From Damascus To Amsterdam: Borders, Hope And A Small Rubber Boat
Amr is on an inflatable boat with about forty other people when he sees hints of the orange dawn breaking over the Mediterranean horizon in the east. There are women and children and the boat is filled over its capacity. The only people Amr knows here are his ex-boyfriend and two girls. The girls are a couple but no one can know. They have been in the sea for over five hours now, much longer than the Sudanese man who had arranged the crossing for them had promised.
“Forty minutes. Just follow that red light”, he had said before pushing their boat out into the water on this deserted part of Turkey’s Aegean coastline near Izmir, pointing to a faint red spot in the ocean.
On that moonless August night, in the thick inky darkness, that red spot is life. It is freedom. It is Europe!
But as dawn breaks, bringing light, stronger winds and higher waves, the red spot disappears. In his twenty-eight years, Amr has seen enough mornings that brought nothing but bad news. He is hoping against hope that this is not one of those mornings. Having walked through dense jungles for over three hours earlier that night, hiding between hills, all their possessions in a backpack, food and water is scarce in the group. Without a single compass on board, no working phones, more souls than life jackets, hope is also a scarce resource on this boat, to be drawn on only when really needed.
That morning, as the earth continued its relentless rotation, the world was waking up to news of the Rosetta spacecraft becoming the first-ever man-made probe to land on a comet, Apple and Samsung settling all patent disputes over smartphones and the WHO holding an emergency meeting in Geneva to discuss the Ebola epidemic.
And to the news of the number of Syrian refugees having exceeded three million, with about half of those children.
Three million people. Countless small rubber boats.
The red spot in the ocean has completely disappeared. Instead, what Amr and the others on the boat see is a rocky outcropping, too small to be called an island, but not too far away.
The boat dangerously lurches towards one side with the force of the wind and waves. Fearing the worst — and the worst is all too common in these waters, and the news these days — some people want to steer toward these rocks. Others fear that these rocks are most likely within Turkish waters, and if they land here and call for help, they will be picked up by the Turkish coastguard and sent back to what they have given up everything to escape. This group wants to keep going in the hope of reaching an island that belongs to Greece, despite the imminent threat of sinking. A brawl breaks out on the already compromised boat.
The Borders Project: 1. The Human Project: 0.
When Amr was 18, he moved to Syria to study and in the hope of eventually finding a job. Without a passport, and with his Palestinian travel documents, he was much more likely to find a job there. Which he did, in a bank in Damascus, after getting his masters degree. He thought he had a chance to love and happiness, in that home he shared with six other guys, all gay. His “gay family”, as Amr fondly remembers them.
On the night of January 10, 2013, his world changed.
In fact, his world had been changing at a pace faster than many still living in Syria at the time wanted to admit. Assad’s forces, his gangs of savage killers, hisShabiha, and other warring factions had caused the death toll to cross the 200,000 mark. As the world largely stood by and funding shortages endangered relief operations, there were reports of Syrian children freezing to death.
On that January night, eight armed men, working for the regime, stormed into their house. Shouting homophobic slurs, they arrested Amr and his friends. For being gay. He was separated from the others and put in a cell about the size of a one-room apartment, with 150 other people. The toilet was an open hole in one corner. With no windows or sources of natural light, the only way to keep track of time was through the timing of the one meal they were given every day. The twenty days he spent in this cell would lead to wounds, of the body and of the soul. The former would take about three months in a hospital to heal.
This is when he would decide to leave Syria. Leaving behind the passions, the possibilities that he had once thought he would pursue here.
Having lived so far without a passport, any passport, Amr had always known that there would be struggles involved. But to Amr, stateless had never meant hopeless. Now, with the world around him literally going up in flames, he would need something closer to a miracle, to get him to safety, to stability.
When his ex-boyfriend told Amr that he was going to attempt to cross into Turkey illegally, Amr said, “I’m in.”
There weren’t any other options. He was already blacklisted in Libya and Lebanon, having tried to get in with his Palestinian papers. There was nothing more to lose.
Back on the inflatable boat that is very close to sinking now, the group that wants to head toward the rocks has won. Once there, with the seas still rough, but with the sun higher up, they can all see a bigger island in the distance. And the faint flicker of a blue and white flag on a mountaintop church. Greece!
The adrenaline pumping through their veins made the decision to swim to this island seem less rash than it actually was. The only problem was that many in the group did not know how to swim.
A lot of what happened that day is a blur but Amr remembers swimming back and forth, making six crossings, to get people he had known only for the last few hours, to safety. The other good swimmers did the same.
The Human Project: 1.
When I met Amr for the first time in Amsterdam, it was almost two years to the day, after that fateful morning on the boat. He was on a different boat this time — a friend’s houseboat in Amsterdam. And it was pride weekend.
I thought he looked much younger than his thirty years. Handsome, vivacious, full of life, nothing about him — except perhaps a fleeting look in his eyes — would betray that he was a man who had seen too much. Nothing that would tell me that even after that crossing through the Mediterranean, there was still more than a year of strife and several more tests of grit — two fake passports, one failed attempt to escape to England — before he would land in Amsterdam.
“Happy Pride!” he said, the warmish glow of the August sun in Amsterdam glinting in his silver earring.
“Happy Pride, Amr!” I said.
And I meant those two words more than I ever had.