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Inside a Syrian migrant's journey to freedom
02:45 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Almost 160,000 migrants have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, according to the UNHCR

Yilmaz Pasha, a Syrian activist, was one of those who made the trip from Turkey, before traveling across Europe

Pasha cycled through Macedonia, was arrested in Serbia, and got lost in a Hungarian forest on his way to Germany

Freyung, Germany and Szeged, Hungary CNN  — 

Yilmaz Pasha’s story is equal parts Brothers Grimm and Blair Witch Project: Cold, hungry, exhausted and tormented by blood-sucking bugs, he and his friends found themselves hopelessly lost in a dark, forbidding forest with no clue where to turn.

This wasn’t quite what he’d imagined when he planned his journey out of Syria and across Europe to safety.

Stumbling around in the pitch blackness, none of them dared to light a fire or turn on a flashlight to help resolve the ongoing argument about which way to go.

“We start walking, walking through the forest,” Pasha says. “We saw deers, and a man wearing some strange clothes and in his hand was a hammer. We were nervous, it’s such a big jungle, it will be so dangerous for us.”

Pasha had never been to Europe before. A Syrian activist, wanted by both the regime and ISIS, he fled to Turkey two years ago, then spent more than six months planning his journey, researching the route using Facebook pages dedicated to Syrian would-be migrants.

And now he and his friends were wandering around the menacing woodlands along the border between Serbia and Hungary. It had all seemed so much simpler online.

“If you need to know anything, you can just go to this Facebook group, there are numbers, numbers of smugglers, hotels that are friendly to Syrians, applications, stories of people who did it,” he explains.

Like countless others, Pasha’s smuggling odyssey began on a beach in Turkey, where Greek islands are tantalizingly visible, just across the shimmering waters of the Aegean Sea.

From Turkey, by sea

Two black rubber boats were inflated on the beach before the Syrians hoisted them up and carried them to the shoreline.

The people traffickers charged $900 per person for the short journey to Greece. “The smugglers, they see you as a euro, not as a human,” says Pasha.

They attached a motor to each boat and asked who wanted to be “Captain.” Pasha’s friend volunteered, although he had never driven a boat before.

“The smuggler said to us, ‘You know how to drive a bicycle or motorcycle, it’s the same, man, it’s easy.’

“The first time we start the engine, the boat goes left and goes right and it was so scary,” Pasha says. “It’s the sea, it’s not a joke.”

Some of the 55 passengers crammed into his boat were not wearing life vests; others did not know how to swim, and clung desperately to inflatable rings as the boat bounced across the crystal blue waters.

An hour later, they made it to the Greek island of Lesbos, where Pasha says they were greeted by “lovely people” – locals welcoming them with sandwiches, apples and water.

Together, the new arrivals hiked to the port police, who registered them and handed over papers allowing them to stay in Greece for six months.

But given the country’s troubled economy, most migrants do not plan to stay there – instead they head further north, to more prosperous countries.

Across Macedonia, by bike

Before leaving home, Pasha had sold everything he owned, including his laptop, to pay for the trip; now he used the money to gather supplies: dates and Snickers bars to eat along the way, and good walking shoes for the long journey ahead.

From Lesbos, the group took a ferry to Athens, and then a train to a town close to the border with Macedonia, becoming part of a human tide, making its way across Europe.

“We ran across the train track to the forest. We waited until we were a big group and for it to start to get dark,” Pasha recalls. “We were about 1,000 people.”

In Macedonia, “irregular” migrants are banned from using public transport but they can cycle, which has inspired a lucrative market catering to the many refugees making their way across the country.

“When you arrive you see people putting bicycles on the road speaking English saying ‘Syrian? Yeah, come. It’s easy.’”

Pasha and his friends bought bikes to ride the next part of the journey, later selling them back for a fraction of the 120 euros they originally paid.

They slept out in the open, or sheltered in abandoned buildings which have become known way-stations for migrants.

From Macedonia, they crossed the border on foot into Serbia in the depths of night, Pasha navigating using a map downloaded to his phone.

Under arrest in Serbia

“The road is clear, you just need to follow the train track, that is your road, put the train track on your left hand and keep walking,” he explains.

“There is a red line between countries, you see? So when you cross that red line, you know you crossed countries.”

But in Serbia they were caught. Pasha tried to plead with the police officers to let them go, but says he was slapped across the face.

“It was so humiliating,” he remembers. “It was so hard in Syria, I just remembered the Syria army the same way.”

They were given 72 hours to leave Serbia. Making their way to Belgrade, Pasha was able to take his first shower in over a week, and to eat his first hot meal – pizza – before a bus took him and his friends close to the border with Hungary.

Like almost all other migrants, Pasha dreaded being caught by the Hungarian authorities.

Few refugees want to stay here, and it is clear that they are not welcome; Hungary is building a wall to keep migrants out, and massive billboards with messages such as: “If you come to Hungary you must not steal Hungarian jobs” are everywhere.

A Hungarian government spokesman told CNN that this was not an anti-immigration campaign, but an effort to educate the Hungarian population about the risks posed by migrants.

‘A better life’ in Germany

But Mark Kekesi, a volunteer coordinator who works with migrants says it only serves to increase xenophobia; he says people yell at the migrants: “They say ‘Monkeys go home!’ or ‘Gypsies from the desert, why are you coming here eating our food?’”

After being lost in the forest for two days with nothing to eat, no water or shelter, and the map he’d downloaded earlier no help, Pasha did finally find his way out, only to be caught by the Hungarian authorities in the town of Szeged.

“They treated us like animals,” he says. “They put us in a big bus and then they put us in a little room, we were about 40 people, I think, we could barely breathe.”

Pasha was fingerprinted and told to report to another camp. But instead, like most others in his situation, he called a smuggler, using a number he’d saved for emergencies and enjoyed the last leg of his journey, through Austria and into Germany, in the comfort of an air-conditioned car.

After crossing seven countries in 32 days, Pasha finally made it to his destination: Freyung, in southern Germany. Now all he can do is wait and see if he’ll be allowed to stay.

“I want to complete my studies, and I want to bring my family,” he says. “I feel like I owe my parents – it’s because of my activism that we lost our home in Syria. And I want my little sister to have a better life.”

Throughout his travels, across the sea and overland to his new home, Pasha carried mementos: perfume – a gift from his girlfriend; a lucky scarf; and something that won’t ever let him forget why he chose to flee …

“I have shrapnel here,” he says, rubbing his elbow. “When I touch it, it reminds me of Syria.”

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