Humans of New York Refugee Stories

For ten days in September, I travelled to Greece, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria to learn the stories of refugees traveling across Europe. These are some of the stories I learned…

I want to begin this refugee series with a post from the summer of 2014. This is Muhammad, who I first met last year in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the time, he had just fled the war in Syria and was working as a clerk at my hotel. When war broke out, he’d been studying English Literature at the University of Damascus, so his English was nearly perfect. He agreed to work as my interpreter and we spent several days interviewing refugees who were fleeing the advance of ISIS. As is evident from the quote below, I left Muhammad with the expectation that he’d soon be traveling to the United Kingdom with fake papers. I am retelling the story because I have just now reconnected with Muhammad. He will be working again as my interpreter for the next ten days. But the story he told me of what happened since we last met is tragic.

“The fighting got very bad. When I left Syria to come here, I only had $50. I was almost out of money when I got here. I met a man on the street, who took me home, and gave me food and a place to stay. But I felt so ashamed to be in his home that I spent 11 hours a day looking for jobs, and only came back to sleep. I finally found a job at a hotel. They worked me 12 hours a day, for 7 days a week. They gave me $400 a month. Now I found a new hotel now that is much better. I work 12 hours per day for $600 a month, and I get one day off. In all my free hours, I work at a school as an English teacher. I work 18 hours per day, every day. And I have not spent any of it. I have not bought even a single T-shirt. I’ve saved 13,000 Euro, which is how much I need to buy fake papers. There is a man I know who can get me to Europe for 13,000. I’m leaving next week. I’m going once more to Syria to say goodbye to my family, then I’m going to leave all this behind. I’m going to try to forget it all. And I’m going to finish my education.”
(August 2014 : Erbil, Iraq)

“Before leaving for Europe, I went back to Syria to see my family once more. I slept in my uncle’s barn the entire time I was there, because every day the police were knocking on my father’s door. Eventually my father told me: ‘If you stay any longer, they will find you and they will kill you.’ So I contacted a smuggler and made my way to Istanbul. I was just about to leave for Europe when I received a call from my sister. She told me that my father had been very badly beaten by police, and unless I sent 5,000 Euro for an operation, he would die. That was my money to get to Europe. But what could I do? I had no choice. Then two weeks later she called with even worse news. My brother had been killed by ISIS while he was working in an oil field. They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.” (Kos, Greece)

“For two weeks my tears didn’t stop. Nothing made sense. Why did these things happen to my family? We did everything right. Everything. We were very honest with everyone. We treated our neighbors well. We made no big mistakes. I was under so much pressure at this time. My father was in intensive care, and every day my sisters called and told me that ISIS was getting closer to our village. I went completely crazy. I fainted in the street one day and woke up in the hospital. I gave the rest of my money to a smuggler to help my sisters escape to Iraq. Now I only had 1000 Euro left and I was stranded in Turkey. My father recovered from his operation at this time. He called me and asked how I’d paid for his surgery. I told him that the money came from a friend. He asked if I had made it to Europe. For the first time ever, I lied to my father. I didn’t want him to feel guilty about his surgery. I told him that I was in Europe, and I was safe, and there was nothing to worry about.” (Kos, Greece)

“After I told my father that I’d made it to Europe, I wanted nothing more than to turn that lie into the truth. I found a smuggler and told him my story. He acted like he cared very much and wanted to help me. He told me that for 1000 Euros, he could get me to a Greek Island. He said: ‘I’m not like the other smugglers. I fear God. I have children of my own. Nothing bad will happen to you.’ I trusted this man. One night he called me and told me to meet him at a garage. He put me in the back of a van with twenty other people. There were tanks of gasoline back there, and we couldn’t breath. People started to scream and vomit. The smuggler pulled out a gun, pointed it at us, and said: ‘If you don’t shut up, I will kill you.’ He took us to a beach, and while he prepared the boat, his partner kept the gun pointed at us. The boat was made of plastic and was only three meters long. When we got on it, everyone panicked and the boat started to sink. Thirteen of the people were too scared to go. But the smuggler said that if we changed our minds, he would keep the money, so seven of us decided to go ahead. The smuggler told us that he would guide us to the island, but after a few hundred meters, he jumped off the boat and swam to shore. He told us to keep going straight. The waves got higher and higher and water began to come in the boat. It was completely black. We could see no land, no lights, only ocean. Then after thirty minutes the motor stopped. I knew we all would die. I was so scared that my thoughts completely stopped. The women started crying because none of them could swim. I lied and told them that I could swim with three people on my back. It started to rain. The boat began to turn in circles. Everyone was so frightened that nobody could speak. But one man kept trying to work on the motor, and after a few minutes it started again. I don’t remember how we reached shore. But I remember I kissed all the earth I could find. I hate the sea now. I hate it so much. I don’t like to swim it. I don’t like to look at it. I hate everything about it.” (Kos, Greece)

