#5YearsWeFled: From Border to Border

This series is from interviews with the lawyer Ayman Jalwan. It highlights the difficult choice that Syrians face—dying in the war zone that Syria had become, or flee the land he loved. Last year, he and his wife said goodbye to their families and joined the wave of citizens leaving the country. First they had to make it to Turkey. Then they needed to cross the cold Mediterranean to Greece. After that, they would have to deal with human traffickers in Eastern Europe to reach one of the few nations willing to welcome them: Germany. In this blogs series, Ayman Jalwan explains the decision to leave, the trials he and his wife encountered along the way, and the consequences of their decision.

On these ferries to Athens, many refugees simply sleep in the hallways. It is a very bad situation, very rough. But the woman selling the ferry tickets tells me, you can pay more money and have a room—there are beds, bathrooms, and showers. So I told her, yes, I want a room. She asks, for how many people? I say, for two. She asks, are you married? I say yes. She asks, how long have you been married? I say, about seven months. Yes, she says, you are newlyweds. I say, yes. I have no idea where these questions are going, but I soon find out.

She gives us the keys to this room—it wasn’t expensive, maybe 35 euros—and we go and see that it’s a special room, like for a honeymoon! It was a special offer, not for everyone, just for us! Big bed, shower, bath, everything. Very nice! It was the same price you would pay for a normal room. So now I understand why she was smiling the whole time when she was asking me the questions. She’s a good woman. At first I was thinking, “What do you want from me? This is not an interrogation. I just want a room!” But afterwards I knew she was really helping us.

We take showers and fall asleep. I wake up to people knocking on the doors, saying that we have arrived in Athens. I’m surprised—we slept the whole 12 hours! Imagine. Really, we are arriving in Athens already? I didn’t see anything of the journey, of the sea. It was like being in the show 24 with Jack Bauer, where everything happens at such a fast pace.

When we get off the ferry, we talk to a man. He asks, you’re going to Europe? I say yes. He says, we need four people to fill this bus. I told him, ok, we can go with you. So we take this big bus. They tell us it will take us to the border between Greece and Macedonia. We arrive there two or three hours later, then wait another three hours at the border. There is a UN tent camp there where they register your names and help you. They give you food, because now you have to make the journey on foot from Macedonia to Serbia—after you cross the Greek border, you will be walking for many miles. So they told us we should rest, drink, and eat. They give us everything we need. They are good people.

What can we do? After we rest in this camp, on the same day, we are separated into groups and cross the border into Macedonia. Then the Macedonian army takes us by bus to a square where there are many other buses and cars that will take you to the border between Macedonia and Serbia. They let you choose whether you want to go by bus, which is very cheap, or by taxi. So we told them, we prefer to take a taxi because it’s faster. It’s not that expensive. We collect money from our group and go with this good man Liki from Macedonia. He takes us to the border of Serbia.

Serbia is very bad. We arrive at the border and they tell us to walk across to Serbia. The weather is very bad and it’s late at night, 11 p.m. There is mud and rain, and we are not prepared for the cold. The Serbian police do nothing to help us. You have to go to the refugee center to get your papers, and that is the rule. When we get to this center, it’s closed. There are many people outside waiting, and we hear that we must wait until the morning to get our papers. But where should we wait? In the cold and the rain? But then people come up to us and say: “We can take you across from Serbia to Croatia without paper if you pay money.” Good. They offer this to us in the middle of the night in this terrible weather. So I make the decision to take a taxi with my group.

But then another man comes up to us. He say to me, “I heard you speaking English—can I speak with you for five minutes?” I say yes, but who are you? He says, my name is Sharban. He seems like a good man. He says, “My friends, you are in Serbia, and all of these people here offering rides to you are from the mafia. So you can’t take risks with them. Many bad things happen to refugees here. These people promise to take you to the next border, but you will find that your driver has made a deal with criminals who are waiting for you along the way. They take your money, maybe hurt you. Why risk this? You can wait until morning and get your papers from the refugee center and then take a bus.”

Later we heard after that many people went with these mafia people, and some were robbed, others were killed. And you can’t trust the police in Serbia because they are working with the mafia. Believe that. Serbia is very different from other countries. Even the police are working with the mafia!

So Sharban told me, “Please don’t go with them. Wait until the morning and go to the refugee center, and I can help you to get your papers quickly. I know the officer there.” For me, it’s like help from heaven. Really! Sharban says doesn’t want anything from us, just to help. And these bad taxi drivers, they are asking each person to pay about 300 euros. Without even getting your papers! So after that, I speak with my group, tell them what I think: I say, I have the feeling we can trust this man Sharban. But they say, this will take long time, how can we spend the night out here? We have women with us. There are no hotels. Also, it’s like Greece, without papers you can’t go to any hotels, and hotels in Serbia are very dangerous.

Ayman Jalwan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a Syrian lawyer now living in Germany as a refugee. Interviews conducted by Claudine Weber-Hof.

Read part 1 of the series.
Read part 2 of the series.
Read part 3 of the series.
Read part 4 of the series.
Read part 5 of the series.
Read part 6 of the series.

Read part 7 of the series.
Read part 8 of the series.
Read part 9 of the series.

Image: Photo: Migrants make their way on foot on the outskirts of Brezice, Slovenia October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic