Can’t Go Home

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Reporting by Joanna Kakissis
Photography by Holly Pickett
With Syria engulfed in civil war, here are four stories of families struggling to stay together.
Dalaa al-Aydi, the 4-year-old girl in the images above and below, was born into a middle-class Damascus family just before the start of Syria’s civil war, which has killed so many and displaced so many more. By the time her family reached Lueneburg, Germany, last fall, she had already lived in a dozen places.

Despite all the upheaval, she seemed happy in her new home, dancing and counting in her recently acquired German. But her father, Wisam al-Aydi, noticed that she was forgetting about Syria. Whenever the family talked about its lost home, Dalaa chimed in.

“Takh, takh,” she said, mimicking the sound of gunfire — her only memory of Damascus.

Since Syria’s war began in 2011, along with several other Arab uprisings, more than 11 million Syrians — nearly half the country’s people — have been driven from their homes. It’s the largest refugee crisis in the world today and one of the biggest since World War II.

The picture below shows the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert. It didn’t exist until 2012, but within a year it had some 150,000 residents, making it the fourth largest city in Jordan until another camp was built last year, removing some of the pressure.

AFP via Getty Images
Most Syrian refugees have taken refuge in the Middle East, though more than 200,000 have reached Europe. They are arriving at an uneasy time on a continent that is facing political and economic problems of its own, and there is growing resistance to the new arrivals.

To make sense of these overwhelming numbers, photographer Holly Pickett and I traveled to four European countries — Greece, Germany, Sweden and Russia. We met people who, in their homeland, had been architects, business owners, bankers and tailors. Yet overnight, they became known as something else: refugees.

They fled their homes to escape a terrible war. And that was just the beginning of their struggle.

the Olywi sisters recall their hometown — Raqqa, in Syria’s north — as a place where they could dream big.

Dania, 13, had wanted to study Korean and be an architect like her father, whose successful firm had provided a comfortable life. Her sharp-witted sister, Joud, 10, had hoped to be a doctor.

Sisters Danya (left), 13, and Joud, 10, at a coast guard detention center for migrants on the island of Chios, Greece.
But in 2013, the self-declared Islamic State overran the city and seized a large part of Syria. The group imposed its extreme version of Islamic law and set up a Sharia court in a former athletic center. The girls and their parents fled to Turkey.

“We don’t want to live in a place where you can only wear hijab [head covering] and just show your eyes and just wear black — or die,” Dania says.

Their pregnant mother left first. She went by boat to Greece, then with fake documents on to Sweden, where she had relatives. That’s where she gave birth to their baby sister, Susie, a few weeks later.

Then, this past October, the girls and their father followed her to Europe. They left Izmir, Turkey, a popular departure point, early in the morning, packed into two small motorboats with other Syrian refugees. They paid smugglers thousands of dollars for passage to a Greek island at the edge of Europe.

Less than an hour into the trip, Joud spotted men in masks approaching on a speedboat. They waved guns, screamed obscenities in English. The girls had heard horror stories in Turkey about bandits who robbed refugees of their money, passports and cellphones.

“I was scared,” Joud says. “But then we saw another boat.”

It was the Greek coast guard. The boat with the masked men sped away.

Greek coast guard search-and-rescue teams, like this one, scan waters for migrant boats arriving from Turkey. Often, migrants will destroy their inflatable boats and jump into the water to be rescued.
The captain of the Greek coast guard was Stefanos Tsagetas, who later took me on a short night patrol in Greek waters toward the craggy Turkish district of Karaburun, which is a common launching point for smugglers.

“But boats depart from so many other areas, too,” Tsagetas told me. “That’s why we practically have to be everywhere at once.”

It’s a dangerous way for refugees to get to Europe. More than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year, more than any prior year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Recently arrived Syrian migrants, either found or rescued, spend at least a few days at a Greek coast guard detention camp before going to a police detention camp.
Those who make it to Europe often face bleak conditions at primitive and understaffed shelters. On Chios, a popular summer destination for wealthy Greek shipowners, at least 200 refugees huddle on a patch of rocky dirt near the sea. There’s no toilet, shower or running water.

