A young couple's gamble to escape Syria
By KAREEM FAHIM AND ZAKARIA ZAKARIA | The Washington Post | Published: October 3, 2019
ISTANBUL — She had managed to escape Syria for Turkey, but Farrah was frightened, still, by the police cars on the highway, the cameras above the toll booths and the uncertainty about what the next dark stretch of road would bring.
Her husband, Besher, had started to doze in the small white van that carried them on an overnight journey in May from central Turkey to the western coast. But Farrah could not sleep. She fiddled with her phone, stared out at the highway or made small talk with the driver, hoping he would provide some sort of guarantee.
"Is it safe yet?" she finally asked.
Behind the question was a terrible ordeal.
Farrah, 26, and Besher, 31, had been detained, interrogated and threatened twice, by different armed groups, during their journey out of Syria, she said. While crossing into Turkey, Farrah fell off the high border wall, badly bruising her chest, legs and arms. The couple hid from soldiers firing warning shots, cowering for hours in the woods and in a water-filled canal. Smugglers had later stuffed the couple into a box truck with two dozen other refugees and little air.
The couple were now headed for the Aegean coast, but it would provide no relief. They would eventually try to cross the sea for Europe in a crowded smuggler's boat. It would sink. Farrah and Besher would struggle to stay afloat in the choppy waters. A dozen refugees would drown.
Fleeing Syria's eight-year civil war has always been a trial, full of risk and toil, but it has never felt as dangerous, as impossible, as it does these days. The shifting fortunes of the Syrian conflict pose new peril, while hostility to refugees is on the rise in neighboring states. Some Western countries have adopted immigration policies criticized as incoherent or simply cruel, as refugees, struggling to enter Europe, languish in teeming camps on the continent's edge.
The trail through Turkey was once the easiest, safest way out. But in the past few months, refugees have been greeted with gunfire at the border, harassed by mobs in various Turkish cities, and rounded up by authorities and deported to Syria by the hundreds.
This is the story of two young Syrians, heading through the storm.
On the smooth Turkish highway, the lights of trailer trucks flashed and then dissolved. A few hours into the trip, the driver, Abu Antar, took an off-ramp to avoid the police and continued for a time on pebbled village roads.
After returning to the highway, he lit his first cigarette, as if to signal to his passengers that the danger had passed.
Farrah stopped texting and snapped a picture of some festive-looking streetlights in Usak, a town along the route.
Outside a gas station convenience store along the highway, the couple ventured out of the car and took a selfie. For that half-second, they smiled.
But back in the car, Farrah was nervous again. When they reached Izmir, on the coast, would there be more checkpoints, she asked Abu Antar.
"There are," he replied. "Especially at night."
For all her anxiety, Farrah said she was relieved to be in Turkey. For years, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provided Syrians with Turkish identity papers, access to education and medical care and, for a lucky few, Turkish citizenship.
In the war's early years, the border was porous. Some Turkish guards cut holes in the fence to allow the refugees to cross. Turks invited the new Syrian arrivals to shelter in their homes. The Syrians who stayed seeded vibrant quarters in Turkish cities that felt like home.
The country hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, according to the United Nations, though the number is thought to be closer to 4 million - representing nearly two-thirds of all Syrian refugees.
But Turkey began tightening the border after bomb attacks in Turkish towns and after Ankara signed a deal in 2106 with the European Union aimed at preventing Syrian refugees from reaching Greece. The government built a wall along the frontier with Syria, which now stretches for nearly 500 miles. Syrian refugees, once able to roam around Turkey, were required to obtain permission to travel from town to town.
Turkish officials complain that Western countries have abdicated their responsibility to absorb the migrants, leaving Turkey with an unfair burden. Last week, the Trump administration dramatically reduced the overall number of foreign refugees to be admitted into the United States, lowering the cap by 40% to the lowest level since the program began four decades ago.
In recent weeks, Erdogan has announced plans to resettle up to 3 million Syrian refugees in northern Syria to the alarm of Kurds who live there.
But the refugees keep coming, because their reasons for fleeing Syria remain. Some are leaving to avoid conscription in the Syrian army or fear arrest by President Bashar al-Assad's government, as it regains control of provinces that revolted against him eight years ago. There are economic migrants, too, whose circumstances have only grown more desperate in a country devastated by war and groaning under international sanctions.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are stuck in camps on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, in the shadow of persistent fighting. In recent months, a Syrian government offensive using airstrikes targeting homes, health facilities and other civilian targets in Idlib Province along the Turkish border has endangered millions of people and raised fears of a new stampede across the frontier.
During a reporter's recent visit to a "passenger house" in Konya - a spacious but dingy apartment that served as a safe house for newly arrived refugees - 60 or so Syrians, mostly from Idlib, arrived during a 24-hour period.
"It did not stop," said Abu Najm, a Syrian man who runs the safe house, of the flow of visitors. "It will not stop."
Farrah worked as a teacher in Syria. Besher was a veterinarian. They lived in the Damascus suburbs and met six years ago, after Besher visited her house to tend to Farrah's ailing cat. "He was so shy." They fell in love "from the first look," she said.
