As Europe enters the worst refugee crisis of the century, Valentina Primo looks into the refugee journey from the other side of the Mediterranean, where smuggling, violence, rape and robbery mark the dreadful beginning of a tortuous experience.
The room was dark. As he tried to keep his children away from the cockroaches leaking through from the kitchen, Abou Adnan* looked at the door. A shaft of light was slowly appearing as it opened, offering some relief from the musty air impregnating the apartment. It was yet another family trying to squeeze in.
About 30 people were sitting on the floor of this crammed room in Alexandria, as they waited for the smugglers to tell them it was time to take the boat. It had been 20 days since they were hoarded into the room, but they hadn’t been given a date to travel, as traffickers attempted to gather as many passengers as possible to embark on the first boat towards the European coast. Then would come a second vessel, loaded with more passengers, followed by a third bigger boat that would lead them to the Greek shores.
Suddenly, a gang broke into the apartment. “They started threatening us with raping the women who were with us if we didn’t give them money,” says Abou Adnan. “They knew that we had come from Syria, they knew we had all of our savings to start a new life in Europe, and they knew that there was nothing we could do; we could not call the police, as what we were doing by fleeing on a boat was also illegal.”
Abou Adnan stops talking as the music around us becomes too loud. It doesn’t feel like we are in Cairo. The coffee shop is filled with people speaking in a Syrian dialect, while sounds from the Levant reverberate from loudspeakers above. A mix of nuts sits at the centre of the table, surrounded by juice glasses, as a man dressed in a white garment and a colorful hat pours a bittersweet coffee into a tiny cup.
The coffee shop, located off Hossary square in Cairo’s satellite 6 of October City, is set in an area known by many as Little Damascus. Abou Adnan had settled down here in 2013 with his wife, his 8-year-old son and his 6-year-old daughter after leaving Lebanon, where he had taken refuge after fleeing Syria. Little Damascus, a once safe sanctuary for Syrians escaping war, now offers grim prospects as the military-led government of Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi reinforces a crackdown on refugees, with many Syrians reporting being fired from their jobs, arbitrarily arrested by police, and harassed by landlords.
Abou Adnan’s job as a carpenter in a factory, where he earned $200 per month, was not enough to support his family. “If it wasn’t for my father, who sends me money from Kuwait, I would not be able to pay our expenses,” he says. One month before he decided to leave, he adds, the UNHCR had also stopped providing him with the 200 LE alimentary assistance allocated to refugees. With such a grey panorama on the horizon, he had decided to set off to find better prospects on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Sitting next to him, his friend Omar is immersed in thought recalling the young thugs shouting as they entered the Alexandrian apartment. “They came several times, so we had decided to hide our money in intimate places within our bodies. They took our phones, but as they failed to find more money, they suddenly took two women away,” he says. “They kidnapped them and took them to a very old deserted factory, they raped them, and left them naked.”
Humiliated, hungry and tired, Omar, Abou Adnan and his family continued to wait in the damp room as five more days went by. Omar had almost lost track of time. Suddenly, in the middle of a humid night, the smugglers arrived. "Yalla, it’s time to board the boat."
Abou Adnan gathered all of his family’s luggage and hurried downstairs, joining the 40 refugees who had been waiting in the dim room. As they left the building, they found a microbus waiting outside, and embarked on the journey without any questions asked. In the middle of the road, as the car speedily made its way through Alexandria’s Corniche, a group of thugs suddenly stopped the minibus. “They took our passports to force us to give away the money we were hiding. They somehow knew it, and they somehow knew that we desperately needed our passports to reach Europe and be recognized as refugees,” says Omar. Aware of the ambush they had been victim to, the families returned to the despicable apartment, once more, as they waited for the real moment of departure.
Time to embark
It was 2am. Stepping on the cold sand as the pitch black night blinded their sight, Abou Adnan, his family and Omar headed to the boat. Since the vessel could not approach the shore, they were told they needed to walk 10 meters into the sea. Just before embarking, Abou Adnan needed to use the toilet. “When I was coming back, I heard my wife screaming, calling my name desperately because the traffickers were suddenly leaving, everyone was running into the water, and she could not even see me in the darkness,” he recalls.
Abou Adnan ran faster, getting a hold of his wife on one hand and his son on the other. They walked into the sea, rough waves hitting them, trying to climb up the boat. His coat and his bags, now wet, made it harder to move and pulled him downwards. None of them knew how to swim. As it got harder and harder to lift his wife onto the boat while holding his children, the smugglers began to hit him. "Leave her, leave her to drown," they shouted.
“I never thought this would happen. When they offered to take us, they had assured us that the journey would be peaceful. They were supposed to be helping us, but instead they were torturing us,” Abou Adnan says, as he mentions he payed $2,000 for a safer boat. His cousin, already on the dinghy, attempted to help him pull his wife up, but the smugglers punched him in the eyes. “The whole boat started screaming in the middle of the darkness, begging the traffickers to help my wife as they were being hit in the back to leave her,” he recalls.
Suddenly, Abou Adnan loses sight of his daughter. He begins to scream, unable to see in the pitch black darkness of the night, his wife now on the boat, the waves shaking him up and down. He is desperate. "Where's my daughter? Where's my daughter? I don't want to go without her," He frantically shouts as the smugglers continue to rush him to climb up the boat. But a voice begins to appear from another boat in the distance. "Your daughter is with me!”.
Abou Adnan has no time to breathe a sigh of relief, for as soon as he has climbed on deck, he finds one of the smugglers with a knife in his hand, asking passengers for money. They take his leather jacket, they touch his wife as they search for cell phones or money to steal. “You Syrians, always dressing good and having lovely clothes,” they say as they open their luggage and steal their possessions. But this was only the beginning. It was the start of a dreadful journey that would end not in the European coasts, but back in Egypt, as the boat engine broke and they were left to die in the sea.
As this article is published, somewhere between Austria and Germany, Abou Adnan and Omar are walking their way to the heart of Europe. Three days after the interview, they set off on a plane to Turkey to embark on a series of boats, trains, buses, and 15-hour-long walks. They know that they have kilometers to tread; they know that they may have to sleep in train stations, underneath bridges, or on the side of the road. But they are convinced that when they arrive to Denmark, Germany or Holland, they will find the humanity they were deprived of.
*In order to safeguard the interviewees’ privacy, their surnames have been omitted.
Photography by Ahmed Nashaat. Translation by Mohammed Seif El Dine.