I had never been on a boat before.
When I was 12, I was on holiday with my cousins, and one of them pushed me into a swimming pool. I’ve been terrified of water ever since. My hometown, Raqqa, in Syria, did not have many swimming pools, and it’s pretty unusual for children to learn how to swim. Sometimes we would go to the lake at Ja’aber castle near Raqqa with my family on weekends or to Lattakia on the coast for holidays, but I would never try to swim. I always stayed near the shore.
I had made the decision to try to leave Syria but didn’t have much of a plan of where to go or how to get there. My father wasn’t keen, but in the end so many people we knew had left that we somehow got used to the idea. I had thought of going to the UK because I could speak English well and knew something of the country, but it seemed so far away. Most of my information came from other Syrians who were also planning to leave for Europe. They knew how to prepare for the sea crossing and said that you could call the coast guard to come and pick you up.
The people who really knew how to get to Europe were the men who started working as smugglers. They were said to know all the best routes to get across the Syrian border to Turkey, across Turkey to the coast, and then on to Greece or Italy by boat. I was told that if you paid these smugglers, they could get you all the way there. I knew it involved crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
If you’ve never had to find a people smuggler, you might think they are quite hard to find. I thought so. But once you start asking, you’d be surprised how many there are. Talking about leaving and how to do it had become a common topic in Syria, especially in border towns like Kobane. I heard a guy in a bakery shop in Kobane talking about a woman who had left, so I asked him if he knew someone that could get me over the border. He gave me the name of Mohammed Khoja.
The Turkish border was a half-hour walk from Kobane. Friends told me that in the past two or three years, Turkey had built very high fences with barbed wire to keep Syrians out and had soldiers, with guns, patrolling the border.
When I first called Mohammed, he said he would pay one border guard so that I could cross safely. I had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth, if he really would pay the border guard. But I had already decided to put my soul in his hands, and it seemed a less painful choice than continuing to live with the risk of being killed at knifepoint or buried under rubble in Kobane. That is what I thought.
I remember Mohammed now. He didn’t look like a bad person — certainly not how I expected a people smuggler to look. Like me, he was a Syrian Kurd, and he brought his son with him when he met me, so he seemed nice. Normal, somehow. As if taking a large amount of money from desperate people was the most normal job in the world.
He said he would help 10 people cross into Turkey and that he charged $300 per person to cross this narrow no-man’s land.
Just before I left Kobane, I had a bit of a lucky break. When I went to my aunt’s house, a Norwegian journalist named Anders Hammer was there interviewing my cousin. His translator was struggling a little, so I jumped in instead, and when he asked if I was planning to leave Syria, I told him my plan. I wanted to document the whole journey to Europe on my phone, I said.
But Anders had a better idea — he gave me a small GoPro video camera with about four hours of recording time and spent several days teaching me how to use it. Eventually Anders directed and produced the whole film, so we were able to document the whole trip.
I was often asked during the journey why I was filming everything. I always said the same thing: The real story about escaping a war zone needs to be told by the people who have done it. All of us have the right to tell our own stories. They should come from us.
Much of the coverage I saw on TV or on social media misrepresented us. They called refugees “migrants” — as if we had a choice, as if we were moving just to try to make some money or scrounge some benefits.
Because calling us “migrants” would make the people watching feel better about not helping us and lessen their responsibility toward us as individuals. The media represented us as having a choice, when we really had no choice.
So I wanted to tell my own story, to be the narrator of my own escape. Coming to Europe was not a dream that came true; it was about me finding a way to survive and live with dignity.
It took four attempts, over the course of a month, to get into Turkey.
Each time, I said goodbye to my family with fear and sadness in my heart. The half-hour walk to the border seemed longer, my footsteps seemed heavier, and something in me wanted me to stop and go back to them and give up the whole idea. We had heard that Turkish border guards were shooting and beating people and had beaten an old woman and her husband. I didn’t think they would hurt old people or children, but they did. There were no rules on that border.
With each attempt, the smuggler took our group to the fence, in the dark, and we would squeeze under the barbed wire and start running to the other side. That was the only instruction we were given — run to the other side and someone will be waiting for you. We just had to run for our lives. (It made me think of something they’d do in a Tom Cruise action movie, but it’s not as fun when it’s happening to you in real life.)
The first time, we were caught, and they just walked us back across the border to Syria. The second time, we saw border guards and ran back. The third time, the soldiers were there with a tank, and we turned and ran back again.
It was around February 1, 2016, when I tried for the fourth and last time. I didn’t say a big goodbye to my family because I thought I’d probably be coming back again. I didn’t even hug them much. It was nightfall when I left for the border again, hoping not to get beaten even more than I hoped to cross.
I left home on my own and was crossing with a small group of people I had not met before that included a mother and her children and some other young people. We all made it across the border.
We headed for a group of trees on an empty street, where a van driver was waiting for us. He took us to the nearest bus station so we could choose where to go from there. That was not the case for everybody; I heard stories of some people who had to run and hide in a cornfield until the border guards stopped chasing them, so to have a car waiting for us seemed almost a luxury. And that was because we had paid Mohammed, the smuggler.
So the worst, I thought, was over. The only thing I was worrying about now was the sea.
I caught a bus to the city of Urfa, where I was reunited with my 80-year-old grandmother, Farida. I stayed with her for a few weeks. She had been in Urfa since June 25, 2015, just after ISIS had told all Kurds to leave the city of Raqqa. She had left with my uncle and my little sister Sara, who had lived with her since my mother died in 2004. My best friend Yakeen was also in Urfa; our mothers had been good friends, and we grew up together. She’d been there since she escaped Syria in 2014.
