Diana Pinto writes: Europeans, especially European Jews, are used to being treated as museum pieces and historical relics by Americans. We are the object of extensive commentary but rarely regarded as possessing any living voice worth engaging with. I recently had the strange experience of listening to myself and other European Jews talked about as if we were already as silent as a Pompeian plaster cast while reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” in the April issue of The Atlantic and watching his accompanying video chat with James Bennet and Leon Wieseltier. If a plaster cast may be permitted to speak, I would say that Goldberg and his colleagues aren’t describing my reality; the world I come from isn’t already destroyed; and the story of the Jews in Europe isn’t yet ready to be relegated to museums or to antiquarian sites like Pompeii.
The implicit assumption in Goldberg’s piece, and in many articles going back to at least the end of the Cold War in 1989, is that Europe’s Jews, if they had an iota of common sense and dignity, would not be in Europe. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: A motley crew of representatives of fringe right-wing political organizations in Europe and the United States used a conference here on Sunday to denounce what they called the degradation of white, Christian traditions in the West. Their hosts used the conference to advance Russia’s effort to lure political allies of any stripe.
Railing against same-sex marriage, immigration, New York financiers, radical Islam and globalization, among other targets, one speaker after another lauded Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin as a pillar of robust, conservative, even manly values.
Mr. Putin has for some time sought international influence by casting Russia as the global guardian of traditional mores. Yet the effort has acquired new urgency, as Moscow seeks to undermine support in Europe for economic sanctions and other policies meant to isolate Moscow over its aggressive actions against Ukraine.
“Putin’s calculation is that Europe should change its attitude toward Ukraine, and it can easily happen when and if internal European problems outweigh Ukrainian events,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist in Moscow.
“They can make friends with everybody who poses a threat to the ruling parties, including radical forces,” he said. “If the radical nationalists are increasing their weight in Europe, they can serve as good allies for the Kremlin.” [Continue reading…]
Kenan Malik writes: What is striking about the stories of wannabe jihadis is their diversity. There is no “typical” recruit, no single path to jihadism.
Sahra Ali Mehenni is a schoolgirl from a middle-class family in the south of France. Her father, an industrial chemist, is a non-practising Muslim, her mother an atheist. “I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad,” said her mother. One day last March, to the shock of her family, she took not her usual train to school but a flight from Marseilles to Istanbul to join Isis. When she finally phoned home it was to say: “I’ve married Farid, a fighter from Tunisia.”
Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, played as a teenager for Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish football club and one of Germany’s top amateur teams. He went on to study engineering and in July 2013, boarded a bus to Istanbul and then to Syria. “I didn’t believe it,” said Alon Meyer, Makkabi Frankfurt’s coach. “This was a guy who used to play with Jewish players every week. He was comfortable there and he seemed happy.” Berisha later returned home to become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.
There are hundreds of stories such as these, from all over Europe. What they tell us is that, shocking though it may seem, there is nothing unusual in the story of the runaway Tower Hamlets schoolgirls. And that what Emwazi has in common with other European recruits is not so much his harassment as his college education.
The usual clichés about jihadis – that they are poor, uneducated, badly integrated – are rarely true. A survey of British jihadis by researchers at London’s Queen Mary College found no link to “social inequalities or poor education”; most were highly educated young people from comfortable families who spoke English at home. According to Le Monde, a quarter of French jihadis in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds.
What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for “belongingness”, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.
There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomised society than in the past; an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.
In the past, social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organisations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity.
Identity politics has, over the last three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, “radicalised” Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organisations. Today, they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam. [Continue reading…]
Haaretz: Denmark’s chief rabbi on Sunday said he was “disappointed” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call on European Jews to immigrate to Israel, following the double shootings in Copenhagen a day earlier, including one on a synagogue that left a young Jewish guard dead.
“Terror is not a reason to move to Israel,” said Rabbi Jair Melchior.
Netanyahu issued his call for immigration hours after the attack, telling ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem: “Jews were killed on European land just because they were Jewish. This wave of attacks will continue. I say to the Jews of Europe – Israel is your home.”
Kabir Chibber: In recent months, a street movement called Pegida — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident — has emerged from nowhere in Germany, seeking to “protect Judeo-Christian culture” and halt to what it calls the spread of Islam. Though it denies being xenophobic or racist, its leader quit after being pictured dressed as Hitler. Pegida’s rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people in Germany.
