I am Amira: A storytelling experiment
Week 3 – The trip across the sea
by Anna Austen
Setting the Scene
Amira is a 13 year old girl from Aleppo in the North of Syria. The country had a civil war for four long years. Aleppo has seen some of the worst of the fighting. Part of the town is now under the control of ISIS – the other part is under the control of the government run by Assad. Both sides are bombing and causing casualties every day.
Ninety-five percent of the population of Syria are not involved in the war but it is affecting every part of their life. Many no longer know which side to support. Twelve million Syrians have had to leave their homes. Some are still in refugee camps in Syria, but by September 2015 over 4 million have left Syria. Many are in Turkey, Jordan and Palestine. However in the first part of 2015 many thousands have started making a longer journey towards Europe. This story tries to take a look at the reasons why this is happening.
Over the past two weeks Amira and her family have escaped Aleppo into Turkey. They stayed some time in the Coastal town of Iskenderun. Then it was decided that her father, Amira and her sister Zeinah should travel to Bodrum to start to arrange for their trip to Europe. They are hoping that her mother, little brother Elias and Uncle Sami will follow them very soon. Her mum is just waiting for her sister to arrive in Iskenderun so that they can take over the care of Amira’s grandmother. Life is not simple for this family and many others in the same situation.
Day 15 15th September 2015 On the way Bodrum, Turkey
— The long journey —
We are on the bus from Izmir to Bodrum. Amazingly they have wifi! So we get to go online as much as we want. We haven’t had much access to the internet since we left home to be honest. Zeinah has been downloaded photos to make art with. Some of things she finds are really upsetting to see. Things look a little scary in Europe especially on the larger greek islands and in Balkan states.
We slept OK on the coach to Izmir last night it was a long journey and we didn’t get into Izmir until early this morning. What a busy place that was. The bus station was full of people. Many Syrians trying to get to the coast. Luckily we already had our tickets on to Bodrum so we just had to wait for our bus which left after lunch. Mum had packed us some lunch so we ate it sitting on our bags at the bus station. It is quite fun to watch people.
Dad has spoken to Mum back in Iskenderun. They are still waiting for news from Auntie. Apparently granny is feeling a little better which is good news. It will take her a while to adjust to life in Turkey I think.
Zeinah and I have been following a story on the internet about Ahmed a 14 year old in Texas in the United States. Apparently he made a clock and took it into school and was arrested for building a hoax bomb. Lots of people are saying that if he had not been a muslim no-one would have called the police.
Stories like that make me worry about our future. What is it going to be like to be seen as a muslim in Europe. In Syria most people are muslim so it feels just normal.We are gong to be so different when we get to Europe. I think Isalamaphobia is the scariest part of this change for me. I want to me seen for me as an individual not for my colour or culture.
Dad is using his time on the bus to research where we should go next. He is thinking that we should aim for one of the smaller islands rather than Kos or Lesbos where there has been alot of bad feeling. You can tell he is anxious he is asking questions from everyone we meet.
Dad has managed to buy a small tent for us. I think tonight we might be sleeping on a beach. It feels like a very strange camping holiday at the moment.
I miss Mum and Elias. I hope they can follow us soon.
Day 16 16th September 2015 Near Bodrum, Turkey
— Finding our feet —
We arrived in Bodrum yesterday evening. What a very beautiful place …. all white buildings set on the hillside. This is the most touristy place I have ever visited lots of Europeans here to get some sun and to enjoy the sea. It feels like a whole different world to the one that I have come from. It is hard to imagine a starker contrast to the grim smoking streets of Aleppo. This place is like playground for the rich. When the bus pulled into the town we saw all the boats in the marina stretching out into the sea. I would love to stay here for ever it seems like a good place.
Dad met a few other Syrians on the bus and they told us where they are going to camp. They have family who have already made it to Bodrum. So we followed them. It felt like we were walking for ages but on the edge of the town we came to a small clearing – almost a building site. There are a whole group of Syrian families camping here. We set up camp and ate the last of our ration’s that mum sent with us.
