Blog Post

Pushed Across The Border: When Europe Is Not a Choice

Jordan -- She was one of the first welcoming faces I met in Jordan, and the only familiar one.

We had met five years ago in Damascus, on the streets of what was then a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime. We would discuss locations for protests, and meet before dawn to hang the anti-government flag in our neighborhood with local activists, hoping security agents were still asleep.

And like the lingering smog that hung over the city, a sense of furtiveness cloaked every interaction. No one used their real name, not even on social media. It was too risky. We both left Syria in 2012, and shed our pseudonyms soon after. That's how I got to know Bayan Al-Adawi.

We did not meet in person again until September 2015, in Amman. After spending more than three years in the Jordanian capital, Bayan was once again preparing to move, this time to Turkey, where she hoped to find work and stability. Europe was not on her mind, but then again, neither was becoming a possible target for ISIS.

Bayan's friends in Jordan give her a big goodbye at the airport. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Surrounded by friends coming to say goodbye on the eve of her big move, Bayan recounted what it was like to leave Syria. The regime had tightened its clench on protesters and aid activists, and many were detained, forcibly disappeared, or killed, and often their families became targets too. Realizing she was likely next and fearing for her family's safety, Bayan smuggled herself out of Syria and into Jordan.

"It was a very quick decision, and not one I wanted to make," said Bayan."I thought it was a nightmare I could wake from and find myself home again, but unfortunately it wasn't."

Accents and nationalities blur in the crammed seven hills of Amman. Most of the estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan are urban, living outside of the refugee camps. Their existence painfully juts out, however, in daily life, where they are denied the right to work, in an increasingly expensive country with decreasing services for refugees.

"I went from being a very active person in Syria to someone who was doing nothing," Bayan said.

In Damascus, Bayan had worked at the sales department of an IT company, and spent the rest of her time protesting and providing aid to internally displaced people by the war (IDPs). Unable to find work in Jordan, she fell into a state of depression.

She wasn't the only one. Many displaced Syrian activists in Jordan found themselves in the same position. Unable to work and highly qualified, they turned around their predicament and began instead to volunteer with relief organizations aiding the growing influx of Syrian refugees. Bayan and her friends soon formed a small team of their own, Molham Volunteering Team. In Arabic, "Molham" means "inspired" and is also the name of Molham Traifi, a Syrian activist and aid worker detained, tortured, and eventually killed by regime shelling. They dedicated their work to the late Traifi, and the ever growing refugee population.

The small team of ten volunteers providing school supplies and toys to refugee children has grown to an international network of more than 100 volunteers providing aid and support to Syrian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Volunteers from the Molham Team host an activity for Syrian school children in Mafraq, Jordan. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

"These three years have been the most important in my life, learning what it means to be a volunteer," said Bayan. "And while I can help refugees here - true - I can't grow professionally."

So once again Bayan packed her bags, this time in hopes of finding a break in Turkey, leaving behind her family and friends in Amman. Looking back into the room where her friends from Molham Team were preparing dinner, she said she never would have left Jordan if she had been able to find a job there.

"Jordan has a place in my heart, I can't deny that," said Bayan. "I hope I find what I'm looking for."

Bayan hugs her mother goodbye at the Amman airport before leaving for Turkey. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

As she got ready to leave, I asked if she had thought about continuing to Europe, like many of our friends had. She shook her head, saying it was not in her plans at all.

"It is too difficult for me to live in a country that is far from Syria," Bayan said.

Turkey -- Four months later, Bayan and I sat down in a cafe in Istanbul.

Her somber expression was in sharp contrast with the bright winter day outside and upbeat chatter around us. A week ago, I'd received a Facebook message from her when I asked if she was still in Gaziantep, the southeastern Turkish city where most Syrian activists reside, and where I thought she was working.

"I am in Istanbul. I may be leaving Turkey soon."

Realizing I may not catch her in time, I booked a flight to Istanbul. After leaving Amman, Bayan had landed a position as a translator with a civil society organization in Gaziantep, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Things seemed to be working as planned, finding a job and a community in Turkey. One month in, however, everything changed.

Founded in April 2014 by a group of citizen journalists, RBSS has been documenting abuses committed by ISIS in Raqqa since the self-proclaimed caliphate took over the Syrian city in January 2014. Its members also report on civilian casualties by Assad regime shelling, rebel groups, and the U.S. led coalition. RBSS works anonymously, with their members in Syria secretly filming and documenting abuses to be published by their members outside. They have become a reliable source for news from where few journalists dare to enter, granted the 2015 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and have been declared an "enemy of god" by ISIS.

Long targeted by ISIS and with at least two members executed inside of Syria, RBSS now faced a new glaring atrocity: assassinations in Turkey. On October 30, 2015, 20-year-old Ibrahim Abd al-Qader and 17-year-old Fares Hamadi were killed in an apartment in Urfa, southeastern Turkey. Abd al-Qader was an early member of RBSS, and both Abd al-Qader and Hamadi were members of the Syrian news group Eye on the Homeland. Two days later, ISIS released a video claiming responsibility for the murders, and saying it was a warning for "all apostates." Fear rippled.

Fares Hamadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader in Urfa. Photograph provided by Sarmad Al Jilane

"My first reaction was selfish," said Bayan. "It happened in Turkey, and I'd only been working with RBSS for one month. I told them I wanted to quit."

Yet, she didn't. Bayan identifies as an anti-regime activist, and said that far too often media attention is swerved in the direction of ISIS and its offenses, rather than the regime's. But translating the long reports from Raqqa on the atrocities committed against civilians by ISIS, and her unfazed colleagues triggered something in her that had been missing. She called it a sense of "belonging" to the team, and their effort to document ISIS crimes regardless of the personal danger.