They decided to leave Syria because they feared Besher would be called up for a second tour of duty in the army, he said. During his first, he was injured during a rebel attack that left shrapnel in his right leg. After three operations and a recovery that took more than a year, some of the metal was still lodged below his knee.
Farrah also had a reason to leave. A relative had been imprisoned during the war, and she worried the authorities might start arresting other members of her family, as well.
In early May, with two bags, they headed east from Damascus on a bus toward Raqqa, a Syrian city captured from Islamic State militants two years ago and now controlled by a U.S.-backed Syrian-Kurdish force.
The couple recounted their journey one evening during the holy month of Ramadan while waiting in Abu Najm's safe house. They sat together on a thin mattress wrapped in a gray blanket, leaning against the studs of an unfinished wall. Farrah had a white towel wrapped around her hair and kept touching a bruise on her left eye from the fall at the border. Besher chain-smoked while he picked at a plate of fruit.
He weighed his words carefully, worried that the other refugees in the room would hear about his military service and conclude he supported Assad's government, he later said. But Farrah wanted to talk about the road, even the parts of their story that brought her to tears.
Outside Raqqa, members of the Syrian-Kurdish force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, detained and separated them for five hours, they said. Besher was blindfolded and accused of being an informer working for the Syrian government, or a spy working for the feared Syrian military intelligence branch.
"Then the pressure started," Besher said. Some kind of munition - a land mine, he thought - was brought to the interrogation room and strapped to Besher's chest in an effort to pry a confession from him. (SDF officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the couple's treatment.)
They were eventually released. In the following days, however, they were again temporarily detained, blindfolded and interrogated by other rebel groups along the road.
When they finally reached the Turkish border, smugglers threw up ladders to help Farrah and Besher scale the concrete wall. There were no ladders on the other side. Farrah fell into Turkish territory, bruising her chest so badly she had trouble breathing more than a week later.
Then, as warning shots rang out, they hid from Turkish soldiers for two hours in a canal. The water was up to their chins.
For all their troubles, Farrah and Besher only had to look out for each other. Others in the Konya passenger house in Turkey - poor and from rural areas - had struggled to cross the border with large families, including infants or elderly parents. In the long hours they spent waiting to move on to the next Turkish city, the refugees listened to each other's stories, memorizing the names of strangers and the smallest details of their journeys.
The place flattened the suffering of the refugees: Everyone had sacrificed something to cross the border.
A group gathered around a middle-aged man, Abdul Kareem, who had come from Idlib with his two daughters, a son and his sister. His wife had traveled ahead to Turkey several months before with their other son, a 5-year-old, seeking treatment for his lymphoma. By the time they made it, the cancer had spread, and the boy died, weeks before his reunion with the rest of his family.
His sister, Abeer, a ninth-grader, carried a small notebook with messages from friends she had made in a refugee camp in Idlib. They were heartfelt, upbeat - written as if they were sending her off on vacation for the summer and not across a treacherous border. "Friendship is a gift from God," one wrote.
Outside the windows of the safe house, the sky began to darken. Farrah and Besher started gathering their things for the next leg of their journey with Abu Antar, the driver.
In the days to come, it would seem as if Farrah's energy and resolve propelled the couple forward, in their most desperate moments, when it might have been easier or safer just to go back to Syria.
But as they prepared for another drive, she seemed defeated, hollowed out. Had she known how grueling it all would be, she said, "I wouldn't have left."
Abu Antar belongs to a shadowy fraternity of Syrian drivers who crisscross Turkey every day, working on the edges of the lucrative smuggling rings that began to flourish five years ago to accommodate the stampede of refugees heading from Syria through Turkey to the islands of Greece.
But the drivers, who are themselves refugees, say they are less exploitative than smugglers. They are more like taxi drivers, they say, providing a lifeline for Syrians who cannot board a Turkish bus or plane without official documents, or who need permission from municipal authorities to travel from town to town. Their role has grown more important in the past few months, as Turkish authorities have moved to more tightly restrict the movements of migrants.
The drivers keep schedules as regular as Turkey's bus lines, and the rides are relatively inexpensive - about $40 for a nearly 400-mile trip between Konya, in central Turkey, to Istanbul. To turn a profit, the drivers pack as many passengers as they can into their own cars, usually beaters, worn down by endless hours on the road.
The drivers communicate with each other in a frenetic WhatsApp group to find seats for passengers in the network or to warn about checkpoints on the road. Often, police have imposed hefty fines on drivers for each Syrian passenger caught without identification papers. Closer to the border with Syria, the authorities will usually deport the refugees to Syria if they're caught and can send the drivers to prison for transporting them.
They always drive at night. In the moments when the passengers are awake, they sometimes provide the drivers with vivid accounts of life in Syria and the increasingly extraordinary effort required to escape.
On a recent evening, Jumaa, a Syrian driver, was ferrying a family of four from Idlib who tried 30 times to cross into Turkey with different smugglers, the father said, before they finally made it.
"Every day you see something new," said Jumaa, who was in ninth grade when his country descended into war. He fought with the rebels as a teenager until his right leg was blown off by a land mine. Now he was 22 and had traveled to every corner of Turkey.
