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From Aleppo To Athens: Inside Two Syrian Families' Harrowing Journey To Europe

ICE Graveyard 11/04/2016 Jesselyn Cook
GREECE © Alexis Gaglias/HuffPost Greece GREECE

ATHENS, Greece -- Mazd and Rania got married about five months ago in their hometown of Aleppo, at around the same time Russian war planes started pounding the city in northern Syria. Today, the young couple live in a hotel room in Athens, waiting to start their lives anew.

Mazd, an electrical engineer, and Rania, a computer science graduate, are participating in a program by Greek NGOs and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, that helps resettle refugees in other countries and accommodates them in Greece while they wait to be relocated.

“Before the war, everything was different.” Rania says. “We felt we had everything; we never thought of giving up our home. But then, social life stopped. People were isolated in their very close circle. Besides the danger and the fear, it was very difficult to cope in everyday life."

“Salaries went down five times,” Mazd continues. “Before the war, there were no personal freedoms and you couldn't express an opinion, especially about political issues, but Syria was a safe country. We could go out until dawn without problems. Now, it's even hard and dangerous to find food or clothes. You live in poverty and in constant danger.”

The couple’s hometown, Aleppo, was once a bustling center for culture and commerce. By the time Mazd and Rania left, the city was split in two. One part was controlled by the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad. The other section was completely destroyed and controlled either by rebels from the Free Syrian Army or by Islamic State militants.

After the start of the war, the couple moved in with family members in a regime-controlled neighborhood. “The situation kept getting worse until a few months ago, when the Russian air bombings started,” Rania recalls. “There are no shelters, so we just waited in our house for them to be over.”

While their neighborhood had occasionally been bombed before, the scale of the bombings dramatically intensified after the Russian intervention. The couple had to change houses frequently, and felt their lives were constantly in danger. They'd had enough.

A Dangerous Journey Through Syria

The trip from Aleppo to the border with Turkey proved to be the most dangerous leg of Mazd and Rania's journey from Syria to Europe. They traveled by bus, often crossing roadblocks and areas controlled by opposing parties; at times, Rania had to cover everything but her eyes to avoid undue attention.  

They crossed the Turkey-Syria border with help of traffickers, and then made their way to Istanbul. From there, they found a trafficker to help them with the next leg of their journey: crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece.

Finding a trafficker wasn't hard. In fact, once in Istanbul, “it is very easy,” Mazd says. The couple found their trafficker through friends who had already made the crossing. Even if they hadn't been able to rely on their friends, the couple said there were other means of contact, since traffickers advertise on social media.

After getting a ride to the Turkish coast, the couple reached the beach where they'd set off for Greece. They found more than 200 other refugees waiting to board the little boats that would take them across. The trafficker divided the group into boats of 40 people.

Mazd and Rania say they were lucky. The sea was calm that day -- Feb. 23, 2016 -- and they didn't feel they were in danger. Officers from the Greek Coast Guard approached their small boat and accompanied them to the Greek island of Lesbos.

From Despair In Idomeni To A Hotel In Athens

From Lesbos, it took Mazd and Rania three days to reach the Greece-Macedonia border. When they arrived, they were confronted with some of the most difficult days of their journey. The refugee camp at the border was badly overcrowded, and the couple had trouble even finding a tent.

“We got sick there,” Rania says. “They were telling us that the people who got there before others would cross the borders first, but basically everyone would go through as they could. At some point, we were just told the border was shut."

Mazd and Rania had applied for the UNHCR relocation program before heading to Idomeni. They passed their interview with asylum services in late March and were brought to Athens with a group of other refugees. They’re staying in a hotel until they can be relocated to another country willing to receive them.

The program is open to all refugees -- people whose home countries are too dangerous for them to return. Refugees in particularly vulnerable situations, like families with young children or people suffering from chronic illness, are prioritized. While the program has been running since last November, interest has spiked since Macedonia closed its border with Greece in March.

Praksis, the Greek NGO that helped Mazd and Rania, has agreements with more than 15 hotels across Athens. More than 2,000 refugees are now living in hotel rooms in the capital, and another 500 refugees are sheltered in apartments.

