#5YearsWeFled: Putting Your Life in a Dinghy

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.

So the man arranging the illegal crossing to Greece takes us to the beach—the drive there from Izmir takes about one hour. This beach is a place no one knows, a secret place. When we arrive, they separate us into groups of 30, one group of 30 per dinghy. Our group has no children. This is very important, because imagine hearing the cries of children while crossing. This would make you very nervous. You would feel responsible for the children. So I thank God that we have no children in our group.

However, when we arrive at the beach, my wife changes her mind and loses her nerve. She is very scared. Of course! Now we are facing the real challenge. It’s not like when you have the danger of losing just your things, your possessions—it’s your life. So you should be certain that you are making the right choice. So I tell her, what can we do? We are here now. We cannot go back. So we should be very courageous and strong and trust in God.

On the beach, you can see people crying, praying, even drinking—they are doing what they think may be the last things they ever do in their lives—because they do not know if they are now going to their deaths. They are scared of making this crossing in a dinghy. Really! Believe me! You can’t imagine how the people are crying. When my wife sees what they are doing, she is scared. Why are these people crying? Why are they praying? Why? Why is that man drinking alcohol? It’s as if one of them is saying, you see this? This is the last cigarette I will ever smoke. And it is pitch dark because it is the middle of the night. You can’t use your mobile phone or any light, because police will see us and catch us.

We have only a half hour to prepare for the crossing, and this 30 minutes feels like a much longer time, like three or four hours. After this half hour, they say: now, get in the boat. And I say, ok—and you? The man with us said, no, I will not steer this boat. I say, so who will steer it? He says, someone from your group—I will teach him. I told him, “What?!” He said, you can’t expect me to go to Greece—I have a job here. This is the way it works here. It’s easy, you just follow the instructions I give you. And, he said, and whoever drives the boat, I will not take any money from him. That person goes for free. He said to me, do you want to drive? I said, no, of course not! I will not take responsibility for transporting these people across the water! I don’t know how to drive a boat!

They don’t tell you about this in Izmir. They wait until the time just before you are ready to go, right there on the beach. Then they make you face this complicated choice: you have to think quickly, do we want to do this or not? So what can we do? So I told him I prefer we find someone in our group who is from a place close to the sea. From seaside places in Syria like Latakia, Tartus—it’s better! From Beirut even! So a Syrian man in our group came forward, and I asked, so where are you from? I’m from Homs, he said [a big city not on the coast]. I said, so what would you know about driving boats? He said, when I used to visit Tartus, I would sometimes take a boat out on the water and tour around. But I said, what? It wasn’t your job, though, to steer a boat, so you don’t have enough experience. He said, well, they will teach me how to steer this one right now.

I said, they’ll teach you in five minutes? He said, but I know how to drive a car. I said, “What?” So imagine that, this moment in your life! I should have taken pictures to show you: these are not normal boats, these flimsy dinghies. They are not suited for this kind of long journey.

But we have no choice, we must take this risk and trust in ourselves, in our choice. So after that, they take a long time explaining things to the man from Homs. They tell him there is a light on the other side, you should steer the boat directly toward this light. The police will not see you at this time of night. Still, you cannot use any light or anything to see where you are going. You must rely on your wits. So we go. Thank God our group is made up of very open-minded and very smart people. They understand the dangers of this trip, and they try to lighten the mood. I thank God we are with this group. We sing together, make jokes, and just to try to forget how frightened we are.

Our driver has a strong will. When he hears suggestions from people like, “Go here—no go there!” he listens patiently, but stays on course. Imagine! Put yourself in his place! Your head would explode from the pressure! You might want to say, “Please shut up everyone! I am the captain here!” No, not this man. He is very controlled. He says, I will listen to your suggestions; ok I will take that tip. He is a very calm man, and everything he does is in support of what we are trying to accomplish. Many people who go in boats like these take four or five hours to make the crossing. But we are lucky. It takes two hours! But you imagine these two hours, it’s like one whole day!

Image: Photo: Refugees and migrants arrive on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, November 10, 2015. Since the start of the year, over 590,000 people have crossed into Greece, the frontline of a massive westward population shift from war-ravaged Syria and beyond. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis