Rejected by the World:
A Refugee’s Journey
Writer: Alana Chloe Esposito
Editor: Allison Geller
Photography: Lucia Fainzilber
Until recently, Thair Orfahli, a convivial Syrian just shy of his 27th birthday, had little to worry about save a tough exam or the travails of young love. Then, war eroded his safety, displaced him and obstructed his collegiate and professional trajectory. Each turn of the screw triggered greater despondency, eventually motivating him to risk his life riding a flimsy boat across the Mediterranean to get to Germany.
Today, while waiting out the lengthy asylum process, he lives in a dormitory for refugees but exists mainly a liminal space between the nightmare he has survived and the bright future he is determined, but not yet able, to forge.
—Editor’s Note: This story has been fact checked to the extent possible.—
The war that has so far claimed over a quarter million Syrian lives, including those of 30,000 children, has also displaced Thair and his entire family, disrupted his studies, and left the recent university graduate feeling squeezed out of the successful future he had long imagined and worked hard to achieve. He has legitimate reason to fear for his life if he returns to Syria. If he did go back, he would find a dilapidated shell where his family home once stood and all of his family members and most of his friends gone.
But as I discovered over hours of Skype conversations with Thair, his story doesn’t fit neatly into the refugee paradigm. The internationally accepted definition of a refugee is someone fleeing persecution. Thair left Syria before the outbreak of violence to study in Lebanon, and then in Egypt, before increasingly desperate circumstances compelled him to seek a better life in Europe. As an educated, cosmopolitan, and digitally connected young man jockeying to find his professional footing, in some ways he has more in common with the stereotypical millennial than he does with the stereotypical refugee struggling to subsist in poorly provisioned camps or unable to flee the violence of his home country altogether.
Thair’s story, like that of any person’s life, is too complex to fit into any one category. It also calls into question the historical distinction between “migrant” and “refugee” when looking at the current migration crisis, the largest since World War II. Underlying the statistics, politics and media syntheses are stories like Thair’s, remarkable because they are so easy for us to imagine.
City of Jasmine
The youngest child of an army general named Tayser and his wife Yusra, Thair grew up like any other kid from a middle class family. The family lived in a large, traditionally styled house built around a central courtyard in Joubar, a suburb of Damascus. Jasmine abounded in his neighborhood and he adored how its scent sweetened the air during his early morning walks to school. On a typical day he might be found indulging his passions for soccer and archery, hanging out with friends after school or picking up some spices at the souk for the dinner his mother was preparing. Sometimes he helped out at his brother’s car dealership, dreaming of the day he would be old enough drive off in one of the them.
Thair left home at the age of 19 to attend The Beirut Arab University, a well-respected private institution in Lebanon. In doing so, he put himself on track to gratify his mother’s wish that he become a lawyer. He wanted to study international human rights law and use that knowledge to investigate his government’s longstanding human rights abuses.
Thair admitted to being a little nervous about leaving Syria. He shared a tight bond with his mother and eight older siblings, which had grown even stronger after their father died of a heart attack when Thair was 13. Away from his family for the first time, he missed them intensely, but made good use of the cheap taxis that could get him home to his “beloved city of jasmine” in about two hours. On weekends he often met his family at their second home in Madaya, a mountainous area near the Lebanese border, where he took breaks from his studies to watch the sun rise over the majestic landscape while drinking coffee on the balcony.
In Lebanon, Thair’s life was just like that of any other student: attending classes, enjoying the new freedom to party to his heart’s content, and making new, mostly Syrian, friends. At the ice cream parlor where he worked for extra spending money, his honesty and work ethic earned him the owner’s respect and before long he was managing the store. Overall, he was happy.
Meanwhile, back at home, a pro-democracy movement brewed as the wave of youth-led demands for a life of greater dignity and liberty, known as the “Arab Spring,” spread across the region. The peaceful demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad resonated with Thair, who describes the movement as “a demand for justice and fair treatment, a demand for freedom, without which we lose our humanity.” Still, he refrained from taking any political action because “many people who complained about the regime were disappearing quickly.”
In the summer of 2011, between his sophomore and junior years, violence erupted across Syria as the pro-democracy protesters began to take up arms in response to the regime’s use of overwhelming force to quell their dissent.