And now the group is spreading abroad. Pegida held its first march in Vienna and is to hold its first British rally in the city of Newcastle on Feb. 28, with more planned in the UK. Britain already has anti-Islamic groups such as the English Defence League, a small but vocal force. Only this weekend, the EDL attracted as many as 1,000 people to a march against the building of a mosque.
The Huffington Post reports: Six million Jewish people were murdered during the genocide in Europe in the years leading up to 1945, and the Jews are rightly remembered as the group that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party most savagely persecuted during the Holocaust.
But the Nazis targeted many other groups: for their race, beliefs or what they did.
Historians estimate the total number of deaths to be 11 million, with the victims encompassing gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters. [Continue reading…]
Pankaj Mishra writes: On Jan. 7, the day jihadists attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in France, I was in a small village in Anatolia, Turkey. I had barely registered the horrifying news when a friend forwarded me a tweet from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. “The entire free world,” it read, “should respond, ruthlessly.”
For a few seconds I was pulled back into the Cold War when Turkey, a NATO member, was technically part of the “free world.” Even back then the category was porous: Ronald Reagan included in it the jihadists fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
The words seem more anachronistic a quarter century later. Our complex and often bewildering political landscape is only superficially similar to the world we knew then. Devout Anatolian masses rising from poverty have transformed Turkey politically and economically. I did not dare show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to the local villagers who pass my house several times every day en route to the mosque next door, let alone argue that the magazine had the right to publish them.
There is no disagreement, except from fanatics, about the viciousness of the murderers, and the need to bring their associates to justice. But the aftermath of the attacks revealed strikingly different ways of looking at the broader issues around them: Our views on free speech, secularism, and the nature of religious hurt turn out to be shaped by particular historical and socioeconomic circumstances. [Continue reading…]
Christopher Dickey reports: In a stunning wave of arrests, the security forces of France, Belgium, and Germany are rounding up suspected jihadis all over the map, especially those who have returned from the Syrian and Iraqi war zones.
In one case, in the small Belgian town of Verviers near the German border, two alleged jihadis were shot dead and one was wounded in a Thursday night firefight.
A spokesperson for the Belgian prosecutor’s office, Eric van der Sypt, said Friday that the Verviers suspects were believed to be on the verge of launching an attack. Four Kalashnikov automatic rifles were found in their possession along with bomb-making materials. Tellingly, they also had police uniforms. Phone taps of conversations among the suspects reportedly indicated the assault was only hours away.
“They had the intention to kill police, targeting them in the streets and at their offices,” van der Sypt said in Brussels on Friday. “We had been following the cell for a while but decided to intervene because the threat seemed imminent.”
He said this was a strictly Belgian cell, but all of this is taking place in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris last week, when known jihadis who had been under surveillance in the past somehow slipped the attention of law enforcement, acquired weapons of war (reportedly in Belgium), and launched a killing spree that took the lives of 17 victims, including journalists at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, police, and Jewish shoppers at a kosher grocery.
What is clear is that the authorities in Europe now believe it is too dangerous to let potential terrorists who have fought and trained abroad continue to roam the streets. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in the aftermath of last week’s attacks, said flatly that his nation is in a state of war. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The sophisticated, military-style strike Wednesday on a French newspaper known for satirizing Islam staggered a continent already seething with anti-immigrant sentiments in some quarters, feeding far-right nationalist parties like France’s National Front.
“This is a dangerous moment for European societies,” said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “With increasing radicalization among supporters of jihadist organizations and the white working class increasingly feeling disenfranchised and uncoupled from elites, things are coming to a head.”
Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam and radicalism, called the Paris assault — the most deadly terrorist attack on French soil since the Algerian war ended in the early 1960s — “a quantitative and therefore qualitative turning point,” noting the target and the number of victims. “This was a maximum-impact attack,” he said. “They did this to shock the public, and in that sense they succeeded.”
Anti-immigrant attitudes have been on the rise in recent years in Europe, propelled in part by a moribund economy and high unemployment, as well as increasing immigration and more porous borders. The growing resentments have lifted the fortunes of established parties like the U.K. Independence Party in Britain and the National Front, as well as lesser-known groups like Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, which assembled 18,000 marchers in Dresden, Germany, on Monday.
