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A group of Syrian refugees arrives in Hegyeshalom, Hungary, last September. Photo by Leonhard Foeger/Reuters/Corbis

‘You know the story. Syria is hell.’

A report from the heart of Europe’s refugee crisis

By Andrew Faiz

She asks me to call her Mahad. That’s not her name. She’s afraid for her family in Syria. Like so many others I meet, she wants very much to tell her story. Her story is all she has right now.

I am taking photographs when I meet her and her family in Hungary, a few kilometres from the Austrian border. She had stopped to take her puffer. “How long is this walk?” she asks in a crisp, slightly accented English.

She wears a hijab, and her yellow bomber jacket wards off the raw September wind whipping around us. She is with her husband and their daughter, as well as her sister and nephew. They are exhausted, carrying their worldly possessions in a few backpacks.

As we get to know each other over the course of the next hour, Mahad apologetically tells me her real name. But she insists that if I write her story, I must use Mahad.

Mahad had a 24-year-old son in university. He got involved in student politics and made comments about the government. He disappeared. After a while she was asked to identify him at a hospital. She never did find a body but was given a document confirming he was dead.

Some time before that, her brother-in-law was also killed, leaving behind her widowed sister and child.

Mahad’s husband is Palestinian. That was not an issue in Syria till recently. Now Palestinians are considered dirty and dangerous. The family lived in constant fear.

They left Syria 16 days before I met them. They had been to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. They want to reach Sweden, where they have a friend. They would love to come to Canada, but that seems impossible.

I travelled to Hungary in mid-September with the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Rev. Karen Horst. The trip had been planned months in advance — it was the annual moderator’s tour of international missions. As the travel time approached, Hungary was headlined in the news as massive numbers of Syrian refugees flooded across its borders to escape the war raging in their home country.

With the assistance of the Presbyterian Church’s mission worker in Hungary, and the generosity of Hungarian Interchurch Aid (an ACT Alliance-sponsored non-governmental agency), I was able to visit refugee camps and sites in Hungary and Serbia to meet the desperate people I had read about in the daily papers. I had only one question in mind: What would motivate so many people to leave their homes and risk their lives to travel thousands of miles into an uncertain future?

About 24 hours after boarding my flight at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, I arrived at a refugee camp in Serbia. Just inside the main gate was an Internet station, and several metres away about a dozen large open white tents, each lined with beds, lit by a string of bare bulbs. Nearby, a gully strewn with abandoned clothes, food wrappers and other garbage.

Walking toward a camp for asylum seekings near the border between Serbia and Hungary last September. Photo by Thomas Campean/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I met Hussein al Monsour, 47. He told me he had shrapnel down his left side. He was a baker by trade, though in his broken English he said, “bread technician.” When you only have a few handfuls of words to express yourself, you go with the ones that make you look best and are nearest to your intention.

“Syria good country. Syria dead. Syria all gone,” al Monsour said. He spoke of the bombs and the hopelessness.

When I told him I am from Canada he proudly brought forth his eldest daughter Wotran, 19, saying she speaks French. In our brief attempt at an exchange it was clear to me Wotran had only a few more French words than I have Arabic.

They were a beautiful family of seven — along with al Monsour and Wotran, there’s the mother, Wadha Issa, and the other four children: Guru, 17, Bian, 15, Ahmed, 12, and Majid, 10. All smiles.

The smiles surprised me. It was only later, after meeting many more Syrians, that I understood what that was. They were together on a journey. They pooled their resources, collected their strengths. A little English, a little French, a bit of technical knowledge, a few skills and a great deal of hope for a future beyond a dead country.

As we talked, two more buses filled with people arrived. And shortly after that, another three. An endless stream of families like the al Monsours: technicians and craftspeople, professionals, the big mass of the Syrian middle class, bombed and beaten from their lives on the road to a new home.

By the time I visited the refugee camps in Hungary, about half of Syria’s 23 million citizens were on the run. There were an estimated seven million displaced internally, 2.1 million living as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, nearly two million in Turkey, and another 24,000 in North Africa.

Half of the refugees are under the age of 18. About three percent are over 60. About a fifth are under the age of four.

Between April and August 2015, Syrians filed 429,000 asylum applications in Europe. By comparison, there were 138,000 applicants in 2014. Over 50,000 refugees entered Hungary in August 2015 alone; there were less than 3,000 in all of 2013.

Some traversed the Aegean or the Mediterranean seas to Greece. Reports vary, but more than a quarter million Syrian refugees travelled the seas last year, often in over-laden boats. Some capsized; many passengers drowned.

The tragedies, coupled with reports of unscrupulous smugglers, prompted many to change to land routes.

The refugees I met came by land, through Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. Some told stories of smugglers; most travelled on their own wits following crowds.

A misunderstood statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that her nation could handle a million refugees was heard as “would.” Word spread that Germany was open to asylum seekers.

This gave birth to another wave, which further confused and complicated public opinions. Suddenly it wasn’t just Syrians, but also Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others from failed or depressed states. I met many of them in Hungary.

Reza, a 24-year-old man from Afghanistan, has been living in Iran. There is no work and no opportunity for education. He has a secondary school diploma. He taught himself English and even taught it in Iran for a while. He decided to leave his sister and parents in Iran and strike out to find his future.

Abdul Rahman, 39, is from Lahore, with children and a seamstress wife. There is no work in Pakistan for him. He’d been a retail salesperson for nearly three decades. He left his family behind, with meagre savings, hoping to settle in Italy.

Still, the overwhelming number of refugees are from Syria. I took a quick photo of a group of eight 20-somethings. They had hot chai in hand and were a little over a hundred metres from the Austrian border. They didn’t know each other in Syria, but had met on the journey. They formed a travelling group. When I tried to engage them in conversation, they all laughed. “You know the story. You know our story. Syria is hell. The bombs. There is nothing there for us.” They turned and headed for the next country.

As I watched them walk away, I realized they were precisely the demographic then being debated across Hungary and in Western media — young, fashionable, tech-savvy, educated. While some tabloid media screamed paranoia about young men with cell phones travelling across Europe, other media, including the CBC, ran cautionary stories explaining the ubiquity of technology in the developing world. Still, some major news outlets, including the BBC, used the word “migrant” instead of “refugee.”

The paranoia returned after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, with the same debate on the difference between migrant and refugee, with an added shade of terrorism. Interestingly, the most asked question since my return has been whether I think the young people are migrants or “true” refugees.

I reply by speaking of Mahad. She abandoned everything — family, culture, history, property, nationality — to leave with husband, daughter, sister and nephew for an undefined future.

After I returned home, I called her brother. (He asked that I not disclose any details about him.) He told me his two sisters and their families were fine. They had arrived at a refugee camp in Switzerland three days earlier. They still have a few countries to cross before Sweden, but for now they receive three meals a day and are able to rest. He did not know if they would continue immediately to their final destination or remain in the camp longer. The weather was turning colder, so he was happy they were in a safe place.

He communicates with them regularly via smartphone applications. The travellers have no phone number, but they don’t need one. They’re in the middle of nowhere, between their past and their future, connected by a thin sliver of technology.

The last I saw of Mahad, her family was walking toward Austria. She turned to say goodbye. I asked her, “What is your favourite song?”

“I like that Titanic song,” she said. “My Heart Will Go On.”

Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record’s senior editor. A version of this story originally appeared in the Record’s November 2015 edition.

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