Initially led by a group of defected armed forces members known as the Free Syrian Army, the uprising quickly grew in complexity as well as barbarity as the opposition fractured into competing militias united only by their hunger for Assad’s demise. Early hopes for a smooth transition of power to a less authoritarian government petered out once Assad unleashed a ruthless, retaliatory campaign of barrel bombing and sieges with disregard for civilian safety. Meanwhile, maniacal zealots subscribing to a radical interpretation of Islam and a 7th-century worldview exploited the chaos to gain a strong foothold on power. Today Daesh, or ISIL, controls one-third of Syrian territory, including a considerable amount of its oil. Various outside states with opposing agendas have meddled on behalf of all sides since the early stages of conflict, rendering it all the more intractable. The United Nations accuses all parties to the conflict of targeting civilians, using chemical weapons, and committing rape, torture and other heinous acts globally outlawed as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Against this backdrop, Thair’s family grew increasingly unsettled, but throughout the first year of violence they remained relatively safe on the outskirts of Damascus. He went home for vacation as usual in the summer of 2012, helping his brother run the car dealership and spending time with friends and family.
Until one afternoon in July when a bomb exploded very close to his home, blowing out the windows and damaging its structural integrity. He happened to be home with his mother and sister, the only one of his siblings still living there. “I took them to hide in an underground garage while the attack on our neighborhood continued for five days,” Thair recalled.
When the violence finally subsided, the three of them emerged traumatized but physically unscathed. They fled to Beirut, where his mother found an apartment to rent. He regrets not having grabbed a few of the framed family photographs that adorned the mantel and a record or two from his father’s beloved music collection, but it never occurred to him in the moment that he would never see his home again.
Walls Crumbling Down
In September, Thair resumed classes at The Beirut Arab University as expected, but by that time Syria’s troubles were following its citizens across borders. He says that Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia group backed by Iran and closely aligned with the Assad regime, has long been cooperating with the Syrian secret service. They reportedly carry out attacks on behalf of the Syrian government against anyone suspected of anti-Assad sympathies, especially young men like Thair who had evaded their compulsory military service.
To assuage his mother’s concern for his safety, Thair moved to Alexandria a few weeks into the semester to finish his degree at the university there. Egypt, they reasoned, was not too far away and its universities were not only good, but also affordable—crucial for a family with limited financial means. Thair found Alexandria University inferior to his old one, but “not bad.” He admits to letting his grades slip a little, preoccupied as he was with the daily reports of human, cultural and material devastation coming out of Syria. He grew increasingly concerned for his family back home. Being farther away from them distressed him, as did missing the friends he had made in Beirut, but he persevered.
To his unexpected delight, he discovered that a fiery Italian friend of his named Sara had recently moved to Cairo to work for the Italian embassy. Several years earlier, the two had clicked instantly upon meeting in Damascus, where Sara took classes one summer as an exchange student, their mutual exuberance transcending the language barrier.
He began visiting her often. Cairo’s horrendous pollution aggravated his asthma, but the city redeemed itself by offering the company of an old friend and the chance to make new ones. Through Sara, Thair met many other Europeans, including a German girl he dated. Interacting with this cosmopolitan coterie helped him improve his English. More importantly, it exposed him to European culture and lifestyle and inspired a pipedream to one day pursue graduate studies in Germany. The summer before his final semester, he moved into the spare room in Sara’s flat and volunteered for the refugee solidarity network she had established, independent from her work at the embassy. The NGO supported refugees who were living in Egypt, but Thair worked specifically with Syrians, witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of the war on compatriots worse off than he. “It made me realize how lucky I was,” he recalled.
After graduating in January 2014, Thair needed to find a job that would sponsor a work permit so he could stay in Egypt beyond the six months left on his student visa. With his degree, he would have been able to practice law if he were Egyptian, but because we was a foreigner, the lawyers’ association in Cairo (somewhat akin to the bar association) demanded documentation from the Syrian equivalent stating that he was a licensed lawyer. It was impossible to return to Damascus to obtain such documentation and there was no way to do so remotely. So, he applied to several international human rights and humanitarian assistance NGOs, but none panned out. When his student visa expired, he took odd jobs under the table, but grew increasingly stressed about his future. With the war dragging Syria down to ever greater depths of hell, going home was not an option, and neither, apparently, was staying in Egypt.
