This is the second chapter of my brother Adel’s flight from Gaza to freedom. At the end of part one, he was on his way to Europe and we didn’t know where he was. I am committed to completing Adel’s story for those who don’t understand the bravery, tenacity, desperation and—ultimately—yearning for a productive future of those who take extreme risks to flee occupation, war and/or deep poverty. You must be prepared psychologically and physically, and do what it takes to pay the price. And once you leave, it is so very difficult to go back.
So, I pick up the story after Adel managed to leave Gaza and arrive in Egypt. There, he boarded a plane to Turkey using a student visa.
“It was the first time in my whole life to travel without any previous planning,” he recalls. “Where should I go? What should I do? After taking a deep breath, I made some calls to some people [a friend of his older brother] to pick my cousins and I up at the airport. A wonderful man met us and welcomed us to his house. We didn’t want to be bad guests, so after a day, we rented a room in a hotel.”
Adel loved the diversity of Turkey. It was Ramadan at the time, and the tables for iftar [the evening meal when Muslims end their daily fast at sunset] were piled high with free food. People from various social classes gathered to eat with no thought as to who was rich and who was not.
“I didn’t eat or drink very much otherwise; I needed to save money for the long journey ahead,” continued Adel. “We stayed in Turkey almost 22 days, doing nothing but waiting from the moment we landed. It was my first time to negotiate with smugglers who treat human beings like numbers.”
Finally, they took a bus to Izmir in southern Turkey. After 12 hours, they arrived and found a ferry that carried vehicles to the other side of a river, to a sort of rallying point.
“Every evening, the smuggler told us to prepare ourselves to leave, but at the end of the night, he called and said the trip was delayed. These continuous delays made us feel angry and frustrated, because we were very nervous,” he told me. “We had the feeling we were living our last moments. Finally, the call came, and we set out to a kind of safe house where immigrants wait. It was now a battle between the smugglers and the Turkish intelligence trying to catch us. The roads were so narrow; it was like the action movies we used to watch, but this time, it was real.
“At last, the smugglers told us to enter a bus for 25 passengers, but more than 60 people were crammed into it, including women, children and old men. There was no space to even breathe. We were suffocating and babies were crying, when suddenly the bus stopped. After 10 minutes of waiting in that tight space, we opened the door to face the police. We all tumbled out, then watched in shock as the driver ran the bus into a tree as he jumped out.
“The police threw us into jail. It was the hardest moment I have ever experienced because they threatened over and over to send us back to our countries. A week passed, and finally we tasted freedom once again; the police released us and we made it back to the previous smuggler to try again.”
Adel and his cousins waited for the smugglers for three hours, then were driven by car for four hours. The car was so crowded Adel was squeezed next to one of the doors, with three men at his feet. After a while, Adel told me, he couldn’t even feel his feet anymore. The car finally stopped at a spot about 10 kilometers from the sea, surrounded by mountains. Once again, they were herded into a bus.
It was 7 a.m. and they rested for a few minutes between the mountains.
“A few minutes later, the smugglers shouted at us to run,” Adel recounted. “We ran as fast as we could on the edge of the mountain—women, children and the elderly too— children, women, men and elderly too—trying to avoid being spotted by the police, who had been following us wherever we went. The elderly people kept falling, but the beautiful thing was that the fleeing people gave a helping hand to each other. The young people took the kids from women to help them run faster; others held the hands of the elderly, telling them to lean on them like a crutch. Then rain started to fall heavily, turning the roads into mud and swamps and making running much harder. (Below is a video shot by Adel as they ran from the police. You will hear some of the men shouting, in Arabic, "Run faster!")
When we reached the beach, the smugglers met us again. Some of the young men climbed back up the mountain to fetch a small boat made of rubber. This little boat had been hidden in the mountain from the police.”
I want to mention here that Adel loves documenting everything with photography and video. He documented his journey as much as he could, but got to a point when he just didn’t have the energy to continue.
This is what happened next
“About eight of us brought the little boat down from the mountain. The sun was very hot and straight above us, and everyone’s body was burned—some very badly. The slope of the mountain was so steep; we were exhausted by the time we reached the shore with the boat. We immediately fell to the ground, but the smugglers kept telling us to put the boat in the sea quickly. Finally, we finished preparing the boat and were ready to sail. All of us, about 40 people, were told to get in, although the boat was made for only about 10. We were so afraid, because there wasn’t much space. The smugglers threw our bags—many of which contained money and documents—into the sea.”
Fortunately, the sea was very calm that day and the biggest challenge was the Turkish Coast Guard. Although its boats followed us at first, they left us alone, and we finally reached Mytilene Island, a Greek outpost in the Aegean Sea.
We had arrived in Europe. We stumbled out of the boat and fell to the ground in relief.
(To be continued…)
Mentor: Greta Berlin
Posted January 2, 2016