The journey to Europe: One Syrian refugee's story

The journey to Europe: One Syrian refugee's story
Feature: Hamed Shurbaji fled from the horrors of Bashar al-Assad's Syria to save his own life, but only reached Europe after almost dying on a sinking people smuggler's ship.
6 min read
18 March, 2015
This woman survived the dangerous crossing. Her baby son didn't [Anadolu]

As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year this week, the Syrian agony continues without an end in sight. In the last four short years the conflict has resulted in what is now considered the worst humanitarian disaster in modern history. According to the UN, there are over 220,000 dead, a third of the population has been displaced internally, and some 3.8 million Syrian refugees languish in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Many have been forced to make the dangerous journey to Europe in pursuit of a better life. Many have lost their lives. Many escaped death by a whisker.

     I couldn't stay while the security forces were killing innocent people. There was nothing left for me.

Hamed Shurbaji, 24, was one of the "lucky" ones. He survived three attempts to make it to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

Hamed majored in French literature at Damascus University when the revolution in Syria erupted. He, as with many others, found it hard to stay home while the regime was attacking innocent people protesting in the streets. He learned he was wanted by the regime because of his involvement in the peaceful protests during the first year of the movement in 2011.

"I couldn't stand it any more," Shurbaji explained. "My home town Darya was totally destroyed and I lost a lot of family members. I couldn't stay while the security forces were killing innocent people. There was nothing left for me there any more, when all my loved ones were either jailed, killed or scattered abroad."

Leaving Syria

His long journey began when he left Syria to Egypt via Lebanon. He thought he could stay in Cairo and work, but the situation in Egypt was unstable. He struggled for 40 days in Egypt until he decided to go to Europe.

He decided to travel to Libya to find a way to Europe. He was able to reach the Libyan border and tried to sneak across it. He spent a day and a half walking on foot near the border in an effort to enter, but he was caught by the Libyan guards. He was accused of being a jihadist who intended to fight in Libya. He was detained and jailed for few days before he was released. He then decided to travel to Tripoli, to find work and save money for his trip to Europe. After seven months of hard work, he was able to make some money and start planning a way out to Europe.

He headed to Zowara, the Libyan coastal city near Tunisia, where he met a people smuggler. "It took me a whole month to finally get on a boat to Europe, but unfortunately it did not work. The Libyan coast guards stormed the boat and detained us all for two days and then let us go," Hamed said, describing his first attempt.

On his second attempt, while Shurbaji was still in Zowara, he met a Syrian people smuggler named Abu Ahmad. The smuggler charged him $1,000 to guarantee him a place on the next boat to Europe.

"He kept lying to us and giving us phoney dates of when the next trip would take place. He was only trying to gather as many people as possible before he sailed," Hamed revealed.

After the day of the trip arrived and they finally got on the boat, they spent 30 hours at sea without moving.

"The boat was very small, about 12 meters long at most, and probably couldn't carry more than fifteen people in its best case. But the smugglers managed to cram over two hundred people on it. The load was way too heavy for the boat to move," Hamed said.

Libyan border guards accused him of being a jihadist who intended to fight in Libya.

Not long after that, an Egyptian rescue boat came and took them all back to Zowara again. "I was very sad and frustrated at that point. I wasted all the money that I saved for the trip," he added.

Plucked from the ocean

His third and final attempt was the most bizarre and horrible of them all. On a two-level boat, the smugglers this time managed to cram in more than 730 people. "We did not expect to see this many people all at once on the same boat," Hamed said.

"They segregated us this time. They put all the African people in the lower level where the engine was located, and on the upper level they put all the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese," Hamed explained.

Hamed described the situation of this trip as disastrous. "After few hours of sailing in sea, the boat started to sink and water started to leak inside the boat. We started to bail the water out using buckets for at least 24 hours non stop."

A few hours later, they noticed a helicopter in the horizon. It circled around them in the air for few minutes then left. "Right after that, we saw a ship with a Danish flag approaching us fast," Hamed said. "While we tried to get close to it, the big ship hit the nose of our boat and made it sink even faster."

He added "People started to jump off the boat, and for 30 minutes of chaos, there wasn't any kind of rescue happening... After I jumped off the boat, I started to swim toward the ship. When I finally reached it, I looked back and saw this horrifying scene of all these people fighting for their lives."

A rescue team had been deployed. It took at least five hours to rescue people, and then only with the aid of the Maltese coast guard. NEvertheless, for some it was too late. Nine people drowned and 30 others who were in the lower level of the boat suffocated to death from the smoke from the engine and died, Hamed explained.

Fleeing Italy

The rescue boat dropped them off in Catania, Sicily, where they were put in a camp and warned that they would be fingerprinted the next day. But early in the morning the very next day, Hamed and a few others managed to escape the camp to a train station. Hamed was able to make it all the way to Milan, Italy.

"My friend and I headed to France after that, but we were caught by the French police, who took our fingerprints and sent us back to Italy," Hamed declared. Back in Milan, they met a smuggler who took them by car and smuggled them into Germany. Once he entered Germany, he turned himself in to the German police in Dortmund.

After three months in Germany, Hamed was finally granted refugee status and became a legal resident of Germany. He's currently taking German language courses, and is preparing to go back to college, and continue his studies in French Literature in the near future.