Part of the group of Syrian migrants, just before their departure from the Turkish city of Gaziantep

Day 1 - An Epic Journey towards a Better Life

It looks like they are going on holiday. But this group of Syrians is on the eve of a long journey from the Turkish city of Gaziantep to Europe.

In a nice little park in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, a dozen people are sitting having a discussion at dusk. They are not waiting for the end of their fast, as many Turkish people are doing at that moment. They are Syrians, and they are discussing the details of an epic journey that they will make together.

This journey, if all goes well, should lead to a better life in Europe. Far from the horrors of more than four years of war in Syria, or from the uncertain existence as a refugee in Turkey.

The refugees do not look like refugees. Not yet. The ladies are wearing bright summer dresses and are carrying big handbags. The men also have a very tidy appearance. Mazen Ismail, 32 years old and leader of the group, is wearing a fashionable beret and a shoulder bag.

There is a genial atmosphere, not a downcast one. At times, it looks as if the group is about to leave on holiday. ‘It is a bit like an adventure,’ says 25-year-old Firas. At the same time, everybody is aware of the dangers of such a journey. Starting with the boat trip from Turkey to a Greek island. 19 people drowned last week when a smugglers’ boat sank ten kilometres from the Turkish coast. 123 refugees have already drowned between Greece and Turkey since January 2014. That is a lot fewer than the people who die during the sea crossing to Italy: nearly 2,000 this year alone. That is one of the reasons why the so-called Balkan land route to Europe has become so popular. June was the first month that more refugees arrived in Greece than in Italy, announced the UN.

But the Balkan route is not without dangers. At every border crossing – from Greece into Macedonia, into Serbia and beyond – the refugees can be arrested or pushed back. They have to cross countries with notoriously corrupt police forces. Criminals are waiting in ambush ready to pounce on refugees who they know are carrying cash. And they have to keep walking for hours.

Hanada Al Refai, a woman of 53 who spent seven months in an Assad-regime prison, is worried about her mother who is 68. ‘She is wheelchair bound. Can she go on a boat like that?’ she wants to know. They will not know until they meet the people smuggler in Izmir. And those smugglers always lie, no matter how loudly Mazen shouts that he is a friend. The promised pleasure cruise can turn out to be an inflatable rubber boat later. And try to get a wheelchair on that.

For many refugees, it is not their first attempt to get into Europe. Hanada sent her mother to Tanzania on a previous occasion. It is easier to board a flight on a fake passport there. But the smuggler disappeared with the money, and Hanada’s mother had to return to Turkey. Dima, who is making the journey with her five-year-old daughter, has just got back from Moscow. She wanted to get to Finland from there, but it turned out that the frontier was very closely guarded.

Meanwhile, Mazen’s group is getting bigger and bigger. ‘Make it 21,’ he shouts after one of his many phone calls. ‘Everybody wants to join Mazen!’ Later on, the group grows to 45 people, including 18 women and 8 children. The ever-optimistic Mazen is becoming stressed. He has spent the entire week picking up people from Syria who want to join them.

What seemed like an advantage originally – a large group can negotiate about the price and is better protected against thieves – is becoming a problem. The group is growing very rapidly. ‘I am worried about the children,’ says Mazen.

During the meetings in the park, Hanada does most of the talking. Mazen, ‘It is always about money, money, money.’ The trip costs €1,000 per person to get to the Greek island. From there on, it is everybody for themselves. It is estimated that it costs €2,500 per person to reach Germany. Now that there are so many of us, thinks Hanada, the smuggler should offer a discount.

Otherwise, Mazen thinks it is a suitable group. No women in headscarves, nobody is fasting, most of them drink beer. As he does. But then at the last minute, Hanada convinces him to take along her two daughters. They do wear a hijab, their husbands are devoutly religious. What is more, they are both pregnant. Let’s hope everything goes well.

But those are worries for later. First, there is the boat ride to Greece, and Hanada’s mother’s wheelchair.

Firas (25, right) is the only Kurd in a group of 45 refugees who are trying to get from Syria to Europe. When the group was chased towards a boat on the Turkish beach, he recognised the men who did it (‘They treated us like animals’) as Kurds from Qamishli in Syria

Day 3 - The ‘Captain’ of the Boat was completely useless

Mazen’s group sailed to Greece in a boat. A perilous journey that ended on the rocks of an uninhabited island.

