On the road with Syrian refugees walking to Europe

Newsweek reports: In a grim government compound 40 km from Vienna, five young Syrian men are huddled together examining the screen of a battered mobile phone. Beside them is a rickety plastic chair with a glass of sweet, amber-coloured tea perched on top, a vestige of Arab domesticity. This day is like any other: the young men pore over family photographs and talk incessantly of home as they wait for the residence permits that will allow them to start their lives here in Austria.

“Internet and talk,” says one of them, gesturing around the bare dormitory. “There is nothing else.” This compound could be anywhere; as it happens, it borders a quiet village with manicured gardens, picket fences and residents who keep to themselves – a far cry from the war-ravaged Syrian towns these men have abandoned. For the past few weeks, the village of Muthmannsdorf has been a place of surreal limbo, where they wait for the life of freedom they believe Europe holds. It has been hard won.

Murat is an ethnic Turkmen from Damascus, a 28-year-old with striking green eyes and prematurely white-flecked hair. The photo everyone is admiring is of his daughter, three-year-old Aya. Murat fled from Syria with his parents, wife and daughter in August 2012, when Bashar al-Assad’s army started dropping barrel bombs around their home in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Murat knew that even if they survived, he would be forced to join the army and might never see his family again. They drove to Tripoli in Lebanon, where they boarded a boat to the port of Mersin on the southeastern coast of Turkey, and then travelled on to Istanbul. There, with no official refugee status, no passport and no right to work, Murat left his pregnant wife and child in the care of his elder brother and set out for the more promising cities of Europe. Crossing to Greece one night in a rubber dinghy, he began a seven month odyssey during which he entrusted himself to a mafia of people smugglers, risked clandestine border crossings and Balkan police patrols and now, finally, confronts the stony face of Austrian bureaucracy. After weeks on the road, it’s time to wait.

Around 2.8 million Syrians have fled their homeland since conflict broke out in their country three years ago, and, while most are living in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, those who can afford the journey are headed to Europe. I am in Austria to meet Murat and his friends, who made their way here overland from Greece, having traced their route, with the luxury of an EU passport, from the Turkish-Syrian border to Istanbul, then Athens and finally Vienna. At every stop I have encountered young Syrian men armed with their families’ savings and a few contacts in their mobile phones, relatively undaunted by the dangers of capsizing boats, impenetrable asylum procedures and the lack of any common language with the officials and smugglers who control their fate. Many of these men left Syria to avoid joining either the Islamic State rebels or Assad’s army, escaping without the passports that they could only claim by alerting the authorities to their presence – and subsequent absence. Many of them have left families behind. “The journey is too difficult for women and children,” says Khaled, a small, hoarse man in his late thirties. “We barely made it ourselves.” [Continue reading…]

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