept asking, ‘Daddy, when are we getting on the plane to come?’ My wife is crying every time I talked to her,” he said.

He resisted the papers but it still took him out of the UK and into Austria, where again, he was kept inside a basement. Exasperated from being taken back and forth to jails in different countries, Alzen went on hunger strike for three days.

It was a combination of legal negotiations and political pressure that finally sent Alzen back to the UK, where he has lived for two years now —- without a refugee status.

Mohammad Alzen was one of the thousand Syrian refugees who were offered resettlement in the UK. Photo by: Aghnia Adzkia
Mohammad Alzen was one of many Syrian refugees who were offered resettlement in the UK. Photo by: Aghnia Adzkia

Living the Anxiety

Still he is thankful that he has managed to settle in London,  but he is painfully aware that the journey isn’t over yet.

His family is still in Syria.

Without the papers, he could not find a proper job, so he couldn’t save money to buy plane tickets to London for his family.

The phone calls from Syria are mostly of his wife and children asking when they could fly to London, to which Alzen has no answer. Another common phone call is with his daughter asking why planes keep bombing their homes and their schools, to which Alzen, again, has no answer.

He relies upon the Home Office to help him find the answers. But the statistics don’t look good for him. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the 6.75 million Syrian refugees, only 0.3% has been given the refugee status.

Despite everything, Alzen looks to the UK with hope.

“The solicitor here stayed with me, asked me what I needed, what I wanted to eat, what I wanted to drink, that I what made me love the country and I do not want to be back to Hungary,” he said, “Here, the Christians are good to Muslims and Muslims are good with Christians.”

He does not want his family to live in fear and anxiety hearing bombs dropping into their neighborhood all the time.

“My daughter told me they (planes) bombed her school, ‘Daddy, my friend just died,’” he said. He remembers not being able to speak, to provide an explanation or reassurance to his daughter. In that phone call, Alzen did nothing but cry, so did his daughter and his wife.

“You do not know what will happen. Anything can happen. It is not even in my hands,” he said.

While Alzen waits for the official papers, the phone calls from Syria would continue to come. He is praying they get better, he is praying he never hears his daughter tell him again, “Daddy, my friend just died.”

Until he’s able to get his family safe to the UK, for Alzen, the journey continues.

When does it end? He doesn’t know.

Mohammad Alzen has been in the UK for two years now, praying that the time would come soon to take his family with him. Photo by: Aghnia Adzkia
Mohammad Alzen has been in the UK for two years now, praying that the time would come soon to take his family with him. Photo by: Aghnia Adzkia

[Entry 187, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Aghnia Adzkia

Aghnia Adzkia is a former digital journalist at CNN Indonesia who covered corruption, human rights, and crime. She is currently taking MA Digital Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is keen on to chat via twitter @aghniaadzkia.

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