This summer, a historic wave of immigrants from war-torn Syria made an often perilous journey to Europe. They risked everything to try to find a new life and new opportunity, and this summer three friends, three refugees, allowed me to tell the story of their journey.
The war in Syria began in early 2011 and the fighting has raged ever since. Over the last five years, more than four million Syrians fled their homeland, according to UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR.) Many escaped to neighboring nations such as Turkey, Jordon or Lebanon. But in the summer of 2015, many have begun a big push to Western Europe, mainly Germany, hoping to find refuge. This has resulted in a record number of asylum seekers from Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and Balkan countries flooding into Europe.
Through the use of human smugglers in Turkey and elsewhere, many brave drowning, deportation and imprisonment in small, over crowded inflatable dinghies, to end up in Greece where they begin their journey to a better life. From Greece, refugees and migrants navigate their way through Balkan countries such as Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria to Hungary and eventually onward to Western Europe. Much like the futures of the refugees and migrants fleeing their country, the journey itself is filled with danger and uncertainty.
The story of Asaad Sieo, an English literature major at Aleppo University, shows an intimate look into the journey of those escaping death and persecution from Syria. From the daily moments of uncertainty and fear to the small moments of relief that help keep the dedicated young men going in order to find a better life in Germany, Sieo and his two friends Majd Sulliman and Mahmoud Hamwi, who accompanied him, are representative of so many of those who make the perilous journey.
Sieo said he was a lieutenant in the military under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military. He defected because he did not want to have a hand in killing his own people, he explained. And he came to realize that Western Europe was his best hope for a good life saying, “There is no future for Syrians in Turkey.”
Antakya, Turkey – August 22, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, stood in the door way of his kitchen while speaking on the phone to a friend. Sieo lived in Antakya, a small border town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, for three years while working under the table for a French NGO before deciding to leave for Germany.
Syrian refugees Mahmoud Hamwi (left) and Asaad Sieo (right) hiked to the Mytilini Port Authority to board a ferry en route to Athens. Many refugees wait for multiple days in line in order to receive legal documents allowing them to travel further into Greece.
Babakale, Turkey. August 30, 2015. A group of 36 refugees was led by a smuggler through an olive grove to the shore to a small inflatable boat.
Istanbul, Turkey – August 29, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, carried a large garbage bag filled with life vests as he walked to the Faith Mosque in Aksaray, Istanbul.
The passengers of a luxury cruise ship in Lesvos, Greece looked down at a large group of refugees at the processing center located at the Mytilini Port Authority. Many refugees wait for multiple days in line in order to receive legal documents allowing them to travel further into Greece.
Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector, smiled in relief after receiving his legal documents in Lesvos, Greece. Sieo waited in line for three days in order to get processed and receive documents. Many refugees wait for multiple days in line in order to receive legal documents allowing them to travel further into Greece.
Idomeni, Greece – September 5, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector, was dropped off at a gas station near the Macedonian border in northern Greece. Regular buses traveling from Athens to this gas station allow refugees to hike to the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia.
Antakya, Turkey – August 22, 2015. Majd Suliman (left), Asaad Sieo (center) and Mahmoud Hamwi (right) cheered when they watched a video of one of their friends arriving safely to the island of Lesvos by a small boat. Many refugees have been chronicling their journey or sharing information and rumors on social media outlets such as Facebook.
Tsoliades, Greece – September 6, 2015. A Greek soldier redirected a group of refugees navigating sections of woods and fields trying to locate the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia.
Belgrade, Serbia – September 7, 2015. Diane Vuković (left), an American ex pat living in Serbia, and Asaad Sieo (right), a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, discussed information and plans for moving further into Serbia and ultimately Hungary. Sieo got in touch with Vuković through a website called couchsurfing.com. Vuković has been hosting traveling refugees for free in her home.
Lesvos, Greece – September 4, 2015. Asaad Sieo (left), a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, and Majd Suliman (right), a Syrian refugee, swam and bathed in the Aegean Sea.
Tsoliades, Greece – September 6, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, carefully looked out for police and a possible route to the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia from Greece.
Tsoliades, Greece – September 6, 2015. A man helped a little girl down a steep dirt hill while crossing busy roads en route to the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia from Greece.
Horgos, Serbia – September 7, 2015. A crowd of refugees wait to board a bus outside of a UNHCR camp near the Hungarian border in northern Serbia. Refugees are detained by Serbian police inside the refugee camp until they are taken by buses to a set of rail road tracks about 1 kilometer away from the Hungarian border.
Tsoliades, Greece – September 6, 2015. A group of refugees navigate through a field in search for the border crossing into Macedonia from northern Greece.
Tsoliades, Greece – September 6, 2015. Syrian refugees Majd Suliman (left) and Asaad Sieo (right) observed their surroundings once they reached an old train platform that acted as an unofficial border crossing into Macedonia from Greece.
