17 Sep 2015

We have no choice’: On board with Syrians fleeing their homeland

With a couple of blasts of the horn drowning out the cicadas for a moment, the venerable Med Dream 2 finally cast off at 3.17 am – just short of twelve hours late.

Built in 1964, around 60m long it is designed to take around 250 passengers. At least 400 are aboard, almost all Syrians with one-way tickets.

Welcome to the daily conveyor on which the educated, trained, Syrian middle-class are fleeing their disintegrated country by the thousands – all of it completely legal.

For $250 (£161) single and a valid passport your passage to Turkey and the gates of the EU is booked. I will need a Turkish visa – my new friends from Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus and beyond, will not.

17_thomson_ferry_2_w

To be fair the Bangladeshi crew do what they can to make people comfortable, showing you to “your” bench seat and table.

The cabin we have booked for an extra $100 (£65) dollars does not exist. Nor does much by way of food for the 14 hour Mediterranean crossing.

After hours of waiting, after three in the morning, the Med Dream 2 casts off. Official departure time was 4 the previous afternoon.

The lights of Tripoli on the north Lebanese Coast quickly fade and we will track north, parallel to the Syrian coast so many are fleeing tonight, east of Cyprus, towards the new life in Turkey and beyond at some point tomorrow.

17_thomson_ferry_5_w

The dominance of young men is obvious throughout the long delay aboard as we get to know each other.

Just like Elias and Ahmad, who we had met waiting at the dockside, the groups of early-20s men had different reasons for not wanting to be filmed.

Some are fleeing the call-up to fight for the Assad army. Talking on camera about your dream of a new life would not be a smart move. The reach of the Assad machine is deep and vicious – they fear the police will come for their families.

Bashar from Tartus on the Syrian coast, speaks of completing his studies in Europe. His father sits by listening intently as Bashar explains, in English, how he wants to train as a doctor.

He is seventeen. His father will try to get work in Turkey, find a house and his two brothers and sisters will then come across to join them.

Like almost everyone, Bashar’s dream relies on somehow to Greece and then the favoured countries: Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and UK:

“I must try,” Bashar explains, “I have to make my father proud of me. To complete my studies is my dream. It is my duty to go to Europe”

Hours later Bashar will come and sit down and whisper to me:

“Alex, I want to tell you something. You cannot know what it is like in Syria. What is it when the police in your country make you and enemy? What is it?”

We dig down together into this. Most of these men are from areas which have seen little fighting along the coast – Assad’s heartland.

But what they flee is the terror – for many it is not IS, not the barrel bombs or the bullets or the fighting at all – but that terror if being taken away by Assad’s police. Of coming back broken, mentally or physically, or of not coming home at all.

17_thomson_ferry_4_w

Next to him is a young man in his early 20s who prefers not to be identified.

“There are no jobs in Turkey,” he says, “you know this?”

“Everyone says so, all the Syrians on this ship.” I reply.

“So I have to go to EU. There is no choice. But two weeks ago my friend was drowned. He was trying to get to Greece.”

“I am very sorry,” I tell him, “but will you still try for Greece even after this?”

He simply smiles back, indulging me as one might a small child asking a foolish question:

“Of course, of course – there is no choice.”

There is no choice – the chorus, the mantra, the words on everyone’s lips.

After waiting all these hours the ship was full to way beyond the 250 the travel agents said would be aboard. The crew waited for the overladen 4x4s, cars and minibuses to reach Tripoli quayside from the Syrian frontier about twenty miles north.

Through the night on the floors, seats, gangways, wherever a human body can somehow fit collapsed into the escape of sleep.

A baby lies close to us, little Halla, sleeping soundly enthroned on a small mat on the table.

17_thomson_ferry_3_w

But what are these people? Refugee or migrant?

Some in Europe think the definition of these terms are simple and easy to apply: It is impossible tonight aboard the Med Dream 2.

They are not poor. Everyone has a smartphone and they have been doing selfies to mark their journey all night – as they did all afternoon on the dockside. There is a mad scramble around 4am when a deckhand sets up a charging point.

Some have laptops. All are well dressed. What you are witnessing, night after night, day after day, is the nothing less than the exodus of the Syrian middle class.

The evisceration from a country being dismantled, of the skill, knowledge and training to rebuild it, come the day.

One man, a lecturer in Arabic from a major city in Northern Syria who can’t be identified because the authorities may take reprisals against his family. He cannot move freely around Syria and is desperate to leave – but he can still do his job. Refugee? Migrant?

And the deserting army officer with five years’ service who has had enough and is fleeing with his girlfriend and just does not want to know anything at all about Syria – just about the new dream life. Refugee? Migrant?

Tonight it all seems like the luxury of a debate you can have in dear old secure safe Europe – not here. But one day some luckless official will some arbitrate, somehow define, somehow judge.

Most have the foundations for the new life well in place. Friends or family are often already in the EU. Contacts will meet them in Turkey as they transition from this first legitimate stage to the coming illicit entry to the EU via the dangerous sea route and people- smugglers to Greece.

17_thomson_ferry_1

This has been the easy part: money, passport with Lebanese transit visa and you’re into Turkey and you are at the EU back gate.

The “easy” bit has meant long waits in the blazing humidity of Tripoli after the casual looting and extraction of money by soldiers at both Syrian military checkpoints and by the Lebanese army this side of the frontier.

All that is as nothing compared to what is coming and what each and every one here seems entirely prepared for – closed borders or no closed borders.

“But they are shutting the border with Hungary,” I say.

“No problem – I go to Croatia that way.”

I could mention that there are mines on this route. Why? Nothing will make any difference.

All over this small, crowded ferry the same phrase keeps coming back at you:

“We have no choice.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities of those on the ferry.

Tweets by @alextomo