“The island we landed on was called Samothrace. We were so thankful to be there. We thought we’d reached safety. We began to walk toward the police station to register as refugees. We even asked a man on the side of the road to call the police for us. I told the other refugees to let me speak for them, since I spoke English. Suddenly two police jeeps came speeding toward us and slammed on the brakes. They acted like we were murderers and they’d been searching for us. They pointed guns at us and screamed: ‘Hands up!’ I told them: ‘Please, we just escaped the war, we are not criminals!’ They said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will never forget this word: ‘Malaka, Malaka, Malaka.’ It was all they called us. They threw us into prison. Our clothes were wet and we could not stop shivering. We could not sleep. I can still feel this cold in my bones. For three days we had no food or water. I told the police: ‘We don’t need food, but please give us water.’ I begged the commander to let us drink. Again, he said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will remember this man’s face for the rest of my life. He had a gap in his teeth so he spit on us when he spoke. He chose to watch seven people suffer from thirst for three days while they begged him for water. We were saved when they finally they put us on a boat and sent us to a camp on the mainland. For twelve days we stayed there before walking north. We walked for three weeks. I ate nothing but leaves. Like an animal. We drank from dirty rivers. My legs grew so swollen that I had to take off my shoes. When we reached the border, an Albanian policeman found us and asked if we were refugees. When we told him ‘yes,’ he said that he would help us. He told us to hide in the woods until nightfall. I did not trust this man, but I was too tired to run. When night came, he loaded us all into his car. Then he drove us to his house and let us stay there for one week. He bought us new clothes. He fed us every night. He told me: ‘Do not be ashamed. I have also lived through a war. You are now my family and this is your house too.’” (Kos, Greece)

“After one month, I arrived in Austria. The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!’” (Kos, Greece)

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“Every month we had to go to Baghdad to get my son’s eyes treated. When we went for his last appointment, the hospital was very crowded so we decided to go back to the hotel and wait. We walked out into the street and waited for a taxi. A car pulled up and stopped. We thought it was the police. Two men with guns jumped out and asked for our ID cards, then they pushed us into the car. After a few hundred meters, my wife and I were tossed into the street. But they kept my son.” (Hegyeshalom, Hungary)

“After they took our son, my wife was so weak that she couldn’t get out of bed. For days I walked around Baghdad like a crazy man. I could not sleep. I walked from early in the morning to late at night. I thought maybe I’d recognize the car if I saw it again. Every day I picked a new neighborhood. I kept my phone in my hand hoping that someone would call. Every few seconds I’d check the screen. Soon I lost hope. I was sure that I’d lost my son. Then after one week an envelope came to the house with a phone number inside. I called the number and a man told me that he had my son. He said he wanted a large amount of money. He said if I called the police, my son would die. It took me twenty days to get the money together. I sold the house. I borrowed money from relatives. Days would pass between phone calls. I kept begging for more time. They kept changing SIM cards so I couldn’t call back. When I finally got the money, I told them I was ready to meet, but I demanded to speak to my son. I told them: ‘Please, I need to hear his voice. I need to hear his voice.’ Then suddenly I heard my son’s voice on the phone. He sounded very scared. He said: ‘Dad?’ Then the phone was disconnected.” (Hegyeshalom, Hungary)

“They told me to meet them at a certain address with the money. It was an old abandoned house. They told me to wait for a silver car to come, and to throw the money inside. After a few minutes a car came. I threw the money inside and it drove off. Soon another car pulled up, the door opened, and my son was thrown out. I didn’t believe it was my son. It was like I was born again. I picked him up and I started running and I didn’t stop until I reached a place full of people. Both of us cried as I ran.” (Hegyeshalom, Hungary)

