Extract of A Step on the Way (from page 50 to page 55)

 

The Boat Journey from Egypt

After their stay in Lebanon, the Khaleds decided to go back to Egypt, their first attempt to leave the country. It was very difficult to make good decisions in wartime. It was impossible to foresee the consequences of their actions. They didn't know where or in what condition they were going to wind up, but they took their chance. On the 5 September 2013, Aziz, Fatima and their children, in a last attempt to escape from Syria, took a flight from Damascus to Alexandria, in Egypt. At that time, they had not yet thought of going to Europe.

As soon as they alighted from the plane, they found themselves in a new, totally different world. Even the Arabic language was a bit different. Aziz tried to show his family that he was in control of the situation. He must. He was the head of the family. The same thoughts were going through his head, “What do I do now? Where do we go? What is the next step?” For Fatima and the children, it was very odd to find themselves at this airport, surrounded by all these strangers who were looking at them. They had left Yarmouk, but what would be next? Now where was their ‘home’? Would they succeed one day to find a new one? The whole family was a bit overwhelmed by the situation. The children were restless, Fatima was stressed, and Aziz had only one thing in his head, “I must find a place where we can stay. A place where we can start a new life. A place where we are welcome. A place where we can breathe and feel free. A place where my family will be safe.”

He did not have the time to set up a specific plan. As soon as he set foot in Alexandria, he was surrounded by many people who all asked him the same questions, “Are you Syrians, Palestinians? Where do you want to go? To Italy? To Greece? Tell me, I can help you. I am here to help you”.

The people smugglers. They were there. They found their customers right there at the airport. In the news, we only hear about the smugglers who are along the Mediterranean coast. Nevertheless, their work begins at the airport. They are well organised. They pick out people coming from Damascus or another place in the Middle East and quickly offer their ‘services’ to the families wanting to settle.

The message is clear, “We can help you get to Europe. If you get to Germany, Denmark or Sweden, you will receive money each month and free accommodation. It is a good solution for you and your family.” When the potential customers agree, they are housed and fed until the boat is ready to take them from Egypt to Europe.

Aziz had to think quickly. Once again, he had to make a decision which would have great consequences. While he tried, after a fashion because of his poor English, to tell me the story of the airport, he admitted the following, “You know, I was not certain what I should do. I had money, but I knew nothing about Egypt. That’s why I felt that the journey to Europe with the help of people smugglers was the right decision. All I wanted was to find a safe place where we could settle.”

Aziz was not only accompanied by his wife and children. He had also taken along his two sisters, his brother and their families. It was a very good deal for the people smugglers. Eight adults equalled US $28,000.

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Aziz accepted the offer and, with his family, followed the smuggler to his house where they were given something to eat. It was the least he could do, considering the enormous sum of money he received. They did not stay long at the smuggler’s house. Everything happened very quickly. Two days later, they were already at the port, ready for the departure. Departure from Damietta to Alexandria (Map 1 and Map 2, pages 216 and 218. Aziz remembers it very well:

“It is D-Day. It is departure time. We are leaving soon. Time seems to stand still. We have started a long journey. We know where we have left from, but we don’t know where the trip will end. We have already tried so many ways. I only hope that this one will be the right one. Let us hope it works! The car stops. Everyone has to get out. We go to the boat. That takes time. When we get near it, everyone seems to speed up. Can this boat really take 200 people? It’s our turn to get on board. We follow and copy the people in front of us. The person in charge tells us where to sit.

Needless to say, there are no seats or even anything resembling a seat. We sit on the deck, like all the others. We haven't booked a cruise. The man who is taking us to Europe wants to have our passports. ‘I will give them back to you when we arrive in Italy.’ What can we say to that? We have to follow his rules. He is the boss. On the other hand, if we do not agree with his rules we can’t do anything about it. He’s in charge and can take us to Europe. It’s not the right time to ask questions or to be fussy. So we give our passports to him.

