In August, Ahmad* calls from Greece. He got himself there from Turkey in a bilim after the smuggler took off.
“What’s a bilim?” I ask.
“A small inflatable raft,” my husband Maalik says. The Arabic adaptation of the word blimp: any vessel filled with air. Ahmad is telling how he took the helm from another Syrian after the man almost capsized their raft in heavy swells. He pulled him off the tiller and figured out how to tack perpendicular to the waves—“you can’t go with them, you have to go against them,” he explains. Out of the last hours of dark and on into morning they hazarded a course between low-sliding bulks of islands, navigating using someone’s cell phone wrapped in a plastic bag. There in the boat were two dozen men, women, and children who had decided to chance it on their own after the smuggler ditched them.
“Why did the smuggler ditch them?” I ask.
“He had their money,” Maalik mutters, with a look that says, enough questions. “Did you ever steer a boat before?” he asks Ahmad.
“No!” Ahmad says. “I’d never been on water before where I couldn’t see land on the other side.” Ahmad is from Douma, a Damascus suburb that has been protesting against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian president, since the spring of 2011. In the subsequent three-plus years of regime shelling, Ahmad’s handy neighbors have pioneered a new genre of upcycling: drums, hookas, and even motorcycle bodies made of shell casings. In 2014, tired of improvised survival, Ahmad resolved to make his way to the few relatives he has in Austria.
But for those traveling on a Syrian passport, the number of countries without prohibitive visa restrictions is small and shrinking. In 2012, when intensified aerial attacks—in response to rising infantry casualties—triggered the first wave of mass exodus, there were seven: North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. I know this list by heart. It was the one Maalik and I faced when we decided to leave our home in Damascus late in the summer of 2012.
We had met there in February of 2011, just before the first protests broke out, and once they did, I decided to stay and witness what came next—even after my cushy embassy-sponsored English teaching job disappeared when the American embassy quietly closed up shop in December 2011.
Nine months later, when Maalik finally insisted that it was too unsafe to stay any longer, we discovered that our short list of options was, well, pretty short. Since I’m American, North Korea and Iran were out, while Cuba had me torn. I speak good Spanish and even studied Afro-Cuban drumming, but how would it look to the U.S. government? How would we explain that after four years in Syria—and just as we were petitioning for a fiancé visa for Maalik—that I’d hopped over into Cuba for a spell? Venezuela we seriously considered until I read about its gangs that target airport roads. Maalik loathes Lebanon’s sectarian politics and as a Syrian felt (correctly) vulnerable to them.
In the end it was Turkey that we chose. A taxi to Beirut and then a flight to Istanbul landed us in that sprawling commercial crossroads just in time for onset of cold October rains. A year of waiting yielded—finally—a visa for Maalik, allowing us to move to New York in September of 2013, even as the list of countries admitting Syrians was shrinking. In July of 2013, Sisi’s coup crossed Egypt off the list, and last December, Lebanon too imposed visa restrictions on Syrians.
So when Ahmad finally decides to make his leap west, he too comes through Turkey, hoarding a wad of euros he hopes will be enough. From our tiny studio in the Bronx, we follow his progress anxiously.
His crash course in maritime skills has landed him on the far side of the Aegean, in Thessaloniki, a city whose name he hasn’t fully grasped. I have a vague memory of night at a Thessaloniki rest stop, standing beside a bus in the dark breathing cold mountain air. When I lived in Damascus, I spent most of my ten-day vacations between teaching terms on endless bus and train routes northwest, Antakya to Istanbul to Sofia to Belgrade and back. Once I went as far as Sarajevo where I caught a cold and spent most of my time sleeping in the office of a disused hostel. Its owner had turned it into a two-room distillery, and I tossed and turned on a cot surrounded by rows of bottles and tubes on floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Ahmad resorts to the same buses when he discovers that his carefully guarded cash, slowly whittled down by even the cheapest food and shelter, isn’t enough for any smuggler to take him north. At the northern edge of Greece, he walks two nights across the mountains into Macedonia—“the worst route in the world,” he says—then catches another bus to the Serbian border, where he again manages to slip across on foot. His luck finally runs out at the Hungarian border, where after hours of evasion he is caught by the combined forces of heat-sensing cameras and well-trained dogs. He tells the story from a holding camp full of Ethiopians, Afghanis, Iranians, and other Syrians, then warns us not to call again: the camp authorities are tracing every call he receives to track down the “international smuggling ring” that they imagine delivered him to them.
“I will escape tomorrow,” he says. His voice is glum.
“They made him give his fingerprints,” my husband explains. By force, Ahmad says. He recounts that when he refused to put his hands on the scanner, they beat him with batons and twisted one arm up behind his back. This record, Maalik explains, means Ahmad cannot now apply for asylum in Austria, since under EU law an asylum-seeker must request asylum from the first safe country he crosses into; in practice, this means the first country to register his presence. As long as he went uncounted, unnoticed, unverified, he could pass through sullen cities like a ghost. Now that he’s been registered, he’s stuck.
I cannot imagine making such a leap, plunging into gusts of luck and chance. It’s illegal! This is what my Midwestern brain keeps flashing whenever I try to picture myself standing beside a raft laden to the waterline with scared passengers. I am someone who gets anxiously enmeshed in the blandest rules and contracts. I invent extra provisions I think I read in our rental contract: no smoking, no pets. When I seem to remember this—though I’m not sure if it really said so or not, and I feel too nervous to check—the sight of our two newly adopted orange kittens fills me with furtive guilt as if I’d been caught shoplifting. One has a persistent cough and I pay the exorbitant vet bill, squirt a dropper-full of white antibiotic down his throat twice daily and feel bad when I forget one dose. We cannot change their food suddenly, I lecture disbelieving Maalik; their stomachs will get upset.
In Syria meanwhile people are dying of hunger as well as injury, since it’s cheaper to cut off a town’s food supply than to bomb it. And of course the bombing continues, in desultory daily raids. Besides the barrel bombs the regime has been dropping for years—oil barrels filled with scrap metal and dynamite and pushed out of helicopters—there is a new kind of “vacuum bomb” that produces a tsunami of flame, sucking up all the oxygen around it, then igniting whole blocks in a lateral roar. Typhoid, rape, and beheading punctuate the tedious lack of everything from water and electricity to vegetables and even birdsong: in Yarmouk, I discover via a YouTube video that the sparrows have all been eaten, while residents of Homs’ besieged Old City have made a Facebook page to share recipes for locusts and wild roots.
The video, called “Blue,” is an elegy for the 80th person to die of hunger in Yarmouk, a once-bustling Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus, and for the life of the camp itself. I visited Yarmouk perhaps half a dozen times when I lived in Damascus. Mostly I went for the weekly potlucks thrown by Mazen, a tall, middle-aged Arabic teacher with a generous belly and a frizzy salt-and-pepper ponytail, whose inexhaustible hospitality guaranteed him an endless supply of foreign students of Arabic, some of them my friends. His house was in the center of Yarmouk, a large Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, and every “movie night” saw it packed with Palestinians and foreigners flushed with the romance of resistance and sweet arak liqueur.
That party is long over since the residents of Yarmouk found their first meager protests fired upon by local PLO leadership, long allied with the Assads. Yarmouk’s streets are now gray troughs of rubble, and most of its residents scattered. In the video, over a shot of a dusty boulevard lined with tattered trees, the narrator recalls how their branches were once filled with birds. The trees are silent now, he says, because the birds have all been eaten by the children of Yarmouk. Swaddled in a white shroud, the 80th victim of starvation is a bird-like parcel wheeled on a makeshift bier. Surrounding it, the men comprising the somber wake walk starving, their faces haggard and wooden.
It is as if the ghettoes of World War II Europe were resurrected in order to die again on YouTube, I tell Maalik. But he dismisses my sentiment.
“Maybe 80 people have died of hunger in Yarmouk. Do you know how many Syrians have drowned trying to get to Europe?”
I do not.
“Over two thousand.”
In fact, I discover, when I research his rebuff, the numbers are much higher—and getting worse. In 2014, the UN estimated that of the 165,000 “irregular” migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean, around 3,500 drowned. In the first quarter of this year, the death toll was already more than 1,700. Of those who made it to Italy, Syrians were the most numerous, at 42,323—not counting the more than 6,000 Palestinians, many of whom were fleeing Syria—followed by Eritreans.
Of course, not everyone gets caught, and not everyone goes by bilim. For those who can afford it, 10,000 euro buys a fake passport and a plane ticket to northern Europe. For 7,000, you can go by car or truck—or a vacation camper for small groups, hidden in the back like drugs or guns. Then there are the regular boats, priced by size and distance. One extended Syrian family made a successful sea journey from Italy to Sweden by posing as a floating wedding party; whenever a patrol vessel came near, they turned up the music and danced, danced, danced as if their lives depended on it.
But from the smugglers’ point of view, little bilims have distinct advantages. Number one, they’re cheap—for the passengers, who pay $1,000 to $1,200 to be piloted from Turkey to Greece—and for the smugglers. The only real cost is the motor; everything else, including the human cargo, is dispensable. Then too, unlike larger boats, they do not need to be registered, meaning fewer bribes to pay, and no chance of tracing the owners. And being smaller, they stand a better chance of making it unobserved through the maze of islands separating the Greek and Turkish mainlands. Sure, they capsize faster than a larger vessel would. But to maximize profits, boats of all sizes are dangerously overloaded.
This overbooking saved another friend’s life. Allan, a tall, redheaded Syrian Kurd from Amouda, tried for years to get from Istanbul to his brother in Berlin, and failed more miserably with each attempt. In September 2012 he reserved a place on a fishing boat bound for Italy. He spent a fretful week in a cheap hotel crowded with other Syrians waiting for the day of departure, only to be left behind when the boat finally set out, since places had as usual been oversold. The boat wrecked 50 meters from the Turkish coast. At least 61 migrants drowned, more than half of them children.
“I knew them name by name, face by face,” Allan said. He had played with them every day for the last interminable week of their lives. “I kept thinking, it should have been me, not them.”
SAKHER CALLS NEXT, in mid-October, from Athens. An old friend from Damascus, he often ate with us during Ramadan since his family lived in Homs’ Old City and neither he nor I can hold a candle to Maalik’s cooking. In the fall of 2012, when we left for Turkey, his family finagled him a visa to Abu Dhabi. Barred from legally working and priced out of tuition at one of the hothouse Gulf branches of American universities, he stewed for two years on the margins of prosperity before deciding to stake his future on a sea crossing.
Sakher too came by Turkish bilim sans smuggler. The man he’d paid to pilot him from Turkey to Greece showed up just long enough to collect his fee, then told him and the 45 other migrants to scatter because the police were coming. Seventeen ran. The 29 who didn’t waited until 4 a.m. for the smuggler’s return, then decided to go for it on their own.
“Did you steer?” my husband asks.
“No,” Sakher says, “there was a guy from Jebleh”—a small city on the Syrian coast. Instead, Sakher’s job was to keep an eye on the guy packing a knife.* Having been turned back nine times previously, the man swore that if the Greek coast guard spotted them, he would destroy the raft as fast as possible—a gamble intended to force the Greeks to rescue them directly into their jurisdiction. If the Greeks did not take them, there was a risk the Greeks would summon their Turkish counterparts to haul the migrants back to Turkey. They landed without having had to use his knife and Sakher found his way to the Arab section of Athens. A seedy boomtown mining human desperation, a bottleneck of Syrians all dreaming of Europe.
Everyone wants to smuggle him, he says. The guy who rented him a room. The barber who cut his hair. Because the easy part of his trip is behind him: the next, costlier leg of the journey is getting from Europe’s cash-strapped southern fringes to its prosperous north.
“Watch your back,” my husband says. Like the blankets, medicines, and parcels of food distributed by NGO workers a few miles inside Syria, then smuggled back into Turkey and sold in border markets, Sakher is now a commodity on the great black market of war, a drop in the flood of exodus that far outstrips the supply of safe and licit passage.
In Athens he lives on shawarma and sleeps in a room full of other Syrians. When he calls late at night, the snores of the guy asleep in the next bunk punctuate the pauses in our conversation. Where will he go? Germany could be good. Or Sweden, but that’s more expensive. Really he wants to go to the U.K. so he can continue his studies faster, since he already speaks some English. But everyone agrees the U.K. is impossible. He studies his options, watches others attempt to pass through the layers of airport security and get turned away, useless tickets in hand. On Halloween he goes to a party—“very European,” he says—and asks how we celebrated.
We tell him about the party we attended. Here in New York, Maalik says, the women go naked on Halloween. I tell how we got stuck for half an hour in the L-train tunnel behind an Ebola isolation chamber costume that blocked most of the passageway, with Maalik outraged and worried we’d be trampled to death if the crowd panicked.
“Did you see the Acropolis yet?” he asks Sakher. They studied philosophy together at university, and Socrates and Plato are touchstones. “What did you think when you first saw it?”
“I was surprised,” Sakher replies. “I thought I’d see one of every Greek guy’s nipples—that they’d all still be wearing togas.”
He laughs at his own joke, but under the comedy is the shock of being plunged for the first time into another life on another continent, of wandering through a reality he’s only read about. Athens, he says, bears no trace of Plato’s republic, though it is amazing. “It’s not so bad being a forced tourist,” he reflects. But he frets his next move. Some of these guys, he says, have tried ten, fifteen times at the airport. And been turned back each time.
Europe doesn’t want Syrians, now overshadowed by the specter of ISIS. Gone and forgotten are the images of grinning Syrian children holding up two fingers for peaceful protest; the nightly news has moved on to ISIS and its theater of revenge in which a handful of westerners—Kassig, Henning, Haines, Sotloff, and Foley—dressed in orange prisoner costumes are forced to play payback for the humiliations of Abu Ghraib.
Outside the frame of these close-up executions, more than 10 million uprooted Syrians—nearly 6 million displaced within Syria and almost 4 million outside its borders—continue their search for safety, a struggle that has far outlasted the span of prime-time attention. Lost from view, they migrate back and forth across provincial and international borders and are of no interest to anyone save the governments taxed with corralling them and the NGOs whose budgets wax and wane in tandem with their losses. In March 2013, the rate of exodus from Syria is 10,000 per day. By summer of 2013, nearly a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees who’d spent a decade in Syria have crossed back into Iraq, along with tens of thousands of Syrians; the following September, 400,000 Kurds fleeing ISIS’ assault on Kobani, a Kurdish town just south of the Turkish border, cross into Turkey.
Kobani also is the main focus of initial U.S. aerial attacks on ISIS in Syria. Just as Sakher is ogling the Acropolis for the first time, American drones are recording the accelerated destruction of jihadists and their bases. In the black-and-white videos released by U.S. Central Command, American prowess looks like the clean, clear winner. It appears as a white square or asterisk hovering above a gray swath of terrain, marking the spot from which each strike sends a soft white blast-cloud billowing up. That civilians are sometimes among those killed—62 in the first five months of bombings, 52 in a single attack south of Kobani—is part of the inevitable, and largely invisible, collateral damage.
Though now besieged by ISIS, Syria’s Kurds have fared better with the regime than other groups. In 2011, the government granted them official nationality and use of their own language—de facto autonomy in exchange for quiescence. Now, alongside this regime support, their self-defense is carried out under an American aegis buzzing with drones. The remaining mass of displaced and exiled Syrians have no such backing. The sky remains naked over the tents and shanties in which they have been left to tally their losses, and the early faith that the West would heed their cry for freedom has been replaced by a desolate fatalism.
