#5YearsWeFled: Smuggler’s Discount on Our Lives

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.

The bus journey from Gaziantep to Izmir takes about 10 hours. I have a plan for when we arrive in Izmir, because I have a friend who passed through Izmir before us on his way to Germany. He told me how to find the people who help you take a boat from Izmir to Greece. Because of course it’s not legal. You can’t just go out on the street and ask anyone to help you. You need to have a contact, as we say in Syria, who is “under the table.”

So my friends told me this contact will wait to hear from us. After you arrive in Izmir, they said, you can contact this man and he is very good, you can trust him. It’s okay, they said, because we have worked with him, and he is an honest man. He is a Syrian man. Many people who work in these jobs taking people from Turkey to Greece are from Syria. Their job is simply to act as a contact for the Syrian refugees. But the people who are really behind the operation are Turkish. This is a large network of people in which everyone has their special role; the overall job they have is to transport refugees from Izmir to Greece. There are many Turkish people involved, such as the drivers, the people who give instructions to the refugees, and so on, and also a leader. It’s like a Turkish mafia who have control of this business.

But they have Syrian people communicating with the customers, if you can call them that. We were like customers. When we went to do the crossing, it cost about 1,200 euros per person to go from Izmir to Greece. In the winter, they said, you could do the crossing for only 300 euros. The price is reduced because the weather is very bad and it is dangerous. But you are surprised at the discount! It’s like a special offer, like sales! You can risk your life in these “sales.” Unfortunately this is the truth.

So yes, the first part of the journey took a long time: 10 hours from Gaziantep to Izmir. We arrived at in the city at about 4 a.m. On Basmane Square, you can find many people who can help you. There you can get information about the hotels that can give you rooms without asking questions or wanting to see your papers. So yes, unfortunately, I hate having to go to one of these bad hotels, because they are dangerous and you cannot trust the people there, but what can I do? We must be patient. And especially on this night, right before we make the crossing, we just want to sleep! My wife and I want to rest before the big day, to be ready. So I ask a taxi driver if he can take us to any hotel that is cheap and good, and he says yes. We spend our day and night there.

Before that, I called the contact who is waiting for me in Izmir to take us to Greece. He said, when you wake up tomorrow, you can call me and we can arrange an appointment to meet. So we take showers, sleep, and the next day we meet with him at 11 a.m. I ask him, what are the instructions for the crossing to Greece, what is the system? He said, we will go at 1 a.m. I told him ok. I said, how do you want me to pay? He said, here you have a choice: there is a special office in Izmir where you can deposit the money, if you like—it’s like a middleman. If you don’t trust me, you can do the transaction with that office. I said, no, I trust you because my friend said I can trust you, no problem. So then he made me a special offer: you can do the crossing for 1,200 euros per person; the real price is 1,500 euros per person. So I accept, of course.

He asks me to bring something that evening for the crossing—a lifejacket. I buy three of them. One for me and one for my wife, and one to attach between us. My wife cannot swim, and I do not want us to get separated if we end up in the water. People told us this was a bad idea, very dangerous. But I told them, no, I prefer to die with my wife than to lose her. Of course I found out after we made the journey that the lifejackets that they sell you in Izmir are all fake. It’s a business, a trade in fake good that takes place in Izmir’s markets. You pay about 50 euros for one lifejacket, and it won’t even save you. Why do you think you have heard about so many drowning victims among the refugees making the crossing to Greece? A normal lifejacket would be useful, but not this. I thank God nothing happened to us to make us test these lifejackets.

After that, we take our bags and buy many things, like plastic covers to protect our papers and my mobile phone. When the time comes to meet up that evening, it’s like a top secret project. I feel like I am doing something illegal! You know what I mean? We have to trust these people, but we don’t know exactly where we are going with them, we have no idea how long it will take, and many of these people don’t speak our language—they all speak Turkish, of course, but very few of them speak Arabic. When our contact sees a police car, he says to us, the group of refugees, everyone please get down. I think to myself, what am I doing here? This is a huge risk. I get a bad feeling.

All I want is to do is get out of there. But we have no choice, we have to trust them. All the people with us—the other refugees—have the same feeling.

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.

Image: Photo: Refugees wait to get on a dinghy to sail off for the Greek island of Chios from the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme, in Izmir province, Turkey, November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas