By Tim Greenwald
Thair could feel the frostbite creeping ominously through his limbs and to his fingertips and toes as he swayed unnervingly to and fro on the ship deck of an overcrowded fishing vessel. As he gazed unsteadily from his left to his right, his eyes fell upon staggering numbers of elderly and pregnant women and small children among the 234 other hopeful refugees aboard the boat. His eyes traced unrelenting determination on some faces, agonizing suffering on others, and a palpable uncertainty and panic on all, including what he was sure also his own. Before despair took over his emotions, he reminded himself to focus on something positive, anything positive. At least it was daytime and the refugees surrounding him existed as visible human beings, instead of unrecognizable shadows and silhouettes. When the sun set, he knew the nighttime would bring more icy chills; there would be nothing to dry the waves that rhythmically splashed over his shivering body. In order to silence such thoughts, he reminded himself that Italy lay somewhere beyond the vast horizon and a smile somehow returned to his face.
In July 2012, on a morning seemingly like any other in the town of Jobar, located less than 10 km outside of the Syrian capital of Damascus, Thair awoke to the deafening sound of tanks firing rounds of ammunition and bombs exploding nearby. Instinctively, he hopped out of bed and called for his mother and sister with terror resonating in his voice. Thair, his sister, Hania (28), and his mother instantly realized that the war had reached their town and, to ensure their safety, they would have to flee their home without a second thought. The three of them hurried to a nearby shelter and took refuge in a garage for 5 exasperatingly long days and nights until it became clear that the turmoil was escalating too rapidly for them to remain stagnant. Thair remembers the situation with vivid clarity, “I had a strong pain in my chest and felt that I would go crazy. This war is making a lost generation of traumatized children. I am so angry when I think about this.” So, they fled to Lebanon knowing that they risked arrest, and its potentially lethal consequences, if caught.
When I asked Thair about his childhood, he spoke of his home nostalgically, “My house was so, so beautiful. Once the bombs came, I was so sad they we had to leave quickly because we could not take anything with us. We just wanted to survive. I really wish I had run to the living room, opened the closet, and taken our beautiful family photos. My dad also had a collection of Fairuz and Um Kaltoum records in that closet, but they are lost or destroyed with the house by now. Every time I think back to it, I become sad and melancholic. Will I ever see our family house again?”
As a child, Thair loved to learn from everyone and everything, especially his 8 siblings (6 brothers and 2 sisters) as he is the youngest. He recalls working alongside his brothers in their car shop and absorbing all kinds of information about cars and business. When he reminisces on these times with his eyes closed, the senses all rush back, “I loved walking in the streets of Damascus early in the morning and smelling the wonderful jasmine flowers. Damascus, my beloved city of jasmine, when will I see you again?”
Before the war broke out in Syria, Thair was an ambitious lawyer in the making. While he remained determined to achieve his overall goal of becoming a human rights lawyer, he knew that he must suspend his dreams for the time being, yet refusing to abandon them. Jobar, Damascus and Syria were his home, but each passing day increasing numbers of men were disappearing from his community -- friends included. These men were either forced to fight in the Syrian Army or imprisoned if deemed adversaries of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Thair wanted to avoid being part of their category.
Once Thair reached Lebanon with his mother and sister, he began studying international law in Beirut, but safety still appeared a distant ideal. He caught wind of a number of reports citing violence and kidnappings of Syrians by Hezbollah, which is aligned with the Syrian regime. Thair feared that he would be caught by this militant group and sent back to Syria to fight on its behalf. This was something he refused to do, so soon he found himself on the move once again, but this time he was alone. Thair’s mother suggested that he go to Egypt because she was afraid for his safety and eventually, his mother and sister, Hania, returned to Damascus in 2012 so Hania could resume her studies. Before departing Beirut, Thair bid his mother, sister and best friend farewell as he handed over his laptop and begged his friend to ensure his family’s safety. Eventually, he found himself in Egypt.
Upon arriving in Egypt, Thair reconnected with his Italian friend named Sara after 4 years of separation. She would quickly become his closest confidante and a second sister to him throughout the journey. Thair and Sara met in 2009 at the Arab International University in Damascus and he dotingly reflects on their first meeting as “my fondest memory and most beautiful time. We just clicked. We both truly, deeply love life and all the good things about it. We love traveling, smiling, laughing, and being positive. Most importantly, we value friendship. She really changed my life.” He was 19 and she was 24 and their bond was immediate even though they couldn’t communicate in a common language (at that time, Thair didn’t speak any English and Sara did not speak Arabic, but they are fluent in both languages now).
