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Leaving, Again

Syrian refugees face extended displacement

In the early years of the Syrian civil war, many who crossed by land from Syria into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or Iraq hardly thought of themselves as refugees. Rather, they had left home temporarily to wait for the lull in violence that they expected would come any day. Then days became weeks, weeks became months, and months became years.

This dilemma of extended displacement affects refugees around the world, including some who are born, raised, and then have children and grandchildren of their own in refugee camps. Recognizing that “no one wants to be a refugee their whole life,” UNHCR advocates for what it calls three “durable solutions”: refugees voluntarily return to their home country if the situation is safe; they integrate into their country of refuge, culminating in citizenship; or they resettle in a third country that agrees to admit them and ultimately grant permanent residence.

In the Syrian case, the first solution remains inappropriate. The United Nations and human rights groups judge Syria to be unsafe, and the very small number of refugees who have opted to return testifies that displaced Syrians agree. Prospects for the second solution, local integration, are severely limited in countries in the Middle East. With the exception of Turkey’s controversial awarding of nationality to about two hundred thousand select Syrians, nearly all of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East have “guest” status, entailing temporary protection but no guarantee of permanent residency. The legal rights necessary for genuine long-term integration thus do not exist. The third solution is similarly unattainable. Syrians have joined the millions of other refugees worldwide who apply to UNHCR each year in pursuit of safe, legal resettlement to a wealthy country. Yet fewer than 1 percent of all refugees are ever chosen for this coveted opportunity.

For the vast majority of people who flee Syria, therefore, none of the UN’s durable solutions are within reach. Instead, they devise solutions of their own. Some move from one country in the Middle East to another, searching for better conditions. Some obtain scholarships to study elsewhere, hoping that a student visa might open a pathway to a longer-term future. Some with international familial relations get visas for legal travel. If Syrians can step foot in a country that offers opportunities for asylum, they have a good chance of demonstrating a well­-founded fear of harm in their home country and gaining rights to permanent residency or at least temporary protection status. The European Union is a geographically proximate place that accepts asylum applications. Obtaining a visa to travel there on a Syrian passport, however, is akin to winning the lottery.

It is in this context that some asylum-seekers rally all the savings and savvy that they can and risk their lives to reach the countries that go to lengths to prevent their entry. At first, those who dared to cross to Europe by sea typically made the long, arduous journey from Egypt or Libya to Italy. Around 2015, accumulating crises across the Middle East and Africa accelerated rates of travel across the shorter and safer route from Turkey to Greece. Smugglers proliferated, charging thousands of dollars per person to pile migrants into flimsy boats and inflatable dinghies. While thousands drowned, more than a million refugees made it ashore and launched treacherous treks north and westward. Some countries raised razor wire at their borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended the protocol that would return Syrian refugees to their first EU country of entry, effectively extending safe haven to those who could make it to Germany. Migration sowed panic across the EU until early 2016, when Turkey agreed to block illicit migration from its territory in exchange for billions of euros and other benefits. Thereafter, an annual average of at least 120,000 refugees and migrants would continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, mostly on the more lethal passage from North Africa. From 2014 until 2023, more than 54,000 migrants went missing or were confirmed dead at sea.

Experiences of transiting from a temporary refuge to a potentially permanent settlement serve as part of the connective tissue between past and future homes. They are not simply pauses and delays in the search for home, but part of what makes home a struggle and achievement. People might search for home numerous times in multiple places. Luck, money, connections, despair, courage, and know-how all combine to determine how far they go. Long travels under perilous conditions can entrench a deep sense of insecurity that is hard to shake even after the voyage ends. Indeed, one might feel that the voyage never ends, even when one is no longer physically on the move. For these and other reasons, migrants’ and refugees’ journeys can leave enduring imprints on their relationship to home. They might intensify one’s longing for a stable anchor or leave one doubting that such an anchor exists. In coping with rootlessness en route to the next stage of life, people gain new perspectives on what it means to have roots and whether, ultimately, they need them.

—Wendy Pearlman


Gaziantep, Turkey

I stayed in Gaziantep for three months. The whole time, I kept telling everyone in Syria that I was in the Netherlands. I was terrified that someone would find out that wasn’t true. I feared for my family’s safety. I deactivated my Facebook account because sometimes when you write a message, it indicates your location. Eventually, I blocked all my contacts.

My brother was in Istanbul, and his situation was no better. As a Syrian without papers, he was working underground in a textile factory. He earned about two hundred and fifty dollars a month and lived with four other guys in a very small room. I visited him at the factory, but he wasn’t able to leave the machines and go outside, so I sat with him in the basement. It was very dark and very loud. I couldn’t imagine how he stayed there twelve or thirteen hours a day, listening to all that noise. Still, I asked if I could get a job there too. They said that they didn’t need more workers.

After three months, my residency permit was about to expire. My Syrian passport had only six months left. Soon, I’d be illegal in Turkey. I started to hear about refugees going to Europe. But you needed three to four thousand dollars. I talked to my father, and he decided to sell the small shop we owned. When my aunt heard that, she gave us the money instead.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve already lost everything. I might as well go.”

I went to Izmir and contacted a smuggler. Every day he said, “Yeah, tomorrow.” After nineteen days, he took a group of sixteen of us to the location. The smuggler told us to go into the water to reach the boat. When the boat came, it was not a big luxury yacht like he said. It was a rubber dinghy. And there were no life jackets, which was like a horror movie for me because I don’t know how to swim.

I decided not to go. The others did the same. The smuggler was very angry. He yelled, “If you don’t go, I’ll tell the police that there are illegal Syrians here, and they’ll arrest you.” We were very scared and just ran into the woods. That was one of the worst nights of my life. Everything was wet. When I went into the water, I didn’t even think about the fact that my mobile phone was in my pocket. It also got wet and stopped working.