In Sweden, where there have been three recent attacks on mosques, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist Sweden Democrats Party has been getting about 15 percent support in recent public opinion polls. [Continue reading…]
Der Spiegel reports: Felix Menzel is sitting in his study in an elegant villa in Dresden’s Striesen neighborhood on a dark afternoon in early December. He’s thinking about Europe. A portrait of Ernst Jünger, a favorite author of many German archconservatives is hung on the wall.
Menzel, 29, is a polite, unimposing man wearing corduroys and rimless glasses. He takes pains to come across as intellectual, and avoids virulent rhetoric like “Foreigners out!” He prefers to talk about “Europe’s Western soul,” which, as he believes, includes Christianity and the legacy of antiquity, but not Islam. “I see serious threats coming our way from outside Europe. I feel especially pessimistic about the overpopulation of Africa and Asia,” says Menzel, looking serious. “And I believe that what is unfolding in Iraq and Syria at the moment is a clear harbinger of the first global civil war.”
Menzel, a media scholar, has been running the Blaue Narzisse (Blue Narcissus), a conservative right-wing magazine for high school and university students, for the last 10 years. His small magazine had attracted little interest until now. But that is about to change, at least if Menzel has his way. “The uprising of the masses that we have long yearned for is slowly getting underway,” he writes on his magazine’s website. “And this movement is moving toward the right.”
In Dresden, at least, the sentiments expressed in the Blaue Narzisse have become more palpable in recent weeks. Protests staged each week on Mondays initially attracted only a few dozen to a few hundred people, but more recently the number of citizens taking to the streets has reached 10,000. The group, which calls itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (and goes by the German acronym PEGIDA), demonstrates against economic migrants and a supposed “cultural foreign domination of our country” — whatever is meant by that.
What is going on in Germany, the world’s second most popular destination for immigrants? Has the open-mindedness for which Germans had long been praised now ended? Are we seeing a return of the vague fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants that Germany experienced in the 1990s, when a hostel for asylum seekers was burned down? How large is the new right-wing movement, and will it remain limited to Dresden, or is it spreading nationwide?
So far, protests held under the PEGIDA label in under cities — like Kassel and Würzburg — have attracted only a few hundred people at a time. In fact, some of the protests attracted significantly larger numbers of counter-demonstrators. And while thousands of “patriotic Europeans” aim to take to the streets in Dresden again in the coming days, their counterparts in Germany’s western states are taking a Christmas break. PEGIDA supporters are waiting until after the holidays to return to the streets in cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf and Unna.
Still, many Germans share the protestors’ views, according to a current SPIEGEL poll. Some 34 percent of citizens agreed with the PEGIDA protestors that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Ibrahim’s odyssey has taken him over the hot sands of the Sahara and across the vast Mediterranean in a death-defying, thousands-of-miles-long quest.
Now the 21-year-old from the Sudanese region of Darfur is so close to his destination that he can see it shimmering on the horizon — his dream, his salvation, his England.
It beckons to him, and it taunts him.
If Ibrahim were a day-tripping tourist, a jaunt from this French port city across the English Channel would take 35 minutes in an underwater train. But because he’s an asylum-seeking refugee, getting to Britain means braving coils of barbed wire, clouds of tear gas and an illicit journey wedged between a truck’s axle and the racing pavement.
“It’s very dangerous,” Ibrahim said softly as he prepared for his latest attempt to cross. “Maybe I’m going to die.”
Whatever the risk, it has not deterred Ibrahim or the more than 2,500 other refugees who have made Calais their temporary home. Drawn from the world’s worst crisis zones, they are contributing to a new crisis in the heart of Europe, on the watery border between two of the planet’s most affluent nations. [Continue reading…]
Adam Shatz writes: Before he went on his mass killing spree in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik was a regular at the Palace Grill in Oslo West. He looked harmless: another blond man trying to chat up women at the bar. ‘He came across as someone with a business degree,’ one woman recalled, ‘one of those West End boys in very conservative clothes.’ Indeed he had tried his hand at business, though he’d never completed a degree, or much of anything else. And he was a West End boy, a diplomat’s son. Yet there was the book he said he was writing, a ‘masterwork’ in a ‘genre the world has never seen before’. He refused to say what it was about, only that it was inspired by ‘novels about knights from the Middle Ages’. He did little to hide his obsessions. One night in late 2010, he was at the Palace Grill when a local TV celebrity walked in. Breivik launched into a speech about the Muslim plot against Norway, and about the Knights Templar. The bouncers threw him out. On the street, he said to the celebrity: ‘In one year’s time, I’ll be three times as famous as you.’
