And if it were you?

Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall

Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall

And I’ll show you a young land

With so many reasons why

And there but for fortune go you and I, you and I.”

Joan Baez, 1964

There is nearly a 1 to 100 chance it might have been you. You, a refugee. The figures are simple enough: 65,3 million displaced people in a world of of 7430 million. About half of you are children, under 18. You know you can’t go back, for fear of prison, torture, death. You don’t know where you can go, either: few places seem welcoming.

This article is not about statistics. It is about you, and your life, as a refugee. A life of difficult decisions, some of them matters of life and death. First, how much does it cost, just to leave? How can I look after my family? What can we take with us? Where will we go? How long will it take? What will we eat? Where will we sleep? What will we wear? How will we wash? What if someone in the family is taken ill? How can we keep in touch with those at home? Many questions, few answers.

Other questions are harder, almost unanswerable. If we survive, what will life as a refugee be like? Where will we live? Will I find work? Will we ever make new friends? And, most important, when can we go home again?

Refugees can’t answer these questions but they think about them, all the time. This article is about reality, a reality so grim few of us dare go there. The aim is not to frighten but to encourage people to help in any way they can. Refugees need help and nearly all respond well when they get it. My hope is that this account of the problems of some real and courageous people will kindle fires of goodwill and aid elsewhere.

The story starts on a sunny afternoon in September. Akeem Adjimi, his wife and their two-year old daughter are in their adequate but primitive two-room apartment in France, in a block they share with many others, speaking many tongues–including another Syrian family with whom they shared some of their journey. They are waiting for the visit of two close friends who have helped this family of six get settled in, providing some food, some money, a little medical help.

There is also an unknown and potentially threatening quantity in the room: me. I am there to start my research for this article. No one knows how this will go. If badly, there will be no article. And refugees have had to put up with so much in their lives, they take not always kindly to yet more intrusions. Why should they? Silence is sometimes the best protection. When life has gone as badly for you as it has for all those mentioned in the pages that follow, more complications are unwelcome. Especially from an unknown, non-Arabic speaking writer. Would you share painful memories with someone like me, on a first meeting? I wouldn’t.

But Akeem’s wife Fatima–thin, pretty and obviously far too young to have had four children and survived being a refugee–serves us all a drink and some biscuits. Akeem relaxes a little, a smile nearly on his face as he describes his morning with the dentist. He begins, hesitantly, to talk. A pipeline worker by trade, in the old days he had a healthy income in Algeria, three months there to one month back in Syria with his family in Homs. His English is from this period and he uses it well but it is a huge effort for him to speak, as he is about to do, for more than an hour, almost without pause. For me it is not always easy either; for example he — like many whose mother tongue is Arabic — has no words for she or her so when talking of his wife he uses him and his. Akeem’s English is supported by finger talk: the word see is accompanied by two fingers placed just below the right eye.

For what he had to say over the next hour or so, you will have to skip to the section below The Frontiers. Right now it is time to collect Akeem’s other three children and a nephew from their first day at a French school, a 15-minute walk away.

We arrive at the school soon enough, with Akeem obviously enjoying the opportunity to talk to me on the way. The school, like so many, is a whirling chaos of language and dress. Akeem’s children are full of energy and embrace the friend who came with us (who clearly plays the role of Papi here) enthusiastically and at length. To my surprise I get the same treatment. Why? I can’t answer this question, at least not yet.

Then the eldest, Riyana, smiles and takes my hand. She is the most reserved of the children; you will see why when you read The Frontiers. She keeps tight hold of my hand all the way home. I give her the English and the French for ducks, birds and swans. She teaches me Arabic for Papi. We look at grand houses overlooking the park and wonder how the Adjimi family might fit in?

Back in the apartment, it is time for me to go to other appointments. I tell Akeem I hope to see him again. ‘But’, he says, ‘the next time you must promise to eat with us’.

So, yes, there will be an article.

Why we had to leave

Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution, fearing for their lives. They have little enough in their favour, with one important exception: they are defined and protected under international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life or freedom are at risk. Once in one of the 28 (soon 27?) states of the European Union, at least, they have the right to demand asylum.

Refugees can’t choose where to start from but Homs is not an obvious choice. It got special attention as the symbolic centre of the Syrian rebels early in the civil war, and quite quickly, early in 2016, came to resemble Warsaw or Berlin as they were in 1945.

