Each of the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled their brutalized, unrecognizable homeland did so for uniquely personal reasons — the regime bombarding cities, the Islamic State threatening a return to the dark ages, the loss of jobs in a crumbling economy. Yet their quests cohered around one purpose: They all wanted better lives. ¶ Some set out on a complicated journey to Europe with a crude graphic — a flowchart of the route from Turkey to Germany — as a guide. In its rudimentary geometry, refugees saw an impossible dream. In its illustrated stick figures, kicking their heels upon reaching the final destination, they saw themselves. They allowed an image, powerful and meditative in its simplicity, to shape their personal stories. ¶ FP has done the same. In the following story, the odyssey of several refugees — men, women, and children — is presented in the form of a nonfiction comic. Each panel is based on firsthand reporting gathered by journalist Alia Malek: Captions describe real events, and speech bubbles show either direct (shaded in pink) or paraphrased quotes. ¶ Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity — how desperate alliances form and dissolve — it is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West. ¶ How long the voyage to asylum would take, the refugees didn’t know; they prayed that they would survive it.
Muhanid held the phone close to his ear, listening to the words that finally answered his prayers. A raft would leave at dawn the next day, the muhareb said. “The waters are calm, and the police are looking the other way,” the smuggler continued. Muhanid, if he obliged, could guide the dinghy, laden with fellow refugees, from the Turkish coastal city of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. The 29-year-old, who had grown up in the seaside city of Latakia, Syria, wasn’t afraid of the water, and he’d heard that volunteer captains rode for free. Eager to save money for the long journey ahead, Muhanid accepted the offer.
After hanging up, he rang his traveling companion, Mohammed: “Get your family ready to go,” he instructed. “We’re leaving.”
Along with hundreds of other Syrians, the two men had been stuck for nearly a week in Bodrum, a place full of docked yachts and capri-clad tourists. Toddler Alan Kurdi had recently washed up on this resort town’s shores. Images of the boy’s limp body, dressed in a drenched red T-shirt and jeans, had gripped the world, even if Muhanid didn’t quite understand why; Syrian children had been dying for years, with little reaction. Nevertheless, global outrage had forced the local police to crack down on illegal departures.
Muhanid and Mohammed, both pastry chefs and friendly rivals back in Latakia, had their sights set on Sweden, a destination they’d selected on the meager criterion that a friend had said it was a “nice” place to raise a family. On his phone, Muhanid had downloaded a rudimentary map from a Facebook page for emigrating Syrians. Titled “The Road to Germany: $2400,” the chart began in Turkey — it listed Izmir as the starting point, but Bodrum could serve the same purpose — and it would become the two men’s guiding light.
Although Muhanid had set out unattached, that changed when he met 14-year-old Ihsan in Bodrum. Ihsan’s parents had entrusted a friend to take the Syrian teenager to his uncle in Germany, but the chaperone had abandoned him in Turkey. Muhanid couldn’t do the same to the lanky, shy youth, who was always smiling and wanted to be a petrochemical engineer one day. Muhanid called the boy’s parents, who offered to reimburse him 2,000 euros for his troubles, and assured him he would reunite Ihsan with his family.
Every Syrian in Bodrum had different motives for leaving home. Muhanid had already spent some 30 days in a Syrian prison in 2013 — mistaken for another man the authorities were after — and was unable to forget the daily beatings he had endured. He also feared being forced to kill in the name of the regime that had imprisoned him: Like other able-bodied, relatively young men, the amateur weightlifter was under contstant threat of being conscripted by the Syrian army, nabbed off the street and stuffed into a car, only to find himself hours later at the front, with a Russian gun in his hand.
Likewise, Mohammed understood the risks of staying in Syria. In 2012, he had settled in Latakia, after his hometown, Idlib, was overrun by rebels and his house destroyed by regime attacks. He opened a pastry shop but soon discovered that his national ID card, from Idlib, meant he was often held at checkpoints. In fact, he needed permits to travel even the shortest distances. He was treated, he felt, as if he weren’t even Syrian.