What a difference a day makes. The refugees who were happily drinking beer on the coastal boulevard of Izmir the previous night are practically unrecognisable when I catch up with them again on the harbour quay of the Greek island of Chios. Dima (37) is covered in bandages: she broke her nose when she fell on the rocks, the moment the smugglers’ dingy hit land. The ever sharp-witted Yara (22) is staring vacantly into space. Everybody is sunburnt: they have been sitting in the full sun for three hours now.

It was easier than expected to trace Mazen Ismail and his group of 45 Syrian refugees. When I disembark from the catamaran from Cesme in Turkey – fare: €25 instead of €1,000 in a smugglers’ dingy – I literally bump into them.

Gradually, they start to open up and tell me stories about their crossing. Of course, the people trafficker did not keep his word. He had promised that the group of 45 would have their own rubber boat. But the smuggler squeezed another 10 on the boat: 55 in total. Way too many for a tiny boat, but it did make the smuggler another €10,000.

Ghaitha (30) tells me how the journey started. ‘We were picked up from a café in Izmir. From there, we were taken to the sea in groups of five. The man who acted as our guide did not speak a word and never looked back.’ The smuggler sent taxis, even the taxi drivers did not know the destination. ‘We had been given a number to hand to the taxi driver. Somebody on the other side passed on the destination to the taxi driver.’

Half an hour later, the taxi dropped the refugees in a dark spot, where they had to wait for an hour. Ghaitha: ‘Then, they drove us like sheep into a lorry. It was a closed trailer: we were unable to look outside, and it was difficult to breathe.’

The drive took about two hours: driving, stopping, driving, stopping, driving. Then the lorry stopped in woods where they had to wait for another four hours. Finally, four men showed up, they chased the group along a path in the direction of the sea. ‘They shouted: faster, faster! After about half an hour, we reached the beach. Then we spotted the boat.’

‘That was a shock. The boat was much smaller than expected. Additionally, they had promised us that it would be just our group of 45 in the boat. But there were ten more people with us, and they had to come as well. We protested: it would not be safe to carry so many. They replied: if you don’t like it, go back to Izmir.’

The men on the beach were Kurds from Qamishli in Syria, says Firas (25). ‘They were liars, and they treated us like animals.’ Firas is the only Kurd in the group. ‘That is why they did not weigh my backpack.’ Like a budget airline, the smugglers also follow a strict baggage policy: maximum 2 kg. Those who had more had to throw it into the sea.

They had only just left when the engine started sputtering, says Mazen. A furious debate kicked off: return or continue? When the engine started again, they settled on continuing.

The distance between Izmir and Chios is not far: 88 kilometres as the crow flies. But it is far enough for a heavily loaded rubber dingy to take in water. Especially if you have a ‘captain’ who is steering a motorboat for the first time. The ‘captain’ is not a real captain: he is a refugee himself who is getting a free ride. That is how smugglers avoid arrest upon reaching Greece.

‘He was absolutely useless,’ says Mazen. ‘A couple of times we were sailing back in the direction of Turkey.’ After sailing for two and a half hours, we saw land. It was almost dawn. It is Nisida Pasas: an uninhabited Greek island that serves as a military base. However, they do not know that yet.

Mazen: ‘Because there were too many of us, the bottom of the boat – I think it was made of Plexiglas – broke. More and more water entered the boat. I was afraid for my little boy Khodr. He was crying. We had been given life vests, but there weren’t enough in children’s sizes, so Khodr had an adult life vest. Of course, it did not fit. I took it off and held him tightly in my arms.’

The Greek coastguard spotted the boat. ‘Do not be afraid, we can see you!’ they shouted through a megaphone. The coastguard could not come any closer, because they would swamp the boat. The Greeks were shouting that the captain had to switch off the engine. He refused and even wanted to turn around and sail back to Turkey. Mazen: ‘That’s the moment I and five other men jumped in the water. We pushed the boat to shore whilst swimming.’

There was no beach. It was midday by the time they had all crawled onto the jagged coast. Three hours were wasted lifting up Hanada’s retired mother, who is obese and not very mobile. Her wheelchair had been left behind in Izmir.

The Greek army offered help. The military collected a jeep to transport Hanada’s mother and the three pregnant women to a different part of the island. There they were picked up by the Greek coastguard, who took the group to Chios in a real boat.

Whilst waiting on the quay, some refugees got angry. They want to go to the refugee camp as quickly as possible. ‘However,’ says the coast guard, ‘what they don’t know is that it is much worse there than here.’

This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.

The whole journey was originally published in NRC Handelsblad.