I am glad I brought so much water. If we are careful with our drinking, it should be enough for most of the voyage. If we are lucky, the trip will last six days, otherwise it will be eight long days to get to Europe. Italy is our destination. Italy is our next stop. Italy is where hope returns. I can no longer look back. I must go forward, step by step. Today, Alexandria. Tomorrow? Who knows? Inshallah…

I have paid US $3,500 per person to the smuggler and now must trust him. I can’t start having doubts. From now on it represents my last chance. I have no other choice. Let’s hope everything goes well.

The boat left Alexandria without a problem. I think everyone knows what is happening but turns a blind eye to it. It is a very lucrative activity for those who arrange these crossings. I am certain they give bribes to the police, so they do not throw a spanner in the works. I do not know whether to laugh or cry. I really do not. I decide to take a deep breath. My body tells me I need to. I need more oxygen. My brain needs a lot of oxygen. It is a long time since I have slept. I am tired, but I dare not go to sleep. I do not want to have a bad surprise when I wake up. My children can sleep. It is better for everyone if they sleep, but the parents must not. It would be too dangerous. I must watch over my family and look after them. The boat keeps moving forward. It must be two hours, or perhaps three or four. I am not sure. I cannot judge the time accurately. It seems to have been an eternity since we embarked on a journey without end to an unknown destination.

We eat our food rations sparingly, in very small quantities. We must have enough for the whole voyage. We are also very careful with the water. But it is not so easy. It is very hot on the boat. The sun is shining and there’s no shade. It burns our skin. What can I do when the children are thirsty? I can’t simply say… ‘wait a while.’ It’s the end of the first day.

A few hours after our departure, the passengers have, one after the other, put aside their pride and have emptied their bladder. It is much easier for the men, given that they can urinate over the side. It is more difficult and degrading for the women. For the children it is quite dangerous. When we have to empty our bowels, our dignity takes another blow. Our privacy is disclosed to 200 people. You cannot hold on forever. There is no other choice. The other passengers avoid looking and act as if they have not seen anything. But there is nothing to see, nothing but an infinite expanse of blue around us. We feel like animals, we can no longer wash ourselves. We feel that we have touched the bottom.

The children go to sleep. It is better for them. While sleeping they expend less energy and need less water. The second day is finished.

On the third night, a man went to sleep and accidentally fell overboard. He was sitting like me on the deck and was leaning on the edge of the boat. It was only the next day that his absence was noticed. At least that is what we think happened. We are not certain. But there is no other explanation. Nobody heard what happened. Nobody could hear anything since the motor was so noisy.”

While Aziz told me about this part of his trip, I had to interrupt. “But how was it possible that nobody saw anything? Are you certain that he was not pushed? I find that very strange.” Aziz was reasonably sure that the man had not been pushed. It was quite possible that he went to sleep and fell overboard, given that the planks forming the edge of the boat were very low. Such an accident could happen quickly. But after? Either he did not know how to swim and he drowned straight away, or he woke up in the cold water and tried to swim until he had no more strength. What a tragic death!

“The fourth day: we have had nothing to eat since yesterday. We finished the last bottle of water today. How many kilometres are there still to go before we reach the Italian coast? Why is the journey so long? Why does anyone not talk about it or explain the situation to us? Nobody knows. Everyone is silent, looking far away at the horizon, praying silently and hoping that everything will be all right.

I do not remember the fifth day, but I know that on the sixth day we reached the coast. It was surreal. Again, everything happened very quickly. We heard the person in charge shout out: ‘Go, jump out of the boat, quickly! Hurry!’ We had not even reached the beach. We had to jump into the water and be careful that our children did not drown. At the same time, the boat had sped away as quickly as it had come, with on board, our passports, our identities. Then I saw lights approaching. I assumed it was the police. I forgot the passports and concentrated on my family. We must reach the beach.”​​​

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