Diary of a Syrian refugee family trying to reach Greece

‘Daddy, why don’t we just take the airplane?’ asks one of Delvan’s daughters as they contemplate crossing the rough sea.

Please don''t use - Refugee family
For little Roliana, five, and her sister Ariana, four, Europe is a paradise lying just out of reach [Pieter Stockmans/ Al Jazeera]

In 2012, Delvan and his family fled the bombing of Aleppo. They first went north to Afrin, their ancient village on the slopes of a green valley that has been strangled by the war – with no electricity, water, work or functioning schools. Then they relocated to Istanbul, where Delvan and his sisters worked in low-wage jobs, struggling to get by. But he dreams of reaching Belgium, so that his children might get an education and live in safety.

Photojournalist Pieter Stockmans followed the refugee family as they attempted to cross from Turkey to Greece. In Izmir and Istanbul, he ended up in the shadowy world of smugglers and mafiosi.

This is the family’s story. 

Days 1-2: Izmir – rain and wind

“We have doubted long enough; it is now or never,” says Delvan, as he gazes at the quiet sea off the port of Izmir. “I will have to risk the lives of my children to give them a future. It’s not easy.”

Ten days ago, he tried to send his wife, Rokan, and children Roliana, five, Ariana, four, and baby Nouri across to Greece. During their journey, the rubber dinghy filled with water and was intercepted by the Turkish coastguard. The mother and her children were imprisoned for a week before being released.

Now reunited, they are staying with a host family in a working-class district of Izmir. Every day, Delvan meets his smuggler Abu Salah, a distant relative of Rokan’s, at a smoky teahouse.

That night, the sky above fills with bad news: rain and wind.

“No Europe,” Delvan says, disappointed. “I don’t care any more if we die – I just want to get out of here. I have been promising my children for weeks now, ‘tomorrow’, ‘tomorrow’, and every time I go home empty-handed.”

Back at the house, little Roliana senses that something is wrong. “Why can’t I take the plane? I don’t want to die!” she shouts angrily.

Day 3: Izmir – bad news

Roliana sings in the rain on the way to Abu Salah’s home. He has made a new offer: to cross on a large, safe yacht for 3,000 euros ($3,388) – twice the amount Delvan had anticipated for the trip to Greece. Now, the money he had set aside to continue their journey through Europe will end up in the pockets of smugglers and mafiosi.

“You are lucky you didn’t go yesterday,” Abu Salah says over a cup of coffee. “Last night, I sent out two rubber dinghies. One was sent back by the Turkish coastguard. As for the other, I haven’t received any news.

“If something happens at sea, I call the coastguards to determine the location of the boat,” he reassures him. “Many smugglers are just collecting the money; I want the refugees to cross the sea safely.

“After two years on the job, I can say that not a single one of my boats has sunk.”

Roliana sings in the rain on the way to the smuggler's home where her father Delvan is going to make a deal [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
Roliana sings in the rain on the way to the smuggler’s home where her father Delvan is going to make a deal [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

Speaking in fluent Greek, Abu Salah calls the Greek coastguard. “Maybe they are in the bellies of the fish,” the Greek official jokes over the phone.

Roliana puts things into her backpack, which she has been carrying around, ready to leave for Europe.

Finally, departure seems near: Tonight they will go out to sea.

But within a few hours, plans are off once again. Abu Salah informs them that one of the other families “was not ready yet”.

Rokan collapses at the news and says she wants to return to Syria. Delvan peers into the distance, saddened beyond despair. A few hours later, they are lying in bed in Izmir, their voyage pushed to an unknown point in the future.

Days 4-5: Izmir-Istanbul – a step back

The next morning, a bus takes the family back to Istanbul along flooded roads. Abu Salah had called and confirmed what everyone was expecting: The sea would not be calm until Monday. They could not stay longer with the host family in Izmir, Syrian refugees themselves, because their landlord was giving them a hard time.

“Is this the boat to Greece?” Roliana asks on the ferry as they cross the Sea of Marmara.

Next is a 12-hour bus ride to Istanbul: the same distance as to the Macedonian-Serbian border, but in the opposite direction.

Back in Istanbul, the girls are happy to see their grandfather Nouri. For Nouri, their return is a godsend. He had thought he would never see his son’s children again. The old man takes out some toys and sits down with the children.

“Compared with Syria, we live in luxury here,” Nouri says, smiling. “Here we turn on the light with a button and water flows from the tap.”

But, at 73, Nouri has to work as a night watchman on a construction site for a low wage to provide for his family. Delvan’s sisters, Aisha, Rohan and Nazlia, work on an assembly line at an underground workshop making handbags.

For Nouri, their return is a godsend. He had thought he would never see his son's children again [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
For Nouri, their return is a godsend. He had thought he would never see his son’s children again [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

“I get half the pay of my Turkish workmates,” Rohan says, firmly fastening the buttons of a handbag. “How do I feel about that?” Her response is tears.

She says that they have to make 300 bags a week, which are sold to shops for a large profit. But the family earns 2,000 Turkish liras ($683) a month. After all their living expenses are paid, nothing is left for the children’s school.