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“I saw the army burn my neighbor’s house. They set it on fire and took photographs while it burned. The next day I saw the same house on TV, except the headline claimed that it had been destroyed by ‘terrorists.’ The army began to arrest 300 people every day. They were arresting everyone. They came for me during Ramadan. I was eating with my entire family when suddenly we heard the sound of a car outside. Soldiers kicked down the door and they tied my hands behind my back. My children were screaming. The soldiers said: ‘We know you are working with the opposition! You are a terrorist!’ I told them: ‘Please. We are poor people. We have done nothing. We are trying to live.’ I never thought I’d see my family again. They brought me to the prison and blindfolded me. They made me kneel on the floor. They asked me questions about the opposition, but I knew nothing. When they asked me a question, I only had two seconds to answer before I was kicked. They beat me for hours while they questioned me. I begged them to stop. I kept promising that I would tell them if I heard anything. Then they attached cables to my body. They would run electricity through me for 25 seconds, then they would stop, and they would ask another question. When I said: ‘I don’t know,’ the electricity would start again. They kept me for three days. When they finally let me go, I couldn’t stand. I went home and hugged my family but I had to go straight to work. Because there was no food in the house and no one had eaten for days.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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“I worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that I could build a house in Syria. It only had two rooms and a bathroom, but for me it was paradise. We lived there for about twenty years. We did not want to leave. We have young children and no money to travel. But it became impossible to live. Our house was situated between the army and the opposition. Every day the army knocked on our door, and said: ‘Help us or we will kill you.’ They came to the restaurant where I worked and accused us of feeding the enemy. We hid in the cellar while they beat the manager. If the opposition managed to capture our village, we would also be killed. They would accuse us of collaborating with the army. We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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“I’m working as an interpreter. I know what these people are going through. My family fled Afghanistan because the Taliban wanted to kill my father. I arrived in Greece fifteen years ago. We came across a river from Turkey. We tried to walk at night but we knew that we’d been caught because we kept seeing red lasers pointed at us. We saw the glow of night vision goggles through the trees. But nobody approached us, so we thought that maybe we had been mistaken, and we kept walking. Eventually we came upon a car along the road that had driven into a ditch. The lights were on and the doors were open. We thought somebody might be hurt inside, so everyone ran toward the car. But it was a trap. The police came swarming out of the trees. I’d been told many times that they’d beat us when they found us. But it was even worse than I imagined. They treated us like animals. They wore masks and gloves because they were afraid to even touch us. It was like we weren’t human.” (Kos, Greece)

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“A friend called me at work and told me that a sniper had shot my youngest brother. I rushed to the clinic and he was lying there with a bandage on his head. I unwrapped the bandage to help treat the wound with alcohol, and small pieces of brain were stuck to it. The doctor told me: ‘Unless you get him to Damascus, he will die.’ I panicked. The road to Damascus went straight through Raqqa and was very dangerous. It took ten hours, because we could only take back roads and we had to drive very far out of the way. My brother was in the back seat, and after a very short time he started to vomit bile. Water was pouring from his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared. I thought for sure he was dying. But somehow I got him to the hospital. He’s paralyzed now and his speech is slow. His memory is OK. He can remember old things. He needs an operation in his eye. We used to do everything together, and now he can’t do anything. He can only move his hand. I’m trying to get him to Germany because I hear that maybe the doctors there can help him.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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The extent to which refugee children have been conditioned by their environment is heartbreaking. We wanted permission to take this young girl’s photograph, so we asked if her mother was nearby. Her eyes filled with the most uncontrollable fear that I’ve ever seen in a child. ‘Why do you want my mother?’ she asked. Later, her parents told us how the family had crouched in the woods while soldiers ransacked their house in Syria. More recently they’d been chased through the woods by Turkish police. After we’d spent a few minutes talking with her parents, she returned to being a child and could not stop hugging us, and laughing, and saying ‘I love you so much.’ But I went to sleep that night remembering the terror on her face when we first asked to speak to her mother. (Lesvos, Greece)

