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Two locals' efforts to quell a global crisis and one refugee's search for freedom

click to enlarge A rubber boat carrying around 50 refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

Photo by Christopher Jahn/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

A rubber boat carrying around 50 refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

Late last month, at least 700 people fleeing war-torn areas of the Middle East are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after their boats capsized. It was just the latest horrid chapter in a humanitarian crisis that's gripped the globe for the last two years amid one of the largest human migrations in modern history.

At the epicenter of this crisis is Greece, which sits on the brink of insolvency with a 24 percent unemployment rate and last year saw more than a million people pass through its borders with the hopes of settling in a more tolerant, stable state. A deal struck in late March between the European Union and Turkey aimed to stem the tide of refugees coming into Europe through Greek shores. But the closing of Greece's borders has had two collateral impacts: It's pushed refugees and smugglers to brave longer, more dangerous sea routes into Europe, and it's left some 55,000 refugees who had already arrived in Greece in a state of legal limbo as they wade through the painstakingly slow process of seeking asylum through an overburdened system.

This was the scene two Southern Humboldt women stepped into in late March looking to help.

Lorraine Carolan, a retired midwife who helped start Redway's health center and has called Southern Humboldt home for more than 40 years, celebrated aher 70th birthday earlier this year. "People wanted to do a big party or something for me," Carolan recalled over the phone this week. "I thought, 'I don't really want to do that.'"

Carolan had been watching closely as the refugee crisis gripped the Middle East and Europe, and for a year had been in close contact with a German woman she'd met while doing aid work in Chiapas, Mexico, who was now in Greece. A short time later, Carolan got together for tea with a longtime Southern Humboldt friend, Marcia Murphy, a certified organic gardener semi-retired from her post managing the nursery at Dazey's Garden Supply in Redway.

Unbeknownst to Carolan, Murphy had been avidly following what was happening in and around Greece, captivated by the breadth of the humanitarian crisis there and consumed by a sense of "wanting to do something bigger" than herself. "She and I met for tea," recalled Carolan, "and she said, 'I want to go to Greece,' and I said, 'I'm going in April.'"

The pair agreed to go together and left without much of a plan, other than to seek out refugees in need of help and to do what they could to provide it. They made their way to the Port of Athens, once the heart of Greece's shipping industry, where 5,500 refugees — Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians — were now living in three camps, some in large shipping buildings but most in tents and cardboard boxes on the docks. "We just showed up and went to the port," Carolan recalled. "It looked like a normal port until we hit one of the first gates that was occupied [by refugees]. Suddenly, it looked like Occupy Oakland or something, except much different. I found somebody who looked like a volunteer and spoke English, and I said, 'Can we help?' She said, 'Oh, yes,' and they put us to work immediately."

For the next month, the pair volunteered with an assortment of nongovernmental organizations. First they spent their days handing out meals and hygiene supplies to the refugees. The language barriers were profound, the women said, as the refugees mostly spoke Arabic and Farsi and they spoke neither. But some folks came forward as translators, like Amjad Alfakuri, a Syrian insurance salesman who'd studied law and medicine before fleeing the country.

Through the translators, Carolan and Murphy began, one by one, to learn refugees' stories: tales of torture and oppression, of traversing hundreds of miles on foot with all of their possessions on their backs, of leaving family and friends, of perilous boat rides and of being exploited by soldiers, police and smugglers at nearly every turn. "I remember a woman who'd been beaten by the Taliban because she'd written a book," Carolan said. "She showed me a picture of the book on her phone because she'd lost all her copies."

The scene was both orderly and chaotic, they said. The refugees were desperate for information about their future but were largely receiving none. "They were languishing — languishing in a twilight zone," Murphy said, adding that most didn't know their international rights or much about the asylum process they'd been thrust into. And the volunteer system was confused and patchwork. The Greek military provided the refugees with three meals a day and the port hired additional security and cleaning crews, they said, but there was little else for them. There was no running water and the entirety of the camps depended on about 25 portable toilets.

Despite the conditions, Carolan said the refugees would dance and play and sing at night. Many would take off their shoes when entering their cardboard dwellings or tents. They forged relationships and treated the few elderly among them with reverence.