Horgos, Serbia – September 7, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector, checked his phone in hopes of receiving more information about the border crossing into Hungary. Earlier he had heard rumors of Hungarian police waiting to detain refugees once they cross over. Refugees are detained by Serbian police inside the refugee camp until they are taken by buses to a set of rail road tracks about 1 kilometer away from the Hungarian border.
Vienna, Austria – September 9, 2015. A large group of newly arrived refugees are gathered on a train station in Vienna where they are offered medical attention, food and information services. According to many refugees, Vienna was the first city to offer a warm welcome when they arrived.
Lesvos, Greece – September 3, 2015. Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector, expressed his frustration while waiting for legal documents. Many refugees wait for multiple days in line in order to receive legal documents allowing them to travel further into Greece.
Lesvos, Greece – September 3, 2015. A fight broke out amongst refugees waiting in line to get processed by Greek officials. Many refugees wait for multiple days in line and endure high temperatures with no shade in order to receive legal documents allowing them to travel further into Greece.
Herten, Germany – September 10, 2015. Syrian refugees Majd Suliman (right) and Mahmoud Hamwi (left) embraced each in celebration other outside of a processing camp in a small northern German town. Many trains arriving in Munich that are en route to Berlin are being rerouted to smaller cities or towns because of the influx of refugees in bigger cities.
When I first emailed Asaad Sieo, a 28-year-old military defector from Aleppo, Syria, I didn’t expect to get such a quick and welcoming response. But less than a week later, I landed at Hatay Airport on my way to Antakya, a small border town to Syria in southern Turkey, and met him. Asaad and I met first for breakfast at a small cafe near the center of Antakya.
We quickly filled each other in on what was going on and what our intentions were. Needless to say, there was some skepticism and timidity at first. It’s natural to keep each other at arm’s length. I can’t imagine what Asaad was feeling speaking to a journalist he didn’t know from a foreign country. But through personal stories and stupid jokes, we broke the ice and I was able to spend everyday of the rest of their time in Antakya with them.
We decided together that I would accompany him, and two of his friends, on their journey to Germany. I would have to travel as a North Korean refugee who didn’t speak English to fool the people smugglers and hopefully, the authorities too.
For me, this story had many parallels to my own family’s history. My grandmother fled from Pyongyang to South Korea during the Korean War, going through many of the same struggles as the refugees fleeing Syria. This eventually led her and my parents to immigrate to the United States in search of better opportunity for their family.
Together, Asaad and his friends and I planned to create an honest portrayal of this journey away from the media glare and high profile choke points across Eastern Europe. It was in many ways a shared journey where I was able to see what it was like to be a refugee through their eyes, and perhaps through the eyes of my grandmother as well.
Things moved almost at a snail’s pace for the first half of the journey. Setting things up with smugglers was incredibly difficult for Asaad. There was a desperate need for a lot of trust that we didn’t have for the smuggler. Every time he would get to the phone with a smuggler, I would ask “so, do you trust this guy?”, in which he would always reply, “Really, I don’t trust any of these people. But we have no choice.”
On top of this, the entire journey remained fluid and never concrete. There was much uncertainty a result of a lack of information and being unable to trust those we had to invest in. We made the boat journey from Turkey to Lesvos, Greece. On the journey, I passed out due to exposure and dehydration and was hospitalized and eventually jailed for three days by Greek authorities. Once I was out, Assad and his friends had received travel papers. We got to Athens, and things started moving quickly.
Asaad, Mahmoud and Majd had some amazing luck throughout all this. When others around them would be detained at border crossings or train stations, they would slip by or encounter someone who would get them through with little confrontation. When others would pay hundreds or even thousands of Euros for illegal transportation, they would find it for cheaper. And when others would spend days or weeks getting processed in the Balkan countries, they would get included in the last train leaving for the night.
But regardless of the luck that this group had, they still didn’t escape most of the hardships that every refugee goes through. One of the most challenging parts of the refugee’s journey was not the filthy camps, or the police brutality or the all-day hikes. It was the constant fear and stress of the unknown.
Every hardship endured was bad, but people can endure more when they know the end is in sight. In Assad’s case, the end always seemed distant, unclear. That seems to be a constant battle for many refugees. Through lack of information, language barriers and unknown timelines, the stress and fear is vastly heightened. This also feeds the rumor mill that circulates through the refugee community which can in turn lead to mistrust and at times miscalculated movements that endanger lives.
On his route, we witnessed beautiful moments of the human spirit: strangers sharing their vital and rare supplies with one another; babies being handed ahead of adults onto buses headed to safety.
We also saw the not-so-beautiful moments, including European authorities treating these people like cattle, and refugees themselves turning on one another as nerves frayed. When I asked Asaad why he made this journey, the answer he gave was simple: “There is no future for Syrians in Turkey.”
He described it as living in constant fear and uncertainty, much like the journey to Germany. Yet still, he feared that tomorrow, he will be deported back to Syria and face the possibility of a death sentence.