Akeem and his family, and his relations, including his 90-year-old father, have always lived in Homs. While Akeem works for months on end from his desert camp in Algeria, Fatima and their three children cling to a precarious existence in Homs, creating food from whatever comes to hand. Not much does; in some areas, even the shelves in what were once shops have been looted for firewood. Bodies are left on the streets as a warning to others; terrifying visits from thugs and soldiers are much too common.

Some parts of Homs, of course, are worse than others. In desperation, Fatima and her children leave their house and move in with Fatima’s mother, who lives in a slightly less dangerous area.

When Akeem returned for a three-week rest from his job in 2011, they knew the time had come for decision making; life was getting more and more dangerous. Nights were sleepless, the days house-bound since no one dared leave the house without good cause. When he does, Akeem finds dead bodies in the streets. The three weeks turned to six, and soon 2011 would become a really dreadful 2012. Just in time, they decide to move to Algeria. The problems begin immediately: Fatima and the children have no passports. Friends help, money changes hands, Akeem goes back to work.

The journey

Fatima and the children arrived in Algiers on 1 January 2012. Within days, Homs has turned into a centre for the bloodiest of massacres as the regime determined to wrest the city from the hands of the rebels. They succeeded but the cost in ruined structures, damaged lives, needless suffering and useless deaths will be counted for decades, perhaps longer. A truce (really a surrender) was not signed until 2014, more than two years later. Would Fatima and the children have survived that long? Would you?

From Algiers, Fatima and the children fly on, to a little known and little loved desert town called Hassi Messaoud where they are met by Akeem. Some 50 000 people live there, mainly off oil and related activities. The town is surrounded by bidonvilles which house those looking for work and those who are there to service those who do work — secretaries, waitresses, house cleaners, cooks etc. Many are single women and are accused by religious extremists of earning extra money by night as prostitutes. One night in the summer of 2001, 300 men attacked one of these bidonvilles, El-Haicha, mutilating and raping its inhabitants, following their denunciation by an imam as prostitutes. These attacks reoccurred during this infamous summer. Attempts by the forces of order to bring the guilty to justice were feeble; hardly anyone was successfully prosecuted. Is this the sort of place you would choose to bring up a family?

As Akeem put it in his colourful English: ‘When Fatima see this town, he cry.’ I asked Fatima whether these were tears of joy or of sadness?

‘Both’, she said.

Akeem’s company had helped him rent accommodation in Hassi Messaoud. He spent the week in a camp at the site of his work and drove back every weekend, six hours each way, to be with his family.

How long would you stay in such a place? A week? A month? Two months? The Adjimi family stayed three years, increased their family by one (Aisha), until Akeem’s contract ended and he no longer had the right to stay in Algeria.

And then what? The worst frontier of all comes next: Algeria to Morocco.

The frontiers

You will find, as a refugee, that all frontiers are to be dreaded and, where possible, avoided. One way of avoiding lots of frontiers is to take a boat but doing that will be the riskiest decision you ever made. Boats cost serious money even though neither seats nor life jackets are guaranteed. Some boats float, others not for too long. Some have enough fuel to reach Europe, many don’t.

In the past 12 months, an average of 11 men, women and children have drowned each day trying to reach safety in a boat. More than 3000 in the first nine months of 2016.

For Akeem, working in Algeria, there is a safer but also expensive and uncertain solution. To cross the border into Morocco and then to head towards one of the two Spanish territories, Ceuta and Melilla, found on the Moroccan mainland. Thence by ferry to mainland Spain and onto France and then Germany.

None of this is going to be easy but the worst is getting into Morocco. Without a visa for either Algeria or Morocco and no prospect of getting one, Akeem was forced to find a “helper” to cross the heavily guarded border. After a month in a hotel in Algiers he found someone who agreed to help them and two other families get to Nador (the nearest Moroccan town to Melilla) for US$700 per family — cheap compared to other prices they had heard quoted. But it was a large group to move, 11 children and 6 parents.

They were told to wait to be picked up by minibus at a given place and time, after dark. This happened, though later than promised, and they were taken to a half-way house near the border and told to wait for half an hour when three cars would collect them. They watched fearfully as the minibus drove away, leaving them alone in the night. Would some one actually come to collect them? It was three nerve-wracking hours before anyone showed up. They were then packed into three cars and driven for another 20 minutes before being left locked in an old farm building on the border. They were warned to be quiet and use no lights until it was safe to cross the border.

This time they waited, in fear, for five hours. These five hours dragged on until they seemed like five weeks, each full of tension and even terror. Eleven children had to be kept quiet. As hour after hour passed, the fear that they had just been abandoned grew. In a sense they had: when someone did arrive, they were told that they could not cross that night but that they should return the next night to try again.

