The story of a young Syrian refugee: 'I had to join Assad's army. I had no choice, I had to leave Syria'
Tarek (29) left his home country Syria after he was forced to join Assad’s army. It was a journey that took him seven long months. He travelled in cars, took different buses, walked and even swam. Now he’s safe in Belgium, but his brother will soon have to face the same journey. Also he received a letter from Assad’s army.
How was life in Syria?
‘Life in Syria has never been really good although in 2010 and 2011, before the war, the economy was getting better. But that was the only good thing. There was no freedom and that caused a lot of stress. You couldn’t say anything because the government was very strict. All this influences people’s daily life. For example, I studied physics at the university, but if you asked a scientific question that might be illegal because sometimes science doesn’t meet religion. If you ask ‘annoying questions’ anyway, you face a big problem. If a student questions religion, the professor can go talk to the leader of the university and as a student you can get kicked out. If you go too far with a question in the eyes of the university, security will arrest you. You can even be sent to prison for a few days. And prison would mean punishment. Physical punishment or even torture.’
Do you know anyone who has ever asked those so called ‘annoying questions’?
‘I remember that during the war students asked for freedom. They did it together in groups. All they asked for were some small changes in order to have a better life. But the police would just arrest them. My brother once came home from a party and he got arrested too. For no reason at all. Before the war life in Syria wasn’t good in the sense that we didn’t have any freedom.’
How did the war change life?
‘The war started and everything became even worse. I have a Christian background, but I am not religious. In Syria Christians are threatened by Islamic groups, but also by the government. Muslims want to kill Christians and the government wants Christians to join Assad’s army. Like many groups in Syria, Christians are a minority. About 10 percent of the Syrians are Christian. The situation in Syria is a bit like in Belgium. People have a Catholic background, but that doesn’t mean everyone is Catholic or religious. But even then, people judge you on your background. And for me, my Christian background made life very difficult. The lack of freedom of speech makes you scared to speak at all. You can’t say anything. Especially against the government. If you join – or even talk about - another party, that is illegal. When I came to Belgium the police asked me which party or group I was part of. Truth is that all people are part of Assad’s party, the Albaath party, because we don’t have a choice. When we are sixteen we are forced to sign a paper in which we say that we agree with Assad’s party and that we are part of it. The only thing that was good in Syria before the war, is the economy. But that’s it, now everything is bad.’
But then you received a letter from the government.
‘Yes, that was in June 2013. I received an invitation from the government, I had to join Assad’s army. I was forced to go, I didn’t have an option. But of course, I didn’t want to go. They gave me three months’ time. I couldn’t just ignore the letter. If I didn’t go they would come to my house and take me there. I decided very fast that I wanted to get out of Syria. In September I left the country. My parents and family knew too that I had to. In 2013 the situation was really bad and dangerous. Of course they were sad because they would miss me, but they knew that I didn’t have a choice. They helped me a lot too. I owned a little school and a bit of land. I sold it. On top of that I also saved some money. I had a good salary. I earned between 900 and 1000 euro a month. For a Syrian that is a huge amount of money. That’s how I paid the journey.’
Do you know anyone else who got the same letter?
‘Of course, I am not the only one who received that letter. All men, especially Christians and Alawi (a minority muslim group), between 25 and 35 have to sign up to join the army. My brother also received one recently. So he will also have to leave the country. Maybe this month, maybe next month. It doesn’t matter where he goes, as long as he leaves the country in order to be safe. It would be better for me and for my family if we were together, but the main point now is his safety. He has to leave. My youngest brother is still a student. For now he is safe, but when the government lowers the age to join the army or when he becomes older he will probably also get an invitation.’
How did you prepare for the journey?
‘I had to leave the country within three months. The easiest option would be if I could get a visa, but that wasn’t an option in any way. Then the government would know I wanted to get out of the country. I didn’t have legal options whatsoever, so all I could do was get in touch with human traffickers. It was my last hope. It didn’t take me long to find a smuggler and we made a deal: fourteen thousand dollar. For that money he would get me out of Syria and bring me to Sweden. I gave him the money through a third person who I as well as the smuggler trust. The third person brought it to the human trafficker. Initially the smuggler said that it would be very comfortable, so I took a big bag with clothes. By the time I was in Greece, I only had a small bag with some underwear in it. In Belgium, I didn’t have anything on me anymore.’
How did you get out of the country?