This story appears in Aage Borchgrevink’s superb book, and it plays like a scene from a horror film because we know the barfly will make good on his promise. Breivik was hard at work on 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a 1518-page screed exposing the Muslim plot to conquer Christendom. In large part a compendium of extracts from counter-jihadist websites, 2083 was posted online on the day of the attacks under the name ‘Andrew Berwick’, one of Breivik’s several aliases. The signs of Europe’s creeping Islamisation were everywhere, he argued, from Bosnian independence to the spread of mosques in Oslo. Muslim men were having their way with European women, while declaring their own women off-limits to European men. Breivik and his fellow white Norwegians were ‘first-generation dhimmis’ – a term for non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule which, like most of his ideas, he’d found online – in what was fast becoming ‘Eurabia’. Worst of all, Europe’s ‘cultural Marxist’ elites had caved in, like a woman who would rather ‘be raped than … risk serious injuries while resisting’. Even the Lutheran Church – ‘priests in jeans who march for Palestine and churches that look like minimalist shopping centres’ – had surrendered. Fortunately, there were ‘knights’ like Breivik who had the courage to defend Europe’s honour.
2083 isn’t just a manifesto: it’s also the would-be inspirational memoir of a man who has rejected the ‘Sex and the City lifestyle’ in favour of his sacred duty. The leap from empty hedonism to murderous heroism is also a recurring theme in the biographies of the young men who leave Bradford, Hamburg, Paris and Oslo for Syria. As Borchgrevink writes, Breivik’s hatred of Islam didn’t prevent him from proposing a tactical alliance with al-Qaida against the liberal state he hated even more. The desires that motivated him scarcely differed from those of his jihadist enemies: revenge, adventure and fame. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Bird populations across Europe have decreased by over 420 million in the past 30 years, according to a study that brings together the results of scientific surveys in 25 countries. While some rarer species have seen an increase in numbers due to concerted conservation efforts, more common species across Europe are facing a steep decline.
Some of the birds that have suffered the most alarming declines are the most well known species including the house sparrow which has fallen in number by 147m or 62%, the starling (53%) and skylark (46%).
The study looked at 144 species across Europe between 1980 and 2009. Dividing the species up into four groups, from extremely rare to most common, analysts found that a small number of common species declined by over 350 million –over 80% of the total population decline of birds in that time period overall. Rarer birds, in contrast, increased by over 21,000 in the same time period.
The results indicate that efforts at conserving rarer species seem to be having an impact but may be too narrow an approach, possibly at the expense of more common species. [Continue reading…]
Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was released in April after being held hostage in Syria by ISIS, has identified Mehdi Nemmouche, who is also French, as one of his captors. Henin says that over a period of several months he was repeatedly tortured and beaten by Nemmouche.
In July, Nemmouche was charged with murder following the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, on May 24.
The case of Nemmouche raises concerns in at least two ways: firstly, because he is viewed as a fear come true by those who warn of the risk posed to the West by European passport holders returning from the war in Syria who, having been trained by ISIS, may bring their jihad home. Secondly, his violence is being linked to the rise of antisemitism across Europe, particularly in France.
Henin’s perspective on Nemmouche is interesting because unlike terrorism experts who maintain much more distance from their subjects, the French journalist got to know this individual in a much more intimate way: as his torturer.
It would be easy to conclude that the nature of this relationship would make it impossible for Henin to be objective. Maybe so. But I think it’s just as likely that a victim of torture would feel driven to try and understand the mind of his persecutor — especially when they were in the unusual situation of sharing the same first language.
For this reason, I find Henin’s brief psychological profile of Nemmouche particularly interesting.
Henin observed that Nemmouche “came to Syria not because he wanted to fight for a specific cause but because he was looking for a destiny of his own.”
The term “radicalization” appears in the media a lot these days and it conjures up images of empty vessels — young men susceptible to being radicalized.
While that might accurately describe the hapless path that leads some into jihad, there are others — and who’s to say which are more numerous — for whom jihad simply becomes the vehicle for a destiny they were already pursuing.
My hunch is that it is the latter kind of jihadist for whom ISIS has the greatest appeal — that they are pursuing destinies of their own for which they have been provided an ideological vehicle which legitimizes and articulates their visceral drives.