We stayed among the trees until morning when someone came and said that the smuggler had brought life jackets. We went back. I thought, “It doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve already lost everything. I might as well go.”

We were on the water for five to six hours and had no idea where we were going. I was so afraid that I prayed to all gods in all religions. I thought only about my mother. What would she do if I never called her again?

We made it to an island called Chios, and then I got to Athens. From there, you have two options. The first is to go north through Macedonia. If you’re caught in Macedonia, they take you to jail, make you pay a thousand-­dollar fine, and send you back to Greece. If you’re successful in Macedonia, then you have Serbia. There are army checkpoints on the border, and if you get caught, they beat you and take all of your money, put you in prison, and send you back to Macedonia. To avoid the police, some refugees try to cross through the forests. But the forests are filled with armed gangs who will rob or kill you. And anyway, after Serbia you have Hungary, where border security is very tough.

That’s the first option. The second option is very easy. You pay a smuggler, and he gets you a fake European ID and a cheap flight. You just go to the airport and try to fly to another European country. If you don’t succeed, you try again or ask for your money back.

So that’s what I did. The first time, I got an Italian ID and a flight to Rome. At the first checkpoint in the airport, I gave them the ID. They asked me in English, “Are you Italian?”


“You speak Italian?”


The man called a colleague who started to speak to me in Italian. I looked at him like a fool. They shouted and threw me out of the airport.

I stayed in Athens for three months. Eight times I bought ID cards for different European countries. Every time, I got caught in the airport. I don’t know how they figured out that I’m not European!

In early December, the smuggler got me a flight from Rhodes to Sweden. He said that Rhodes is a smaller airport, which means less control and better chances. I took a big ship like fourteen hours from Athens to Rhodes. At the airport, I went to the gate and showed the lady my boarding pass. I smiled and waited in line. My heart was beating so fast. I thought, “It’s been almost six months since I left Syria, and soon I’ll be in Stockholm.” I thought about it more. “Maybe I’ll just stay there. I’ll tell everyone ‘I was in the Netherlands, but there were better opportunities in Sweden, so I changed my country.’ ”

I was very happy as I lost myself in those thoughts. And then suddenly someone touched my shoulder from behind. “Hey, I’m talking to you. ID card?”

I gave him my ID card.

“Ah, Sweden. What’s your name?”

Why did this smuggler choose a Swedish name that was so hard to remember? The name on the ID was very complicated. I wanted to ask the guy, “Hey, can I look at the ID again so I can see my name?”

The guy started shouting and threw me out.

At the main door of the airport, I started to cry. That was the first time I really cried. I was thinking, “Why did I come here?” I was all alone. For months, I’d been calling Siba’s parents and telling them about the Netherlands. What was I doing? I went back to Athens and told the smuggler, “Give me my money back. I’m heading north.”

I went to Thessaloniki. I learned that you need to take a train to Polykastro. From there, you walk like ten hours to Evzonoi. Then you cross into Macedonia. I set off with a group. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the next hour or the next kilometer. But I felt more optimistic because I was no longer just waiting. I was doing something.

I hope you won’t ever have to make it as a refugee but, just in case, I’ll give you some tips.

We reached the borders and got caught by the police. Fortunately, it was the Greek police, and they sent us back to Thessaloniki. I tried again and managed to reach Evzonoi. There I joined another group of people. After three days, a smuggler got us across Macedonia and then all the way to the border with Serbia. The smuggler said, “Pay four hundred dollars. We’ll walk about three hours and then drive to Belgrade.” It was December and very cold. We were twenty people and started walking. Four hours, eight hours, ten hours. And then the smuggler said, “Okay, we have to stay overnight in the woods.” It took us maybe six hours to make a fire because the wood was all wet. Thank God, there were some smokers with us who had lighters.

The next day, we woke up and couldn’t find the smuggler anywhere. It started to snow, and we didn’t have any food or water. We started to eat snow. I don’t recommend it. We were completely wet and started walking. Near nightfall we reached a small village not far from Kosovo. We found a mosque and it was unlocked, so we entered and slept. In the early morning, people from the village came for the dawn prayer. They saw us and tried to speak to us in Serbian. They did the prayer and left. I thought they were going to call the police. But about fifteen minutes later, they came back with food and water and clean shoes and socks. It was heaven. They used hand and face gestures to communicate that we should hurry because the police might come. Then they drove us to another village and bought us tickets for a bus to Belgrade. If only I’d known that it was so easy! We didn’t even need a smuggler. We could simply take a bus.

I hope you won’t ever have to make it as a refugee but, just in case, I’ll give you some tips. Buy at least three extra phone batteries and charge them in Athens before you head out. When you get to Macedonia, buy a SIM card so you have Internet. But when you’re in a group, not everyone has to switch on their mobiles. One is enough. Use Google Maps. Without Google Maps, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.

We continued: Belgrade, Hungary, Austria. When I reached Vienna, I had like twenty-­five euros left. I thought: “I can’t continue to the Netherlands. Maybe I’ll stay here. My family can tell everyone, ‘Okba was in the Netherlands, but his university was very hard, so he found another opportunity in Austria.’ ”

One of the guys in our group had a cousin in Germany, so he bought a train ticket to go there. The others said that they’d also go to Germany. I thought, “I can’t stay here by myself.” I decided to go to Germany too. I had no money, so I entered the train without a ticket. It was around New Year’s Day, and a lot of people were traveling. I figured security would be light.

On the train, everything was fine. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just take trains all the way to the Netherlands.” Then we crossed the border and the German police entered. They spotted me right away and said, “ID card, please.”

Excerpted from The Home I Worked to Make by Wendy Pearlman. Copyright © 2024 by Wendy Pearlman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.