That’s where we meet the Olywi sisters, seated on a large rock surrounded by trash, their sweatshirts still wet with seawater, the numbers “19” and “20” written in markers on their hands. This is how the coast guard keeps track of the newly arrived. The girls lean against each other and close their eyes. They haven’t slept for three days. The few wooden shacks were already full.

Down the street, the tavernas are filled with vacationing Greeks and Turks eating fresh grilled fish and listening to music. The Olywi sisters and their father have to walk past them to get to an overflow shelter in a converted city council meeting room.

The mayor of Chios, Manolis Vournous, says he donated the space because he couldn’t bear to see children sleeping outside.

“You can’t sleep when you’re in your warm home — and you know they’re out there in the cold, freezing,” he said.

New arrivals are processed at the coast guard detention camp and then taken to another detention camp where migrants wait to be granted temporary status.

Amr Al-Bakri (left), a civil engineer and poet, fled Syria with his wife and daughter, hoping to immigrate to Sweden or the Netherlands.

Amr receives a portion of pasta and a hard-boiled egg for dinner near the detention camp. He says the only things he can think about are the sea voyage, conditions at the camp and his family’s uncertain future.

Danya (left) and Joud sit in a building used to hold migrants before they are moved to another detention camp.
When the coast guard runs out of shelter, recently arrived migrants often resort to sleeping outside, near the seafront.
the challenge was to bring a family back together.

Before the war, before the separation and before she was diagnosed with cancer, Manal al-Aydi was a dynamic, diligent bank manager in Damascus. Tiny yet formidable, with a degree in economics and a movie-star smile that made even strangers feel at ease, she was one of nine siblings in a close-knit family of Palestinian descent.

Rafat al-Aydi, 20, holds his aunt Manal, 45, who suffered from advanced cancer. Desperate to reach her family, she paid smugglers $15,000 to travel from Turkey to Germany.
“Our whole family worked together,” her brother Wisam recalled. “We opened a bakery, a clothing shop a jewelry store, two gas stations.”

Wisam ran the gas stations, and another brother, Mwafak, ran the jewelry store. The siblings often met at the family bakery, which specialized in the puffy, pita-like Palestinian bread, producing a pleasing scent that wafted through their neighborhood, Yarmouk. On Fridays, they often gathered at a family-owned apartment building for barbecues on the rooftop terrace.

“It was a quiet life and a beautiful life,” Wisam said. “It was our life.”

Wisam al-Aydi bakes traditional bread on an electric stove. After fleeing his home in Damascus, he and his family were scattered to three different countries and endured multiple moves in an effort to reunite.
The war shattered that life. First, one of Wisam’s sons was injured by shrapnel. Then shelling destroyed their neighborhood. Using their savings, the siblings paid smugglers to get their families out of Syria.

But they were separated. Manal went to Lebanon, Wisam to Egypt, Mwafak to Turkey.

After they left, the family apartment building was bombed and gutted. When I visited Wisam, he showed me a cellphone photo.

“This was our bedroom, and I think that might have been our bed,” he said, pointing at the remains of a charred room. “That was our living room. This house carried all of our memories, my son’s violins, the children’s things. So many years of work, all gone.”

The siblings deeply missed each other. They bounced around from place to place, seeking a more permanent home, but eventually Wisam and Mwafak, along with their families, reunited in the north of Germany, the country that receives the highest number of refugees in Europe.

“Germany is safe and takes care of us,” Wisam said. “But it is so isolating to be without your friends and your family, without your language. You are not comfortable. You are always lonely.”

Wisam’s wife, Nesrine al-Aydi, travels alone with her five children to reunite the family in Lueneburg, Germany. The family has lived in a dozen places in the past four years. Upon arrival at yet another home, 4-year-old Dalaa’s princess castle is one of the first things to be unpacked.
Wisam, Dalaa, and Nowras al-Aydi wait for a bus to take them to downtown Lueneburg, Germany.
Manal, meanwhile, had moved to Istanbul. She had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and was desperate for treatment.

