Six attempts to flee Turkey, 25 days to cross the border: the journey of two refugees who made it

12 months after the body of Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach shocked the world into promises of action, Tom Peck meets two brothers who also embarked on the perilous journey – and made it 

Anas Al Darkazanly, left, and his brother Eid
Anas Al Darkazanly, left, and his brother Eid

Anas and Eid Al Darkazanly left Syria before the fighting started in earnest. The opposition forces, the rebels, were not properly organised, but the regime was. They entered their town, arresting without discrimination and killing at will. They fled to Lebanon in 2011. By 2014, more than a million Syrians had done the same, and the Lebanese were running out of patience. They were not allowed to work. Anas was arrested by Lebanese authorities, who handcuffed him behind his back, and beat him with sticks, with enough force to break his right hand.

Early last year, the brothers, aged 33 and 36, travelled over the border to Turkey, and spent just a few days at the coastal town of Izmir. During that time, they made five separate attempts to make the short distance by inflatable dinghy to the Greek island of Samos. “The guards came by boat,” he says. “They hit us with sticks. They cut the dinghy with a knife. It was dark, we had our faces covered. We don’t know who they were, or where they were from. Maybe Turkey, maybe Greece. Some people even said they were German. One time, we were in the water for seven or eight hours.”

At the sixth attempt, they made it. They had their photos taken, and were sent to Athens, from where they carried onward for two days by bus and train through Macedonia, Serbia and on to Hungary. “Hungary was very tough,” Eid says. “If the authorities catch you they take your fingerprints. It means if you try to move on to France or Britain or anywhere, they will send you back. But Hungary is a poor country. There are no jobs. People don’t want to stay there. People don’t want to get stuck there.”

At the Hungarian border, Anas and Eid were travelling, with the assistance of people smugglers, in a group of 60 people, and crossed the border by bus. Everyone but Anas and Eid was caught. “We ran into the woods,” says Eid. “We hid there for two days.” They went by car to Budapest, in convoys arranged by people smugglers, full of Syrians and Iraqis, and then to the border with Austria. They were switched into German cars and driven across the country to Germany. “In Germany, they dropped us at the very first village we came to. We stopped there. The smugglers said, ‘Everybody out,’ and they left.

They had paid the smugglers €250 each for train and bus tickets to Berlin, and from there all all the way through Holland and France, to near Calais. “If we went to the ticket office ourselves, we would be arrested immediately,” says Anas. “We were in Calais for 25 days,” says Anas. “We were sleeping 25 to a tent. It was like having a job. During the day, you sleep. At night, from 5pm to 5am, you try to get across. It’s a 12-hour shift. And it’s an hour and a half’s walk to the tunnel and an hour and a half back.

“It’s like a game, with the French police. Some days they would say, ‘Look, there are lots of us tonight. Don’t chance it. Better to try tomorrow’. The French police, they hate the British. They just want these people off their land. When the train approaches the tunnel it slows down. You have just a few seconds to jump on, and hide yourself. It is very dangerous. One of our friends, a Syrian, he was killed by the train.”

After 25 days, they made it into the back of a lorry. “I looked at my phone and my GPS told me I was in UK. So I knocked on the walls of the lorry and the police came. They were both arrested, but they used a payphone to call their half-brother, Emad, who has been living in the UK for 10 years. They ended up spending six months in detention near Manchester before being granted leave to remain for five years. Now they live in a small flat in west London. They receive housing benefit, and £73 a week to live on.

Anas and Eid’s is by no means a unique tale. The plight of refugees was sharply cast in to the spotlight a year ago when the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world. Governments promised to act although the UK has already fallen behind on its commitment of settling 20,000 refugees in five years – a figure that has also been derided by many as too small.

Migrants near Idomeni, Greece, scuffle over firewood

“Once Alan had been in the newspapers everywhere, people changed their attitudes,” Eid said. “The media put pressure on governments and they changed their attitudes. But then things happened in Paris, and in Germany and across Europe, and attitudes have changed again now, to be against refugees. But the people have not changed. Their situation has not changed. Alan was one little boy. Thousands have died. The situation for these people is the same. They needed help one year ago, five years ago. They need help now.”

The idea that the UK might be going through a period of instability is amusing to both of them. “There are no roadblocks here. Nobody spits at you. Nobody arrests you for no reason. Nobody treats you badly,” says Anas. But working is not straightforward. Their half-brother, who is acting as translator, says they are learning English, and want to re-establish their lives as successful, highly-skilled carpenters. There is work available, but mainly in Arabic restaurants where nobody speaks English. “They will say they are paying you the minimum wage but make you work three times more hours than they say.”

Anas’s wife is still missing in Syria, a “99 per cent chance” that she is no longer alive. He would like to bring his sons here, but because he cannot return home to confirm his wife has been missing for a long time, he cannot confirm to UK authorities, or to the United Nations, that his children are without her. Both his children now live in Lebanon and 15 days ago, they were refused permission to travel to the UK. They also have a younger brother who is disabled. He was not physically able to make the journey and is still in Syria, with little hope of escape.

The Independent talks to members of the Al Darkazanly family

They have applied to the United Nations for resettlement for him but it is not without problems. “The UN takes only doctors, civil engineers, and so on. If they think maybe you cannot work, you have no chance. It’s not fair,” says Anas.

For people fleeing civil war, Brexit-induced instability is scarcely noticeable, but they do have concerns. “It makes us feel unsafe. We have leave to remain for five years, but what will happen in five years? When our five years run out, will the government be sympathetic to us? Where will we go? There is nowhere to go. There is no Syria. There will not be Syria. I have applied for reunion with my children and my mother and it was refused.”

They are even sympathetic to the howls of Donald Trump and his like in the wake of the Paris attacks. Anas says: “If you do not know who is coming, if you do not know who is refugee and who is terrorist, it is difficult.”

Perhaps it is so, but the solution is clear enough, says Eid. “You must stand up properly against the regime. Nobody wants to leave the country. You have no choice. We don’t want to be here. We went to the nearest place, to Lebanon. But that didn’t work out. You need to have a proper solution in Syria. You need a proper solution. Fight Assad. Fighting Daaesh.”

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