Before the start of the war, I never thought about leaving Syria. I had just been accepted to law school. My family had several businesses and life was great. Then the revolution started and it became dangerous to simply be a man. A trip to the supermarket could end with a bullet from a sniper or disappearing from a checkpoint to never be seen again.
I travelled to Lebanon in the hopes that things will soon calm down. But they didn’t. More friends disappeared. Family members died. And died. And died. It wasn’t really safe in Lebanon either. And we weren’t wanted and people made sure we knew it. There was no chance to work. So like thousands of others, I decided I would try my luck and finding peace, safety, and security in Europe. I knew I had to pass through death to find life.
I took a flight — which had mostly Syrians in it — to Algeria. From there we were packed into trucks like sheep to Tunisia where we waited. And then packed into trucks like sheep again to Libya. Throughout this journey we were surrounded by armed men… Chased by wild pigs… And met people waiting in tents in the desert — sometimes for a month — all looking for the same thing I was… Life. Families were separated from each other. It was chaos.
In Libya we were packed tightly onto a wooden fishing boat. There was about 450–500 of us on the boat. Another 500 on the boat that followed right next to us. The boats were not made to handle that many people and ours started to take on water. As a woman gave birth, we sat next to the burning hot engine filling buckets of water to hand to the people upstairs to dump back into the sea.
It was blue as far as the eye could see. Blue skies. Blue seas that seemed to extend forever and ever. As we took on more water the weight began to shift. I was scared. Very scared. Not for me really but for the women and children that surrounded me. I kept asking myself if they would all die. It was like this for hours before we were finally rescued and brought to Italy.
In Italy I took the train to Milano. And from there the train to France. And from there the train to Belgium. And from there the train to Holland. And from there the train to Germany. And then finally, the train to Denmark. Throughout these 11 days I barely slept out of fear of being caught… Sometimes I took a quick nap in a bathroom or the park. It wasn’t until I reached Denmark and turned myself in to the Asylum service that I could breathe. I found life. I was safe. I was reborn again.
There are certain experiences that leave you knowing that from that moment forward, things will never be the same. I’ve had several of those in my life, but there is one that stands out from the rest. It was 11:30 p.m when my cousin Nayef called to tell me that a ship had sank off the coast of Lesvos and my cousin Fatima, her husband, and two children were missing. They rescued her other two children earlier. We needed to find answers and didn’t know how so I posted in an Arabic group made for refugees called Karajat Al-Mashantateen asking for anyone that could help. That’s when Neda Kadri found me and took on the case.
For the next two days none of us slept. She posted in all the groups. Got in touch with activists. Tried the Red Cross. We tried everything. On Halloween day she got the called that the two children had washed up on the beach. She called me to tell me and I begged her to not tell Nayef until I got to Greece to confirm. They still hadn’t found the parents and we hoped and prayed that they were alive in a hospital somewhere.
By the time I made it to Lesvos a couple days later, the bodies of my cousin and her husband were found on the beach also. The entire family was gone. And it was my job to bury them. Except, there was nowhere to do that. There was no more room in any cemeteries on the island. And so, my cousin, her husband, and their two children laid in a refrigerated truck with about 70 other bodies waiting to find a place to be buried. And they waited. And, waited before finally being buried 3 weeks later.
While we waited I found strength in helping the people that survived the journey that killed my cousin and her family and started volunteering on the coast. We received about 50 boats a day. It was madness. Throughout this time I would send pictures and videos to Neda, who by now was a very close friend I spoke to every free moment I had. We barely slept. There was one night we were so tired we slept and didn’t work the coast. And on that night, 9 people died. I remember feeling so guilty. Did they die because we weren’t there to help? That was the moment that helping people become my heroine. That was the moment I became addicted to helping those in need. I returned to Denmark after the burial but I felt incomplete. I felt guilt. I needed my drug. I needed to be back on the shores helping people. And that need was fulfilled when Neda travelled from the states to volunteer and I followed. From that moment forward she was my partner in crime and we were together 24⁄7 we swam to boats together , cried together, helped people together…
My addiction became hers and our bond just grew and grew until we eventually fell in LOVE
We travelled to Denmark together and she cried for first 48 hours we were there ..
she wanted to return to #LESVOS to help more I wanted to do the same. And she come back from America that is exactly what we did…
By then the Borders had closed and our work became More and More towards humanitarian said As our work Grew, so did our love and we eventually got married with our parents on speakerphone and our fellow volunteers as witnesses
Helping people continues to be the drug that keeps us going Today it’s Lesvos and tomorrow it might be somewhere else but so long as we are together we will continue our journey of serving those in NEED.
For more information on how to support or get involved with Rafat’s organisation visit www.humans4humanity.org