Basma Abu Fanunah | 20-05-2017
This is the third chapter of my brother Adel’s flight from Gaza to freedom. At the end of chapter two, he had just managed to sail from Turkey to the coast of Greece.
I arrived on Mytilene Island in Greece, I was embraced by a welcoming atmosphere. It was fabulous to know I was past the halfway mark in my quest to reach Belgium. But there was a woman volunteer aid worker among the crowd of people who gathered around us, about 40 years old. She said, “You made such a good attempt, but I’m sorry to say you will never get out of Greece.”
I replied, “I am from Palestine, specifically from Gaza. That place that is blockaded by the entire world. And here I am in front of you. You think that I won’t be able to get out of Greece?”
She answered: “Well, then I hope you will do it one day. Good luck.”
Someone else came and told us to follow him into a camp. We followed a very long, meandering road, then—too tired to walk any more—sat down beside it. A car came then and took us to a temporary camp, where we also received a wonderful welcome. We were treated so well, I felt they really saw us as human beings. When we left the temporary camp, I told the camp staff, “Thank you for your beautiful humanity.” One of them replied, “Don’t thank us right now, because when you arrive at the next camp, you will be treated completely differently, and you will regret those words.” I won’t ever forget that.
We were taken on a bus that had bars like those for prisoners, and we arrived at dusk at Morya camp. We slept on the floor in a big tent with no electricity and were treated like we were incompetent. One day, we were taken to see a psychiatrist, and when we refused to be examined, we were ridiculed—like we couldn’t and didn’t have a right to think independently. To get a simple meal of a potato and bread, we were forced to wait what seemed like hours in the extreme heat.
I spent 22 days there, while asking other refugees about smugglers who could take me and my two cousins to Athens. A steamship came every day at 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. When the ship arrived and left, our hearts yearned to go with it. When we finally found some smugglers, we managed to scrape up the money to pay them.
We were constantly fearful of two things: 1. We had to dodge the police in sensitive places like airports, requiring courage and a strong heart. 2. When we left our countries, we carried not only our own dreams of a better future, but the hopes of our entire families. They wanted to hear good news, and we were afraid of disappointing them.
All refugees are given a square piece of paper that allows them to travel around in the country. It contains a picture of the person who holds it. The smugglers gave me an ID with a picture of a man that was not very clear, and I used it. When I arrived at the steamship, a lot of people crowded around to get in and when the gate opened, everyone tried to enter at once.
However, when the police notice an Arab, they stop him. This is what happened to me. They told me to stop and show my paper, I gave it to one of the officers, but he was skeptical and handed my ID to a policewoman. She asked, “What is your name, your father’s and mother’s names, and your date of birth?” I answered the best I could based on what I had seen on the ID, then she told me to wait.
When people finished boarding the steamship, I saw a policeman holding people’s papers. I told him I wanted to enter the ship, but he said I had to return to the camp. I refused, telling him the paper in his hand was mine, and that was my picture. Finally, he told me to enter the steamship. It was an amazing feeling!! After 22 days of suffering and anxiety, I finally arrived in Athens, the capital of Greece.
I rented a room in a hotel to start the next step of my flight from Greece to Northern Europe. I searched for a smuggler to get me out by land, sea or air. The price was high: up to €2,200 ($2,416). Many people in Gaza and elsewhere can’t afford that. I was fortunate to have two brothers who are engineers and employed, as well as friends who support me.
First attempt to reach Europe
My first attempt was two weeks later, when I made it to the Heraklion Island Airport in Crete. I arrived at night and stayed at a hotel. The next morning, I went to the airport and was ready to board. The police looked at my ID, sent me to an investigation center inside the airport, then put me in a jail.
I collapsed when they told me I had to go back to Mytilene Island. All along my hard journey, I hadn’t felt lonely or fragile until this moment. After one day in prison, I was flown back to the island and a jail at Moria camp.
A guardian angel intervenes
Then a miracle happened. As advised by the airport personnel, I told the one of the authorities that that my smugglers had paid Greek police more than €1,000 per refugee so they would “look away” and allow people without proper permission to pass. After listening to my story, he spent more than six hours making calls. It was night when he came and gave me guava and told me to eat it, because I had spent two days without eating or drinking. Then he told me to leave and never look back. I don’t know what inspired him to take pity on me, but I feel he was sent by God!
At that time, I had just €20 in my pockets. I went to a hotel but the manager refused my request to stay for the night, saying he wanted €25. I waited, and at 1 a.m., I slipped back in and slept in the lobby. Suddenly, I woke up to find the owner of the hotel standing in front of me. She knew me, because I had slept at her hotel two days before. She accepted my €20 and gave me some food she had made. She told me, “If you need more, go to the kitchen and take whatever you want.” In the morning, I returned to Athens.
I went to another smuggler, but this time, I decided to leave by sea.
Second attempt to reach Europe
This was now my second attempt. The smuggler told all of us that the sea would be calm and the ship would be comfortable. When the time came to depart for the dock, we spent six hours on the bus, arriving at our destination at 4 a.m. The ship was not what the smuggler described, but we had little choice.
We sailed out about 100 meters, then the smuggler told us the sea was too high and we had to stay where we were until the next day. The ship was constantly dipping as the waves pushed it from side to side, and we began to get dizzy. I started vomiting everything I had eaten and was sick until the next day.
The next morning, the Russian captain told us the sea was still too high, but he would stop the motor and raise the sail instead and it would be easier on everyone. So, we started to sail to Italy. From time to time, the sea became rough and the waves high, with the ship bouncing around like a top. Our cell phones were all useless except for one.
Suddenly, around 2 a.m., a big wave hit like someone had thrown a huge pail of water on us. I woke up and saw part of the ship in the water while, in another part, men sat to equalize the load. I asked the captain why this was happening and he reassured me it was normal.
But I was afraid. There was an island in the distance and I asked him to go to there so we could continue when it was calmer, but he refused. I insisted then that we go back, but he said we were already more than halfway. I told him that if we didn’t return, I would use the one serviceable phone to call the police. When he heard that, he told us to call the smuggler to decide.
We called him, but he told us that if we returned, he would not return our money. When we heard this, we took a vote. There were five other men; three wanted to continue and one wanted to go back. They told me, “It’s up to you. If you want to return, we’ll all go back.”
I said to myself that if we went back, they would blame me. So I decided to complete the journey.
After two more hours of sailing, the sea became worse. The captain suddenly said, “Listen, I won’t be able to keep on; the sea is too rough and it will get worse at night.” We called the smuggler and told him to talk with the captain, who explained the circumstances. The smuggler, however, refused to help. And he left us to our fate. We were lucky we didn’t die that day. Still, it meant we had to return to Greece.
One more try…
My third and final attempt to leave Greece was by plane again. It cost a lot of money, but I was determined. Miraculously, I succeeded. I shed tears when I boarded the plane and no one stopped me.
When I sent my family a picture of me on my way to Belgium, I will never forget their happy faces. I had made it. Now, I am waiting for a residence card to complete my journey, seeking the dignity I could not find in Gaza, thanks to the brutal Israeli siege. I am using the time to learn French.
My name is Adel and this is my story, one of a million such stories from Gaza.
Posted: May 19, 2017
Mentor: Greta Berlin