After some time, Carolan and Murphy began working with AMURTEL, an organization dedicated to helping women and children in crisis that could take full advantage of Carolan's midwifing skills. The pair helped bathe children and care for new mothers, finding them clean clothes and counseling them on breastfeeding.

The pair returned home in late May forever changed. Both plan to return in the coming months, Murphy to work on a community garden being set up in one of Greece's many camps and Carolan to continue her work with children and mothers through AMURTEL.

Murphy said that until the trip she never fully appreciated the spirit of resilience spawned by crisis, pointing to the things refugee children drew when given paper and colored pencils: trees, hearts, rainbows and houses. Carolan conceded that she arrived in Greece with a bit of a prejudice against Middle Eastern men due to some experiences in her youth. "That's gone," she said. "It's gone. ... The fact is that we as humans have way more in common than not."

Carolan said she will also be forever touched by the kindness that the Greek people have shown those who, desperate for freedom and survival, showed up on their shores. "The exploitation of the refugees was one of the things that struck me so much, that they were being exploited all along the way," she said. "And when they got to that port, they were ready for that exploiting to continue but the Greek people, by and large, met them with the most incredible generosity imaginable."

There were also many friendships that will endure, they said. One of those is with Alfakuri, who remains in a Greek refugee camp desperately hopeful to one day reunite with his wife and children. While waiting in the camps for word of his future, Alfakuri wrote his story and shared it with Murphy and Carolan, who in turn shared it with the Journal. We spoke with Alfakuri last week, reaching him on his Greek cell phone, and he gave his permission to have his story printed here. We've done our best to corroborate the basics of Alfakuri's tale through his Facebook page, YouTube videos and news accounts, but it's impossible for us to fact check it entirely.

We present it to you here simply as one man's story.

'It's the Time'

By Amjad Alfakuri

It's the time of year when my mother's jasmine would be in bloom, with its magnificent white flower and not uniformly popular sweet bouquet.

Like most of the hundreds of thousands of people in camps across Europe, I would describe myself foremost as a human who wants a safe and secure life for my family. I am an Arab. I am a Muslim. I'm a Syrian, but, first, I'm a 35-year-old man. I am a son. I am a brother. I'm a husband, a friend and, for the past three years, a father. My ethnicity, my color, my religion do not define me.

I realize that one of the words I've used elicits fear in many: "Muslim." This upsets me, but I understand its source as the connection of certain events with those who promote them based on their warped interpretation of Islam. I understand that if you live in Paris or Brussels, you've had experiences that could strike fear into anyone. It's easy for me and my fellow Syrian migrants to empathize. We have shared that experience.

We're fleeing a country where, for years, outrages like those in Europe, except on a greater scale, have been happening weekly. In Syria, 500,000 lives have been lost, more have suffered dreadful injuries, and millions of us have fled.

Today I live in a camp on a port in Athens. Most of us are Syrians, but there are Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds, plus a few Iranians, Libyans and others from Africa and the Middle East. Many are professionals or tradespeople, and most have left a good standard of living in fear for their lives. 

Most here share a fundamental belief: that no religious doctrine warrants taking human life. In recent weeks, when senior Islamic State figures have been reported killed, there has been quiet satisfaction among us at its loss. Equally, the Syrians want the regime to fail and those in charge brought to justice.

This may not comfort those who regard all Muslims with suspicion. Atrocities committed in the name of Islam are an abomination. They frighten you and humiliate us. There's nothing in our faith that justifies engaging in violence. Those who do pervert the teachings of Muhammad.

These people are already in your midst. They're misguided, at best, and at worst a force for evil with an appetite for death and destruction that wishes only to engender fear of all Muslims, better to turn man on man. 

My upbringing

I'm from a large Syrian city that is a city no longer. My childhood was wonderful. I am one of three. 

Our upbringing was perfect. My father was a schoolteacher. He taught English, as it happened, and we lived in a spacious apartment. There was no excess, but it was comfortable. We never wanted for the important things: the love of our parents and wider family, and a peaceful neighborhood where people looked out for one another. We ate well because our mother was a good cook and proud of how she fed her family. 

I worked overseas for six years, returning regularly to visit. My father died in 2008, and I needed a good job to support the family. It was no hardship. I liked the work and loved the lifestyle.

