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
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.