While you and I might have been overcome by indecision at this point, Akeem just used his Arabic equivalent of the famous Russian ‘Niet’. He simply said ‘La’, and demanded to be taken back to the hotel and reimbursed. Surprisingly, $500 of the $700 was eventually repaid.

Akeem then found a Syrian who would help them for $900 per family, much of which would be spent bribing officials and guards. This time they were driven to an isolated place on the border, which was marked by a deep trench. There was a 20-cm wide wooden plank across the trench over which they would have to walk without alerting the nearby guards.

Imagine trying to do that. No, better still just try to do it: turn off the lights, carry a heavy backback, hold a child on each hip and walk an imaginary 20-cm path. Add on the terror, a pounding heart and shaking knees.

But they did it. They did so, carrying children and backpacks with them. After a short walk, they were met by cars that took them in about 30 minutes to Nador. Finally, they were within reach of Spain.

Easy enough to write those few words. Not easy at all for Akeem to narrate them. Nor for Fatima to hear them. As Akeem spoke, Fatima became increasingly shaken. Even though understanding only some of the words she clearly recalled the event all too well — her face tense, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes full of remembered terror.

And then–where next, and how?

Both the Spanish enclaves are protected by triple fences topped with razor wire, that of Ceuta, just over the sea from Gibraltar, being 7 metres high. Still, people do climb it and arrive, lacerated but alive, on the other side. If you can swim (chances are as a refugee you can’t) you can swim round and avoid the fences. You also have to avoid the reception committees on the shoreline. Spain’s Interior Minister has admitted that police have fired rubber bullets to prevent potential refugees from swimming to shore.

Akeem: ‘Neither solution possible with four children. So in Nador we wait to find a trafficker to get us documents to cross the border, at a price we can pay. Is urgent; I have wad of notes in pocket but everyday gets thinner. Hotel and food for six people very expensive. And for the trafficker, I pay 400€ each child plus 1200€ or more for adult. This is Rolls-Royce solution for refugees.’

Though probably neither the Honourable Charles nor Sir Henry would have seen it as such.

So what does the trafficker actually do? He sells you a stolen Moroccan passport. The better the trafficker, the wider the range of passports on offer. You have to select the one with a photo that looks the most like you or one of your children.

To enter Melilla there are three gates, one after the other. The first two are manned by Moroccan soldiers and the last by Spanish officials. The queue is often long as each pair examines visas, passports and other documents as they see fit. Moroccan passports often just get waved on because every day many Moroccans pass through to work in Spain, quite legally.

This is not a process you are able to handle calmly. Just think how worked up you can get in Europe when the gas bill is wrong, the promised delivery is not delivered or the tax office smells a rat. None of this has any significance compared to getting into Melilla. Many of your problems are solved once in Melilla. There you are in Spain, in Europe. In Europe your right to demand asylum cannot be refused. Your future and that of your family rests on success.

Success comes, suddenly and unexpectedly but only partially. For some reason, the guards gather, perhaps to discuss a difficult case. Their backs are turned.

Akeem: ‘I say Fatima: run.’

Fatima runs. And runs and runs. She makes it. She is in Europe. Her next step is assured.

There is just one tiny problem. She is called Aisha, a baby, not yet one-year-old, who drinks only breast milk. She is in Akeem’s arms.

So what would you do now? Appeal for help from the officials who have just been out-manoeuvred? Find a Moroccan policeman to ask for help? Try to pressurize all around to speed our departure?

Akeem did none of these things. He took Aisha and walked back into town. He found a woman with a baby who looked as though she might be breast feeding and asked her to feed his child.

He did this four times that day, each time asking a different woman. The next day this particular problem was solved when Akeem and the three younger children made a more official though still illegitimate entry into Spain to join Fatima.

As is often the case for refugees, the problem that was solved was soon replaced. And with a much more serious one.

While Akeem and the younger children were indeed waved through by the Moroccan soldiers, the eldest Riyana, then eight, was not. She was crossing with a Moroccan handler who was using his daughter“s passport for Riyana. The official opened her passport, held its photograph up next to Riyana’s face, and said ‘This is not your daughter.’

When Akeem turned to protest, Riyana had disappeared. Panic struck, yet again.

There followed a period of great misery for the Adjimi family. Instead of walking down to the port to take the ferry for Malaga in Spain, before continuing on to France and Germany, they were grounded. Many things can happen to refugees on their journeys but the one thing no one expects is that you actually lose a child.