At home, the bombings had been increasing. Pro-government militia, ostensibly there to protect the city from Islamic State, started to behave as militia tend to in these situations and the people who they claimed to be protecting had started to fear them.

My mother is in her 70s. Since my father's death, she had lost confidence. She had relied on him. My younger brother had already migrated and was in Germany. I travelled home to spend a few days with her and my sister.

While I was in Syria, I attended a peaceful protest against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Two days later I was arrested. I had no convictions. I had never had any involvement in any form of armed resistance or violence. I got a bail, of sorts, but couldn't leave. 

I was regularly brought in for interrogation. The questioning was neither hostile nor aggressive, just repetitive. It focused on why I'd chosen to work overseas and suggested that I'd been agitating against the regime. I came to realize that as long as I stayed in Syria I'd be harassed.

That and the ferocity of the war helped my wife and I make our decision. Syria would never be a place where our children could get the upbringing that she and I had enjoyed. 

I was in shock. I'd had a fulfilling life over the past six years. I worked hard and was well paid. I had colleagues and clients of all nationalities and creeds. I'd grown accustomed to an open way of life. 

The bribe

When I knew I would not be able to return, I made plans to take my wife and daughter to Turkey. I was living at home but reporting to the barracks every other day. We had some savings. I bribed a local police chief and one night we were escorted to a car that drove us away from the city limits.

We deliberately took a circuitous route to the border. I wanted to go to Antakya, in southern Turkey, where I thought I could get work. It is small but peaceful, and Arabic is widely spoken there.

It was October. The days were warm. My wife was not feeling well — we later discovered that she was pregnant — and I carried my daughter on my shoulders or in my arms. Progress was slow. There was intermittent shelling and the nights were cold. Within four or five days, we crossed the border and reached Antakya. I could get no work, so after a week we took a bus to Iskenderun, a larger port city.

I worked in a small fish factory with other refugees. Our employers knew we were desperate. It was illegal to employ us. They offered us $20.32 for a 16-hour shift, and I was happy to take it.

At the end of the first week, my boss paid me $33.86 for six days and said he would pay the balance the following week. I believed him. The same happened a week later. When I challenged him he told me to, "fuck off back to Syria, if you don't like it."

After three weeks of earning $5.64 a day, I gave up. He didn't care. There would be others more desperate who would replace me.

Not welcome in Turkey

The situation in Turkey worried me. We were not welcome. We felt intimidated. Many people were unpleasant and we were often abused on the street. Maybe it was just in Iskenderun, but I became scared by what would lie ahead if we stayed in Turkey.

I believed it was not a place where I could bring up my family. I would have to consider going all the way to Europe. That scared me, too. The journey would be hazardous and, by this point, we knew my wife was pregnant.

I had some friends who were in Izmir, in western Turkey. It was a long journey — more than 600 miles — and at first I thought it would be too hard for us.

The more time I spent in Iskenderun, though, the worse things became. The hostility toward us Syrians shocked me. I had not expected it. I felt humiliated, hurt and, at times, desolate. I had always been a positive person, but I found I could imagine only the worst.

Our parents had given us a great upbringing. I was an educated man, but my world had unraveled in just a few months. I was desperate for a fresh start that would allow me to give my children the upbringing I'd had. The more desperate my longing for this, the more hopeless my situation appeared. I felt I was becoming unstable. I was physically well but, inside, I was in torment.

The smugglers

My wife and I always made important decisions together. We talked about Europe and the risks involved in trying to get there. We knew we would have to separate the family for it to even be possible. We had limited money, and it would be too dangerous for her and for my daughter to travel. I would leave. They would follow later.

One night, my wife said to me, "The prophet Ibrahim left his wife and son in the desert, and so you must go in search of our new life." I wept. She did not, because she wanted to be strong for me, and it was then that we decided to go to Izmir, to be closer to Greece and Europe. 

Izmir is a large, cosmopolitan city. My friend was able to get me a job, and I worked as a waiter in a small restaurant near the port. I was paid $16.94 a day and earned a little more through tips.

I like to work. I like being busy. The wages were poor, but it meant we were able to get some rest before I'd prepare for the next part of the journey. I was nervous.