Days 6-8: Istanbul-Izmir – back to the beginning

The following night, Delvan takes out his USB stick loaded with Kurdish dance music – songs he used to play in his taxi back in Syria. The family gathers, and Roliana shows off her dance moves.

The next morning, Delvan watches the news about the EU-Balkans summit. Images of refugees swimming across a river hit him hard.

The family is falling deeper into financial trouble: A friend who had lent Delvan some money comes to claim it. No money, no Europe.

The room is still, but for the light clinking of grandfather Nouri’s prayer beads. A silent tear rolls down Delvan’s face. Roliana runs to him: “Daddy, are we not going to Europe?” she asks. “But then I cannot go to school.” Europe seems like an unattainable paradise for her.

“Roliana, I love you so much,” Delvan says, leaning in for a hug.

After numerous calls to borrow more money, they decide to take the night bus to Izmir and once again join the refugee caravan.

Departure is postponed again. Ariana falls asleep while her parents search for solutions to their financial woes [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
Departure is postponed again. Ariana falls asleep while her parents search for solutions to their financial woes [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

Day 9: Izmir – stormy seas

In Izmir, Delvan walks into a clothing store, looking for life jackets. He checks the quality without really knowing what a good vest is supposed to look like. “These are originals,” the vendor shouts. But many refugees have already drowned because of the poor quality of the life jackets sold here.

He makes his purchase and drags the items on to the bus in a large bag, heading back to Abu Salah’s house, where the family will wait until the boat leaves the next night. The girls try on their life jackets. They play with the distress whistles as if they were toys.

This time, it feels like it is finally happening – until Abu Salah comes home with the dreaded news: “Wait another two days until the strong winds die down.”

Roliana cannot understand. “Daddy, why don’t we just take the airplane?” she asks.

The phone rings. One of Delvan’s sisters is calling from Istanbul: They have taken a stand and protested about the 15-hour workday.

“When we told [our boss] that we are not machines; he said we should not come back.”

Without refugee status or social protection, refugees in Turkey are driven into the hands of criminals who wring them out like sponges and offer them crumbs for their labour. What little money they save is handed over to landlords for overpriced rent. Roliana playfully enacts the thought: “Money in the pocket, money out of the pocket.”

The only way out is through the trap of smugglers and the mafia. They cling to the hope that in Europe they can become human again and work for a fair wage.

The sisters now have to go back to the start: Syria. They will have to sell their house and olive trees and use that money to attempt to reach Europe.

But Delvan and his family will leave tonight. As they get into the cab, reports emerge of the sea being unsafe. Still, at the hotel, families gather anyway. “God will steer the boat,” Delvan laughs cynically. But after an hour of waiting, the journey is officially cancelled once more.

Day 10: Izmir – the ‘Day of Death’

Four boats sank in the Aegean Sea that night. Delvan and his family could have been among the dead if they had set out yesterday. But they are here – safe in the home of the smuggler.

Ariana gets out of bed with tousled hair. Roliana plays in the yard. Rokan takes care of baby Nouri. Delvan watches videos of his village in Syria that now exists to him only through the screen of his smartphone.

Abu Salah’s wife prepares a meal. The family has been staying at the shabby apartment of the smuggler for days now. The smuggler only receives a pittance for the refugees he “delivers” to the mafia that has built an empire through yachts and rubber dinghies.

The children try on their life jackets and play with the whistles as though they were toys [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
The children try on their life jackets and play with the whistles as though they were toys [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

A few hours later, the refugees are waiting in the cold, dark lobby of the hotel where they were told to gather. Roliana and Ariana are sleeping on top of the life jackets.

Outside in the street, smugglers are pacing back and forth. Mafia men shout at them angrily because they did not bring enough refugees to fill the yacht. The mafia needs to draw more than 125,000 euros ($141,000) from the cash-strapped refugees.

If there had been enough refugees, they would have made the trip even through deadly waters. A yacht may be safer than a dinghy, but at overcapacity, it can capsize in rough seas. But there weren’t enough people to fill the yacht that night.

Day 11: Izmir – game over?

“If we don’t leave today, we’re going to find another smuggler,” Delvan says the next day.

After a day of waiting, they take a taxi to a new gathering point: the square at the port of Izmir. But there is a lot of confusion when they arrive. Suddenly, the smugglers separate Delvan from his family and put them in two different taxis. The taxis race away, and the smugglers head to the teahouse, where they play cards much like the way they play with people’s lives.

Abu Salah enters the teahouse with Delvan, but without Rokan or the children, who were in the other taxi.

“At a police checkpoint, the officer saw the life jackets in the trunk,” Delvan says, explaining why he has had to come back.

Abu Salah says that, since German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey in early October, Turkish police have received money from Europe to stop refugees from crossing to the continent, on one hand. On the other, the mafia bribes the police to let refugees pass. The result is something in between: You pass controls through sheer luck. Rokan and the kids got lucky; Delvan had to stay put.

Day 12: Izmir-Kusadasi – a view of Samos

“Daddy, are you in jail?” Roliana asks the next day when Delvan calls.