Akeem was stumped, as any of us would have been. He found a relatively cheap hotel room for the family to rest in while he went in search of information. He eventually discovered that all minors suspected of irregularities are housed in children’s hostels in Malilla. He lashed out 40€ for a taxi to take him straight to a hostel, only to find that the hostel housed only boys. Girls were in a different children’s home, in another part of town. More money for another long taxi ride to finally arrive at the girls’ hostel. Here the first guard was unhelpful, saying she was not there.

Just imagine the terror that would strike into your heart. Where was she? However, eventually it was determined that she was indeed there–but, no, Akeem could not take her away. He was told they could visit her, one hour a week only. This is not where you want to be as an eight-year-old child: alone, in a strange country where all languages are foreign, with an hour a week to see someone from your family. Lesser things leave permanent scars.

Every time they visited her there were tears on all sides. The stress was such that finally a kindly guard took pity on them and allowed them to visit more often and for longer periods. Riyana was a little reassured but release was not about to be quick.

Officialdom had decided that the case could be decided only by DNA tests. Swabs were taken from Akeem’s and Riyana’s saliva, and sent off to Madrid for analysis.

It was two months before the news came back, and family and daughter were reunited, this time free to take the ferry for Malaga. But Akeem’s wad of notes had thinned a lot over these weeks as he payed for hotels and food for five people. When they finally did leave Riyana had to leave the only Syrian friend she found in the hostel who was in a similar situation. Except that something had gone wrong with her DNA sample and it had to be redone. This separation nearly broke both their hearts.

And before they could leave there was another problem, relating to what is known as the Dublin Regulation which stipulates that the country in which applications for asylum and refugee status are processed should be the first European (EU) country in which they arrived. Many, probably nearly all, potential refugees do not want to have to live and work in the EU country in which they first set foot, most often Greece, Italy or Spain. The best chance of finding work often lies elsewhere. So perhaps do some of their relations.

Regulations here are complicated. New arrivals are meant to be fingerprinted, and indeed the Adjimi family were, in Melilla (except for Riyana who was whisked off to the centre for child refugees). The records are stored centrally and can be consulted by any EU country, with only minor exceptions. And these fingerprints tie you to your country of entry. If you can show you have relatives in other EU countries, you may be allowed to apply for asylum there.

Otherwise, there is no way out. Well, actually there are, all of them unpleasant, some horrific. Many potential refugees determine to remove the prints their fingers have left. They do so with emery paper (a long job), razor blades and red hot iron bars (quick and medieval). Do I need to ask what would you do?

More frontiers

If things can ever be said to go smoothly for refugees, the next few days did. The journey was long from Melilla to Malaga and it was made in the dark. But Akeem was up on deck: ‘First time ever on boat. I stay up looking at sea until too cold’.

From Malaga Akeem and his family were taken to an inland village where several Syrian families were able to stay in relative comfort. Akeem remembers the few days spent there as a peaceful and recuperative time. But they soon had plans for the next steps, particularly because Fatima now realised she was getting almost close to her brother in Alès in France, whom she was desperate to see. They were given tickets to go to Madrid where, it was said, they would be met and given more tickets to continue their journey, this time as far as Hamburg in Germany. For Akeem the goal was now to get to Germany. For Fatima the next goal was to see her brother in France.

Things went from bad to much worse. It was cold and raining and no one met them in Madrid. They soon discovered the meeting was planned for a different station. So what do you do? You take a taxi there, of course. How easy is that with no Spanish, four small children and a pile of luggage?

Not easy. There were huge queues. Most Madrid taxi drivers speak neither Arabic nor English. At least they say they don’t in order to avoid contact with Syrians. In any case, none would take the family in one taxi. It took Akeem two hours to find a pair of taxis to go the 3 km to the next station. Night had fallen again and the cost was near ruinous. The rain was torrential. But they were indeed met and given tickets to go, by bus, to Hamburg.

Then there is another frontier to cross: Spain to France. If you are a refugee, it is best to do this in torrential rain, as in this case. The bus arrived at the frontier and the police just waved them through, not wanting to leave their warm and dry frontier guard houses. The sighs of relief of those in the bus must have been nearly audible, even so.

Have you ever gone from Madrid to Hamburg by bus? There are several ways, all 2000–2500 km long. But if you are travelling during the night of 13/14 November 2015, you don’t go via Paris. There terrorists have just killed 130 people and wounded another 368.