Late last October, she paid a smuggler for a fake Spanish passport and flew to southern Germany. German police, spotting her fake documents, detained her on arrival.

“I told the police, please, I have cancer, I need to go to hospital,” she recalled when I met her last fall. “Everyone was yelling at me. But I said, ‘Please, help me. I am from Syria. I am sick. I need your help.’ ”

She collapsed. A few hours later, the police sent her to a hospital.

Wisam sent his two oldest sons, who were staying nearby, to meet her. The boys had not seen Manal for two years, and they both gasped when they saw her. She was thin, frail and scared. When they reached her bedside, she cried out.

“Please, please don’t leave me alone!” she said, clutching them. “I don’t want to die!”

Mwafak (left) at the bedside of his sister, Manal.
Mwafak arrived the next day with fresh lemons to steep in hot tea for his sister. His eyes glistened as he held her hand.

“My brother, my family,” she said.

Mwafak eventually got permission to transfer Manal to a hospital in Wolfsburg, in northern Germany. Wisam and his family traveled there, too. “We are going to heal her with love,” one of Mwafak’s daughters said.

But Manal al-Aydi lost her battle with cancer on Jan. 31. She was just shy of turning 46. Her brothers and their families were at her side.

“We are all to God,” Wisam wrote to his family after her death, “and to God we return.”

Nesrine, Dalaa and Wisam spend time with friends in a park. When they left Syria, Wisam said, he thought the family could travel for a couple of years and return when things calmed down. But their home has been destroyed and the war is still raging. “We really thought we could build our home again in Syria.”
Keeping the family together and healthy is one challenge. Integrating into a new culture is another. And life in a strange land is often even stranger for refugees who don’t share a culture or religion.

in the town of Fagersta, the sound of prayer often fills the lone mosque, which is in a basement.

On Saturdays, children sit in a semicircle on red rugs, reciting from the Quran. Their teacher is a young Syrian in a calico headscarf. The students are young Somalis, Eritreans and Syrians.

Children from Somalia, Eritrea, Lebanon and Syria attend Quran classes in the mosque in Fagersta, Sweden.
Germany has taken in the greatest number of refugees. But Sweden has taken in more refugees relative to its population size than any other country in Europe. This year, it expects to take in 95,000 — a record.

In the past year, many Swedes have said the country cannot support more. That’s fueled the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a far-right, anti-immigrant party whose leader has declared that “Islamism is the Nazism of our time.”

“Many Muslims don’t integrate,” says Victoria Turunen, who represents the Sweden Democrats on the Fagersta town council, but grew up in the immigrant suburbs of Stockholm. “If you go to their neighborhoods, it feels like you’re not in Sweden anymore.”

There are even signs of Islamophobia within immigrant communities in Sweden, like Sodertalje, a city near Stockholm that has the highest concentration of refugees in the country — mostly Christians from Iraq and Syria.

Sodertalje, Sweden, is known for its open-door policy toward refugees, especially Christian Syrians and Iraqis, who make up 30,000 of the town’s 90,000 residents. But there’s growing resistance to accepting more.
Outside a Swedish language class for refugees, Nidal, 35, a Christian from Syria, says he believes Muslims will be swayed by the Islamic State, the extremist group that has captured large parts of Syria and Iraq. “We feel insecure, we don’t trust them.”

Another student and refugee, Mohammad Hossam Janayd, 25, overhears my conversation with Nidal. He’s a practicing Muslim from Damascus.

“I hate the Islamic State as much as Nidal,” he says, shaking his head. “They are terrorists, sick people, not Muslims. Sweden was supposed to unite us. But some of the other students, the Christians, ask me, ‘Why did you come here?’ ”

Even in Sweden, Syrians are divided among themselves. In Russia, there’s a more nefarious force causing strife: Police, knowing that refugees can’t go home, are often extorting money from them.

the relationship with Syria goes back decades.

Syrians studied and worked here, and also married Russians. In the final days of the Soviet Union, when private enterprise became possible, Syrians also opened businesses, including clothing factories.

