We Met Syria's War Refugees: 7 Awful Things They Told Us
We're not going to mince words here: It's really freaking hard to get the average person to care about some civil war in the Middle East. The news from that part of the world is an endless barrage of images of bombed-out buildings and broken people -- it just becomes white noise after a while. So, your Facebook feed starts blowing up with tales of all the tragic refugees from the conflict in Syria, including the now-famous photo of a 3-year-old who drowned trying to escape the conflict, and you say, "That's sad; hopefully that stuff, uh, stops soon."
What can you do? After all, we just write comedy lists on the Internet; what the hell are we going to do, send over a correspondent to cover it firsthand? Sure, why not. We sent a writer and a photographer out to the Serbia-Hungary border to speak with a few dozen of the 3 million Syrians who have fled their homeland so far. We found out ...
War Fucks Absolutely Everyone
"Basel" told us he is an amateur rapper, working on his physical therapy degree by day. He looked nothing like what you imagine when you think "refugee." He was not impoverished or racked with disease -- he was just a middle-class kid, like a whole bunch of you who are reading this right now. And then, this happened:
"It was almost 9 p.m. in the evening, and Assad launched a Scud missile in the area. A lot of people in my town died; a lot of kids died. It was more than you can imagine. Blood everywhere. You can see hands over there, leg over there. You can see people cut in half. That's what happens in Syria."
Above: Basel didn't rap for us, but whatever he may lack in rhymes he makes up for in street cred.
There is currently backlash across Europe against taking in these refugees, because everyone imagines huddled masses of filthy people in rags, draining the system. And while there's no doubt that war hits those at the bottom the hardest, anyone can get hit. Many of the refugees we spoke to had college degrees, and some were working on PhDs. "I finished my baccalaureate in medicine, and I will study more in Germany," said a refugee named Ahmed. "I brought my documents with me -- I will translate all of them."
We spent most of our two days at the border buying water, fruit, food, toothpaste, etc. for anyone who'd take it. There were a ton of poor and very desperate people there who needed that kind of stuff. But our offers were turned down as often as not. All of the refugees we spoke with were desperate people, but many of them had plenty of cash: Their problems had everything to do with being forced to flee their homes and nothing to do with a lack of money.
Don't judge. If anyone's earned a 2-liter of Coke, it's these guys.
There was an easy way to tell the poor folks from the rich folks: backpacks. Having more than one small bag marks you as a "poor" refugee. One of our sources explained that the refugees with money just bought new clothes every couple of days when their old pairs got too dirty. The road was littered with flip-flops, shirts, and jackets, along with the expected food packaging.
It looked like the aftermath of every summer music festival combined.
Many People Flee To Avoid Becoming Killers Themselves
They call them barrel bombs. The Syrian Air Force will take a 55-gallon drum, stuff in about 2,000 pounds of explosives, then fill the rest with random industrial junk -- ball bearings, rebar, whatever will make lethal shrapnel when it detonates. Then they take the barrel into the sky with a helicopter and drop it on an area where they suspect the rebels are. It will then obliterate an entire city block:
Well, the people we talked to weren't just fleeing those bombs. They were fleeing having to be the guy who drops them.
See, this whole "seemingly endless civil war" thing isn't great for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's dictator. Assad's government has tanks and jets and the backing of several world governments, but their position at the top of the civil war is far from secure. The manpower constraints of fighting rebels and ISIS have led them to institute a draft that even pro-regime youth have no desire to participate in, because fuck that noise. I talked to at least six young men who mentioned avoiding the draft as a big reason they were beating feet out of Syria. Nearly half of the refugees we saw on the road were draft-aged men:
Syria has even begun re-drafting people that have already completed their obligatory service.
One man I spoke with, Hafez, actually served before he fled. And he fled not because he feared for his life but because he was tired of taking other people's lives. For some context, the Syrian government has reportedly killed more than 6,000 civilians with barrel bombs alone. "I was a lieutenant in the Syrian army for more than three years, and I just gave up from killing people. Most of these people ... everyone has a reason for leaving, everyone has a story. For me? I just want to be a human again."
The Refugee Boats Are Literal Death Traps
By now you've certainly seen pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the aforementioned 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when the boat taking him from Turkey to Greece sank. Well, Aylan is one of 2,500 people who have drowned this year traveling that same route. This map makes it easy to understand why so many refugees are willing to take that risk:
Or maybe not -- the point is, that deadly boat ride also happens to be the fastest way into Europe, and the route that crosses the fewest national borders. Over the course of our interviews, we talked to a man, Adi, who was on three boats that sank before he finally made it across ("Turkish boats came to rescue us. I lost my bags two times. It was very costly"). He had been a nurse before everything went to shit in his home country. And by the time he found a boat that actually took him across the Mediterranean, Adi had lost everything he owned as well as thousands of euros. Each boat trip he took contained enough fodder for a lifetime of PTSD:
"There were 62 people in the boat, nine meters long, two meters wide. We had 26 women, 16 children -- everyone was young. No one knew how to swim. ... In Turkey, they told us if there are more than 45 people, don't take the boat."
