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This is the second of a two part series written by 3D animator Ramy Qudmany, who shares the excruciating details of his escape from Syria and quest to reach Germany.  For a better understanding of this piece, read Ramy’s Odyssey, Part I first. 


The fighting had already gotten intense enough where my family decided it was time to leave.  Before we could escape, however, things got worse.  Bombs were now falling on the area I called home and the company I had worked for was destroyed.  The electricity was cut off and so was the water, which we had to carry from outside of town to survive.

One day, my cousin was on the bus headed to work on a road leading the airport that both sides were fighting to control.  As the bus crossed the intersection, shooting started from both sides and a bullet hit my cousin in the neck and killed him.  When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke.  I couldn’t manage, I couldn’t handle it, I just started crying.  Every time I tried to talk to his mother and help her with her sadness, I would close the phone and start crying again.  That last time I talked to my cousin, he said “I will call you back, and we will talk again.”  Since that day I haven’t heard his voice and he’s just gone now.

My older and younger brother got out of Syria first.  They went to Germany so my younger brother could have surgery to fix his cleft pallet, which had been causing serious problems since childhood.  The doctors in Syria were not good enough to perform the operation, but Germany was a good place to be.  My parents and I had since crossed into Turkey and they filed paperwork for reunification with my brothers in Germany.  Since I was older than 18, I was told I would not be able to file for reunification with my brothers, but maybe there was a small chance for me to go if I waited for my family to get their papers verified first.  After waiting about a year, my parent’s request was granted and they moved to Germany.  I was alone.

The situation in Turkey turned out to be not much better than in Syria.  First, there were protests which started over the destruction of trees in a park to make a building.  They continued after a kid buying a piece of bread was killed.  Explosions started to happen from time to time in Istanbul, where I was living.

I started to think that the situation in Turkey would turn into what was happening in Syria.  I wanted to leave, but since I was over 18, I couldn’t be granted official family reunification.

Things got more difficult as time went on.  Turkey prohibits Syrians from working; we are strictly in the country as guests and not given the right to have a job.  We still need to support our families, pay rent and the other bills, but are not allowed to legally work.  If you go to work with a company in Turkey, you have to take the job without a contract, which every company then uses as an opportunity to take advantage of you.  Myself and many people I know were cheated out of months and years of pay, but since there is no contract, we can’t even sue them.

My family had sent news that my father’s declining health had gotten worse and he needed heart surgery immediately.  As the doctors said the chance of success was 20%, I felt myself lose my mind.  Being stuck so far away in Turkey which was getting worse and more dangerous, all I wanted to do was see my father and stay with him for as long as we have time for.

I tried to get to Europe the proper way by finding a job and getting sponsored for a visa.  Many companies saw my 3D animation work online and invited me to join their team.  However, once they found out I was Syrian, they said they could not get me a visa because of the current situation.

I decided to take my last option to reach my family, which meant first taking a boat to Greece.  What I didn’t expect was the horrible accident that almost left me dead, sinking in the sea.

I was with a group of 12 other people who I had met just the day before the trip.  We stayed in one house until late in the night when we could make our crossing.  I remember going to the living room seeing bodies sleeping all over the place.  A four year old, sweet little angel was sitting on the floor in the glow of the TV, bored by the news being broadcast.  I changed the channel to cartoons and I brought a soft blanket to keep her warm on the cold floor as I ruffled her hair before I went to sleep.

At about 1:00am, smugglers took us to the location where the fast boat would arrive to take us to a Greek Island.  When the boat arrived, it was something like 5 meters long, but the deal we made was for a large jetboat, so everyone thought this one would take us to another bigger one that was too big to get to this beach.  At the same time, the guy who was holding the life jackets before we were switched from one car to another told us he lost them on the way.  He said it would be no problem because the trip to Greece was just a safe 35 minutes away that many people before us made in the same way.

We got in the boat and as we started moving toward the Greek Island, we realized we weren’t going to a bigger boat, which everyone thought was okay since the sea was calm.  I was sitting in the middle on the left hand side; next to me was the family of that little girl I gave the blanket to.  The mother was sitting next to me holding her son and the husband was holding his daughter, both of the kids were still sleeping.