Still, the thought of moving to Europe never crossed his mind until a pickpocket stole his passport in February 2015. Syrian passports currently fetch between $500–$2,000 on the black market because asylum seekers from other countries believe Syrian refugees get preferential treatment. When Thair reported the theft to the police, they excoriated him for overstaying his visa and threatened to deport him if they caught him again without valid papers, rather than logging and investigating it.
Though Syrians fleeing the war had previously found Egypt welcoming, Thair says, they became subject to “discrimination, abuse, violence and [arbitrary] deporta- tion” after General Sisi assumed the presidency in June 2014. The police accused Thair of lying, he says, “and started screaming about Syrians overrunning Egypt and stealing their jobs.”
To Thair’s insistence that he faced almost certain death if they sent him back to Syria, the police retorted, “Sorry, it’s the law.”
“I explained to them that I studied the law and have great respect for it, but some things [like not getting killed] are just more important,” he told me, his voice cracking with emotion. The police threatened to arrest him if he persisted arguing. “I couldn’t believe they didn’t care if I died,” he said. “We all speak the same language, we all pray to the same god, I thought the Egyptians were my brothers…”
More problematic still, the Syrian embassy in Cairo refused to issue him a new passport, saying he must first return to Syria and enroll in the military. Without a passport, he could never obtain a visa to stay in Egypt.
Not knowing what else to do, he appealed to the UN Refugee Agency. They conferred on him refugee status, giving him the right to stay in Egypt, but not to work. He knew he couldn’t live long on the $30-per-month stipend provided by UNHCR. He would have to leave.
Lost at Sea
Thair examined his options. He knew that the 4 million Syrians already seeking refuge in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon had long exhausted the limited resources available in those countries. The camps hardly provided enough food, let alone the chance to obtain a work permit and build a life. For years he had dreamed of trying life in Berlin. Now it seemed not like a student’s fantasy, but his best chance for survival.
He was well aware that many people had drowned at sea because the smugglers’ ramshackle boats are dangerously unfit to ferry people across the Mediterranean. (The figure currently stands at 3,440.) But given his predicament, it seemed a risk worth taking.
Human traffickers swarmed around Alexandria like vultures, preying on the influx of desperate refugees. Thair had no trouble finding one with a decent reputation. He spent the next three months saving the $2,000 smuggler’s fee with help from family and friends. Then, he deposited his laptop, books, clothes and other prized possessions with Jakob, a German friend living in Cairo, for safekeeping, with instructions to send them to his family if he didn’t make it.
On May 17, Thair made his way to Rashid (Rosetta in English), the fabled port city 40 miles east of Alexandria, continuing on to a decaying old farm near the coast. Some 100-odd other refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, were already waiting in a barn so squalid that Thair says the stench will stay with him forever. “I had never known until the moment I walked in and saw families sleeping amongst the animals what it felt like to be dehumanized.”
Many of the refugees had been there for days or even weeks waiting for the journey to begin, but Thair, who had been tipped off, knew exactly when to arrive and only had to wait a few hours. Shortly after midnight, their overseer ordered them to pack into the back of a putrid truck normally used to transport farm animals and drove them to a nearby beach. It was Thair’s second attempt at leaving. A month earlier he had wound up in jail for two nights after the police intercepted that same truck en route.
This time, the truck made it to the beach as planned. From the shore, he squinted in the feeble moonlight to make out the silhouette of the 40-foot wooden skiff that would supposedly deliver him to Sicily in five days. The smuggler barked orders at the travellers to wade thigh-deep into the dark sea, hoisting their possessions and any small children on their shoulders, and silently climb aboard.
Thair contemplated how this deceptively benign sea had swallowed several thousand souls attempting the same voyage he was about to undertake. To quell the fear welling in his gut as he removed his shoes and stepped into the cool water, he focused on anything but the present moment. He recalled the juiciness of the wild blackberries he used to pick in the mountains of Madaya and conjured visions of his family safely reunited in the near future. He also prayed to god for protection.
