The first time I met Azad was a year and a half ago. I had just returned from the scene of a suicide bombing in the disputed area of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. He was the overnight security at my hotel in Erbil. A community centre belonging to old retired peshmerga had been blown to pieces a few miles down the road by Islamic extremists. And I had trampled through exploded armchairs and playing cards drenched in blood to get my Interviews. It was the same story every week.
“Why would these people still continue to live there?” I’d asked him baffled.
“Kurds will never leave the place they call home, they will never live under tyrants again” he’d said. “They will fight to the end.”
I believed him. It was like they had no fear.
Azad, though, did leave his home. Syria. No longer a home, but now a war zone. He’d deserted from the Assad regime when he couldn’t bear it any longer. Leaving his family and fiancé behind in Al-Hasaka, he’d crossed the border into Northern Iraq on foot. That same week his relatives had tried to cross illegally into Turkey by boat. But it had sunk. And they’d drowned. The only reason he had not been on it was back then, he could not afford it.
Almost half of his country’s population are now refugees.
“Looking back” I asked Azad, “do you ever think the Assad regime was any better than ISIS?”
“Why is it, that we always have to choose between the worse and the worser?” he replied.
He has spent almost €10,000 euros travelling illegally.
“Us Syrians will sell everything we have for freedom.”
From Erbil with the help of a smuggler, Azad made it to Turkey. And a few weeks later, Greece. But one boat ride and a 5 mile trek later he was picked up by police in the town of Orestiada, beaten up by officers in prison, shoved back on a boat and then transported illegally back to Turkey… black and bruised.
Once again, I found myself asking the same questions.
“Why Azad? You made it to Northern Iraq.. It wasn’t so bad was it? Why not just stay there? Why would you risk your life like that?”
When I had visited the region a few years back, Erbil was completely free of violence, business was booming and the region was even being marketed as a tourist destination. Now it’s people live in fear of ISIS infiltrating their borders. Perhaps he had foreseen it all.
It was then, that I realised that Azad is not so dissimilar from the rest of us. It’s just we seem to take every small slice of freedom we have for granted and we underestimate its value.
“I am 32,” he told me. “I want a family, I want a home, I want not to cower and hide from bombs or police everywhere I go. I want peace. Yes I risk my life but if I reach Germany.. I can live the rest of my life in peace.”
That day Azad tried to make his way to Greece again. “Well, maybe today”, he told me. “The smugglers always lie”. I was drying my hair getting ready for bed later that night when I received a message from his dying phone.
He was on a beach in the middle of the Mediterranean in pitch black darkness.
“Plz Theopi help us we r now in an Greek Island name Pasas near Chios. The weather is very bad. We can’t see anyone on the island and we have pregnant women with us.”
I tried to put him in touch with people who could help nearby.
“Has the smuggler just left you there?”
“Yes he just left us. We will sleep on the ground. We are cold and wet.”
In my warm bed, it seemed so unfair that I could hardly do anything to help their situation.
The next day they were picked up by police. I made sure to warn him about extreme right wing Golden Dawners in Greece who would not take too kindly to his presence. Many of them were probably the officers who found him.
They kept them all for a couple of days in prison and then released them with papers allowing them 6 months stay. The next time I heard from him, he was renting from an Egyptian man in downtown Athens.
“We pay €100 each a month. But they put four of us in one bedroom.”
I remember at the time thinking, in the middle of a financial crisis that Egyptian man must be raking it in.
Azad would message from the Internet cafe but leave early because he didn’t want to walk back too late in the dark and bump into the men dressed all in black.
“All the walls in Athens are full of mottos but in Greek language that i do not understand. On the wall of our flat though, it’s written in English: Eat the rich, fight the nazis.”
At least that made us both smile.
Every day I worried about how he was doing. If he’d been detained; if he’d been beaten up; if he’d attempted the next leg of his journey yet.
His plan was to obtain a fake European passport for €6,000 and fly out asap.
“I will stay one more month here. it is winter so walking through Macedonia and Serbia now is too difficult because of weather. No Syrian wants to stay in Greece. I never imagined things would be this bad here. We all want to leave.”
Over the next months he stayed in touch sporadically. He crossed Macedonia, made it to Serbia, reached Hungary and then on Boxing Day last year whilst stuffing my face with leftover turkey, my phone beeped.
I’m in Germany.”
One year had passed, but Finally Azad had reached his destination.
It was the best Christmas present I think I’ve ever had.
He tells me they look after him and that the Germans are getting better at understanding the crisis. There are debates about it everyday on tv. He gets free accommodation; €400 in benefits; he’s learning German so that he can find work.
“Am good I got 1room flat with a kitchen and bath”
Today we have been waiting for news about his sister and her one year old baby. They were expected to arrive in Hungary, with thousands of others who are looking to enter Austria.
They’ve risked crossing borders on foot through Turkey and Serbia.. They’ve risked boarding a rubber boat to Greece. But in Hungary they could risk being told their journey to join their family has come to an end.
It seems strange to me that Azad’s journey like many others’ began three or more years ago but that only this week the story of the Syrian refugee is on everybody’s lips and timelines and newspaper front pages. It took a photograph of a washed up dead child for politicians to say they were reduced to tears, for Europe to stop talking and start acting.
Germany is heralded as being the first country to start making positive moves towards dealing with the crisis.. There are talks of cancelling the failed Dublin II agreement. But this tragedy has been ongoing for a long time as we’ve all been living in our own bubbles getting on with our own lives. Yes action is good.. But for me it’s still happened too late. For Azad the issue is beyond the refugee problem.
“We need to focus on Syria. So long as life there is unbearable the refugees will still be washing up on our shores. They will just continue to risk their lives.”
It’s nearly midnight now and Azad tells me he is over the moon as his sister and the baby have actually managed to make it on a train to Germany. He’s messaging from Rome. He was so worried he had booked a flight to Hungary to meet them, with a change in Italy. I tell him I’m so pleased.
You should celebrate, I say.
“Yes.. ISIS were beginning to enter our city Al-Hassaka. They were about 500 metres away from my family’s house.”
There is a graffiti in Athens on the wall opposite where migrants queue for asylum papers and I always remember it because it made such a big impact on me. It reads “The war is here”.
The war is not just on the frontlines in Syria or Iraq or Libya. It’s also on the deadly and illegal Mediterranean boat crossings amongst those searching for a peaceful existence. Its in the squalid migrant detention centres that force its prisoners to jump off the balcony and commit suicide. It’s in the hands of the smugglers.. On our streets, at our borders, our motorways, train stations and homes and we are all a part of it.
The war is everywhere. And the cost of freedom is high.