But he took it anyway, because what the fuck else was he going to do? Wait to get drafted or experience a barrel bomb up close and personal? Getting on that Death Boat was the least terrifying option available, and it still sounds scarier than anything most of us have ever experienced. "All people close together, standing room only. There is no window. No sitting. No air. You must stand there for four hours before it moves. You can't breathe!"
The open-topped boats are terrifying for entirely different reasons.
The good news is, his fourth boat made it! And by "made it," we mean it crashed, but it crashed in the rocks off of Greece, meaning it had technically achieved its goal. The Greek military rescued him and the other passengers and took them to the mainland. From there, he hiked to Macedonia. "I stayed there three days, because I was in shock from sunburn and fear -- oh my god, I can't say to you how I felt. It was like I am not a human."
It's A Choice Between Getting Gouged And Getting No Help At All
While the governments of the world have spent most of the last four years of war in Syria scrambling to figure out what the hell to do with all those refugees, one group of people immediately knew what to do: suckle off of them like ticks on a dog's back. They are the profiteers who know that where you find masses of desperate people, you find a chance to turn a quick profit. You know the rides Adi took in those four shitty, death-trap boats? Here's what they cost: "1,500 euros per person in the boat, with a maximum of 50 people."
That's 75,000 euros to the owner -- even if the boat sinks, he's doing all right.
And the gouging doesn't end there. "People take your money -- take from you 500 euro to arrive in Budapest, 500 euro to Germany, 500 euro to Stockholm. Everyone arrives in Germany and they don't have any money left. I will not have any money left when I arrive , but there is God and he will not forget us."
The cab drivers in the little Serbian border town we visited were charging as much as 150 euros for an eight-mile ride from the town to a staging point near the border. But, in a way, they were the "good ones," because a shitload of people just refuse to serve the refugees at all. On our second day we talked to several employees at a local hotel after watching them refuse to rent a room out to four exhausted refugees with money to pay. They told us the mayor of their town (Kanjiza) had "suggested" a couple times to not let refugees stay in the local hotels or use public transportation. As one source explained, "The mayor of the city said a couple days ago that he didn't want the migrants riding buses together with the local children. They claim the mayor just said what everybody else thinks: They'll catch some disease from the migrants."
"He wanted to add that to the border sign, but it wasn't in the budget."
During our time at the border, two different restaurants actually refused to serve us. They assumed from our backpacks and general disheveled-ness that we were refugees too. The clerk at one hotel agreed to rent us rooms only when our translator assured her we were Americans, not Syrians. But for many, refusal of service is just about the best-case scenario. That's because ...
The Backlash Is Terrifying
Here is a video of a camerawoman for a Hungarian TV station happily kicking refugee children:
Yes, she was fired. But she's far from the only one -- it turns out that Hungary is the European country that's had the biggest hate-boner for these refugees, even though hardly any of them plan on actually staying in Hungary (we wonder why?). Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the following to a group of journalists, so it's apparently official policy: "I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country." He went on to explain, "We do not like the consequences."
On our way into Serbia, we passed some of the camps Hungarians were filling up with the refugees they caught:
Despite the fact that the majority of the refugees are little kids, women, and emaciated young men, the Hungarian police dressed like this:
Yes, that's an extra nightstick on the riot shield.
And they were more than prepared to use that gear. One group of refugees we met had actually managed to cross the Hungarian border at a hole in the fence, where they say they were met with officers demanding a 1,000 euro bribe ("'Give me a thousand euros, and I open the door,' he said."). When they couldn't pay, things got rough:
"Give me a thousand euros, and I stop hitting you."
And, as we saw with the cameraperson above, their problem isn't always the police. This is why refugees tend to travel in groups. "The man here protects the woman and kids," says a refugee named Ibrahim. "Maybe when we go away I will see some terrorists on the road ... not police. Criminals on the road. From everywhere, vigilantes in groups."
Reminder: If you are on the pro side of terrifying already terrified children, you're an asshole.
It's impossible to know how much damage these gangs do, especially since refugees aren't super eager to talk to the cops, but it's worth pointing out that refugees do go missing in Europe, including entire families:
In addition to old-fashioned bigotry, there's just the fact that ...
It's Impossible To Know Who Exactly The Refugees Are -- And That Spreads Fear
Here's where things get complicated, in the worst way possible.