‘First I went to Lebanon, which is a neighbouring country of Syria. That was quite easy. If you give the police some money, they will let you pass. And that’s exactly what happened. We went in the smuggler’s car and he drove us all the way to Beirut. In Beirut, Lebanon, we took a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. The deal included that I would stay in Istanbul for only a few hours. But the smuggler told me that there was a problem with a fake passport I needed in order to cross the Turkish border. I had to wait. After two days in Istanbul I bought a sim-card so I could ring my parents. My father then told me that the smuggler asked him to transfer 4,000 dollar. He said he needed that money to buy me a fake passport. We had no choice, so my father accepted and he gave the smuggler the money. Despite the fact that the human trafficker got his money I was still in Istanbul. He kept saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’, every single day. Again and again. Two other people, who also stepped into the smuggler’s car in Syria, didn’t wait for the smuggler who kept saying that he would bring us the passports. They went back to Lebanon instead where they had family. But I didn’t know anyone in Lebanon, so I had to stay in Istanbul. I had to continue. I asked the smuggler for a way to get out of Turkey. He kept saying the same: ‘tomorrow I will find you another way’. But after staying a month in Istanbul I was running out of money. For a little shared apartment with three people we paid 50 dollar a day. I talked to a friend and explained him I had money problems. He said that he had friends in Istanbul where I could stay. They were also Syrians and they were very friendly to me. But I had some problems with them the last few days I stayed there because they knew I am a Christian. There were eight people in a little apartment, me included. Some of them were religious and that caused some problems between us. Time as well as money were running out though and I left.’
Where did you go then?
‘I went to talk to the smuggler that brought me from Lebanon to Turkey and asked him for a fast solution. He told me he could take me to Greece. But he needed money. My father already gave him 4,000 dollar, but he said that another smuggler stole that money from him so he needed more. He asked for another 3,500 euro. But I didn’t have that much money. I also knew that if I didn’t give him that money I couldn’t go to Greece. I agreed anyway though, but was really scared because I knew that I couldn’t give him the money. We went from Istanbul to Edirne, which is also in Turkey near the border with Greece. That was the night of the 30th of October. It was a two-day walk. When we finally arrived near the border, which is a natural border - a river - , we had to cross in order to go to Europe. It was a small river, not very wide. I am not a good swimmer, but people helped me. In Greece, the police arrested us and that was my luck because the arrest meant that I got out of the hands of the smuggler, who still wanted the second bit of his money. There were seventeen of us who crossed the Greek-Turkish border. The police didn’t arrest us all, twelve of them were sent back. I was lucky to be arrested for five days. Then I was sent to a refugee camp where I stayed for another five days. Then they just let us walk out of the camp. We were free to go where we wanted.’
Why did they just let you go?
‘That is very strange, isn’t it? Every day hundreds of refugees arrive in Greece and they just don’t know what to do. It’s a huge number of people. I think that’s why they let us go. They checked my papers and that was it. They asked me if I needed a doctor, but I didn’t. And that was that.’
But at least you safely arrived in Greece. What happened next?
‘So we – the four other people who crossed the border with me - rang a smuggler. He brought us to Alexandrapolis. When we arrived I bought a Greek SIM card to contact my Syrian family because they hadn’t heard from me for about two weeks. I don’t know why but my father said that he contacted a smuggler who could help me to get out of Greece. That smuggler rang me and was very aggressive. He was shouting at me and said that I would never be able to leave Greece and that he needed money. He even threatened to kill me. The next day, still all five of us, took a bus together to get out of Alexandrapolis. But I couldn’t complete the journey because the smuggler that threatened me would wait for me at the destination and that wouldn’t be safe. So I got out of the bus. Instead I made my own way to Athens.
How did it feel to be in Athens?
‘For me, that meant freedom. For smugglers, Athens is Europe, where you are free. It was amazing to be there after such a long journey. In Athens I got in contact with an organisation called Syrian Bridges. They helped me out a lot. They reassured me that those smugglers couldn’t do anything to harm me. Barking dogs don’t bite. Smugglers have a lot of money, but they don’t have any power. I found a place to stay in Athens and changed my phone number, of course. Then I took some time for myself to recover and breathe again because it had been a long journey so far all the way from Turkey to Athens. After that I started looking for new smugglers to get out of Greece.’
How do you do that, look for a smuggler?