As the boat moved along with no problem, I noticed how amazing the stars were in the sky without any city light around.  When the boat got into Greek waters, the waves grew bigger and bigger with about 5cm of water splashing in the bottom of the boat.  I remember thinking what a long distance we had traveled from Turkey.  We were already one and a half hours from the coast and could not yet see Greece in the darkness.  What would happen if the boat flipped? I knew how to swim, but I knew I couldn’t swim that distance and I worried for the families and their children.  I hoped nothing would happen and we would arrive safely.

As the waves continued to grow, one hit the boat and lifted us halfway into the air as another one hit that knocked us upside down.  Without even having the chance to take a breath and prepare myself, I was under water.  Everything was dark and I felt something above my shoulder forcing me under, preventing me from reaching the surface.  I swam to the side to break free and got my head above water to hear everyone screaming for help.

The mother of two was floating shoulder to shoulder with her husband far on the other side of the flipped boat, screaming, “My two children are still under the boat!”  The boat was half sinking with only the front part floating above the water.  I held onto the corner of the boat and tried to swipe my other hand underneath, searching for the children.  I moved my hand randomly through the water and grasped tightly when I caught something.  It was the little four year old girl I had grabbed.  She wasn’t moving, but I thought she was still alive, just unconscious. I pulled her into me.

I reached down to take off my shoes because they were slowing down my leg movements to tread water.  The boat completely sank and people holding on to it to stay afloat were separated by big waves.  Something hit me that I thought was a floating plastic bag which I caught in my right hand.  It was the surprise of a lifetime: a life jacket.  I didn’t know where it came from as I knew we didn’t have any life jackets on the boat, but I kept it in my right hand and the little girl in my left.

I heard the screams of people this whole time, but we were too far apart to see each other.  I thought how pointless it would be to stay and scream for help since there were no boats or ships around us.  I decided to swim toward Greece.  I knew I could never make it that far, but I was trying to convince myself to be hopeful that maybe I would come across some fishing boats out early in the morning who would rescue us.

My movement seemed hopelessly slow as I was swimming by just using my legs since my hands were occupied and the waves kept crashing against me.  The screams for help became less and less as I started to feel scared of a shark of jellyfish attack.  I knew the sea was full of jellyfish, but I wasn’t sure about sharks.

After almost two hours, I got tired and almost gave up.  I thought about the little girl in my hand and knew I had to hold her up and stay alive for her.  However when the morning sun rose, I could see her face and lips were totally blue.  I was so broken-hearted and disappointed in myself that I wasn’t fast enough to pull her from under the boat.

I had failed this little angel and her mother whom I was so sorry for.  I couldn’t let her go even after I knew she was dead.  I felt like a disgusting human being and became overwhelmed in the moment with self-hate.  I thought if I was going to die here, I would prefer this little angel next to me so I didn’t have to die alone.

Every time I was trying to get a little rest and just keep floating, the waves would change direction and drag me back into the open sea making me lose hope that any boat would find me. I was trying to keep swimming, but every muscle in my body was hurting and my knees were in the most pain.

The water was cold and I fought the overwhelming urge to fall asleep, remembering that if you fall asleep in cold weather, you will die.  I kept moving my legs to warm up my blood and refused to surrender to sleep.  Even if I fell asleep for a second and woke up as I went underwater, I would lose the life jacket.

I struggled back and forth between life and death.  My body was so tired and in so much pain, I thought about just letting it sink.  I thought this was the end.  But the fear of choking on water in my lungs made me hold on to life.  I saw a small ship coming towards me that was close enough where I started screaming and using my legs to make splashes on the surface.  I thought he saw me as the ship appeared to stop a little bit, but then kept moving as I was swimming towards it.

“Maybe there is a law not allowing any ship to rescues sinking people” I thought to myself as I watched my last hope float away.  I had just used all my body power to signal this ship and again accepted my death.  As I was ready to let go, another ship came by that was close enough to see two guys standing on it.  I yelled to them with my throat hurting, but they didn’t see me.

