In contrast to his calm and smiling son, Abu Majd was tense. His hands didn't stop moving if they were not lighting another cigarette. The pair had arrived in Istanbul only a few hours after being deported from Egypt. The encounter had landed them together with a German activist, who took them to a house used by Turkish activists and musicians as a free cultural center. That’s where we met and heard the remarkable story of this father and son.
Abu Majd is in his mid-fifties; he was displaced from the Syrian Golan to al-Dwilaa in the Damascus countryside. He had worked for over 20 years as a concierge in one of Damascus' upmarket hotels. Majd, 19, is his eldest son. When the family decided to leave al-Dwilaa last March, Majd was completing his first year at Tourism college.
“The national defense forces were bothering us more and more every day, annoying both me and my children. Majd was bothered on more than one occasion for refusing to volunteer with them,” he said.
The family went to Lebanon first, then, after a while, flew to Egypt.
“Some friends and family went there ahead of us, and had told us about the ease of life there in comparison with other countries, especially Lebanon. My only concern was to find a financially stable opportunity to save money, find work and enrol my children back in school and university,” Abu Majd explained.
The first few months in Egypt were tolerable; Abu Majd found a job in Alexandria right away and he was able to enrol his young children in school. The older children started working on the acceptance procedures for college.
The family was settling in to life in Egypt when their new lives were interrupted by the army takeover that overthrew President Mohammad Morsi. Harassment against Syrian residents in Egypt began to increase from both Egyptian residents and officials, including the police. Abu Majd lost his job and then was shocked when the university acceptance for Majd and his sister at the new semester at university was revoked. He began to reconsider his options.
“I heard many stories about Syrians who were able to reach Europe by sea, and had their status settled and were able to start work and study straight away," he said. Staying in Egypt was no longer an option, as harassment was not limited to his older son and daughter.
"I have a daughter in preparatory school, and she was being treated terribly by one of the teachers just because she is Syrian,” Abu Majd recalled, sighing deeply as he lit a new cigarette.
"One of my friends introduced me to a middleman who works with smugglers; a refugee from Golan like me. He assured me that the smugglers could get me to Europe, and wouldn't take a penny before guaranteeing that I had reached there. From there I could acquire visas for my whole family as soon as I got asylum papers, something that I thought would be a routine procedure that would take weeks at most."
"The idea seduced me. I collected the rest of my savings and borrowed some money from friends and relatives living in Egypt. I managed to collect $6,000 with my cousin, who would pay the smuggler in the case the process worked, and my son and I reached Europe. I also left some money with my wife and other four kids to live with. Then we waited."
After two weeks, they were told to move. Abu Majd was taken, along with dozens of companions planning to take the same journey, to what they assumed was a safe apartment, then to another facing the sea. That's when the Egyptian police raided, and all were arrested.
Abu Majd and his son spent 20 days in police detention in Alexandria in very harsh conditions. Medical care was prohibited and they were denied their rights to legal counsel. Their identification papers were taken from them, including their passports, Syrian identity cards, as well as Egyptian residency documents and the asylum cards that had been given to them by the U.N. refugee agency. After a time, they were given a choice: Stay arrested under Egyptian national security laws or be deported to a country that doesn’t require an entrance visa. Abu Majd chose the second option for he and his son.
"We are lucky, somehow. At least we had a financial margin that allowed us to choose deportation. Some of our mates didn't have that choice, and we don’t know how long they will stay arrested," he said.
Abu Majd chose Turkey because he heard that the Syrians situation was better than other countries. As soon as the flight booking was confirmed, he and his son were driven to the deportation room in Cairo's airport, where they stayed until flight time.
"We weren’t able to retrieve all of our documents; we only got our passports that were returned too us in the deportation room in the airport.
They didn’t return our Syrian identity cards or our refugee cards. I don’t know what they do with them. Do they sell them?" he asked.
On their first day in Istanbul, in early November, Abu Majd was tense. He was facing pressure to address his family's needs; he didn't know how or when he would get a job, how he could continue his children's education or if he could provide his family with a decent life in Turkey. He asked many people about ways to get to Europe through smuggling, and grew frustrated when people warned that it was not as easy or fast as he imagined. He kept repeating that he would get to Europe even if he had to swim, and, at other times, said he would return with his family to Damascus, whatever the cost.
After over 6 weeks in Istanbul Abu Majd and his son are still dependent on the hospitality of the Turkish activists. He is still looking for a job that will allow he and his family to hold out.