This man walked out of Syria in the middle of a war, twice

GlobalPost
Abdullah has traveled to six countries in four years trying to get back to his children in Syria. Now he is putting all his hopes in family reunification in Europe. Here he is on the beach on the island of Lesbos after arriving by boat. In the distance you can see the Turkish coastline.
Laura Dean

LESBOS, Greece — Abdullah used to be part of Bashar al-Assad’s army, but what happened in 2011 changed everything.

Assad's forces started cracking down on peaceful protests in Abdullah's hometown, Daraa. He was repulsed by the violence.

“It was when they started killing civilians. They could be your cousins, your neighbors. I would never raise my gun against them,” he says.

He and about 90 others in his unit defected from the army. Then they walked to Jordan.

“We walked in the desert for six days. When we arrived in Jordan the treatment was terrible. They were going to hand us over to the Syrian secret police when they found out we were soldiers. But my brother-in-law is Jordanian and he convinced them not to.”

Abdullah, whose name has been changed for his security, spent ten days in a Jordanian prison. After he was released he fled to Aqaba on the Dead Sea, where he got on a boat and was smuggled to Egypt. He didn’t feel safe until he was well out of reach of the Syrian armed forces. 

He stayed in Cairo for a while, living with four friends in an apartment. But Egypt had its own problems: In 2013 the newly elected Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president was ousted by the army. At the same time a backlash against Syrians began from both the authorities and ordinary people as the media accused them of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

He fled again. This time to Sabha in southern Libya, where he worked as truck driver. He wasn't there long. “Life in Libya was hard. There was no work and very little money,” he says. But when extremist Islamist groups became more powerful in the chaos of post-revolution Libya, “there was pressure on the seculars” like him.

Abdullah is Muslim, but he says “compared to ISIS and groups like it I’m secular."

Next he went to Tunisia. He stayed not three weeks before leaving again, this time for Algeria. In the city of Oran he had an Algerian friend whom he’d met when he worked at the Algerian embassy in Damascus. Again, he worked as a truck driver.

But in May 2014 he decided to go home.

“I missed my children,” he said. “I have six. If I hadn’t had to flee Syria I’d probably have ten,” he says, smiling. He says he traveled on a false Russian passport.

“It was a diplomatic one,” he chuckles. “It was red and it said my name was Vladimir. A Syrian guy made it for me. We can do anything, us Syrians.”

When he got to the airport there was no problem. All went well until he got to the checkpoint in his hometown of Daraa. His brother-in-law, also a military officer, was on duty. It was far from a tearful family reunion — Abdullah's brother-in-law  turned him over to the secret police.

“I was imprisoned for six months. Six months of torture. They dislocated my shoulder and broke my knee. Most of my unit in the army defected so they wanted a lot of information from me.”

Syrian nationals demonstrate outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai March 24, 2011 to denounce what they called their government aggression and the use of force against civilians in the Syrian city of Daraa, a mainly Sunni tribal city near the Jordanian border.

After six months, he says, Jabhat al-Nusra liberated the prison. Yet still he could not go home. His family lives in a regime-held area that he couldn't reach.

He called to tell them he was safe. They told him to go to Turkey. That was in February this year. Again, he started walking.

“I walked for a month and five days from Deraa to Kilis,” a Turkish town on the northern Syrian border.

There were 24 of them in total, men who had been with him in prison, mostly soldiers who had defected. They saw few people as they walked, though there were occasional attacks by coalition planes because they were in Islamic State (IS) territory. Two of the men were killed. Abdullah sustained a small wound from a rock that hit his leg during one of the explosions.

A few days later the group was stopped by IS. The fighters made him take off his clothes, and the injury aroused suspicion.

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“When they saw my wound they thought I was with the Free Syrian Army or with the regime. I was detained but after six days they let me go,” he says. Abdullah is still not sure why he was released.

When they finally made it to the border, 22  slid under the fence to Kilis, Turkey.

“For four days I stayed there. I didn’t have any food or anything to drink. For four days I was just smoking.”

He spent several months living in Istanbul where he found a job in a sweet shop making baklava. But one day he fell down the stairs. He lost a tooth and broke several ribs. In the month it took him to recover his boss replaced him. Out of options he called his parents and other relatives and asked for money to make the trip to Europe.

Forty-two people came over in his boat, mostly Iraqis. Now, his journey across Europe is just beginning.

“I want to go to Germany. I love Hamburg. I did some military training there in 2003. Now I want to find work as a truck driver. I’m also thinking about Sweden or Finland,” he says.

Abdullah has one concern.

“I want to go to the place that does family unification the fastest. I haven’t seen my children in five years. I last talked to them on January 15, 2012. They have no internet and no phone. But I get news of them through my sister who lives in a regime-held area. Her husband is the one who turned me in. But they have internet and we communicate on Whatsapp.”

He has little hope for his own future.

“What do you mean, dreams? We don’t have anything left. Our dreams are gone. I just want to see my children and see better days than the ones we’ve seen.”

This story is part of a series profiling people from all walks of life who have descended on Lesbos in recent months, from refugees and migrants to aid workers and volunteers.