Akeem and his family don’t know this. They are puzzled by the names of the towns they pass through, tired and hungry. They have been on the road for two days already. Fatima starts to cry but this time they are not mixed tears; they are tears of sadness, desperation and fatigue. The rest of the journey is ‘La’! As Akeem put it, “I saw his tears and made my decision in one second; we will get off at the next station and go and see her brother.”

A sort of compromise is reached. Fatima will be happy once she has seen her brother. Then she may feel strong enough to go on to Germany. But yet more water has to pass under the bridge before then.

Somehow they persuade the driver to let them off at the railway station in Strasbourg. There they are horrified by an enormous presence of heavily armed police, soldiers and huge dogs wearing muzzles. Akeem can hardly believe they are looking for him. They are not. They are looking for those who just killed 130 people and wounded another 368.

Fatima’s brother is phoned and says to meet them in the station in Lyon. He will be there in ten hours with a car to take them back to Alès. Meanwhile Akeem goes looking for the toilets, leaving Fatima and the children and their bags clumped together in a safe-looking spot.

On their return, this safe-looking spot is surrounded by police, soldiers and dogs, all wondering how safe this spot really is. Talk yourself out of that one, with no French and only some English. Arabic does not seem to be the chosen language of this particular moment.

And the rain is still pouring down, they need to buy tickets for Lyon and they have to leave the station which is closing for the night.

Outside they have a stroke of luck, meeting an Arabic-speaking woman who has good advice to offer. Never mind the tickets, she says, get on the first train to Lyon in the morning. You can buy the tickets from the conductor on the train, providing you tell him your are ‘sans billets’.

So a transaction has to be made. The conductor is found and he correctly asks around 200€ for the four-hour journey to Lyon for the six of them. Akeem has about 575€ on him. He profers the 500€ note.

Readers who know France even a little are aware this is a very bad idea. Such notes are treated with suspicion, most of them having a chequered history of one kind or another. SNCF conductors are much less likely to take them than even supermarkets.

Stalemate. Well, nearly. Akeem shows the conductor the rest of his change. The conductors smiles, takes it and walks on. Vive la France (sometimes).

The dramas of this stage of the journey are nearly over — but not quite. Getting off the train at Lyon is a relief but the absence of the brother is not. He is waiting for them at the other station. And he does not know how to drive from one to the other (few people do, unless they are Lyonnais) so he walks.

The reunion is passionate. How could it not be after such a journey? So then the brother walks back to fetch his vehicle. Would you believe that he can’t remember where he left it? You better had, because he can’t. Though of course he does eventually and indeed they also get back to Alès.

Once there, none is enthusiastic about setting off again for Hamburg. Would you be? Indeed, Fatima’s brother has had a relatively smooth journey through the French bureaucracy (see box below), starting from the nearby Préfecture of Montpellier (100 km) — well, nearby compared to Hamburg (1500 km)! He urges them to start in Montpellier.

So, was this tortuous journey worth it? It is not for me to judge but they are here, in a small room in the south of France, telling me their story, with a right to live here and to work. But for the journey they might well have perished in Syria.

How the French system works

The first step is a visit to the nearest Préfecture, where an appointment is made for a detailed interview within 3–10 days at a Guichet unique with the OFPRA (l’Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides) and the OFII (l’Office français d’immigration et d’intégration).

The first assesses in which country your request should be processed. If it is France, you are given a form to complete and return to OFPRA. This is your official demand for asylum. You should receive a reply in 1–6 months. The OFII will help you find accommodation and start the procedure to get your ADA (l’Allocation pour demandeur d’asile), about 6,80€ a day unless your income is already high.

Accommodation is likely to be found in a CADA (Centre d’accueil pour demandeurs d’asile) of which there are more than 300 all over France. They provide not only basic accommodation, usually with shared facilities, but also experts who advise on legal matters. You will become a refugee if the definition of refugee in the 1951 Geneva Convention also applies. Sans papiers and economic migrants cannot become refugees.

Some go on to take the citizenship of the country in which they are refugees, but their refugee status is then lost. This is not as rare as you might think; in the past ten years no less than 1,1 million refugees have obtained the nationality of their country of acceptance.

Akeem and family had their asylum status approved in December 2015, the same month they arrived in France. This gave them the right to stay in France, to financial support, to send their children aged 6–16 to school (not just a right but also an obligation) and to benefit from the French health service. Detailed documents on how to achieve this status are available from France’s Ministry of the Interior in 21 different languages. That in English runs to 41 pages

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