Monthly Archives: July 2016

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea

Marwan’s place of employment in Ankara turned out to be a sweatshop. He left as soon as he could and taught English in private schools. But when the schools closed for the summer, he was on the brink of starvation (and hid it from me). It was time for him to move on. This is his story:

I wanted to leave Turkey but couldn’t afford it. Then my uncle left Syria with his two daughters, ages three and five. “Get ready to leave,” he said when he arrived in Turkey. “I’ll take you out of here.” I only packed some clothes. There were no goodbyes or farewells.

We stayed at a hotel in Marmaris for a week, waiting for the smuggler’s call. We were nervous the whole time. The plan was to take a fast boat: it’s safer for children. But the smuggler was arrested. The only way out now was a rubber dinghy.

A few smugglers came over to talk to us, but they had overloaded their dinghies. This could mean death at sea. We were running out of time. It was the end of the summer. Soon the weather would get worse; roads would be closed.

Then we found a smugglers’ middleman from our hometown. He guaranteed our safety. “Thirty-six people on the dinghy,” he said. That’s a good number.

We took the bus to Bodrum with a few other boat passengers—many left Turkey illegally from there. Upon our arrival at the bus terminal, policemen took our passports and ordered us to leave Bodrum immediately.

Everybody freaked out.

I stayed calmed and told them to follow my lead. I bought a bus ticket to another city, and so did they. When we got on the bus, the police gave us our passports back. Now I had to convince the bus driver to let us off at the first station without raising his suspicion.

If we didn’t get back to Bodrum in time, we’d miss our boat and get stuck in Turkey.

I quickly befriended an English-speaking Turkish guy (my Turkish is poor). “Are you in danger?” the guy asked.

“Not at all,” I replied. “Our friends are picking us up at the next station.”

The guy then convinced the bus driver to stop for us. There were taxis nearby, and we went back to Bodrum. We contacted our middleman, and he instructed us to meet him in the mountains. But we were late; the taxi had gotten lost. When we finally arrived, he took us to a restaurant where the big smugglers hang out. It was already 9am.

Our smuggler wanted to take more money for my nieces: usually there’s no charge for kids. Then my uncle rushed to buy us life-jackets. Soon it was time to leave. Taxis arrived one by one, taking a few people at a time, not to raise suspicion. We had to wait on the rooftop of a hotel in downtown Bodrum with the rest of the passengers – mostly women and children.

After five hours’ wait, around 3am, the smugglers arrived with the taxis again and took us to a high hill. Turkish men told us to follow them, screaming Yalla (“come on” in Arabic).

The moon was full, the weather was clear, we felt safe.

We walked for 1.25 miles. I held a newborn baby in my arms. No flashlights were allowed. When we arrived at the shore, people filled the rubber dinghy with air. It was 4:30am when they were done. The smugglers called out for the dinghy driver to steer the boat. No one responded. I asked in Turkish, “Where is the driver?”

“We don’t know,” one of them replied. “He should be here already.”

They kept calling out for him, and then they tried to convince me to drive the boat, saying the police were coming.

I couldn’t take such responsibility.

They kept pushing me.

A fight was about to break out. Children had started to cry; the tension had increased. One of the smugglers took me aside and said repeatedly, “Drive the boat. Do it,” and I kept saying, “No, I can’t.”

He tried to hit me, but his partner stopped him. Then the driver showed up. We carried the dinghy to the water, and everybody went on board. The sea was calm at first, but it became stormy as we moved away from the shore.

It was pitch black. I could hear my heart beating. I was sitting on the right edge of the boat. If something happened, maybe I could jump out in time before the waves came crashing over us. Everybody seemed paralyzed. It was overwhelmingly crowded, and I couldn’t move…I felt powerless!

After arriving safely in Greece, Marwan traveled to Sweden and applied for asylum there. On the way to Sweden, he and his uncle and nieces had to sleep in dripping-wet tents for refugees and had to walk long distances in the rain with the children.

In October 2016, Marwan is going to participate in a show at the Royal Theater of Stockholm and tell his story.

