Mohammed’s journey: A Syrian’s quest for a normal life

Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press

At the Serbian-Hungarian border –

At the edge of a Balkan vineyard, Mohammed al-Haj lay down under a tree to collect his thoughts. Come nightfall, he and the other Syrians with him would make a run for it, past the fence of chain-link and barbed wire being built along the Hungarian border to keep them out, past the armed border guards.

His vision drifted up to the late afternoon sky. He watched one plane go by, then another, then another. Full of normal passengers on normal voyages. He thought of the life he was certain he would reach, in Germany.

“One day soon, I’ll travel by planes like those,” he mused.

The dream of normalcy after a life destroyed by Syria’s civil war had sustained the 26-year-old throughout his journey. Across the Aegean Sea where others like him had drowned. Through miles of walking under hot sun. Through confusion, impatience, exhaustion, fear and anger — the constant barrage of every emotion, except one. Never despair, never a moment of despair or surrender.

Mohammed’s voyage was part of an historic movement of humanity as more than 600,000 migrants this year have sought sanctuary in Europe. Countries there have been struggling to cope with the biggest wave of migration since World War II. The ensuing chaos have forced migrants to find new routes to northern Europe, where even the richest nations are now signaling that they want to deter what they view as an unwanted overflow of migration.

Like most, Mohammed was desperate to escape war. His journey chronicles the deeply personal aspirations that drove him and many others. He was convinced he deserved better than a life trapped as a refugee in Turkey. He wanted to be a productive part of society.

And most of all, he wanted his dignity back. “At least in Europe, I will feel that I have rights.”

The light began to fade over the vineyard. Mohammed readied his companions. A father and daughter from the Syrian province of Aleppo. Two Syrian doctors. A 16-year-old, Abdul-Rahman Babelly.

Dusk departure: Mohammed al-Haj and others head out on Sept. 12 in a bid to cross from Serbia into Hungary, with hopes of eventually reaching Germany.

The beginning: Leaving Aleppo

When the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in early 2011, Mohammed immediately joined the protests. It was the time of the Arab Spring.

But by 2012, the uprising had descended into the hell of civil war, dragging Mohammed’s home city of Aleppo into its crosshairs.

Syria’s largest city, once the jewel of the country’s commerce and culture, was a battleground, torn between government- and rebel-held zones. The military’s onslaught of bombardment and barrel bombs had reduced neighborhoods to rubble.

Mohammed, a member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, was a volunteer at a front-line hospital, where the Associated Press met him in October 2012. For weeks at a time, the facility was overwhelmed by an unrelenting stream of wounded and dead civilians and rebels.

The young man, who had just graduated from high school a few years earlier, was constantly cheerful and energetic.

At the head of the family was the hospital’s senior doctor, Osman al-Haj Osman — “Dr. Osman,” to his staff. He was so dedicated he moved his wife and children into the hospital so he wouldn’t have to leave his patients.

Then in November 2012, a barrel bomb hit a building next door housing rebel fighters, heavily damaging the hospital. Four were killed. The hospital closed. Its staff dispersed, most joining the giant diaspora of more than 4 million people driven into neighboring countries.

Mohammed and his family went too, fleeing to Turkey in 2014.

A farewell to Turkey

On Sept. 2, the day Mohammed said goodbye to his parents in Killis, Turkey, photos shared worldwide showed a Syrian boy face down on the beach, drowned along with most of his family. They’d been trying to go by smuggler boat from the Turkish coast to a Greek island, just as Mohammed intended.

“What am I going to do if you too drown in the sea?” Mohammed’s mother sobbed.

Mohammed prepared for the worst. He left his parents $3,400 he’d saved up. He left another $8,800 with a friend in Killis. The friend was to wire Mohammed money if he needed it. But Mohammed also gave him alternative instructions: If he died on the journey, give the money to his mother.

Across the Aegean Sea

It was Sept. 4 and he was on a bus traveling north from the Turkish city of Izmir. He was heading to the planned departure point for the smugglers’ boat on Turkey’s Aegean coast. From there, the Greek island of Lesbos was a tantalizingly close 10 miles across the water.

Mohammed and the six Syrians he was travelling with paid $2,200 each to a Turkish smuggler.

They set off just after dawn. Through two hours of high waves, they loudly recited verses from the Quran, hoping for God’s protection.

Early on Sept. 5, Mohammed and his comrades came ashore near the Lesbos village of Agios Giorgios. They cheered and fished out their mobile phones to take celebratory selfies.

Lesbos: A long wait

As a boy in Aleppo, Mohammed was so shy he would burst into tears if an adult so much as gave him a harsh look. It was his father who made it a point to make him socialize to overcome his fear.

It worked. Today Mohammed brims with confidence. Street savvy, he’s convinced he can talk his way through anything. His boldness served him well in surviving Aleppo. He would need it on Lesbos.

The some 20,000 Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans languished around Lesbos’ capital Mytilene, sleeping on sidewalks and in parks, some in tents, some on cardboard.

The reason: Every refugee and migrant had to register and receive a document. Without it, they couldn’t buy a ticket on a ferry to mainland Greece. They couldn’t even rent a hotel room or take a taxi.

But the massive influx had overwhelmed local authorities, who were eking out 100-200 registrations a day. Tired of waiting, the crowds grew restive.

The sense of helplessness was killing Mohammed, with his motto to never stop moving.