‘That is really easy because there are an awful lot of smugglers in Athens. Smugglers are easy to find. You just find them in the streets. If they see that you have a dark skin, they start to talk to you because they know you are a refugee. When you go to a pub, you know who are smugglers. They talk loud or with a high voice, or something that stands out to give a subtle sign.’
How did you manage to get out of Greece?
‘I tried to get out of the country by plane. I went to the airport fourteen times. The fourteenth time the police stopped me. I think they started to recognise my face. They thought it was not normal that I had been there so many times or maybe they could even see how stressed I was or they could see I was Syrian. I’m not too sure of myself. Fact is though that I couldn’t go to that airport anymore. So I chose to go to another airport. At that airport I found a smuggler who said he could bring me to a boat that would go to Italy. Thirty of us got into a truck that would go into that boat. But somehow the police knew. They found us and we were brought back to Athens. Eventually I found a smuggler who told me he had an agreement with the police on the Island of Rhodos. We had a 6,500-euro deal. But I only had 3,500 euro left. I told him I would give him my last 3,500 euro and the rest after my arrival. At first he didn’t trust me so he asked me for my parents’ address, and also my brothers’ and some other people. Then he agreed. Getting to Rhodos was fairly easy too, we got on a tourist boat. When I arrived on the Island of Rhodos, I went to the airport. The police noticed me and told me to go out. A few days later the smuggler contacted me and told me that I had to go to the airport that day. So I did. Because of the agreement the smuggler had with the police, I could go on the plane to Belgium. When we landed, the police was checking the passports of all passengers. Of course, I had a fake passport. I had a Danish one. Then the Belgian police arrested me and they took my fingerprints. But at least, I arrived, after seven months of travelling. When I arrived in Belgium I still owed the smuggler the second part of the money. Money I didn’t have. So he rang me and threatened me. He said he knew people in Belgium and would send them. Luckily, it was only he threat, because he didn’t do that.’
What happened after the police took your fingerprints?
‘I asked for asylum. I was sent to a refugee camp close to Kortrijk. I stayed there for a week and then I was invited to go to Brussels, where I had my first interview in my process to become a citizen. I was asked basic information like why I was here. Then I went back to Kortrijk for a bit until I had my second interview. This time it was more serious. I was asked questions about what the problem is in Syria. Ten days later it was confirmed that I could stay in Belgium.’
What was it like to not have any option but to trust smugglers?
‘Smugglers are not nice people. They don’t want to help you, all they want is your money. For example, when you are a refugee and you want to buy a fake passport, it costs a smuggler five euro to make it. When he does that he makes 20 at a time. So it costs him 100 euro. A smuggler sells a passport for at least 3,500 euro. For one passport. They don’t care if you will get out of the country and how long it will take you. The only thing they’re interested in, is money. When a smuggler gets well known, the police eventually will find out. So after some time he flees himself. They arrive in Europe and will get asylum and get benefits and take advantage of everything. Those people are criminals. In Turkey I met a man who was part of the Al Nusra front. He kept boasting about how he cut off someone’s ear. Now he got asylum somewhere in Europe. That’s not a man, it’s a criminal.’
Do you know of any smugglers who got asylum in Europe now?
‘Yes, a lot. Most smugglers end up in Belgium or in Sweden. And that’s not fair. I know those people are here, but what can I do? If I go to the police, I might get in trouble. I don’t want to face problems. It was a long journey and I am safe now. When I went in a truck and then into a boat, in Greece, the police caught us. I was very angry with the smugglers. The police asked us who the smugglers were. I gave them the address and phone number. They asked me if I knew more smugglers and I gave them a whole list of 30 names. I could give them phone numbers, addresses and even the pubs where you can find them. I don’t know why, but nothing happened. The police knows who the smugglers are and they can easily find them, but they don’t do it.’
What is going to happen to your brother, who also got a letter to join Assad’s army?
‘I am trying to get my brother to the university in Belgium. I hope they will accept him, because that would mean he can come over here and he will be safe too. If he doesn’t get accepted, he will have to take the same route as me except for the border between Turkey and Greece. I walked, but the road is closed now. He will have to take a boat.’
Would you ever want to go back to Syria?
I don’t know. It is really difficult. I can’t say yes because even before the war, there was nothing in Syria. There was no life there. You had to be careful about what you said. The walls have ears there. But my family and my childhood, they are in Syria. A lot of things I love are in Syria.