Noginsk, a no-frills city of factories and bland apartment blocks just outside Moscow, had a reputation for attracting good tailors from Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

Those tailors included Yasser, 25, who now lives in a cramped apartment with his family. He and his father were recruited by a Syrian-run factory and moved here six years ago. Yasser doesn’t want his last name used for fear his bosses might retaliate for what he says.

Yasser (center), 25, inside his home with his brother Ahmed, 16, and father Abu Yasser (right) in Noginsk, Russia.
Yasser and his father migrated to Russia in 2008 in hopes of building a life. They now see little hope of being granted asylum and say it’s too dangerous to return to Syria.
The factories lured workers like Yasser here with free airfare, temporary work visas, good salaries, even free housing. It all went well until 2011, when Syria’s war erupted.

“Everything started to change,” Yasser said. “Our bosses stopped paying us on time. They paid us less than what we were promised. And they said if we didn’t like it, we could go back to Syria.”

But, of course, it was too dangerous to go back. Yasser’s temporary work visa expired, and his bosses said they couldn’t help him renew it. Police started shaking him down for bribes.

His former boss, Amal al-Naimi, knows the police are extorting money from his workers. But he says there’s nothing he can do.

“We have tried talking to the police chief,” he says.

Al-Naimi is middle-aged, with an overcoat slung over the shoulders of his suit. We meet at the restaurant of a Moscow hotel where Syrian businessmen strike deals as a young Russian woman belly-dances under a glistening disco ball.

Inside the Globe Hotel in Moscow, belly dancers entertain as Syrian businessmen, many of them in the textile business, network in the background.
He has worked in Russia for more than 20 years. He denies he has underpaid or abandoned his workers, and says it’s the Russians who started cracking down on visas when the civil war began.

The next day, we visit his factory, located just outside Noginsk, in a fenced-in compound with old tires and rusted cars. Inside, next to piles of sweaters embroidered with figures of reindeer, young men hunch over sewing machines.

Many workers say they came from Syria after the war started. But there’s virtually no chance they will receive asylum in Russia, says Svetlana Gannushkina, a Russian activist for refugees. Russia sees the Syrian regime as an ally and doesn’t believe Syrians are in danger if they return, she says.

Syrian tailors, mostly from Aleppo, sew sweaters at a Syrian-owned textile factory near Noginsk, Russia. Many workers came to Russia after the war in Syria broke out, but according to human rights workers, being granted asylum is next to impossible.
“The doors are actually closed for these refugees even though the borders are open,” Gannushkina says. “That’s why Russia’s sort of a trap for them.”

Gannushkina estimates there are 10,000 to 20,000 Syrians in Russia, including Yasser, who are undocumented but can’t go home.

A friend once told Yasser that Russia is like a “second motherland.” But, he says, “it doesn’t feel that way.”

Pedestrians at Red Square in Moscow. Human rights workers estimate that there are 10,000 to 20,000 Syrians in Russia who are undocumented and have virtually no chance of being granted asylum.
The war in Syria grinds on with no end in sight. President Bashar Assad’s military still holds the capital, Damascus, and many larger cities. The Islamic State controls large parts of the north and east, while many other factions are also involved in the fight. The U.S. and its allies have been bombing the Islamic State since August, putting pressure on the group, but this pressure has not yet produced any major changes in the front lines.

Before the fighting started in 2011, Syria’s population was about 23 million. More than 11 million of those people are no longer in their homes. Here’s a breakdown of where they are now:

The majority are still in Syria, but no longer in their homes.
“Internally displaced” 7.6 million
3.8 million have moved to neighboring countries.
Turkey 1.6 million
Lebanon 1.2 million
Jordan 622,106
Iraq 235,563
Egypt 136,661
About 218,000 have applied for asylum in Europe. The top countries:
Germany 59,529
Sweden 53,750
Netherlands 11,710
Serbia and Kosovo 11,444
Austria 11,025
Bulgaria 10,408
Denmark 10,135
Hungary 7,427
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