“We have been staying at the hotel for 10 days now. These are the quietest days since we left Aleppo,” Mazd says.

Mazd and Rania want to continue their studies once they resettle. They'd like to live in Germany or France, where their family members and some of their professors live, but they know the program doesn’t allow refugees to choose the country they resettle in. Nor is it certain they’ll be able to stay indefinitely in the country they’re assigned to. Every country examines asylum claims individually, according to its own criteria.

The two say they were shocked by the difficulties they encountered on their journey. Friends and acquaintances had said they’d make it to their destination in just five days.

For now, Mazd and Rania will have to wait. It's officially supposed to take two months to complete the relocation process, but in practice, it takes longer. Still, they say they're grateful to UNHCR and Praksis for supporting them through the program.

Rania says she'd like to return home when the war is over and the situation in Syria improves, but Mazd says he wouldn't.

Ahmad And Samia: From ISIS-Held Territory To The Netherlands

Ahmad, an electrical engineer, and Samia, a pharmacology student, lived in Aleppo until just a few weeks ago. Over the past year, they watched as Islamist militants took over their neighborhood and established new rules -- requiring, for example, that women completely cover themselves.

The militants ruthlessly punished those who didn't comply. “If you disobey, the punishment is beheading,” Ahmad says. “The heads are exhibited on poles in the town.”

The couple was eager to leave, but it wasn't easy. “We were trying to get out for months. But it was difficult, as you are deemed a traitor for wanting to go live where Islamic law doesn't apply,” Ahmad explains.

But when Russian and Syrian army jets started to pummel the neighborhood earlier this year, the couple no longer had a choice. Bombs hit close to their house; nearby neighbors were killed.

Ahmad says that out of 20,000 people living in their area, only a few hundred are left now -- either because they can't leave or because they support the Islamists.

The couple escaped the city with their three children hidden under a big tarp in the back of a truck. They breathed a sigh of relief once the truck crossed into Free Syrian Army territory.

From the FSA-held area, the family took a bus to the Syria-Turkey border and paid a trafficker $60 per person for help crossing into Turkey.

“Lights From Afar Gave Us Hope”

Ahmad, Samia and their children stayed at the Turkey-Syria border for two months before taking the next step toward Europe. In the Turkish coastal city of Izmir, they paid another trafficker $700. With 40 other people, they were taken to the beach in a van late at night. Ahmad noticed that two cars went ahead of them, probably to check for police roadblocks.

After waiting for hours on the beach, they boarded the rubber dinghy that would take them across the sea.

“We crossed on Feb. 19," Ahmad says. "The sea was calm, but the boat was very slow. We got in at 2:30 and reached the shore at 6 a.m. While we were at sea, we were constantly hoping that a Greek Coast Guard ship would approach us. Finally, we reached the shores of Lesbos on our own. Its lights from afar gave us hope.”

In Lesbos, Ahmad was filled in on UNHCR’s accommodation and relocation program. He was immediately drawn to it because it was legal -- he was tired and wanted to avoid traffickers and the hide-and-seek game at the border.   

“We Are Being Taken Care Of”

The family now lives in an apartment in Athens provided by the program. “We are being taken care of. The people of Praksis give us food, clothes, toys. They truly support us,” Ahmad says.

Ahmad's extended family is scattered because of the war: One brother lives in Lebanon, another in Turkey, and one of his sisters is still in Syria. Ahmed’s father is also part of the relocation program and lives in a hotel nearby. Ahmed goes to see him every afternoon.

In just a few days, the family will depart for the Netherlands.

“I want us to have a normal life, do postgraduate studies, find a job. Most of all, I want my children to have an education,” Ahmed says. “My son is seven years old and he hasn't been to school yet; the jihadists shut them down. They want uneducated people whom they can manipulate. There are 10-year-old children among them, armed and dangerous.”

“There are three kinds of people among the jihadis,” Ahmad continues. "Robbers and looters, agents of secret services and uneducated, stupid people who follow like sheep and don't understand that Islam is thinking, loving and taking care of your fellow man, not wishing his death.”

This story originally appeared in HuffPost Greece. It has been  translated into English and edited for clarity.

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