A piercing scream punctured his reverie. It emanated from a Sudanese man named Khaled who had banged his foot against the boat’s engine as he tried to climb aboard. The trafficker in charge beat Khaled to silence him, but the injured man only howled louder. Thair, who had boarded the boat and was looking for a place to sit, rushed over to help. The trafficker now directed his blows at Thair too. Language barriers and the darkness of night added confusion to tension, and it took several moments before anyone understood what was happening. When the screen of someone’s mobile phone illuminated Khaled’s gory foot, Thair gasped in horror and the trafficker withdrew his fist.
“The gash was so bad, I could see white inside,” recalled Thair, who tended to the wound as best he could with alcohol wipes, ointment and a spare shirt for a bandage. “I couldn’t believe [the trafficker’s] inhumane treatment of someone in so much pain.”
Exhaustion and fear subdued the other 153 travelers, who barely uttered a sound as they toweled themselves off and settled in on the floor of the open boat. The damp clothes clinging to his body made Thair shiver, but no physical discomfort could detract from the relief and joy of finally being on his way to the safety and comforts of Europe.
The first day passed without major calamity as the travelers made tepid attempts to distract themselves by playing cards or making up games for the children. At nightfall, the temperature plummeted. Children clustered around Thair, trying to warm their arms in his sleeping bag, which he alone had thought to bring thanks to a tipster in Alexandria. At least the seas were relatively calm.
On the second morning, Thair awoke at the light of dawn and noticed something amiss. The sun was rising on the “wrong” side of the boat, meaning either they were off course or the sun had defied the laws of nature. Persistent inquiries eventually led the captain to admit they had turned around to pick up more people. The skiff dropped anchor on the line between international and Egyptian territorial waters and waited two days for another boat to arrive from Libya with 80 additional asylum seekers.
By this time, the wind had picked up and sea had grown rough. Seasickness spread, especially among the children. Thair gave their mothers all the medicine he had brought with him, although he could have used some himself. He formed a bond with one little Somali girl in particular. “I held her in my arms trying to keep her warm as she wailed through the night,” he recalled.
When the refugees coming from Libya finally arrived, they had great difficulties jumping from one boat to the other, but they all made it, with a few injuries. Now carrying 234 passengers, the skiff sat low in the water, flailing about as the waves heaved, drenching and nauseating everyone on board. Overburdening the small boat with so much extra weight risked everyone’s lives, but the traffickers’ greed trumped their safety concerns. They instructed the passengers to toss their belongings overboard to lighten the load, but it made little difference.
Worse, that day marked Thair’s fourth of a trip expected to take five, and he had progressed less than a quarter of the way. It became clear that he and the others would soon run out of food and bottled water. He cursed himself for obeying the instructions to bring as little as possible, but there was nothing he could now do except conserve his remaining rations even more stringently. Even as he swallowed his last morsel and drank the the stale, yellow-tinged water offered by the captain as emergency provisions, Thair’s optimism held out.
On their ninth day at sea, and Thair’s third without food or water, the motor died. At that moment, hope abandoned him. “We were in god’s hands,” said Thair.
Not long after, an Italian coast guard vessel appeared on the horizon. It picked them up and whisked them to Sicily within 12 hours, a distance that would have taken the refugees’ boat two days with a working motor. Thair stumbled off the boat, unaccustomed to walking on solid ground, and numbly followed the woman who greeted them to a facility where he could eat, shower and rest.
“I’d been wearing the same wet clothes for 10 days and it felt so unbelievably good to get clean,” he remembered, grateful for the fresh clothes someone had donated.
The sense of relief was short lived, however. Thair knew the Italian authorities would register them as refugees the next morning, which according to E.U. law would only make them eligible for asylum in Italy. Like most refugees arriving in economically encumbered Greece and Italy this year, Thair was determined to continue northward. (Germany has since suspended application of this law, known as the Dublin rule, recognizing the additional hardship it places on refugees.)
So after sleeping for a few hours, Thair and a few fellow passengers snuck out of the camp in the middle of the night. When they had walked a safe distance, he sat down on the side of the road and withdrew from his pocket his only remaining possession in the world: a Samsung Galaxy phone.