I waited for my father to send me some money and then met up with another old friend called Ayman. He had his own horror story. Ayman had been an activist in the Syrian revolution and had to drop out of university after being detained and tortured by the al-Assad regime. Then he had to escape Raqqa after getting threats from ISIS, and though he didn’t want to leave, he had no choice. Almost every other activist in the city had been kidnapped, killed, or already escaped.
Ayman and I decided to travel together and planned to take the 12-hour bus ride to the coastal city of Izmir, where many of the smugglers’ boats left for the Greek islands.
The smugglers’ network is like a spider’s web, all connected to each other. Mohammed had given me the name of a Turkish guy who does the sea smuggling. And those guys are the worst. The Syrian ones don’t kill you — they don’t care if you get shot by the border guard, but they wouldn’t kill you themselves. But the Turkish ones, if you refuse to do as they say, you will get shot.
It was March 2, 2016, when we arrived in Izmir, on the western coast of Turkey, and we were met by someone calling himself Orhan. He was short, in his mid-forties, and dressed in a smart suit with gelled-back hair. He seemed quite polite and said he’d get his men to drive us to the coast and organize a rubber dinghy for the journey to Greece.
One of Orhan’s men drove a big group of us to the coast in the back of a large white cargo van. We were told to meet the driver at 9 p.m., but we waited there for hours and didn’t leave until 3 a.m. There were almost 60 of us stuffed in the back for two hours, with the dinghy and the motor, and only one small window. We could hardly breathe. I don’t know exactly where they took us, but it was somewhere near Izmir, on a rocky beach with lots of trees.
When we arrived at the shore at 5 a.m., we were met by six scary-looking guys who looked like mafia. I knew the smugglers on the shore would be the scary ones, and they were — all very big, like bodybuilders, and each carrying a gun on their belt. They did that deliberately—they wore their guns like a threat. Some were shirtless and some wore vests, even though it was winter and chilly in the early morning air.
Ayman and I each handed over $800 in cash to one of the men. I got the money from selling my mother’s jewelry. She had given me a necklace and bracelet just before she died, and though I said I’d never wear them, she told me I should keep them in case I needed the money someday. So I sold them, and a bracelet and earrings she gave my sisters, to pay the smugglers.
The men started shouting orders at everyone. They told us only to take small, important things with us, like backpacks and life jackets, and made us leave everything else on the beach. I had a life buoy I had to leave behind, but when they weren’t looking I reached back and picked it up again.
It was 6 a.m. now, overcast and very cold. There were two boats leaving that night, including ours, which would be all Syrian Kurds. The men said we would leave in the dinghy at 7 a.m. and told us to put lifejackets on. They asked some of the men who were with us to help them prepare the boats. The rest of us waited.
When 7 a.m. came and it was time to leave for the sea, I began to have a panic attack. I could barely speak for fear. Ayman knew what I was feeling and tried to reassure me that it would be fine. The sea is calm today, he said. We will make it.
We started boarding the boat. It was built to carry 15 people, but 52 people were put into the boat, including six small children and babies. The smuggler had told us 25 people would be on the boat, but we weren’t surprised that he had lied. A smuggler, to me, is a criminal who benefits from other people’s misery. Everything they do is for money.
We had been on the boat for two hours when it began taking on water and started to sink. It is impossible to describe just how much panic you feel when all around you there is only water and the only thing you can hear is children crying. The mothers were trying to calm their children, but there was only terror.
If we die here, no one will care, I thought. We will just be more numbers added to the thousands of refugees who died here before us. No names, no faces. Just numbers.
The hours on that boat felt like an eternity. I felt frozen, not with cold, but with fear. I couldn’t move, or breathe, or talk — I was terrified of drowning, of dying.
Yet the argument was still racing through my mind — why did I have to go through this? Why couldn’t I just take my passport, and my things, and take a plane to another country like so many other people in the world?
As I sat there, frozen, so crammed against everyone else that I couldn’t move my legs, I remembered how I used to think that there could be nothing worse than dying in an airstrike. Yet this did feel worse. I felt weak, unknown, a true victim of the world. I felt like someone nobody cared about.
The boat kept going in circles. The driver had no idea where to go. All I could hear around me was people saying:
WE ARE GOING TO DIE.
THERE IS WATER IN THE BOAT.
THE BOAT IS SINKING.
WE ARE DROWNING.
CALL THE COAST GUARD TO COME AND RESCUE US.
This went on for an hour.
And I began to think of my beautiful sisters and lovely father, and how they cried when I told them I wanted to leave. How I hadn’t been able to tell them I was crossing in the boat today, because I knew that if I told my father, he would not sleep the night from worrying. And how I wished I had told them. How I wished I had said goodbye.
As I was saying goodbye in my mind, someone saw a ship in the distance. It turned out to be a Greek navy ship. It was half an hour before it rescued us, because they had to wait until we drifted out of Turkish waters. I felt weak with relief and happiness when that ship finally approached.
They pulled alongside and threw a rope to us. Slowly, they began helping people on board, women and children first, backpacks in a pile in the middle, women on one side of the ship and men on the other. I was so grateful, but I felt like they were only following orders. If they hadn’t been told to save us, maybe they would have left us there, in the sea.
They told us to shut down our phones and not to move. I saw a boy of about 16 still using his phone, probably because he couldn’t understand English or because he was telling a relative that he had been rescued. Hide your phone, I thought to myself, hide your phone. But one of the soldiers saw him and kicked him and threw his phone into the sea. He kept kicking him until another soldier told him to stop. I couldn’t hold back my tears.
We were on the navy ship for about six hours. We weren’t sure where we would be taken, so I asked one of the friendlier soldiers where we were going. “Yonan,” he answered, which means Greece in Arabic. And later that afternoon, we arrived on the island of Lesbos.