These days, "too many people are coming out of Syria," he said.
Farrah sat in the front passenger seat of the van, and Besher sat all the way in back, sharing space with Najm, a 20-year-old refugee who was headed to see his brother-in-law in Izmir.
Asked why he left his home country, Najm gave an answer recited by countless Syrian refugees, almost casually, year after year, as if the reasons were self-evident.
"Shelling. Airstrikes," he said.
Abu Antar steered the car north out of Konya, racing through small towns in central Anatolia, passing the 14th-century mountaintop castle in Afyonkarahisar and volcanic rock formations in Kula cloaked in darkness, as they headed for the mountains inland from the Aegean coast.
Though Abu Antar said he mapped the routes before his drives, looking for sleepy side roads, they still passed four police checkpoints along the way, uneventfully.
Through the many hours, he played the melancholy songs of Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian diva, soothing his anxious passengers. It was a concession, too: Other Syrian drivers tend to blast Western or Syrian pop songs to stay awake.
Farrah had more questions for him. When they reached Izmir, would it be "OK to look out of a window, a door, to go out in the street? Is that normal?"
It would be fine, he said. They were headed to a district clogged with refugees, a well-known rest stop along the Syrian pilgrimage route.
By the time they reached Izmir, the port city was coming alive. Abu Antar drove the couple to a district of market stalls and cheap hotels popular with refugees preparing for the boat ride to Greece. Most were booked, but they finally found a room, in a hotel hidden in an alley.
"It's a good feeling," Farrah said, sitting in the lobby, after they checked in. "I don't know about tomorrow."
They waited in the hotel for a week before the smugglers called.
Soon after boarding a dinghy near the city of Bodrum, they were stopped by the police, briefly detained and ordered to go back to Adana in central Turkey.
"I will try again," Farrah said in a WhatsApp voice message. "Four days until I get back, to do it again," she said.
When they next tried, in mid-June, the smugglers arranging the boat told Farrah and Besher there would be only 15 passengers aboard. But when the couple arrived on the beach, 50 or so people were waiting to board a small yacht, about nine feet long.
There was no time to protest or ask questions. The smugglers screamed at them to hurry. No one was given a life jacket.
Farrah and Besher were traveling with a group of other Syrian refugees they had gotten to know in the weeks spent waiting for the boat, including two brothers, Zakaria, 24, and Ahmed, 20, who had escaped from Aleppo. Ahmed headed to a cabin below the main deck, joining a group that included several children and two of the couple's other friends.
About 10 minutes after casting off, the engine stopped. Then the boat started to sink.
The panicked smugglers called the boat's owners, asking how to restart the engine.
Two of Farrah's friends said they could help and were allowed to leave the cabin. But the smugglers locked the door to the room behind them, apparently trying to prevent passengers from rushing out and capsizing the boat.
Within five minutes, the boat was submerged.
"I was the first to jump," Farrah would later recall. "Everyone was yelling, scared. They are screaming to their families inside the room."
She and Besher knew how to swim and were able to tread water.
"I'm looking at everyone," she recounted. "I can't help anyone."
A Turkish coast guard vessel quickly arrived, responding to a call from the boat's owner who claimed it had been stolen.
As the vessel approached, more than a dozen people were floating in the water, according to a coast guard video that captured the moment of the rescue. Turkish officers threw orange life preservers to the survivors and hauled people aboard their boat, including Farrah and Besher.
On the video, a man is heard screaming a name - "Ahmed" - as loud as he could. It was Zakaria, Ahmed's brother, Farrah said.
"He survived to die on the sea," Farrah said.
An hour or so after the boat sank, police arrested 11 of the smugglers, including the boat's owner, and detained Farrah and Besher as witnesses. They were eventually shown photographs of the dead migrants, including their friend Ahmed, to help with identification. The couple were detained for several weeks as Turkish authorities built a case against the smugglers.
"I am so sick of this," Farrah said over a phone smuggled into the detention facility. "I am so tired."
They were released in July, and soon afterward, she sent a reporter another message. They had tried again to cross the Aegean, this time in a smaller dinghy. The crossing was rough. But they had been met by friendly coast guard officers as they approached a small island. They had made it to Greece.
They were transferred to Leros, an island used to host refugees. Farrah sounded elated and full of energy again. They would go to Norway, they'd decided.
But when a reporter visited them a few weeks later, their sense of relief was melting away. Their sleeping quarters were in a roach-infested shipping container too hot to sleep in. The camp was overcrowded. They were witnessing, firsthand, the failure of Europe's immigration policies. The refugees kept coming, but there was nowhere for them to go. Eventually, they moved to a beach where they slept under tarps with other refugees to escape the fetid camp.
Low on patience, they arranged for another smuggler to take them to the Greek capital, Athens. Farrah made it there. Besher was left behind. They argued over what had happened, the journey straining their relationship. "I am tired, we are yelling. He called me a million times. I blocked him," she said in a short phone interview, in August.
A few weeks later, they had reconciled and were reunited in Athens. They set about planning their next step. They would head deeper into Europe.
Money was running short, and the road ahead was unfamiliar, perilous.
But there was no turning back. Behind them was only darkness.