The first person Thair called was Sara, his old Cairo flatmate, who was now living in New York. Aside from considering her a dear friend, he trusted her to navigate him to safety, knowing she could enlist people to help him both in Italy, where she had grown up, and in Germany, where she had attended university. Moments later his phone started buzzing furiously as What’s App messages poured in from Sara’s Italian friends with maps and bus routes and words of encouragement and advice.
Meanwhile from New York, Sara booked him a train from Sicily to Milan and arranged for her parents to pick him up there and drive him to their home in Modena, near Bologna. They also gave him some money, since without a passport he could not retrieve the funds a brother in Lebanon had wired him through Western Union.
“She’s my angel,” Thair said of Sara.
When Thair arrived in Modena, he was weak and coughing badly. He refused to go to the hospital fearing they might turn him over to the police, so Sara’s parents found a doctor to treat his bronchitis at home. He regained his health over three weeks thanks to the family’s care and hospitality.
Grateful as he was, he was itching to start his new life in Germany. Fearing that Thair would be detained at the border and forcibly fingerprinted in Italy, Sara decided to beg off of work, hop on a plane to Italy and escort him to Germany herself.
Forty-eight hours later she arrived in Modena. The reunion with Thair and her family offered everyone a welcome respite from the stress. After a joyful but brief two days, Thair and Sara set out for Germany by car, which seemed safest considering the proliferation of undocumented passengers had recently prompted the authorities to begin combing the trains regularly. Coincidentally, it was World Refugee Day (June 20).
Sara recognized but ignored the considerable legal risks of human trafficking, not to mention how awkward it would look, as a U.N. employee, if she were caught. A friend picked them up and drove them to a town near the Austrian border. From there, Sara took a train to Innsbruck, Austria, but secured Thair a ride through BlaBlaCar, a service that connects travelers to drivers with a free seat in their car. If the driver, who had been told Thair was an Egyptian tourist, got caught towing an undocumented Syrian he had plausible deniability and would not be held accountable, whereas under Austrian law Sara could have faced five years in prison.
The BlaBlaCar crossed the border without incident and Thair rejoined Sara in Innsbruck as planned, where Jakob picked them up and drove them to his home in Munich. He had flown back from Cairo to help Thair and return his belongings. At the German border Sara and Jakob faced a €200,000 fine, but no prison time. They took the chance and sailed through the checkpoint. To Thair, the highlight of that road trip was riding in a BMW. When his friend let him drive for a bit, Sara delighted in watching him “squeal like a child from excitement.”
They arrived in Berlin several days later, having spent a night in Munich and two in Bonn to break up the trip and visit several friends from their Cairo days. During his few days in Berlin before Sara took him to register for asylum, Thair sought out Syrians who had successfully established themselves in hopes that one might offer him a job in their business or at the very least, welcome him into their community. By night, he partook of the city’s storied party scene, relishing his first taste of German beer. “I wanted to give Thair a bit of time to relax and enjoy his freedom,” Sara told me.
On the day Sara took him to the immigration center, Thair enountered a throng of other refugees and had to wait five hours in line to register. By the end of the day, he walked out holding a certificate granting him the right to stay in Germany while his asylum case was being processed. He also held a train ticket to Bielefeld, an industrial town 6 hours west of Berlin, where his assigned refugee reception center was located.
Safety and Stagnation
From today’s vantage point, the future looks brighter for Thair than it has in years, but continues to lie, at least for a few more months, out of grasp. Six months after arriving in Germany, he remains confined to a refugee camp and can neither enroll in school nor look for a job, under the dictates of his provisional visa. Once in a while, his friends sign him out from the camp for a weekend in Berlin where he can “pretend life is normal,” but the rules only allow him to spend a total of 14 nights away (and only under the responsibility of a German national).
He describes daily life at the moment as, “Okay, but boring. Really boring.” With some books and a laptop donated by a Munich-based association that provides technology to refugees, he has been trying to teach himself German, but complains of little chance to practice because everyone in the camp speaks Arabic. The highlight of his day is when his friends call every day to check on him, he said. “When they smile at me [through Skype], it makes me forget the bad part.”
Otherwise, to overcome the monotony he often rides the bus into town, where he seeks out decent wifi to entertain himself and keep up with world (the camp offers internet, but the connection is frustratingly spotty). Occasionally he treats himself to a shawarma at one of the Turkish cafes, but at €7–10, they are expensive on his €150 monthly government stipend. He looks forward to the day he has a kitchen so he can cook himself shakriya, a yogurt-based dish made with beef, lamb or chicken.