“What Syria is there to go back to, if everyone is gone?” exclaimed my friend Abed. He was reacting, in May of 2013, to the news that five friends from his street had been killed that day in a bombing run that killed 30 altogether. A veteran of the coastal insurgency and the little brother of two martyrs, he said he wanted to be the third.
To be clear, Abed had nothing to do with ISIS. His old unit, insofar as it belonged to anything beyond his village, was allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the initial umbrella of defectors and insurgents that declared war on the regime, and thus at war—more and more a losing one—with ISIS. In spring of 2013, when I met Abed and other wounded members of his brigade on a visit to eastern Turkey, the FSA was riven and exhausted, already losing ground to jihadist factions, many of which would later coalesce into ISIS.
With his long, black beard and matter-of-fact piety, Abed might look to many Americans like an extremist. But he shakes my hand firmly, meets my eye squarely and calls me “sister.” When Maalik and I accept his invitation to tea with his family, his seven-year-old niece Haneen quickly befriends me. She informs me that I am like a beautiful cat, then recounts how soldiers shot her family’s horse in a reprisal raid on their village.
“Six bullets,” she says, and it strikes me that she regards the world already with the same level solemnity as her young uncle.
With their home and orchards now beyond the pale, Haneen and Abed’s family is part of the inmost circle of displaced Syrians. Having fled Syria to save their lives, they are scarcely able to afford the inflated cost of living in eastern Turkey. For them and millions of their compatriots subsisting along Syria’s borders, Europe might as well be the moon. They can hardly scrape together the rent at the end of each month. After waiting for months for a spot in a Turkish refugee camp to open up, Haneen’s parents run out of money and return to Syria in early 2014, to a hard-scrabble existence on rebel-controlled turf. In September, Abed tells us, the house they were living in was struck by a barrel bomb, but none of the children were hurt.
Their family, so limited in its options for self-preservation, exemplifies system of unequal aspirations to which Syrians are reduced according to their means. Those who can afford to leave can reasonably afford to dream of a better life. Allan, who married an Italian woman he met in Istanbul, can now fulfill his dream of visiting his brother—and as a tourist to boot. Staring at the crumbling Parthenon, Sakher can feel himself drawing just a bit nearer to a Ph.D. Even as Hungarian border guards are wailing on him with their clubs, Ahmad knows at least he won’t be killed. Stuck closer to home,
Abed’s ambitions zigzag between war and peace. It takes him a year and a half to recover from the two bullets that shattered his shin-bone on his first day of fighting back in winter of 2012. Once his leg is sound, he follows his brother’s family back into Syria. When they are settled, he heads further east—to Raqqa, he tells us last November, speaking from his rented house in eastern Turkey. He went, he says, to see this caliphate.
“You can imagine,” he replies when Maalik asks how it was. “I mean, here I am, back in Turkey.”
Sometime in the last two years he must have overcome his fear of speaking to women—or more precisely, his fear of being seen as shamefully importune—as he recently married a girl from his hometown. This March, their first child was born, and it seems his dream is now to put down roots in this life.
JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Sakher makes it to Germany. He too walked across the mountains of Macedonia, three shivering nights of slipping and falling and picking himself back up, shivering in his brown fall coat that was no match for Balkan winter. Then a bus to Belgrade and a smuggler’s car into Germany. He calls from Dortmund to tell us his good news: After two full days of medical tests and immunizations, he’s been officially declared disease-free. With all the needles out of the way, he feels optimistic about his case.
Now that he’s safe, I feel I can finally grill him about the risks he took.
“Well, death only happens once,” he says. And adds—though it usually goes without saying—he would rather be dead than in a Syrian prison.
It’s not an idle calculation; in May of 2012, he was arrested on the street in Damascus for no reason anyone could figure except that his ID showed he was from Homs’ Old City, an insurgent stronghold. By then his parents had already fled, unscathed save for the bullet that passed through his mother’s shoulder as their taxi sped around checkpoints.