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part II: Escape from Hell

(Click here for My Syrian Soul brother, Part I)

“Your brother is in danger,” Lara said. I knew she was referring to Marwan.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

“He didn’t want you to worry about him; he is protective of you. The regime slaughtered his uncle’s whole family, and now they want to draft Marwan into the army to kill for them and to risk getting killed himself. He must leave Syria immediately.” I had been trying to convince Marwan to leave ever since he unblocked me. Now he had no choice.

“I’ll open a gofundme for him,” Lara continued. “He has to get a passport and a ship ticket to Turkey, and it’s costly there.” Then she added, “Marwan and I talk every day. When he arrives at Turkey, I’ll fly over there to marry him…we are in love.”

Lara had never seemed very stable to me, so I didn’t pay too much attention to her wedding plans. I resolved to deal with that later. I felt in my gut that Marwan had to leave Syria ASAP, and no one donated a dime to her gofundme.

Two close friends, Maria Dangelo and Assor Elkayam, had offered to help. They’d met Marwan through me, and they loved him as well. All of us were in a tight situation financially, but we were determined to help Marwan.

Only it’s impossible to send money from my country to Syria. And American friends had once told me that it wasn’t that simple for them, either: nobody wants to be on Homeland Security’s radar.

“I was once married to a Saudi man,” Lara said. “I can send money to Arab countries, no questions asked.” Still, we were relieved when Marwan received the money.

He got his passport a day before it became impossible for men his age to get one. But the regime had closed the maritime border with Turkey to potential soldiers. Marwan had to forget about the ship, find a smuggler, and escape via ISIS’ territories.

For a few weeks, he could hardly sleep, and he rarely left his parents’ apartment for fear of getting caught by Assad’s soldiers. Sometimes when I talked to him on Viber, I heard a shell exploding nearby.

“I’m used to it,” he said casually.

Meanwhile, he had no prospect of finding a job in Turkey, and he couldn’t stay at his best friend’s home — it was already crowded there.

Assor, Maria and I asked our Turkish FB friends to help Marwan. Nothing came of it.

“I’ll just go to Ankara and be homeless until I find a job,” Marwan said.

“No brother of mine is going to be homeless,” I said, “and Ankara is freezing cold in the winter. You could die.”

I befriended Elvan, a Turkish FB friend of Marwan. He looked for a job for Marwan but said a few days later in desperation, “I can’t find anything for him. They hate Syrians here.”

“If people meet Marwan in person,” I said, “they’ll change their minds.” Then I added with chutzpah I didn’t know I owned, “Maybe he can stay with you for a couple of days.”

“That’s impossible,” Elvan said. “I have a wife and kids.” (Too bad he forgot to mention that to the women he pursued on FB.)

Nevertheless, my pushy suggestion seemed to work out. “I found a job for Marwan in a bakery with a sleeping arrangement,” Elvan announced. “But Marwan has to leave Syria now, or he’ll lose the job.”

On the following day, Marwan bought an airline ticket from Lebanon to Turkey. It was his mom’s brilliant idea. That way, he could travel to Lebanon in an airline bus with the airline stuff instead of escaping with a smuggler.

It was time to talk to him about Lara’s plans. “Are you in love with Lara?” I asked.

“What?” Marwan cried out, appalled. “She could be my mom. Her son is older than I am.” (Unfortunately, it isn’t considered as appalling when men behave like Lara.)

Two days later, Marwan called me from Turkey. He told me that at the border with Lebanon, Assad’s soldiers stopped the bus. They ordered the guy who was sitting next to him to come with them and join the army.

I sent up a prayer for that guy and celebrated Marwan’s newfound freedom. Lara blocked me after I told her to treat Marwan only as a friend – he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, for crying out loud. And I blocked Elvan when he told Marwan to use women in prostitution.

I will always be deeply grateful to both of them for all the good that they did, but I won’t tolerate their harmfulness.

Marwan’s troubles finally seemed to be over. I had no idea then how soon I’d be worrying about his safety again.

***

(Click here for “My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea“)