“All I want is to leave this country and they aren’t giving me the document. Why?” he asked, chain-smoking furiously.

The morning of Sept. 7, he joined a long line outside a registration office, and would-be line-jumpers sparked a fight. The Greek officials inside the office fled.

Mohammed snapped. He rallied everyone around into a protest.

“We want to leave,” the several hundred demonstrators chanted, marching down the Mytilene promenade.

That afternoon, the breakthrough came. Mohammed heard that mass registration of refugees was being held at a soccer stadium outside Mytilene. Mohammed grabbed his bag and hustled 45 minutes on foot to the stadium.

It was true. Greek authorities had brought in extra personnel to speed up registration. Unfortunately, a giant crowd was ahead of him.

At 3:30 a.m., eight hours after arriving at the stadium, Mohammed had his document. His comrades finally got theirs several hours later, and they bought the first available ferry ticket: 8 p.m. on Sept. 9.

By ferry, bus and train: Crossing Greece

Mohammed lay under a sheet to sleep for at least part of the 10-hour voyage to the port of Piraeus outside Athens. He already felt a cold coming on.

The next day, on the bus from Athens to the Macedonian border, Mohammed began to relax. The trip was back on track.

Germany was the future. He didn’t speak German, but he knew dozens of Syrians there, including Dr. Osman, from the Aleppo hospital, who had been living in the state of Saarland for a year.

He knew he would have to prove himself.

“Syrians work really hard,” he said. “They’ll crush rocks for a living.”

After seven hours, the bus reached the Macedonian border. It was nightfall, and pouring rain, the heaviest Mohammed had ever seen.

He and his comrades trudged into the darkness to slip through the fields across the border.

There they got a taste of the kindness that some Europeans show amid the chaos: Volunteers gave the migrants sandwiches as they entered Macedonia. A quick meal, and they were on a train, heading to Serbia.

Bottleneck in Serbia

Mohammed and his companions then hit another bottleneck-turned-madhouse.

The Serbian town of Presevo, about 10 miles in from the Macedonian border, teemed with migrants and refugees trying to get a Serbian registration document, required before they could move on to the Hungarian border.

Locals had a roaring trade selling the documents, obtained from friends in the police. Street peddlers were making a killing, too, selling clothes and blankets to the bedraggled travelers.

Mohammed got into a conversation with a policeman. They hit it off. The policeman called his brother, who was also a policeman. The brother came out of the hospital and started asking Mohammed about the Islamic State group and the situation in Aleppo. It was clear he was trying to recruit him as an informant.

Mohammed gave the policeman his email, and the policeman asked him to stay in touch. With that, Mohammed and his comrades had their documents.

A major obstacle: The Hungarian border

These were the stakes at the border into Hungary: On the other side, 500 yards down the railroad tracks, was the office where the Hungarians were registering and fingerprinting migrants. From everything Mohammed had heard, if you registered with the Hungarians, Germany would force you back to Hungary. He was determined not to let that happen.

When night fell on Sept. 12 — 10 days and 1,700 miles by boat, bus, train and foot from Killis, Turkey — Mohammed and his colleagues pretended to be heading toward the registration office. They passed the border fence, then they made their move.

They ducked left into a cornfield. On the other side of the field, Mohammed knew from his earlier reconnaissance, was a road and a gas station. If they reached that, they could hide, then find a taxi to take them on their way.

“Stop! Stop!” the police shouted. They seemed to materialize from nowhere.

They were caught.

The refugee grapevine

The Hungarians fingerprinted and registered Mohammed, but treated him well, he said. After a cold night in a rain-drenched Hungarian camp, Mohammed was taken with one of his companions, Ahmed Naasan, to the Austrian border, and they crossed 30 hours after they’d been caught by the Hungarians.

Mohammed was anxious, fearing registration would wreck his chances of settling in Germany. So he turned to the refugee grapevine, WhatsApp.

Squatting on the ground at the train station in Jennersdorf, Austria, Mohammed was on five different WhatsApp chats with other Syrians in Germany, trying to determine which states ignored the Hungarian registration and would grant asylum.

Only one country from his goal, his optimism was building.

German police: Passport search

Two days after Mohammed crossed into Hungary, it slammed its border with Serbia shut, complaining that it must “protect Europe’s borders” if Greece was not up for it.

There was nothing now but Germany. His dreams started to spill out.

“I’ll suffer for the first two months until I sort out my affairs, like the asylum hearing and the residency,” he said. But once that was settled, he could visit his family in Turkey, then return to Germany to build his new life.

The train crossed to the German town of Passau. A half-dozen armed German policeman boarded. They asked for Mohammed and Naasan for their passports and, seeing they were Syrians, they took them away.

But instead of being detained or thrown back, they were given a lunch. Soon Mohammed was on a train heading west across Germany.

“That camp confirmed my expectations of Germany,” he said. “I have finally arrived.”

Reunion in the rain

Mohammed and Dr. Osman were reunited Sept. 16 in the town of Saarlouis, where the doctor had his German classes in the morning.

The two men hugged, laughing and crying.

Mohammed listened as the doctor gave advice: Quit smoking — cigarettes drain your money. Learn German quickly. And find a job. “Germans will look down at you if they know you live off government handouts.”

Mohammed was prepared to face contempt. In the future, that would change.

“When I complete my education,” he said, “I will regain my self-esteem and those Germans will be proud of me.”

Associated Press writer Lee Keath in Cairo contributed.