"I've had many moments of weakness where I'd think, that's it, I don't want to work with this campaign anymore. I want to go back to my normal life," said Bayan. "But something just makes me hold on tighter."

I want to stop being afraid, stop looking over my shoulder. But I'll be back, Bayan said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

On a Sunday afternoon in December 2015, Syrian journalist and filmmaker Naji Jerf was shot and killed in Gaziantep. Assassinated in broad daylight in the center of the city's bustling business and NGO district, the murder sent chills and anguish throughout the tight knit Syrian community in exile.

Jerf was the editor-in-chief of an independent monthly magazine, Hentah, and had recently produced and directed a documentary on ISIS. He was also a husband, a father of two, and a revered friend to many activists in Gaziantep, including the RBSS team. Jerf was murdered a few hours before he was set to move to France with his family. No one claimed the assassination, but ISIS supporters celebrated his murder on social media.

Naji Jerf, editor-in-chief of Hentah magazine. Photograph provided by Sarmad Al Jilane

"We never thought it would reach a stage where they (ISIS) would actually kill us (journalists) outside of Syria," said Sarmad Al Jilane, one of the founding members of RBSS.

Sitting across from Bayan, Sarmad recounted how initially, the team had felt safe operating in Turkey. He said by the end of 2014, however, Urfa would jokingly be referred to as a province of ISIS.

The joke is not far from the truth. The Turkish city is only 160 kms away from Raqqa, ISIS's self-proclaimed capital, and is allegedly home to many of their spies. A Syrian social worker in Urfa who requested to remain anonymous said ISIS has capitalized on the large number of refugees in the city who are struggling to make ends meet.

While bilingual Syrians and those with aid experience may find employment with NGOs, they are an elite few. Menial labor jobs don't pay enough to survive in Turkey, and across the border Syrian land is bombarded by the U.S. led coalition, the Russians, the regime, and strangled by a draconian ISIS rule. By offering some of those struggling a steady amount of money, ISIS has created a network of direct and indirect informants in Urfa.

"They are too poor to seek asylum elsewhere, and too afraid to return to Syria," said the social worker. "Most of the information they provide is to track and threaten ISIS defectors, but it's also to monitor anti-ISIS activists and organizations."

The brutality and overtness of the assassinations were a shock, said Sarmad, but in a sense it wasn't a surprise. The RBSS team knew all too well they were being watched by ISIS, even in Turkey. Daily death threats to their social media inboxes and personal phone numbers had almost become a norm. Turkish authorities' alleged inaction only made matters more alarming.

A member of the RBSS team who requested to remain anonymous described coming home once to his apartment in southeastern Turkey to find the lock broken, and the black ISIS flag spray painted on a wall. After changing the locks, he received a photo in his inbox of the new lock, with the caption "We are always watching you." He went to the Turkish police station in his neighborhood to ask for their help, and was told they only investigate crimes, and not cases that were only "threats."

"A Turkish police officer asked if I were Muslim, and I said yes. He then asked sarcastically, so why do you fight the Islamic State," said the activist exasperatedly. "Sometimes I am more afraid of the Turks than I am of ISIS."

In a statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Midde East and North Africa program coordinator, said Syrian journalists who fled to Turkey seeking safety are not safe at all, and called on Turkish authorities to increase measures to protect Syrian journalists in Turkey.

Bayan comforts Sarmad as he recounts the stories of his assassinated friends. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Some members of the team took matters into their own hands. After exhausting legal means of asking for protection, one of RBSS's founders decided he had enough. In July 2015, Hussam Eesa boarded a rubber dinghy to the Greek coast, putting his fate in the hands of a smuggler and a treacherous journey that has claimed the lives of thousands.

"Our friends could have been protected and saved if they had been assisted to leave to Europe or anywhere safer than Turkey," Eesa said.

The route Hussam took, along with more than a million other asylum seekers in the past year, is no longer an option. The Balkan route is shut, and approximately 50,000 refugees are bottlenecked in Greece. On March 18th, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal to return asylum seekers who cross illegally into Greece back to Turkey, a "safe" country for refugees, in exchange for increased aid and political concessions. The agreement comes as Turkey suffers its fifth terror attack in the past six months and as a war against Kurdish militants in the southeast has left at least 300 civilians dead.

UNHCR has criticized the deal, saying it is not consistent with European or international law. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have closed their activities on the Greek island of Lesvos as a refusal to be associated with "this cynical mechanism" that "formalises a system that is jeopardising the right to seek for asylum in complete disregard of humanitarian and protection needs." For the approximately 3 million refugees left in Turkey, it seems there is no where to go now.

For the RBSS team, the tragic assassinations in Turkey have shed light on the danger they face, and have now pushed European governments to issue protection visas. Perhaps in less danger than her colleagues, Bayan was still considered to be at risk. The dreams she had months ago of settling down in Turkey are folded aside and packed for an uncertain future abroad.

The hardest feeling is having to pack your bag every time to move somewhere a little safer, with little gaps in between each time you pack, Bayan said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

"I was forced to leave Syria, and now this situation is bringing back that same feeling. That I don't want to leave, but I have to," Bayan said.

It's not Sarmad's first displacement either. After being internally displaced in Syria from his hometown of Deir Ezzor to Raqqa, and again to Gaziantep in Turkey, he wondered if this would be the last time he is forced to resettle, and if he will feel the same nostalgia for Gaziantep that he feels for Syria.

"My exile is not in moving from place to place," said Sarmad. "My exile is in the people I keep losing, more and more everyday."

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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