Luckily, his captors only beat him a little and shaved his head before releasing him. Our friends shaved their heads in solidarity, and through the summer months—our last summer in Damascus—they often gathered at our place. Lured by Maalik’s cooking, they sprawled out on our couches and talked till dawn. In retrospect it was a strangely fluid time. In response to rising casualty rates from guerilla battles, the army had just switched tactics from infantry assault to aerial bombardment, ushering in a whole new scale of obliteration that seemed, at first, incredible. From the capital at least, the scale of destruction was so new that it still felt surprising, malleable, not yet hardened into the leaden same-same of daily loss. The stark choice—fight or flight—was starting to close in on my friends, but they were still debating which course to choose.
One whose older brother had joined the insurgency felt torn between leaving to pursue his education or staying by his brother’s side. (He left.) One was waiting and praying for a cousin to successfully desert from the most famous, or infamous, infantry brigade. (He did.) Most felt alienated by the increasingly Islamist tone of local militias, though the rumor was that their beards and shows of piety had a lot to do with fundraising. Most had friends or relatives who had joined the armed rebellion, and all had friends or relatives serving in the regular army, which was compulsory for all Syrian men. But there were constant rumors of Sunni soldiers shot in the back as they advanced into battle, or blindfolded and shot point-blank in the head, as the mainly Alawi officers didn’t trust their loyalty under fire. It was assumed that they would fire high, or desert with their weapons—and many did.
“We should make a movie,” I remember saying at around 3 a.m. one night. A movie that showed all the complications, interconnections, and contradictions. It wasn’t that farfetched. My little sister is a producer in New York; she could send us a camera, help us edit it.
It should have four main characters, we decided, then debated where they should be from, and from which classes, sects, and ideologies. How their lives would intersect and change in ways that would illuminate everything. Sakher was the most eager to set to work on it.
We never wrote a word. And now its imaginary scope has grown, as we have bounced around, learning new systems of payment, measurement, transportation. What we pictured as the constellation of relations between cities and between each city and its countryside is now a tangled cats-cradle of multiple countries and continents. What are left are stray clips and shots caught by cell phones, unscripted glimpses of a society broken and scattered.
There’s Ahmad’s video of a dull, white expanse of German countryside. The scene spins around to a close-up of him laughing, his beard, coat, and shoes covered with snow. He has made good on his promise, and in December he walked out of the Hungarian camp and onto a bus to Germany, where in February, his petition for residency got rejected. His fingerprints, after all, are still in Hungary.
There’s Sakher’s photo of morning on the Aegean: Visible over the shoulders of migrants crowded into the bilim, beyond its thick gray prow, is the green-and-tan curve of Caius Island. Many more pictures show him posing, safely ashore, in the garish tropical shorts and fat fanny pack of a tourist.
And then from Syria, ground zero of the exodus, there is Abed’s video of his niece and nephews returned to the green mountains of their birth. It is a bittersweet homecoming: the land is hardly their own, and a regime plane circles overhead, dropping bombs on a nearby village. Against this backdrop, Haneen is trying to cheer her fretful youngest brother up.
“You’re not afraid?” Abed encourages her from off camera. “Are you laughing at the plane?” Grinning and clutching a bouquet of bright yellow dandelions, she laughs her assent. “Do you want to dance at the plane, to show you’re not afraid?”
It is not in her power to stop the bombs from falling, or to escape their reach. So she makes the only choice she has: giggling, with a spastic shimmy, she dances.
*Several names have been changed because of safety concerns.
*Correction: This sentence and paragraph have been changed. Originally they incorrectly stated that Sakher was holding the knife on the raft. He was not; he was watching the man who was holding a knife.
Jennifer MacKenzie is a professor of English and journalism at Lehman College in the Bronx. Her book of poems, My Not-My Soldier, winner of the Fence Books Modern Poets Series, was published in December of 2014.