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I met Amr by chance over the internet not long after he had first fled Syria. For the next few years he wandered and struggled in the Gulf region. When he made the decision to go to Europe, Amr had lost everything: his home, his car, his money, all his hope that the revolution would succeed, and even his most cherished possessions, such as the pictures of his father and sister.
“I had completely lost my old life,” he said, “Europe was my only chance to start a new one. The rest of the world would use me, not help me. It was either Europe or death.”
Amr was a licensed physician back in Aleppo, Syria. In his heart he supported the cause of the revolution from the beginning. Eventually, he had to flee the country with his family when doctors in Syria started getting arrested for providing medical treatment to government dissidents. Settling in a neighboring country became increasingly less attractive for Syrians.
Amr resorted to working illegally in countries in the region. He wandered all over the region, everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, but legal barriers made it very difficult, if not impossible, for most Syrians to obtain work permits. For instance, in Jordan, only Syrians who entered the country through the formal, legal process of immigration could be granted work permits. This excluded the bulk of refugees.
Socially, they were ostracized because locals blamed them for incidences when the conflict spilled over the Syrian border, as well as resented them for flooding the job market. To top it off, Daeesh (ISIS) emerged and claimed control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria; staying in Middle East simply didn’t make sense.
In 2014, Amr decided Europe was the only choice he had left. Waiting three years in neighboring countries made the decision to go to Europe more difficult for Amr; trying to survive in the region all those years almost completely drained his finances, and he still had a wife, aging mother and younger brother to think about. He had dwindling resources and no time to waste.
Like so many other Syrians, he turned to the human smugglers for assistance rather than wait another possible three years for an application for asylum to be approved.
Smugglers have profited from the war in Syria from the beginning. Serving military time was mandated by the Syrian government, so when reluctant draftees realized a revolution was brewing, many of them defected and used smugglers to escape across the border. It was not a strange idea to Amr.
He knew sneaking into the continent was dangerous, but he had one shot at making it to Europe. His main concern was the reliability of the smuggler. He depended upon word of mouth to locate someone who would make every effort to actually get him to Europe rather than just take his money and disappear or abandon him halfway there. This is what guided him to choose someone who could take him by sea.
“I did have an option to take a plane from Turkey to Germany but I didn’t feel I could trust the person. I was worried he might just take my money without getting me to Europe,” explained Amr.
“Most of the time I was afraid, not for my safety, but of spending all my money and not making it. I’ve been in dangerous situations before, but I had left my family with enough money for just 6 months.”
Once he arrived in Greece by sea, Amr acquired a fake passport. He tried to reach Scandinavia because of the refugee-friendly policies. He only made it as far as Latvia before he was arrested. He spent 10 days in jail before being offered asylum in neighboring Germany. He accepted and ultimately chose to settle in Germany.
He eventually managed to bring his family to Germany as well. Thanks to policy changes implemented by Chancellor Angela Merkel, his family did not require the use of a smuggler to get into the country. “For them it was easy,” he said, “they now have everything they need.”
“I had to start from zero. It will take five years to become a pediatrician again. My wife and I both suffer from the mental trauma, but at least we have a chance at a normal life.”
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