Monday, 23 April 2018

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From Egypt to the Netherlands, and 2700 km in between

Photo of Aboud Chalhoub | © UNRIC Nordic newsletter  

In 2009, Aboud Chalhoub left his home in Damascus in order to try to find work in Egypt to support his family.

Little did he know that it was only the beginning of a much longer journey that would take him to Turkey and through most of Europe on foot.

That decision kickstarted not only a journey with extremely high stakes, but also a documentary film by director and journalist Matthew Cassel who decided to travel with Aboud and his younger brother along the perilous Balkan route to the Finnish capital, Helsinki, for a UN Cinema screening of “The Journey” in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration and the Global Migration Film Festival.

UN Cinema Helsinki | © Photo IOM Helsinki RS

“I left Syria before the war in 2009 looking for work in Egypt”, Aboud tells UNRIC’s Nordic newsletter. “Things were good, but when the revolution in Egypt started and Sisi came to control, everything changed. Syrians had to get out and the Egyptians caught me, arrested me and sent me to jail for 8 days telling me to leave. But leave to where? I had no visa for anywhere. So they gave me three options: you can go back to Syria or head for Lebanon or Turkey. So I said ok, Istanbul.”

But Istanbul wasn’t smooth sailing either. It started out well: Aboud found work, but things deteriorated when Syrians started fleeing to Turkey as a result of the uprising that started the Syrian war.

At first, the Turkish government granted them a special protected status — but no work permits. Abouds permit was not renewed.

“It was very difficult. We could only work on the black market, being paid ridiculous amounts for a week of work. And there was no way I could go back to Syria. I was part of a poilitical group when I was in Egypt. I found out I’m on the Assad regime’s blacklist. Some friends of mine who were on the list too, went back to Syria. They were caught at the border, jailed – and now they are all dead. All six of them”, Aboud explains.

Back in Damascus, Aboud’s wife Christine and their two children were waiting. They had stayed with Aboud for a short while in Egypt until he was forced to leave the country – and it soon became clear the only way to reunite with his family was seeking asylum in Europe, meaning crossing the border into Greece.

Aboud and his brother were among the first refugees to travel along the route in large groups in 2015, before the route was shut down by fences and barbed wire.

But did he realize how difficult it would be?

“Yes of course. We talked to lots of people. They told us how difficult it would be; to be in the nature, sleeping on the open ground”, Aboud says. “And it wasn’t just me and my brother. In fact, before we left Greece, my brother had ran into a single mother travelling alone with her two young daughters. We couldn’t let them continue on their own, so we took them under our wings.”

The Journey | © UNRIC newsletter

The girls, aged 5 and 7, trekked along the adults during the whole trip, carried occasionally by Aboud and his brother. On more than one occasion the group, consisting of both Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, split as older people couldn’t keep up or got sick, and when families with younger children or adults in less good shape gave up.

“This was during the time when we weren’t allowed to use public transport. In Serbia, we could walk and at one point we were told we could travel by bike. But we weren’t allowed to use buses or trains.”

Luckily, that changed mid-country. By then, most travellers feet were blistered and aching. One man was travelling with a bullet still in his leg.

“The worst part was without a doubt close to the EU border. We were let off a bus in the middle of the night and told the border is only 2 km away. But it was ten kilometers. By foot. In the middle of the night. With children. We were so scared”, says Aboud. “Had we been caught, or had someone malicious crossed our path, we could have been sent back so close to our destination. But we made it.”

Today, Aboud lives in the Netherlands. After having been granted asylum, he applied for family reunifictaion and now raises his already Dutch-speaking children. The young single mother Fadwa,who travelled the Balkan route with Aboud and his brother, made it to Sweden with her daughters.

“The people who are against us, who say we will change their country, who don’t want us to come, they haven’t tried to get to know us. If it wasn’t for the children, I would never have left Syria”, she says. She is now studying to become a teacher as she was at home.

Aboud concurs. “There are a hundred houses on our street. Our family is the only Syrian family. How can I change them? It’s them who will change me”, he says. “If Assad remains in power, we can’t go back. But if another group seizes power, then maybe.”

And faced with the same situation, would he do it all over again?

“Yes. I never had a choice”

 

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