From Syria to Germany by raft and foot, a migrant's story
Germany is bracing for some 450,000 asylum seekers this year, double last year's flood
For Mohamad Eid, the most dangerous moment of his 27-day trek from Athens to Berlin was crossing from Greece to Macedonia. Much of the border on the Greek side is a no-man's land, controlled by armed gangs.
"From the moment we started walking on this farm road," says Eid, "you feel like someone's watching you. You feel there are eyes in the trees, counting your steps."
Syrian friends, refugees like Eid, had made the crossing just three days earlier. They'd texted him, warning that their group had been attacked and badly beaten, forcing many in the group to give up on their escape.
Eid had already tried to get out of Greece about a dozen times, by trying to sneak across the Albanian border or by trying to fly out of Athens on borrowed passports.
Repeatedly turned back, he feared that if he bought yet another airline ticket, he would never repay his loan — about $3,000 — from a friend's sister in Berlin.
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A Syrian activist in Toronto who supports Syrian refugees as best she can via Facebook contacted CBC Radio to tell us Eid's story. As a result, Eid has stayed in touch, contacting us most recently after arriving in Berlin in early July.
These treks across Europe are a new underground railroad for modern-day migrants equipped with cellphones, who text or send photos and voice memos, often on the mobile app Whatsapp, to guide each other so as not to have to resort to human smugglers.
Eid says he has now guided four other Syrian friends along the same journey. One just arrived in Berlin last week. Three others were waiting to cross the Hungarian border, a country whose prisons make it one of the worst places in which to be captured.
"I gave them the map, the road, step by step," Eid said. "I'm not able to help with money, but I can help with information, with experience that I had on this road."
A last chance
In Greece, where Eid started this last stage of his journey, few Syrian refugees get work permits — leaving them financially and emotionally in limbo.
Eid was so desperate, he considered returning to the refugee camp in Turkey that he fled a year earlier in a rubber raft.
The notoriously dangerous crossing into Macedonia was Eid's last resort. Many young Syrian men team up with companions who won't slow them down.
In Eid's case, he agreed to accompany an older Syrian woman of 66, her two daughters and her eldest daughter's fiancé.
At times during the long trek, he would carry the older woman on his back over difficult terrain. "They had no family, nothing, and when I saw them," says Eid, "I thought of my mother and sister."
At a hotel near Greece's border with Macedonia, many Syrian refugees join forces for the crossing. Eid, armed with details of the gang and a shop where he could buy a knife, warned the other young men at the hotel to arm themselves.
The group, now numbering about 150 men, women and children, began walking under cover of darkness. A few hours later, around 4 a.m., the first sign of trouble — a small armed group stepped out from the surrounding woods. Less than an hour later, two larger gangs emerged and began circling the Syrians.
As the group's informal leader, Eid was torn between hanging back to protect the women and children or going forward.
An inner voice, says Eid, told him to keep moving. He began shouting, threatening to hang would-be attackers from the trees as a warning to other gang members not to prey on Syrian refugees.
The men vanished back into the woods, and Eid and his group ran, terrified that they would return — until they finally reached the Macedonian border, where they were once more sent back.
here would be many moments on the journey when Eid wondered whether they would ever reach the promised land.
Guided by angels
Germany is a mecca for migrants, more refugees head there than to any other wealthy country except the U.S., according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In fact, the growing number of Syrian refugees in Germany has become a huge topic of debate there, and Chancellor Angela Merkel made international headlines when she told a sobbing Syrian teenager recently that Germany can't help everyone.
Eid says he was "guided by angels" — meaning his mother in Istanbul and his fiancee in Egypt, from whom he was separated in the human tide out of Syria,
The uncanny feeling of being guided became even stronger, says Eid, as the group crossed Macedonia, headed for the Serbian border. By day 10 of the journey, Eid's little band found shelter at a mosque about 10 kilometres from the border.
Three times they walked to the border to try secretive crossing points used by other Syrian refugees; three times they were turned back by Serb soldiers. Finally, Eid decided to risk a bolder approach near the main road.
He told Iman, his 66-year-old companion, "Today, you will sleep in Serbia. And she said, 'if you do this, I will cook any food that you love.' And I said, 'OK, you will see.'"
Sometimes walking, sometimes crawling, Eid led them near the main road into Serbia, passing so close to Serbian officials he could overhear them.
"I knew we will do it," says Eid, "we will pass this time."
Miraculously, without GPS or a map, they arrived at a Serbian village where, by law, authorities will not return Syrian refugees to Macedonia.
Now, about halfway through their journey, they were able to continue on foot, by bus and once by taxi, with a driver who risked a huge fine for transporting illegal migrants, through Serbia, Hungary and Austria until finally reaching Germany on July 5.
The memory of arriving in Berlin hasn't faded.
"I felt born again," says Eid. "The moment I stepped off the bus, I said to myself, all the bad things are finished now. Now the good things will start."
Eid's oldest childhood friend, Samer Alasaab, was there with open arms. The two had shared many perilous adventures in the past, including dodging gunfire trying to cross from Syria into Jordan two years earlier.
For months, Samer had begged Eid to come to Berlin, where they could start over together.
Eid can still see strangers in the bus station, smiling. "They could tell," says Eid, "that we were Syrians — hugging, kissing, crying."