But he was most wary of his sectarian neighborhoods, who routinely threatened Mohammed, his wife, Sawsan, and their three children, all of whom are Sunni. (Latakia had a large pro-regime Alawite population). In one instance, two men tried to kick in Mohammed’s door. He called the police, but by the time they arrived, the three men were in the midst of a fist fight. The officers told them they could either spend the night in jail or apologize to one another — and seal it with a kiss to the cheek, the Syrian version of a handshake. As Mohammed placed his lips on the faces of the men, he knew that he couldn’t bank the futures of his kids — Sedra, 7; Ali, 5; and Brahim, 3 — on a mere gesture.
He told Muhanid what happened, and over the next year, they plotted their escape, relying on word of mouth and online tips. They learned that they’d have to register their passports with authorities along the way. But at all costs they were to avoid getting fingerprinted — a mark, as they understood it, that would officially kick-start a refugee’s asylum process &mdash until they made it to Sweden.
Muhanid sold his belongings, collected $5,000, and condensed his life into one backpack; his cash and important documents, he kept with him inside a one-shouldered bag. Mohammed and Sawsan saved $18,000 by selling their car and some gold jewelry. Hoping to return some day, they asked a relative to mind their apartment. Then, they told their children that they were going on a family vacation to Turkey.
Two hundred miles away, in Damascus, 26-year-old Naela and her mother used a similar ruse to deceive their neighbors: They were heading to Beirut, they lied, for a quick, relaxing getaway.
Since 2011, when the war began, Naela had watched her capital city disintegrate. Damascus, though protected by the regime, still suffered daily mortar attacks, shelling, and cuts to its electricity and water supplies. Moreover, as an English interpreter, Naela was left without work after more foreigners packed up and left. Unlike other women in Damascene bougeois society — which blamed Naela’s mother for being divorced, not her philandering father — she didn’t care about marriage; Naela wanted a professional identity. As the cosmopolitan offerings that had once been within reach became mere memories, she increasingly felt like an outcast.
Things changed last July, when Naela’s younger sister, Souad — who had gone to Istanbul for pharmacy school, but couldn’t earn the money to pay tuition — called from the Netherlands. Shocked, Naela listened as Souad explained that she’d made a treacherous journey from Turkey to Europe. Souad encouraged the rest of the family to follow her, promising to guide them on each leg of the trip. Unbeknownst to Naela then, Souad had used fake Spanish documents — from a smuggler she called “the Whale” — to fly, rather than walk, most of the way to the Netherlands.
Naela pushed her mother, Suhair, to go. Changes for a better life were bound to become extinct as the war dragged on. Suhair agonized over the risky journey, especially the raft crossing from Bodrom to Kos, but she eventually acquiesced. Her 14-year-old son, Yusef, who didn’t know how to swim, took lessons to prepare for the trip across the sea. Meanwhile, the family began selling everything they owned — furniture, appliances, gold — on one of the many Facebook pages that serve as ad hoc marketplaces for soon-to-be refugees. With the $5,000 they earned, Suhair bought plane tickets to Turkey.
While they awaited a smuggler’s call in Bodrum, Naela and her older sister, 19-year-old art student Maysam, dragged their brother to the beach to practice swimming. As Europeans sunbathed and splashed in the water nearby, no one seemed to notice that the dark-haired boy and his bikini-clad sisters — Naela, a redhead, and Maysam, a blonde — were Syrian refugees rehearsing for their lives.
Around 2 a.m., a van with blackened windows delivered Muhanid, Mohammed, and their charges to a rocky hill above Bodrum’s shore. While the passengers hid in the scrub, men who worked for a local smuggling ring carried the raft — a deflated, blue rubber dinghy — toward the Aegean Sea. Muhanid joined them, the only person strong enough to carry the raft’s motor unassisted. He left his backpack of belongings with his friend.
As the sky lightened, the line of refugees began to make its way to the water, where the now-inflated craft waited. Among the bevy of people were Naela and her family. Told by the smuggler and his brokers to hurry, they ran down the hill, some of them falling at points.