“I’m sad, I’m lost,” he confided to me during one of our conversations. Unaccustomed to idleness, he struggles to bide the time until he can put his education and youthful ambition to use.
Sometime his thoughts turn dark, especially when he has trouble reaching family members, who are now scattered across Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and as of a few weeks ago, a refugee camp in a small village on Germany’s Baltic coast. Thair’s brother Wael arrived from Syria with his wife and two young children by way of Tripoli, Lebanon, Izmir, Turkey and finally Lesvos, the Greek island a stone’s throw across the Aegean. Riding on a rubber dinghy, their journey was mercifully shorter than Thair’s, but still precarious. Wael’s little daughter still quakes with fear at the sight or sound of airplanes because she associates them with explosions.
It is a great comfort to Thair that his relatives arrived safely in Germany, also with financial and logistical help from Sara, but they have been assigned to a different camp several hours away, so they are hardly closer to being reunited. It astounded him that the authorities would not even let him in to greet them the day they arrived—they were only allowed to speak through a fence. “What kind of system is this?” he asked me, not waiting for an answer.
Nonetheless, Thair feels tremendously thankful to Germany for giving him and some of his relatives the chance to rebuild their lives. “The German people are too kind,” he has told me repeatedly, once adding, “So many have showed me love and made me feel welcome.” He credits their compassion for keeping his hope alive.
Thair expects to complete the final step of his asylum procedures by February and receive permanent residency and a three-year work permit. Only then will he be able to get on with his life. “Then, I will be free. Now, I can’t do anything,” he told me with a frustration in his voice.
But things are slowly starting to look up. Since he got his provisional visa a few weeks ago, Thair has been able to take German classes, giving him something to do besides take the free salsa classes offered at a dance studio near his dormitory. Moreover, for the first time since graduating college, Thair is making professional headway. On his latest visit to Berlin, a lawyer introduced to him by a friend promised to help him find a job as soon as he had the necessary paperwork in hand.
“He even offered to let me live in his home to teach me German and help me prepare for a Master’s in international law,” Thair gushed to me the last time we spoke. He sounded nearly incredulous of his luck.
Once he has the educational qualifications and language skills he needs to succeed in Germany, he plans to start working for an international organization or civil society group helping other refugees understand the asylum process and adjust a little more easily to life in their adopted homeland. He is even contemplating starting his own NGO.
“I know what they go through to get here and how lonely they feel, and I want to help them the way Sara and Jakob helped me,” he said.
When Staying is Not an Option
Like the vast majority of people who seek a new life abroad, Thair never wanted to leave home. “I had a good life in Syria,” he said. He would have been happy to stay in Egypt too, “if they had let me.”
At the time of this writing, over 750,000 people seeking refuge had made it to the shores of Europe by sea this year, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and several war-torn nations in Africa. It is hardly by choice that they surrendered their dignity and savings to smugglers and carried their children aboard “floating caskets,” as the Mayor of the Greek island of Lesvos has taken to calling the ramshackle boats.
Intensified fighting in Syria since late summer impelled 218,394 new arrivals in October alone, breaking all previous monthly records. Despite winter weather, the U.N. commissioner for refugees predicts another 600,000 to cross from Turkey to Greece between now and February. Now it’s up to the international community to overcome logistical and economic challenges, and xenophobia, to meet the growing crisis.
It has risen to the occasion before: Austria provided refuge to 188,000 Hungarians in the wake of the 1956 revolution, of whom 35,000 were eventually granted asylum in the U.S. In the 1980s, the United States accepted about 10,000 refugees per month from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By comparison, President Obama recently promised to accept that many Syrian asylum seekers over the course of 2016. The vast majority of the four million Syrian refugees would rather go home than to Europe, said Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, at the Clinton Global Initiative 2015. But she adds that after idly sitting in camps near Syria for years, “they are giving up on the conflict ending anytime soon.”
Speaking for all who have attempted the perilous crossing to Europe, Thair stresses that no one can or should be expected to live in a state of despair forever. As he has told me many times, “That is what drives us to put our lives in god’s hands.”