The taxi had driven his wife and children to a hotel in Kusadasi. Today, Delvan will try again to get to Kusadasi, their launching point to Europe.

“Masha’Allah, that’s what we must cross,” he says as the sea appears after an hour of driving. On the horizon is the mist-shrouded outline of the Greek island of Samos.

The driver nervously steers the car through the old streets of Kusadasi. He must evade the police. At a three-star hotel by the sea, he throws the luggage out of the boot and drives off quickly.

In the lobby, Roliana and Ariana run into their father’s arms. The family are checked in as regular guests. The smugglers pay, using part of the money they have received from the refugees. 

Day 13-14: Kusadasi-Izmir – going in circles

At the hotel, the Syrian refugees gather to exchange their stories – where they come from and where they are headed.

The family briefly escapes their life as refugees. On the beach, they spend time together – just like a family on holiday.

At the beach, the family spends some precious moments together [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

But Delvan is watching videos of drowned babies as Rokan plays with baby Nouri, showering his little body with kisses. In the hotel room, she cleans it as if it were her own home.

However, their dreams of normality are rapidly interrupted by the nightmare of their reality.

“You should leave for another hotel immediately,” one of the smugglers barks, pounding loudly on the door. A dispute has broken out between the refugee families and the smugglers.

Without refugees, there will be no yacht to Greece.

After agonising days of moving around but never moving forward, the family get a ride back to Izmir in a battered Opel. Worn out, they are tempted to continue on to Istanbul. Though Europe is the ultimate siren that lures them, the closest comfort to home for now is Istanbul: a home that grants them a few days of peace and rest. But they know that if they succumb, they will be confronted with the harsh regrets.

Their old home in Syria is destroyed; their new home doesn’t exist yet. All they have is the comfort of a dream. But that dream isn’t without its gambles: In Belgium, the place they hope to one day call home, some refugees are left sleeping on the streets because the country does not want to register all asylum applications on the same day.

Just as the taxi driver slams the boot shut, their smuggler calls, and the trip is put off again [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

Abu Salah promises to get them on another boat that evening. They will gather at a meeting place in Izmir. But at midnight, just as the taxi driver slams the boot, Abu Salah calls: “The boat will leave tomorrow.”

Roliana bursts into tears and throws her jacket on to the ground. Rokan stamps her feet, exhausted and angry. Delvan is outraged: “Put Greece where the sun doesn’t shine. Get me a glass of water; I have to take a pill,” he says.

Exasperated, he surrenders: “Alas, Europe is not our destiny.”

Day 15-16: Izmir – the departure

Crushed, the family is back in the smugglers’ neighbourhood.

Combating the traffickers would seem to be easy; they gather in smoke-filled cafes but the police just walk past.

In front of the offices of travel agencies and airlines, refugees line the pavement, sitting  on top of black rubbish bags that hold their lifejackets and the few remnants of their past lives.

The family decide to take the night bus back to Izmir and once again join the refugee caravan [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
The family decide to take the night bus back to Izmir and once again join the refugee caravan [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

On the verge of despair, Delvan tries to make a last-minute deal. His family is resting at the home of the first host family, where Rokan prepares a meal and her two daughters prepare bowls of fruit. The normality of the scene contrasts sharply with the perilous journey they are about to undertake.

The phone rings: “You can travel on a rubber dinghy today. Come to the meeting place right now,” the smuggler says.

Rokan is angry: “Every day, he says ‘tomorrow’ and just when we are washing our clothes, he says ‘now’!

“We have waited for two weeks to travel on a yacht, and then we have a few minutes to decide if we want to risk our lives on a dinghy?”

This is how refugees cross that critical line: in utter desperation and mental and physical exhaustion. When looking at images of shaken and traumatised refugees who have landed on Lesbos, Delvan can only notice one thing: “At least they’ve arrived.”

At the teahouse where the refugees gather, Roliana looks at the other dishevelled and barefoot refugee children with wonder. In the midst of the unruliness, smugglers play table football. A Turkish man begs among the refugees.

Suddenly, things move quickly. They are rounded up and rushed out of the doors and through a labyrinth of alleys to a waiting van that is quickly filling with refugees.

“What are we doing? Is this the right decision?” asks Rokan.

But there is no going back now. Once the van is fully loaded, they disappear into the twilight. The children look out from the van window.

At 6:30 that evening, they set off.

Crossing the sea to Greece [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]
Crossing the sea to Greece [Pieter Stockmans/Al Jazeera]

Day 17: Izmir-Lesbos – the landing

At 6:57 the next morning, Roliana shouts on a WhatsApp voice message: “We are in Greece!”

Later, Delvan describes the journey: “We rocked on high waves for hours with a broken engine. Three times I was convinced we would die. The children were in shock. Luckily, one of the refugees got the motor running again.”

During their days on Lesbos, the Greek ferries went on strike. The ferry workers’ union protested against the new austerity measures. Delvan’s family ended up in the middle of Europe’s two major crises: the economic crisis and the refugee crisis. “Fate,” Delvan would say. 

Follow Pieter Stockmans on Twitter @VRIJHEIDenGELUK

Source: Al Jazeera