Last month, as US border patrol agents began rounding up Central American women and children denied asylum, a small group of international peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence boarded a plane for Helsinki, Finland, to visit two longtime Iraqi friends who fled Baghdad last summer and somehow completed a perilous seven-week journey over land and sea to reach this northern seaport. Negotiating our way from the airport in Helsinki to Laajasalo, a small island and suburb where we were to stay with a Finnish journalist, we crossed a frozen and snow-covered Baltic Sea, as white flakes swirled in the streetlights and the temperature dropped to minus 25 degrees Celsius, a long, long way from Baghdad.
Our friends Mohammad and his teenage son, Omar, come from a small farming village where they grow okra. Last autumn, like hundreds of thousands of others, they were part of the swollen river of refugees whose headwaters sprang from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where endless war has devastated society and local violence has left so many people at grave risk. The journey to Europe is not merely a long, exhausting trip. It is treacherous from the start.
To begin with, while leaving their country of origin, people risk their lives traveling through contested parts of their country or over roads controlled by militias or warlords known to capture and kill people of their ethnicity or religious sect. Risks, we can be sure, they wouldn't undertake except out of desperation. All of this merely to enter Turkey. In Istanbul, where refugees must try to find a trustworthy smuggler, make a deal with one of his agents, and pay a hefty fee -- held in a sort of escrow until a specific, agreed-upon part of the trip is completed -- Turkish police patrol the streets and coffee houses looking for migrants. Iraqis are particularly at risk. If captured in Turkey and identified, they are imprisoned and eventually turned over to Iraqi authorities. And in the charged, sectarian atmosphere in Iraq, refugees shudder to think what might follow.
From Turkey, Mohammad and his son planned to travel by bus to a port town -- "Well, it's not really a town, just a place at the beach" -- and launch a rubber dinghy onto the Aegean Sea at night. Their hope was to reach Farmakonisi, a tiny, largely uninhabited Greek island five and three quarter miles from the Turkish coast.
Leaving Istanbul is itself like crossing open seas. It involved a nine-hour bus trip. The first trick is getting on the bus without being captured by police, and then again eluding police while traveling out of the city. No small feat. This isn't a tourist bus or a standard bus route where you gather with other passengers trying to blend in at a regular, authorized location. It's an empty mini-bus into which twenty refugees cram themselves and their luggage all at once. Not an easy thing to hide. "The bus, "Mohammad told us, "will wait 2 minutes. No more." Of course, people are anxious and on edge. He described three failed attempts to successfully leave Istanbul. In one attempt, the smuggler's agent assigned a meeting place, then changed it four times over the next couple of hours, until the group, which included women and young children, crouched in the dark on the edge of a wood, looking down a dirt path to a street corner where, at a specified time, the bus was supposed to appear.
According to the smuggler's agent's directions, a phone call would alert the refugees that the bus was approaching the appointed pickup spot. In the meantime, they should organize themselves into four sub-groups of twenty people, the first sub-group dashing out when the first bus appears. By this point, however, and despite the best efforts of Mohammad and other group leaders, such discipline was beyond them. Sleep-deprived, frightened, and hungry, too many people ran out, and the mini-bus fled without boarding anyone, forcing the smuggler's agent to reschedule the attempt for another day and leaving the refugees with nothing to show for their effort but an unfulfilled promise.
On another attempt, the refugees successfully boarded only to be spotted by police as they left the city. Two of the four buses were apprehended. In the third bus, Mohammad and Omar watched as their driver swerved recklessly around the police and drove breakneck down the road. "He has to do this," Mohammad explained. "For him it is life or death because it is a twenty-year prison sentence if you are caught." In the end, this attempt also failed, when the group was rounded up by police after being delivered to the beach. Mohammad describes what happened:
After a long wait, some tourists came down the side of the hill and saw