FROM SYRIA TO SHEL­TER ON ‘THE BLACK ROUTE’

To leave the dan­gers of war at home, a fam­ily risks an unof­fi­cial net­work to make a treach­er­ous jour­ney through Europe by smug­glers, buses, trains and their feet

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - STORY BY AN­THONY FAIOLA PHOTOS BY CHARLES OMMANNEY IN EVZONOI, GREECE

They’ve made it 1,600 miles by boat, train, car and on foot. Now the light is fad­ing as they fi­nally reach the edge of Greece. “Let’s move,” Ahmed Ji­naid beck­ons, his fam­ily trail­ing him up a hill in high grass. But then he stops.

He is stand­ing be­side an aban­doned watch­tower near the north­ern bor­der, the one af­ter which there’s sup­posed to be no talk­ing and, worse for a man with a weak­ness for Win­stons, no smok­ing. The 42-year-old for­mer de­liv­ery man squints at his white Sam­sung Gal­axy phone. He is look­ing for di­rec­tions. “No, no, no,” he mut­ters, blink­ing at the glow­ing screen. “What hap­pened to the GPS?”

Ahmed is eight weeks out of Syria, part of a his­toric ex­o­dus of Arabs, Africans and Asians flee­ing war and op­pres­sion. More than 102,000 mi­grants have risked the Mediter­ranean Sea to reach Europe this year, out­pac­ing even 2014’s record ar­rivals.

Many land in Italy, but a surg­ing num­ber of

mi­grants are com­ing ashore in Greece. From there, they ven­ture north through the Balkans to the rest of the Euro­pean Union — a web of per­ilous trails stretch­ing hun­dreds of miles. Aid work­ers have nick­named it the Black Route. Ahmed had metic­u­lously plot­ted the trek on his phone’s GPS.

Ona steep hill ahead, the gaudy glow of red neon burns. That’s Mace­do­nia and the casino town they need to avoid. Gangs armed with guns and lead pipes roam the woods, beat­ing and rob­bing mi­grants. There are cor­rupt po­lice on the route. Heat-seek­ing cam­eras. Moun­tains. Wolves.

Ahmed is limp­ing from days of walk­ing. A mys­te­ri­ous pain is knif­ing through his back. The un­treated goi­ter on his neck— the one he tries to hide with his jacket col­lar— is throb­bing.

He taps the Sam­sung screen again. It’s frozen.

His smart­phone. It cost $275 on the black mar­ket back in Aleppo, just shy of three months’ salary. His com­pass. Lodestar. A life­line for the mod­ern mi­grant, who jour­neys to the First World by the grace of the mo­bile In­ter­net.

“Un­cle,” whis­pers Marwa Ji­naid, Ahmed’s shy 19-year-old niece. A kinder­garten teacher with flaw­less cop­per skin who is used to af­ter­noons col­or­ing with kids, she lets go of the hand of her 11-year-old brother, Mo­hamed. He’s the fam­ily co­me­dian, the kid who en­dured the past few years of war in Syria by watch­ing “Tom & Jerry” car­toons in Ara­bic. But he has sud­denly run out of jokes. And Marwa is hug­ging her­self in a beige win­ter coat de­spite the warm spring night.

Ban­dits, she knows, are ca­pa­ble of more than thiev­ery.

“Un­cle,” Marwa says again, on the verge of tears. “What are we go­ing to do?”

Ahmed is tak­ing his niece and nephew to their fa­ther, Is­mail, whofled Syria last year and is now liv­ing in a pas­tel vil­lage called Gmündin Aus­tria. Theirs is a jour­ney prompted by the des­per­a­tion of war. It also re­flects the dys­func­tion of the Euro­pean Union.

That’s be­cause many of the Syr­i­ans and Iraqis land­ing in Greece stand a good chance of qual­i­fy­ing for le­gal asy­lum. But there is lit­tle work and few prospects for aid in this bank­rupt coun­try. Far­ther north, in promised lands such as Aus­tria, France, Ger­many and Swe­den, asy­lum means shel­ter, a gen­er­ous stipend and the prospect of a good job. The Euro­pean Union, how­ever, of­fers no safe pas­sage there. Hence the Black Route. Ahmed Ji­naid stows his smart­phone. “You’ll see your fa­ther soon,” he says, look­ing re­as­sur­ingly at Marwa and Mo­hamed. He mo­tions to two oth­ers to fol­low: his brother-in-law, who has tagged along on the jour­ney; and a Syr­ian teen they took in along the­way.

“It’s okay,” Ahmed says. “God will guide us.”

Twenty days be­fore ar­riv­ing at the Macedonian bor­der, Ahmed, along with his niece, nephew and brother-in-law, had dis­em­barked from a 50-foot plea­sure cruiser on the shore of a tiny Greek is­land, Ti­los.

Seventy-five peo­ple had been herded into the boat meant for 30. Each adult paid the Ukrainian smug­glers $2,000 for the 12-hour trip from Tur­key.

Ahmed and his brother, Is­mail, had al­ready sold vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing of value they owned to help fi­nance the trip. Is­mail’s two cars. Ahmed’s de­liv­ery truck. Af­ter pay­ing smug­glers, Ahmed had a few thou­sand eu­ros left.

If things went pre­cisely as planned, it might be just enough.

On­shore that day, there was a sense of re­lief. Fi­nally, they had made it to Greece. Europe! A sunny peb­ble beach along­side the crys­talline Aegean. Marwa— af­ter spend­ing her sea jour­ney pale and vom­it­ing — smiled un­der her black-and-sil­ver head­scarf. Mo­hamed played cat-and-mouse with the waves, gig­gling as the wa­ter caught his sneak­ers. Look­ing up, he flashed a grin at his Un­cle Ahmed, who was record­ing the scene on his phone.

Their fa­ther had not wanted his chil­dren to come this way. A math teacher be­fore his school closed be­cause of bomb­ings, Is­mail Ji­naid had trav­eled from Aleppo to Aus­tria, fig­ur­ing he would seek asy­lum and bring over his fam­ily with proper visas.

But the plan fell apart. Is­mail was granted only tem­po­rary sta­tus, which didn’t al­low him to spon­sor his fam­ily. So he de­cided to game the sys­tem. If 11-year-old Mo­hamed could get to Aus­tria, he could file for asy­lum. As a mi­nor, he could pe­ti­tion to bring in his mother, who would then try to spon­sor his 16-year-old brother.

EX­O­DUS DES­PER­ATE MI­GRANTS, A BRO­KEN SYS­TEM

TOP: Ahmed Ji­naid is try­ing to lead his niece, nephew and broth­erin-law from Syria to Aus­tria. The fam­ily is strate­giz­ing how to get more mem­bers out of Syria. ABOVE: The Ji­naids walk to­ward the Greek bor­der with­Mace­do­nia, which they will try to cross at night.

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT: The Ji­naid fam­ily’s en­try point to Europe was a beach on Ti­los, a tiny Greek is­land. In the smart­phone photo, Ahmed Ji­naid and his brother-in-law, MostafaHa­jMo­hamed, stand above the beach; the fam­ily ar­rived at the Jas­minHos­tel in Kan­jiza, Ser­bia, but ini­tially left be­cause it was too dirty. They re­turned when they re­al­ized they had few op­tions; the evening at the hos­tel was a chance to recharge more than just them­selves; Ahmed Abd El­hai, a 17-year-old trav­el­ing with the Ji­naids, sleeps on the four-hour bus ride to Ser­bia’s bor­der with­Hun­gary. All but two pas­sen­gers on the bus were Syr­ian refugees.

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