By Rev. Matt Koerber
This article was originally written last summer (2016) while our family was serving the refugee community in Greece. It is a good example of the first-person experience of someone in the midst of the refugee resettlement experience. Currently, there are millions of refugees that are waiting to be granted asylum. This is one of their stories.
I 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 Syria. It was a good job. He was married, he had a son, a car and two houses. After the war started, his job ended. As he watched, bombs swallowed homes leaving nothing but smoke and ash. As food shortages swept the land, he looked for an opportunity to flee. His wife and son had a passport, but Khaled did not. 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 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 not yet seen her in person.
His wife flew with friends from a nearby country into Turkey. They were smuggled into Greece when its borders with 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, his path there was more circuitous. He headed North from Damascus into the north-western part of Turkey which is controlled by the Syrian Free Army (non-ISIS rebels.) He paid smugglers to take him, and then paid the 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 threat from ISIS; the “no-man’s land” between Syria and Turkey is particularly ruthless. Once he crossed into Turkey, he had relatively free travel. He went first to Istanbul to try to enter Greece by land, 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 as they induced American fears.
The only option was to go by sea. He was a father desperate to be reunited with his family and was willing to take any route. 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 his wife went because the borders between Greece and Western Europe were now closed. Supply and demand dictates smuggler’s fees 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 were 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 tried 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 share this story with his explicit permission, so I have done less to mask the details of his life.
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.