No one was going to see me here.  My mind became filled with desperate questions.  “Why did this happen to me? Why? Why I should die like this? What have I done to the world to deserve this end? I had never hurt anyone in my life.  I was always trying to help people and wished happiness to everyone.  Is this how the world pays me back, for me to die like this?

Just then, I looked to my right and I saw a ship coming towards me.  One last time, I started to scream again and they waved to me that they saw me.  It was the rescue team, finally I was safe.  My misery ended immediately as finally this hell moment I was living, was over.  My feelings of happiness at that point were immeasurable.  Even when I knew I would be rescued, I started screaming.  I tried to calm down, but my feelings of happiness were immeasurable.

They threw me a rope that I had to let go of the life jacket to catch with my right hand.  They told me to lift the body of the little girl up to them, but my body was in too much pain to move my arm.  A man from the ship came halfway down the metal stairs to pull me aboard, telling me that the little girl was dead as he also pulled her aboard.

Three guys that were with me on the boat from Turkey were already on this military rescue ship.  Without life jackets, they continued swimming toward the island and were picked up by this ship 2km out.  The men told the ship’s crew about the others which they then went searching for.  When they rescued me, I was about 5-6km away from the island.

On the ship now headed to Greece, I saw another guy and his wife from our boat standing on the deck of the trading ship that rescued them.  They had two life jackets that they had bought themselves, but hadn’t been wearing when the boat flipped.  I later found out that the husband kept one of the jackets with him and threw the other to the nearest guy to him, which turned out to be me.

When they were in the water, they were both stung by jellyfish.  The man just got a little sting, but his wife had huge burns covering the whole of her chest.  She was suffering in pain and still bleeding from it two weeks after she was stung.  I used to go with them to the hospital many times during the day or the middle of the night to help translate from Arabic to English for the doctors.

In the end, seven people died, including the whole family of the little girl.  Three other men also died.  Only six survived.

Even now, I have flashbacks every night.  When I see the scar on my left arm where the clothes of the little angel scratched against my arm for eight hours in the water, I start crying.  I remember the voice of her mother screaming in my ears and feel heavy pain that I failed them.  I don’t know what I have done to the world to deserve all this pain in my life, but I just hope I have the chance to see my father in Germany before it’s too late.

Two days before I sat down to write this, I got a message that he was in the hospital and they discovered a cancer in his lungs.  Here I am stuck in Greece, desperate and heart-broken as his final days tick away in Germany.

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Leaning on the chai station barricade in 112 degree heat at Kara Tepe, Ramy endures the daily frustration of an unknown waiting period. August 9, 2016 [Photo Credit: Basil]

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They had been in Turkey since 2012, waiting to make their crossing.  After fleeing the violence in Syria shortly after it broke out large scale in 2011, they crossed borders to prepare to make it into Europe with hopes for a better life.

For whatever reason after four years, they decided today was the day they were going to make it to Greece.  Sometimes people need to save up enough money for the passage, other times they have tried several times, but had to turn back because the boat capsized early on in the trip.  The latter was the case with a Syrian living and working in Turkey who is friends with one of our volunteers, Aysegul, who also lives in Turkey.  He has tried to cross the thin stretch of water to get to Lesvos an incredible 5 times now, having to turn back each time as the waves were too powerful.  When Aysegul asked him why he would take such a big risk when he had a job and good life now in Turkey, he replied that the life in Europe was the good life.  He said that the doors of passage were open now and no one knows for how long so if he doesn’t try to get in now, the opportunity might be lost forever.  This is the permeating thought even though Europe has closed its borders and effectively slammed tight the “doors of passage.” Much of the flowery freedom talk of Europe persists because of lies smugglers tell to rob people of their money.