Sometimes I felt panicked by the decision that my wife and I had made but I knew that for us to have any hope of realizing our dream, I had to do it.

Smugglers roamed the parts of Izmir where Syrians were most in evidence. I spoke with them. They were all the same. They were vultures. They encircled their refugee prey and waited until we were worn down with anxiety. Then they swooped. A passage cost $1,000. There would be no negotiation.

Through persistence and by bringing a group of 10 together I got the price down to $800 each. We were told to be in Didim, a two-hour bus ride away, on an afternoon in early March, and to be at a particular spot at 11 p.m. There would be no more than 30 in the boat, they said, and the journey would be about 9 miles.

The Journey

The boat left just before midnight on March 8. There were 30 adults and 20 children. We were no more than 500 meters from the shore when another small boat pulled alongside. The smuggler operating our craft jumped into the sea, was picked up by his colleagues and abandoned us.

There was some light from the almost full moon, but it was quite dark. It had all happened so quickly that, at first, our boat swung violently to one side before I, closest to the motor, took control.

There was no immediate panic. Quickly, one friend told people to stay calm and asked me to keep the boat on course. He had a compass on his phone and used that to ensure we were going in the right direction. Once he'd established that we were heading toward Greece, he asked people to trust him and me to get them to safety. 

I know people who believe that we all have the capacity to react well in a crisis. I had never steered a boat in my life. Somehow, it seemed the most natural thing for me at that moment. When I looked at the silhouettes of adults and children crouched on the boat in front of me, I saw my wife and daughter. To keep myself calm and focused, I imagined that every adult was my wife and every child my darling little girl.

About an hour later we were approached by a large vessel. It had lights. It was the Greek coastguard. It was our first piece of good fortune.

Good to be in Europe

They guided us to Farmakonisi, the nearest island. It is not inhabited other than as a base for the Greek army and navy. The soldiers greeted us. They brought us food, water and blankets. Army doctors checked the children and a couple of elderly people in our group. I felt a wave of elation. This was what it felt like to be cared for, to be with people who were interested in your welfare.

When I think back to that moment, it was as if we had won. That was the overwhelming feeling. Somehow, after seemingly endless months of being beaten back at every turn, we had claimed a victory that was notable because it was rare.

It felt good to be in Europe, and when the coastguard then brought us to the island of Leros I believed I would soon be settled somewhere and be able to send for my wife and daughter.

But within days we were on the water again, this time on a ferry to mainland Greece and the port of Piraeus, on the capital's edge. The 50 of us who'd been thrown at the mercy of the Aegean Sea by the smugglers had formed a bond, and we travelled as a group. On March 11, we arrived in Athens.

Facing a long stay in Athens

I was shocked by what faced us. There were thousands of refugees on the dock. Again, I felt overcome by fear. The elation of being in Europe washed away.

My vision of what would await us once we reached Greece receded to no more than that: a vision of something that could never, it seemed, become real. My friends felt it, too. When we talked on those first nights in Athens, we let slip how our fears had returned.

Some wanted us to go immediately to the border, but I wasn't sure. There seemed to me extra security in being in the Greek capital, and no one knew what conditions were at the Macedonian border. Were we to move as a group, children included, we needed to be certain that it would be a quicker and safer route to our ultimate aim. I undertook to go and establish the situation. I did and it was grim. Political developments and the unconscionable agreement between the European Union and Turkey [closing Greece's borders to refugees] left us facing a long stay.

I've now been in Athens 11 weeks. My wife, now heavily pregnant, and daughter are in Turkey. My mother and sister are in Syria, and my brother is in Germany. The family is geographically splintered but intact. It is an Arab family, a Muslim family, but most importantly it's just a family — one that, wherever life's journey takes us, will remain committed to its belief in the primacy of human life.

Whether you're Christian or Muslim, whether you read the Koran or the Bible, life is sacred, and your duty is to protect it and value it above everything. I do. My wife does. My brother and sister do. Our mother does. Our father did.

The West must allow those of us fleeing violence to become part of their communities. We are frightened. We are running away from precisely what it is that the extremists use to strike fear into the West. When I'm trying to sleep, I think about how I want to contribute to that effort to protect and value human life. That, my family and my mother's jasmine plant.

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