A met with Khaled* for English lessons today. He is a Syrian refugee stranded in Greece. His English is decent, but rusty. He says that he was more fluent five years ago when he was using it more often. Until the Syrian Civil War he had worked for a Petrochemical company in Syrian. It was a good job. He was married with a son, a car and two houses. After the war started his job ended. As he watched, his homes falling bombs swallowed his homes leaving nothing but smoke ash. As food shortages swept over the land he looked for an opportunity to flee. His wife and son had a passport, but Khaled had a problem. Administrative affairs in Syria were often quite unpredictable to begin with and there was additional red tape in his case. Apparently, several other men shared the exact same name and the the passport was not issued. Eight months ago a window for refuge opened and his pregnant wife and son took it. They haven't seen each other since. His wife delivered a healthy baby girl, but Khaled has only seen her on face time.
His wife flew with friends from a nearby country into Turkey. They were smuggled into Greece and at the time the borders between Greece and Western Europe were still open so they made their way into Germany where his wife had their baby.
Khaled could not leave so easily. Without a passport he had to make his way there in a more circuitous path. He headed North from Damascus into the North Western part of Turkey which is control by the Syrian Free Army (non-ISIS rebels.) He paid smugglers to take him and city officials to let him pass. After slipping hundreds of dollars worth of bribes and fees into the hands of drivers and faction leaders he was dropped off at the mountainous border with Turkey. From there he had to cross on foot, scurrying past armed guards and dodging bullets. Turkey doesn't want border traffic with Syria because of the threats from ISIS and so the no-mans land between Syria and Turkey is particularly ruthless. Once he was into Turkey he had relatively free travel. He went first to Istanbul to try a land entry into Greece, but by then the borders were closing. The terrorist attacks in Paris had tightened the borders and narrowed the immigration policies of European countries just and they induced American fears.
The only option was a sea option. He paid a smuggler 700 Euros to take him by boat to the Greek Island of Mytilini. Interestingly, the price was 300 Euros cheaper for him than when he wife went because the borders between Greece and Western Europe are now closed. Supply and demand dictates smuggler prices and the demand for Greece has fallen now that it no longer offers access into Western Europe. Once at sea, their small overloaded ship bobbed along the waves as they crossed into Greek controlled waters. The Greek navy picked them up and shipped them to Athens on a Ferry.
Several attempts to cross into Western Europe illegally have not only failed, but have been met with stiff resistance. Without proper identification he cannot go forward and he cannot go back. He pays 300 Euros a month for rent, which his wife wires to him from Germany. I don't know how she gets the money. The land route that he took getting here would be just as treacherous to use for a return to Syria and with added risk. If he tries to cross from rebel controlled territory back into the lands occupied by the Syrian army he would risk being shot as a traitor or a spy. He is effectively locked out of his homeland with fewer prospects than he had envisioned when he first fled. He can't go forward and he can't go back. He is a man without a country.
I wrote this blog post in my head as a rode the subway home this evening. After dinner I met some other Syrian friends to play soccer in the park. It was a moment of laughs and playfulness for them. Like Khaled, they don't have immediate options for moving forward, but their prospects are not so dim. Still, they are waiting with no control over their future. Waiting and hoping next to gates that are currently closed.
As dusk was falling we walked to another section of the National Gardens. There are several animals and birds on display in a small public zoo. If was fun to show this little treasure to a young Syrian boy who was with us. He told us the name of each bird and animal in Arabic.
I noticed two types of birds. Some were caged on the side and the top. Others, like them were effectively caged (peacocks), because they were too heavy to fly over the fences. But there were other birds like the pigeons and the morning doves which fly back and forth into and out of the zoo. They are not bound by the fences and are free to move as they wish.
The image struck me as a picture of my current situation. As we kick the ball on the grass, we are not so different - my Syrian friends and me. And yet our futures are vastly different. Armed with my American passport, I can freely pass through nearly any border checkpoint in the world. Like the morning dove at the zoo, I can fly into the cage anytime I please. And in one more month, I will fly home. The fences don't keep me in. My friends cannot leave. The border stops them. In their own ways, striking as the peacock - and yet just as caged. At the border we are vastly different.
The roots of the refugee crisis are complex and the solutions are equally challenging. We offer to pray and we offer our friendship now, while we are here. We offer the hope of an eternal King who transcends national boundaries. Our prayers can cross over the gates, even when we are gone. But as I contemplate my eventual return to the United States I am reminded of the people we will leave behind. Real people like you and me. Waiting and hoping. And pacing. Like a bird in a cage.
* I share this story with his explicit permission, so I have done less to mask the details of his life.