Part of me thinks that the migration attempts of the people I met today were thwarted several times to lead to such desperation as what comes next.  Thirteen of them loaded into a three meter long wooden boat and left for Greece under the cover of darkness at 1am so as to not get caught.  From what I hear, Turkey has recently closed down two rubber dinghy manufacturing facilities as a means to stop migrations and appease the EU.  This has only led to people taking on more risk and more water in extremely dangerous and unreliable wooden boats. Forty-five minutes in, high waves flipped this group’s boat, trapping a family underneath and instantly killing one of several children on board.  Only two of the thirteen passengers had lifejackets, yet rather than swim back to Turkey which was significantly closer (as the crossing takes an average of 3 ½ hours), they decided to swim approximately 7 kilometers to the southern shore of Lesvos.  I can’t imagine what it takes to physically complete a swim of 9 hours with no flotation device, or what mentally sustained such a feat.  What was life like in Syria to facilitate the decision to flee at all costs? What were the last four years of waiting, hoping, and planning like in Turkey? How could things be so bad that you wouldn’t just turn around and swim back to Turkey?

I felt the desperation that night when survivors of that wreck arrived in camp around 9pm as part of a group of around 20 that been released from the closed processing station/camp up the road, Moria, and passed along to us.  Everyone could feel the pain, the guilt, the heavy heart retching mix of negative emotions that twisted our stomachs upon just seeing the body language and faces of the group that showed up.  Their suffering was palpable and accordingly, all the volunteers snapped to action to get them what they needed.  UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) had driven them to us and acted as a liaison and advocate for their needs while IRC (International Relief Commission), including a psychologist stayed with them and helped translate as they settled in.  There was a mix of English, French, Turkish and Arabic being spoken with everyone knowing some, yet varying levels of each.

We sat them down in our clothing area and asked them what they needed as a handful of volunteers scurried back and forth to the storage container behind us, trying to find something that they could feel good about and maybe ease their pain for just a short second.  I was able to find flip-flops in the right size for everyone in the first family and T-shirts with borderline inappropriate images for two girls in their early twenties. I felt a strange surge of pride when I overheard a new volunteer arguing with a veteran after the greenhorn had the courage to tell the vet it wasn’t appropriate for her to say things like, “This isn’t a fashion shop, just take what I show you.”  Clothing is stressful for all involved, but taking time to breath, reflect and understand where our customers are coming from, there is no reason we can’t meet them with a good attitude and infuse some magic into this shitty form of shopping.

I spent the rest of my time focusing on a bright-eyed 6 year old boy whose hair was puffed out straight on all sides like he had used a hair dryer to make it fluff.  I found him every single piece of clothing on our list which is quite unheard of.  I helped him try on a nice pair of cargo pants that went well with his new yellow athletic shirt.  He didn’t need a belt, but asked for one anyway.  I was happy to hunt down the only one I have ever seen in our container…taken off a pair of teenage girl’s jeans.  We high-fived several times during the session and when I saw him bouncing around camp a couple hours later, he came running up to me and asked me for a cappuccino.  What? Why would I have a cappuccino?  It’s 11:30 at night! That was my exact reaction to him.  We laughed, hugged it out and went on our separate ways.

Some people who arrived that day were rightfully exhausted and just went to their newly assigned housing unit and slept.  Others chose to shower first and change into the gently used clothes we gave them. We tried to make sure everyone got food.  The look of being lost and scared was the same on all of their faces.  Aysegul and I were on night shift, so we loaded up a bin with food to deliver to the new arrivals.  We cried together on the walk in between meeting each new resident at their housing unit.  We brought them okra and potatoes in a red sauce, still warm from dinner service, bread and yogurt, vegetables left over from lunch, crackers, raisins, orange drink, bottles of water and cups.  We offered as much as they wanted to take, with everyone knowing the calories torched during a nine hour swim needed to be replenished as soon as possible.