First, one group of refugees we met weren't from Syria at all -- they were from Central Afghanistan. Their leader was an older guy named Akbar Khurasani, who is an impressionist painter. He's actually kind of famous -- we would only find out later that his art is in galleries all over the world:
He had taken it upon himself to lead a group of younger Afghan men (in their late teens) to Germany, before himself departing to Norway ("I see it is very beautiful there," he said. "I wish to paint.") This is apparently fairly common -- refugees from elsewhere taking advantage of the Syrian exodus to join the flood crossing borders to freedom.
Akbar and his group were the only refugees we met who admitted to being from somewhere other than Syria, but, more than likely, a number of the "Syrians" we spoke with were from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, or other conflict-riddled regions. See, the Syrian conflict is super sexy and newsworthy right now, which makes it much easier for Syrians to gain asylum and receive charitable donations. So now everyone claims to be a Syrian, because why wouldn't they?
As Hafez explained, "There are many people from Iraq, from Afghanistan. ... they say, 'I'M SYRIAN, I'M SYRIAN,' and they are not Syrian. I think maybe to get their people in faster." One source even told me how another refugee offered to buy his passport. "He is from Iraq or Afghanistan. ... He says, 'I will give you 3,000 euros for your Syrian passport.'"
Enough for two tickets on the aforementioned hell cruise.
This fact isn't lost on certain sectors of European politics and media. You'll notice a shitload of news stories referring to all the refugees as "migrants."
Calling these people migrants makes their situation seem a lot less serious. "Migrant" sounds like they're rushing to Europe to find better jobs, rather than fleeing an unspeakably brutal war. But the truth is that even the refugees just pretending to be Syrian are still fleeing from places like Iraq and Afghanistan that are also convulsed by endless waves of warfare. A number of European leaders, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, are worried that many of the refugees might not be "genuine asylum seekers." Because maybe this lady is hauling her three children across the sea and over thousands of miles of foreign territory to take an entry-level job away from some Briton:
"Those tears aren't fooling anyone; you just want our part-time data-processing internships."
And then there's the much uglier assumption that lurking within the masses are terrorists bent on infiltrating the West. And, sure enough, here's an article on BuzzFeed in which an ISIS operative claims the Islamic State is smuggling in fighters alongside the refugees ...
You'll find no shortage of people online freaking out about this:
We of course have no idea to what extent that's actually true, but ISIS knows that even if they never smuggle a single terrorist in with the flood of refugees, just the suggestion that they might is enough to freak out whole governments and screw tens of thousands of refugees out of a shot at asylum. "There are radicals; they do cross the borders," says Basel, another refugee. "But those guys, just a few in number, are ruining the chance for thousands of people to get refugee's rights."
People Are Helping (And You Can Too)
Let's give credit where credit's due: Plenty of folks in Europe have been unbelievably awesome to the refugees flooding into their countries. German police in Munich actually had to ask people to stop sending in aid donations, because they were too "overwhelmed" to process everything they'd received. Thousands of people in the U.K. have volunteered to host refugees in their homes. But it isn't enough.
The most common question I was asked by refugees was some variation of, "Why isn't the United States doing anything to help?" One Serbian border guard we spoke with even asked us to "take some refugees home to America, where they belong." The refugees certainly want that: We didn't run into any anti-American sentiment among the dozens of people we spoke with.
One guy was totally ready to be a citizen.
And the truth is, most countries don't open their borders until the citizens raise enough of a stink to overcome the stink being raised by the opposition. While the E.U. floundered for a while at how to deal with the whole mess, they recently passed a sweeping plan that will rehome 150,000-plus new refugees. European members of parliament credited citizens getting super pissed off with shaming the government into doing the right thing.
And yet, it's still not enough: Germany has closed its borders, unable to cope with the sheer flood of refugees. Hungary took a more violent tack and just recently started firing water cannons at refugees and setting up razor wire to block their progress. These people need somewhere to go, and there's only so much Europe to go around.
President Obama recently promised to take in 10,000 more refugees during the next fiscal year. If that doesn't seem like enough, you can sign this petition right here to help pressure the government to do more. You can also click here to donate to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
"I can change my destiny, maybe," says Adi, the guy who survived the four sinking boats to escape Syria. "I hope to find respect. I am a human. I have emotions. I have a brain to think. I am not different from you."
Or, maybe pictures speak louder. Here's a photo we snapped of the baddest-ass little boy we have ever seen, leading his family off to a strange new future in god-knows-what distant land:
That's not a trail; the grass just moved the hell out of his way. Respect.
Robert Evans runs the Personal Experience section of Cracked, and he has a Twitter for some reason.
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