During his first year in Egypt, Thair resumed his legal studies and began to help fellow refugees through his involvement in a grassroots organization called the Sina Network. The Sina Network helps refugees who are in Egypt. They are Eritreans, Iraqis Palestinians, Somalis, Syrians and Sudanese) by providing them with basic needs (shelter, food, clothing, security, health services) and making their voices heard on a global scale. They also work on capacity-building among refugees within the network by fostering solidarity between refugees and host communities. Thair worked with the Sina Network with Sara on weekends, but during the week he studied in Alexandria and eventually graduated from the Faculty of Law in Alexandria in December, 2013. To his surprise, considering his isolation from his home, family and previous life in general, he was relatively happy. But sadly, pleasure cannot exist without suffering just as brightness cannot exist without darkness.
As the expiration of Thair’s student visa was fast approaching, he began attempting to acquire a work permit for employment in Egypt to begin his law career. As soon as he began inquiring into the work permit process, he was informed that he needed a permit, a mere sheet of paper, from a legal syndicate of his own country, Syria. Thus, in order to begin working in Egypt, he would be required to return to Damascus and, considering how far he had come, that was simply out of the question. Shortly after he learned this disheartening and unjustly bureaucratic piece of information, his passport was stolen while he was on a train from Alexandria to Cairo. When he reflected on the incident, he said, “I didn’t even notice I was pickpocketed. Syrian passports can be sold again in Egypt. My life was broken into pieces. When you are a refugee, your passport is everything you have. When I reported the theft to the Egyptian police, they told me that I was lying and they threatened deportation.” The Syrian Embassy denied his request for a new passport. Despairingly, he remembers, “they would only issue a travel document that would allow me to fly back to Lebanon and then enter Syria, which would have meant my immediate death.”
When I asked there about his participation in Egypt’s pro-democracy demonstrations and protests, he poignantly said, “I have always been afraid of politics because people used to disappear very quickly in Syria if they showed dissent or complained about the regime. When everything started in Egypt in 2011, it was a fair demand from the people. It was a demand for justice and fair treatment; it was a demand for freedom, which, ultimately, is every person’s highest and dearest thing. Without freedom, we lose our humanity, our capacity to interact with the people and the world around us.”
At this juncture, in the summer of 2013, Thair found himself without a passport, unable to obtain a work permit, and with a soon-to-be expired student visa. Moreover, his demoralizing circumstances coincided with the Egyptian Army’s removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power and, with the heightening tensions, Egypt’s “open door” visa policy for Syrian refugees became far more stringent. “Egypt was becoming an unfriendly country towards Syrians. It was fine under Morsi, but under Sisi a repression against refugees started with acts of discrimination, abuse and violence that could lead to detention and deportation, especially without valid documents and I had no passport.” Once again, it was time to move to avoid being taken into custody or deported.
At this point, Thair realized that Egypt could not protect him and he worried for his life and future. Several of Thair’s Syrian friends who had left Egypt a few months earlier informed him of a trafficker in Egypt who would take him to Italy. After several phone calls, Thair was able to contact the smuggler who arranged for a local fisherman to transport him and 234 other refugees across the Mediterranean, promising that they would arrive in Italy within 5 days. “I knew that crossing the Mediterranean on a wooden boat for 10 days could be fatal, but I put my life in the hands of God. Freedom and dignity are the strongest driving forces, even at the cost of one’s life. I couldn’t even tell my family I was leaving because I didn’t want to worry them throughout the 10-day trip. I would only tell them once I arrived…if I arrived.” Thair left all of his belongings with his German friend, Jakob, in Cairo hoping to see him in the near future in Europe. Shortly thereafter, Thair met with the trafficker and boarded a fetid, decaying truck used to transport animals with more than 100 other refugees. When they arrived at the beach, their point of departure, the weather was too bad to set sail, so they stayed on a farm for five days until the weather pacified.