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Even at moderate treading for 9 hours, the calorie deficit is extreme.  This also does not take into account calories required for your body to warm itself and maintain homeostasis.  Source: fittipdaily.com

Everyone was kind and appreciative, but all were doing the thousand yard stare.  I met Rami who spoke excellent English as I checked in on his roommate who was shirtless and staring up at the ceiling with one arm raised and hand rubbing his head.  I asked them to please take some extra food to eat.  Rami instantly snapped into a narrative. “I thought I could save her,” he said of the little girl he swam with in his arms for nine hours, “but she was already dead.”  I tried to hold back the tears forcing their way out at the sight of a broken man describing an impossible journey.  He told me that two men swam ahead and made it to shore in 6 hours to notify authorities and get help.  A whole family died, two parents, two children.  Four more ended up in the hospital. As Rami moved his hand up to run over the top his head, the way people do when stressed, I just hugged him.  I didn’t know if it was culturally acceptable and I was dripping in sweat, but I pulled this 5’7” hairy man sweating with the intensity of the day into my body and just held him tight for a couple seconds.  I told him we were so happy to have him at Kara Tepe and that I was so happy he made it to us.  In the absence of knowing what to really say or do, I just told him that if he needed anything, even beyond what was provided at camp, to just let me know.  As we parted, he simply said, “Thank you, my friend.  You are the best.”

One couple who had just arrived was sitting outside of their housing unit when Aysegul and I showed up with food.  She asked them in Turkish if everything was ok, and the woman said she was scared that there might be spiders inside.  I gave the man my cellphone light to use as he went in and searched, reassuring his wife that after 9 hours treading in the ocean towards Greece, that the unit was spider free.  He laid a UNHCR wool blanket over their 6” foam mattresses on the ground and prepared to sleep. The wife was still a little uneasy about bugs, so we helped them haphazardly string up a standard issue mosquito net, really appreciating how the housing units trap heat for the first time.  As the small, singular solar light has to be charged in the sun before use, they were without light for the night.  They had no pillows.  As we left their unit, I looked to see dark empty space surrounding the unimposing mattresses in the back corner.  I could tell the woman was scared.  They had lost all of their possessions.  But they had each other and I hoped that would be enough.  On the way out, the man insisted we each take a piece of gum, an expression of his gratitude. Feeling bad to take the only thing this man had to give, but also knowing it would be an extreme insult to refuse, I took it with sincere thanks.  It was the best fucking piece of gum I’ve ever chewed.

The last housing unit we got to for food distribution was already sleeping.  The neighbors explained to Aysegul that it was a man and wife and two kids who were sick.  We heard the baby coughing as the neighbors told us they had earlier given them a stockpile of their own food immediately when they arrived.  If you’ve ever struggled to find the capacity for generosity in your own life, take note from this family of five who living in a refugee camp with almost no possessions without hesitation gave up their food to strangers who had just a little bit less.  We gave them some juice boxes and offered other things to replenish their supply.  Out of politeness and knowing how stingy everyone usually is passing out food, they took very little.  Before we left, they thanked us for trying so hard to help and offered us homemade cheeseballs.  Again, respect dictates you cannot say no, even though they are made from squeezing the moisture out of the yogurt from previous days and then drying outside.  Last time I ate one, I almost vomited.  I took it anyway.

That’s how it goes here at the community of Kara Tepe.  Neighbors help neighbors, people look out for each other and form tight bonds by interacting and being present in the lives of those around them.  Residents ask me every day how I am doing faster than I have the opportunity to check on them.  Still, with this small glimmer of hope, there is much hopelessness.  I wonder how many more lives will be lost to such senseless violence and how many more will be lost fleeing the violence.  I look at the children’s faces around camp and wonder how many have drowned trying to get here; how many have been killed taking up arms to defend their home against ISIS.

I can’t shake the image of Rami swimming to shore for 9 hours through waves big enough to flip a boat, trying to keep a girl’s head above the water, part of him knowing she was already dead.  In the same waters I was leisurely swimming and sunbathing in today, people were fighting for their lives.  How can the components of our existence be so drastically different? How have we gotten to the point as a species where we can allow people to become desperate enough for these things to happen? I cried in the storage container looking for clothes.  I cried carrying second servings of food to the housing units.  I cry as I write this now wondering if the world will ever wipe the tears from the cry of humanity.

 

Can you spare a few dollars to help the people featured in this story? Click here to fund clothing and toys for residents of Kara Tepe.

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