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“ISIS looks for any reason to punish you. If they saw me with my face shaved, they’d punish me. If they saw me with these jeans, they’d punish me. Two of them walked into my electronics shop, and they asked me why my beard was so short. I tried to make an excuse about having just returned from vacation, but they said: ‘Come with us.’ I begged them to forgive me, but they took me to the judge and I was sentenced to three days of digging tunnels at the airport. They told me that they’d come get me when it was time. When they came to my house, I was hiding, so they took my neighbors instead. Everyone they took that day was killed by American planes.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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“There is no security in Baghdad. We lived in constant fear. We started receiving text messages one day. They said: ‘Give us money, or we will burn down your house. If you tell the police, we will kill you.’ We had nobody to turn to. We are poor people. We have no powerful friends. We don’t know anyone in the government. The text messages continued every day. We were so afraid that we could not sleep. We had no money to give them. We could barely afford to feed ourselves. So we said to ourselves: ‘Maybe they are lying. Maybe they will do nothing.’ Then one night we woke up and our house was on fire. We barely escaped with the children. The next day we received a text message. It said: ‘Give us money, or this time you will die.’ I replied that we’d pay them soon. We sold everything we owned, and we left. We thought we’d rather die in a plastic boat than die there.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)

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“I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!’” (Lesvos, Greece)

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“I studied to be a teacher, but I’m young, so I knew I’d be forced to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like blood. But I was the only one working so I couldn’t leave or my family would go hungry. But my mother begged me to leave. She kissed my feet. She said she wouldn’t mind starving if she knew that I was safe. I hired a smuggler but he took all my money and left me at the border. He told me that he’d call me when the passage was safe, but then he turned off his phone. I was all alone and stuck without money. I called my mother and she said that she’d pray for God to send someone to help me. Then I met this man. I told him my story and he loaned me the money I needed to get to Europe. He treated me like one of his family. I’ll pay him back when I get to Germany, but until then I’m trying to return the favor by helping him carry his children.” (Vienna, Austria)

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“I lived in Mosul for five months under ISIS. I tried to avoid trouble but one of my neighbors reported me for shaving my beard. They came to my house while I was sleeping. My mother answered the door and they pushed her out of the way and dragged me out of bed. They asked me why I’d shaved my beard. I didn’t know what to tell them. They dragged me into the center of the city and made me kneel next to five other men. They called out on loudspeakers for everyone to come and watch. A large crowd gathered. The faces in the crowd seemed sad but they had no choice but to watch. ‘These men are atheists,’ they said. ‘And they will be punished.’ They took off my shirt and put a blindfold on me. They said that anyone who tried to go to the hospital afterward would be killed. I was the fifth one to be whipped. I could hear the men before me scream out in strange voices. When the first lash hit me, the pain was so bad that it felt like my soul left my body. They lashed me twelve times. I lost consciousness before it ended and woke up in bed.” (Salzburg, Austria)

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“I’m sixty-two years old. I was a government clerk in Baghdad. I heard from a neighbor that one of the militias was planning to kill me. The militia thought I was passing along information to the government. It wasn’t true, but these are not educated people. They don’t have rules. They don’t listen to reason. I had to leave or they would kill me. I couldn’t afford to bring my family with me. I didn’t even say goodbye. I snuck away in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand to see my children cry. I’m all alone here. I look around, and I see everyone else with their families. I only have one cot.” (Salzburg, Austria)

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“The army searched our house six times. The first two times they knocked on the door. The next four times they kicked in the door in the middle of the night. They hit my wife. They shocked me with an electric baton. And my children had to witness all of this. The psychology of my children changed before my eyes. I stopped getting hugs and kisses. They used to watch cartoons and play normal games. Now they only played games related to war. They’d chase each other around the house, shouting: ‘I’m going to kill you!’ I tried buying them an educational kit with cardboard squares and triangles and circles. When I left the room, they broke the shapes and turned them into guns.” (Hegyeshalom, Hungary)

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“My father loved children. But I was his favorite because I was the small one. Whenever we did something wrong, everyone else got punished except for me. When I was fifteen, he took us on a shopping trip to Baghdad, and he told us to wait in the car while he ran into a market. We heard a loud explosion. We got out of the car and ran toward the sound. Body parts were everywhere. My father’s body was lying on the ground with his head split open. Part of his brain was on the street. I was young and naïve. I remember thinking: ‘It will be OK. He just needs an operation.’” (Vienna, Austria)

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