Ammar and Wafaa’s Story

Ammar, 30 and Wafaa, 24, arrived on the coast of Lesvos, Greece on the night of 27th October. They come from the Syrian town of Hama, on the frontline of the on going and brutal civil war, where Wafaa was studying marketing, Ammar economics. The war had put an end to their studies, it had put an end to all normal life. Ammar attempted to open a small grocery store, Wafaa volunteered with a local charity helping the many displaced Syrians within the country. They had wanted to stay, but the situation was growing worse by the day; bombing, kidnaps and fighting between fractions in the city. Finally they could take it no more; they felt going to Europe was their only and last option.

Last week they married. A few days later, they told their families of their decision, they were going to leave Syria. For Ammar the decision was particularly difficult, he was the only son and felt a duty to protect his mother, but he also wanted safety for Wafaa. When he told his mother, she fainted.

“We went knowing these people would be bad, but we had no idea how bad.”

The next day they left Hamaa for Damascus and from there they got a mini van to Beirut. It’s normally a journey of a few hours, but with checkpoints it took nearly twelve. Then they took a flight to Turkey.

From this point they lives were in the hands of the smugglers. “The smugglers treated us like animals,” Wafaa recalled, ”They referred to people as ‘goods’. They beat people and forced them onto overcrowded boats. You had no say on who gets on what boat. They forced people to blow up the boats and push them out to sea. It was like slavery and you could not say or do anything. You were at their mercy. We went knowing these people would be bad, but we had no idea how bad.”

Again and again here you hear the horrific stories of the Turkish smugglers: families forced onto sub-standard, overcrowded boats; jewelry and cash stolen, possessions thrown into the sea; an Iraq man told how they raped his sister and when he tried to stop them, they broke his leg and threw him on the boat.

In fact the first time they tried to cross, Ammar refused to get on the boat for fear it would sink. “Wafaa,” he explained, “has a braver heart and was willing to get on the overcrowded boat. But in the end I managed to pull her back.”

The second time the boat was as crowded, over forty other Syrian refugees, but this time they were unable to back out. It costs about $1200 for a place in an inflatable boat. They are flimsy, not designed to carry so many and the waves often flood the boats at sea. There is no crew; the smugglers choose one of the refugees to pilot the boat, in return they travel for free. Often the engines stall, nobody knows how to start them again, and the boats drift helplessly. Most of those attempting this dangerous crossing have never even seen the sea before.

Still visibly shaken, when I ask him about the crossing, Ammar can only say, “Shefna el mot bi oyouna’’ – “we saw death with our own eyes.” It’s a phrase I am to hear many times.

In Lesvos on average 5000 refugees and migrants are arriving each day, the vast majority fleeing the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, but they also come from Iraq, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia, Bangladesh. As somebody said, “its as if the world is coming apart at the seams.”

Most thought the numbers would start to decrease with the onset of winter, but there is no sign of that happening. If anything, the numbers are increasing. And many do not make it. The figures for those who drown at sea are not exact, but each day there is another sinking, another rescue, more bodies found on the shore. It is relentless.

On arriving Wafaa and Amaar’s boat was greeted by a team of volunteers. They are there for each boat, helping the women and children to shore, wrapping them in emergency foil blankets. There are screams, tears; the panic and shock in the faces of those arriving is palpable. Many collapse, babies blue from hypothermia, others in shock.

The doctors and nurses do all they can, their commitment and work is beyond words, but they are understaffed and under equipped. They are all volunteers. Sometimes the only treatment for a hypothermic child is to put them in a car and turn up the heating. There are no ambulances.

Amy from Human Rights Watch and Marsha, an American volunteer, met Wafaa and Amaar, wrapped them in blankets and drove them off the beach in their hire car. Most of those arriving have to walk. Initially to one of two reception points, where they get hot soup and dry clothes. Those too weak are driven up steep roads to another reception centre, a few kilometres inland, but most have to walk.

On this occasion though something virtually unheard of happened. In the chaos a room for the newly married couple was found, a moment of respite. Maybe it seems strange to single them out among the thousands arriving, they certainly were not the most in need, but it was a gesture. A gesture that meant as much to the volunteers as it did to Wafaa and Ammar, it somehow represented hope amongst so much despair.

In the morning I met them for a coffee. They were keen to get going, ahead lies a thousand mile journey full of uncertainty. From here to Athens, then through a wintery Balkans, whose borders are rapidly closing. If they make it, there goal is Germany.

“We want our children to grow up in a safe place.”

“The first thing I want to do when I get to Germany is to find a job,” Ammar said.

“We want to learn the language and learn about the culture. We want to be useful,” Wafaa added.

Their hopes and dreams are the same as any newly married couple. They want to build a home, a family. That hope had been lost in the vilolence and brutality of Syria’s civil war.

‘We want our children to grow up in a safe place,” explained Ammar, “A place with no violence. We don’t want our children to be involved in sectarianism. We don’t want them to go to bed with the sound of explosions, we don’t want them to grow up with the smell of blood in the air.”

As we said goodbye, I asked Wafaa if this was the honeymoon they imagined. “No,” she replied with a smile, “he still owes me that.”

UPDATE: We have heard from Wafaa and Ammar. They have reached Germany.