The raft, meant to carry only 25 people, soon held 50 Syrians and Iraqis. Women and children were lined up, supine, on the bottom, able to see the sky but not the sea. Other women sat on top of them. Men perched along the edges. Ihsan was there, and so was Mohammed, who frantically secured life vests on his children as Sawsan spooned motion-sickness medicine into their mouths.
Muhanid suddenly realized that no one had brought his backpack from the hill. But there was no time to go back. He was left with only what he was wearing: a black cap, yellow camouflage shorts, a black T-shirt, and Brazilian flip-flops. Luckily, his documents and money, wrapped in plastic, were tucked away in the shoulder bag he still, as always, had with him.
At the last minute, the muhareb, a Syrian himself, crammed his own relatives onto the raft, seizing the opportunity to get them to Europe. The smuggler informed Muhanid that, even as the captain, he wouldn’t ride for free: The cost was now 500 euros, a discount.
“But I’m going to drive it,” Muhanid protested.
One of his kin could do it, the man shrugged. Muhanid paid, telling himself Sweden wouldn’t be like this; he had heard that Europeans weren’t corrupt.
The muhareb pushed the raft into the sea, pointing it toward Kos’s twinkling lights some 15 miles away. If the refugees lost sight of the town, he said, they should use the GPS on their smartphones. With his hand on the motor’s tiller, Muhanid guided the raft as it rocked and swayed on the waves for two hours. The passengers held fast to the hope that they would make it to Kos — that they wouldn’t become more bodies drowned in the waters that divide the world’s east from its west.
Even if they crested Greek shores, however, their journey into Europe — toward the safety and dignity for which they yearned — would barely have begun. They had yet to face the question: What is the cost of life in exile?
As Muhanid and the others meandered through the Frankfurt train station, they didn’t know that Naela and Maysam were only about 50 miles away, in Heidelberg. The fake IDs the Whale had created for them back in Kos didn’t even get Suhair and Yusuf out of the airport; ultimately, they would make their way to Amsterdam over land. The sisters, however, had made it to Zurich by plane. They then boarded a train to the Netherlands that would arrive in Amsterdam at 9:15 p.m. the same day it departed. But they were never able to join Souad; instead, they were arrested.
During what should have been one of their last ID checks on the train, their documents were discovered to be fake. Pulled off and interrogated by police in southwestern Germany, the women were directed to a nearby temporary reception center, where they were held until authorities transferred them to a more permanent holding camp for refugees. For four days, the sisters slept there on a cafeteria floor where mattresses, stained with sweat or urine, had been slapped down. The place reeked of soured shoes and dirty bodies. The two women were then assigned to another refugee camp in Heidelburg, a former U.S. military base known as Patrick Henry Village. There, they were fingerprinted, and they officially asked for asylum.
With the dream of Amsterdam deterred, Naela began to make the best of her situation. She put her professional skills to use, translating for fellow Arabic-speaking refugees who didn’t know English, the common language at the camp. And she realized that Germany might be just as good a home — free, safe, clean — as she’d hoped the Netherlands would be. Both sisters could study in Germany, Naela could go to graduate school, and Maysam could finish art school. Where and how this would all happen, Naela wasn’t certain; but she decided, at least, that it was possible.
When she finally felt settled, and after weeks of radio silence, Naela picked up her phone in early October and texted the man who had saved her life on the raft to Kos.
“Hello. How are you? How is everything?” she wrote to Muhanid in Arabic. “I hope everything is OK with you?”
The evening after Muhanid and Mohammed arrived in Frankfurt, they — along with Sawsan and the children — took to the water one last time and crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden overnight. Although it might have seemed like a typical Thursday to other ferry travelers, to this group of Muslims it was something more: Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, which coincides with the culmination of the hajj.
Before disembarking and turning themselves over to the Swedish police to apply, finally, for asylum, they wished each other the same blessing that all Syrians say on major holidays: May every year return, and you are safe.