France has about 70,000 prisoners, 60-70% of whom are Muslim. However prevalent the radicalization of Muslim prisoners has become, only a small minority become jihadists. Given that only 5-10% of the French population is Muslim, France’s larger concern should be that so many Muslims are being thrown in jail.
The French journalist Marc Weitzmann recounts how one prisoner describes the system.
Karim Mokhtari, who was sentenced to 10 years in the mid-1990s after he tried to rob a drug trafficker and accidentally killed him with a shotgun, reveals in his book Redemption how easy it is to be approached by Islamists there. “In prison,” he told me, “there are two things you catch as soon as you get there. One is how lonely you are, and the other is how lonely you don’t want to be. So you look in the courtyard and you ask yourself, to which group do I belong? There are the junkies, there are the dealers, there are the rapists, and so forth. And there are the religious. Cleaner than the rest, they also seem to suffer less, they take care of each other. I watched them for a week, then the improvised Imam came to me to ask if I were a Muslim and I said no, not yet, and he introduced me to someone freshly converted — a European — who taught me the first rudiments of Arabic, the first prayers and rituals. And it went on from there.”
After the conversion rate started to turn the group into a force of some sort, the administration decided out of precaution to dismantle the religious group: The imam was transferred. He came to Mokhtari’s cell, as Mokhtari told me: “ ‘Listen’ he said, ‘I’m being transferred and I must leave. But you, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them. You need to keep in touch for that even when you’re out so do it. And if you need military training, we have places for that too.’ ”
“That’s when I realized what I was going into,” Mokhtari said. He was the son of a violent mixed marriage, and his French mother got divorced and remarried to a racist Frenchman who lived on welfare and off robbery. … Mokhtari started to get regularly beaten by the man, who also woke him up at 4.a.m. on Saturday nights to take him along with him on his robberies of villas and apartments while Karim kept watch. But despite an incomparably more violent background than Nemmouche endured, Karim Mokhtari never turned to terrorism.
In the following film, Mokhtari describes his own redemption.
Destiny is a dangerous and intoxicating idea. It empowers the individual by allowing him to shed doubt.
Where there is no internal struggle, conviction easily translates into action. Those pursuing their destiny, swiftly move forward, while those unsure of their destiny, are more inclined to waver, aware of their capacity to make mistakes. Destiny is dangerous both subjectively and objectively.
If we believe some individuals are destined to become to become terrorists, we’re also likely to view them as irredeemable.
The New York Times reports: A branch of Sainsbury’s grocery store removed kosher products from its shelves, it said, to prevent anti-Israel demonstrations. The Tricycle Theater in north London, after hosting a Jewish film festival for eight years, demanded to vet the content of any film made with arts funding from the Israeli government. George Galloway, a member of Parliament known for his vehement criticism of Israel, declared Bradford, England, an “Israel-free zone.”
Mr. Galloway, in comments being investigated by the police, said, “We don’t want any Israeli goods; we don’t want any Israeli services; we don’t want any Israeli academics coming to the university or college; we don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford.”
The war in Gaza and its aftermath have inflamed opinion in Europe and, experts and analysts say, are likely to increase support for the movement to boycott, disinvest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS.
“We entered this war in Gaza with the perception that the Israeli government is not interested in reaching peace with the Palestinians,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university. “Now, after the casualties and the destruction, I’m very worried about the impact this could have on Israel. It could make it very easy for the BDS campaign to isolate Israel and call for more boycotts.”
Gilead Sher and Einav Yogev, in a paper for the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, warn that Gaza means Israel pays “a much heavier price in public opinion and in erosion of support for its positions in negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Along with reports of “familiar anti-Semitic attacks on Jews,” they said, “the movement to boycott Israel is expanding politically and among the public.”
Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations points to the debate over halting arms exports to Israel, which has been given new momentum in Britain and Spain by the asymmetry of the Gaza war.
“You’re beginning to see the translation of public sympathy into something politically meaningful,” he said. He noted two tracks — the governmental one, which distinguishes between Israel and the occupied territories, and the social one of academic, commercial and artistic boycotts. [Continue reading…]
Christopher Dickey: “Can you criticize Israel’s military actions and a lot of its policies without being antisemitic? Yes. Can you do it without having some people accuse you of antisemitism? No, you can’t.”
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…]