Although Thair was terrified as he boarded the boat, unsure whether or not the Mediterranean would be the last thing he would ever see, his optimism triumphed, “I was really scared, but I had happy memories with my family and friends in my head. I heard Sara’s reassuring voice in my mind and imagined a better, fairer future in Europe for me and my family away from war and fear.” Ten and a half frost-bitten days later, Thair found himself on the shores of Sicily. During those 10 arduous days, Thair had limited access to a filthy water supply and no food. He depicted the scene from his memory with profound emotion – “Many children and women were sick and I gave them all of the medicine that I had taken with me. One night, I will never forget, a little girl from Somalia did not stop crying. I would have given her medicine, but it was finished so I gave her honey instead and held her in my arms and wrapped her in my sweater so she could be warm until she stopped crying.”
Thair managed to avoid being finger-printed as this would prevent him to reach another European country and ask for asylum in a second country other than the first entry country. He then took a 15 hours train ride and reached Sara’s hometown Modena, in the north, where her family graciously took him into their home. As he reentered an atmosphere of security and comfort, he was ineffably grateful to be alive even though he was quite ill. “I had a bad cold and severe bronchitis, and I also suffer from asthma. I recovered in a few days thanks to medicine from Sara’s parents…” To the epitome of his selfless nature, he concluded this sentence saying, “I am so sorry for Sara’s mom as I kept her awake all night because of my bad cough.” Although he was finally in a safe environment, Thair knew that his journey wouldn’t end there as he still had strong-willed goals to accomplish, so he began exploring possible transportation methods to reach Germany from Italy and eventually came across a rideshare service called Bla Bla Car, through which he got in contact with an Italian driver willing to transport him from Italy to Austria, where he finally was joined again by his two friends Sara and Jakob. On June 20th, which is ironically the international day of the Refugee, Thair, Sara and Jakob began the last leg of the passage. Thair recollects feeling “incredibly and sincerely lucky during the drive. I felt so grateful to have friends who love me so much to risk everything to be with me and just make sure I will reach safety. Every time I think about this I have tears in my eyes. When we approached the German border, I stopped talking or thinking about anything. I was just praying that we would be fine.” Luckily, he crossed the border undetected and made it safely to Munich after 7 long hours.
At this point in time, Thair has applied for asylum in Germany and is still waiting to hear back. He has received an Ausweis, which is an identity card that is valid for 6 months, but he still cannot work or study in any formal setting. While he waits, he spends his time steadfastly studying English and German as he tries to discover and comprehend his new home and identity.
Initially, when Thair arrived in Germany his family was dispersed throughout the Middle East in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Lebanon. At the beginning of October, 2015, Thair traveled to a small rural village near Erfurt in the hopes of reuniting with Sara, his brother, Wael (42), and his brother’s wife, Doha (26), along with their 4 children (his nephews, ages 2, 6, 8 and 11), and 3 other of his nephews from other brothers. On October 9th, these nine members of Thair’s family and Sara arrived in Erfurt after a grueling journey from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria. Once they arrived in Germany Sara was halted by the German authorities and they interrogated her as to why she accompanied Thair’s family throughout the perilous trip. She told the authorities that they were friends fleeing a terrifying war and sought her support and guidance. These people had opened their doors to her when she was studying in Damascus in 2009 and they welcomed her as the 10th daughter of their family. When they called Sara and informed her that they would be escaping Damascus under the bombs followed by a death-defying sea journey from Turkey to Greece with 4 small children on an inflatable rubber raft, she immediately told them “I will be there, in Greece, and we’ll walk together into Germany.” Their joyous reuniting was too viscerally powerful for words to convey, but it was of course accompanied by depressing restrictions. Thair’s family members are currently living in an emergency camp. They are not allowed to leave the camp and Thair is not allowed to enter. Always fueled by his optimistic nature, Thair is overjoyed just to be able to communicate with them through the fence.
Every single day, individuals like Thair are among the thousands of men, women and children who are fleeing war torn countries. We must all reflect on the incomprehensible bravery and resilience of these people and take the time to profoundly appreciate our lives, regardless of our situational circumstances or the context in which we currently reside. We must rejoice in our ability to breathe consciously and take a moment to pray for the countless innocent refugees whose lives have tragically been stolen. And to the extent we are able, we must consider offering our help to the millions of people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in circumstances similar to that of Thair and his family.