It feels like we are real refugees now. But in some ways it is good to be so close to other people. We are learning alot. Today Zeinah and I chatted to a girl who is also camping here. We were discussing the story of Ahmed. She told us that President Obama has sent a tweet to him inviting him to visit the white house and then this morning we heard that many others including the man who started facebook have been tweeting in support of him. One of the girls showed us a video of Ahmed talking to the press today. He sounds so positive and happy. Even if there are people with Islamapobia in the world, there are plenty who do not have it. I guess the West is just like anywhere else it has good and bad people.
Today Dad left us in the camp with the tent and went to try and meet up with a man who can get us a boat. He also bought six life jackets. We were a little nervous to stay there alone but the other families around were kind. Zeinah did some drawing and I hung around and chatted with other kids in the camp. In some ways this is the first day I have been sociable since we left Aleppo. We became so used to keeping ourselves to ourselves there it has taken some time for me to get used to mixing with other people. It is a good feeling to chat with others. Many families here have also come from Aleppo. I don’t have to explain how difficult our life has been they just understand.
This evening we had a very excited call from Mum her sister has made it through the border and will be arriving in Iskenderun tomorrow. That means that maybe they can come to join us very soon.
We had a long chat with Dad this evening. He has been wondering if maybe Zeinah and I should try to cross to Greece straight away and then wait for my parents to join us. I am pretty nervous about that idea. Dad seems to think it is safer for us in Greece. Maybe he is worried that the longer we wait the more difficult it will be to cross. I just feel like we are all getting so spread out. We are stronger together.
We will talk more tomorrow.
Day 17 17th September 2015 Bodrum, Turkey
— A day in Bodrum —
We went with Dad into the town today and managed to get some food from the Refugee Centre. Bodrum was where Aylan died less than two weeks ago so it is still quite popular with journalists who are reporting on the refugee crisis. We saw a journalist interviewing a poor mother from Iraq. Her two sons had tried to cross earlier this week and their boat overturned.One of the sons was lost.They are searching for him every day on the beaches. It made us so sad to hear her pain.
Dad told us that he has found out about a small island just to the North of Bodrum for us to cross to. He watched a video about conditions there and they look a bit better than on Kos and Lesbos. He has found a smuggler who is using that route. Now he is looking for a family for us to travel with. Many families with small children would be very glad to have some extra hands along with them. Dad thinks that it will be safer for us to be there and we can start to work out how to do the next steps for the rest of the family when they make it. Hopefully later this week, I can hardly bear to think about leaving my Dad behind. But there are many other children who are making the journey alone. We will not be unusual.
We are trying to save all the money we can at the moment. One of the reasons that Dad wants us to cross as soon as possible is that the cost is rising quickly. Who knows how much it will cost by the end of the week. Also the turkish authorities could become much more strict about letting boats across. At the moment there are boats crossing day and night with scant regard for the authorities but tomorrow it could all be different.
Mum has called to say that her sister should arrive in Iskenderun later today or tomorrow. They have had to walk many miles from the border so it is taking longer than they had hoped. Dad is impatient for them to come but they cannot leave grandmother alone.
Zeinah drew a lovely picture of Ahmed from Texas today. He is a hero to us. A young man who is standing up proudly and many in the world are behind him. She managed to find a picture where he is smiling. It is the moment where the journalist asked him if he is going to the white house and he said yes. You can see how happy his family and friends are. I so wish my family could all be in a safe place like Ahmed and build our future. Ahmed’s family is from Sudan but they are treading a path like ours. They are further along the road so they give me hope.
There are not just Syrian’s here in Bodrum.There are many different nationalities all hoping to get to Europe. Many have come escaped torture and war in their own countries. We are all just looking for a place of safety.
We tried on the life jackets today. They are bulky and very bright!. Dad has been careful to buy good ones. Some of the life jackets are very poor quality.
I am getting my sad moving on feeling again. This next stage is a big one for us. The journey will not take long but it could change everything.
Wish us luck
Day 18 18th September 2015 Bodrum, Turkey
– Calling Home –
Well it is all sorted. We have met a family who will be happy to take us with them across to Greece. They have 4 small kids with them so they are keen to have an older person who could swim with each of them if necessary. It feels like a bit of a responsibility. Lucky I am a strong swimmer. We have spent much of the day with the family trying to get to know them a bit. Dad wants to make sure he feels entirely happy. They are lovely. They are from Aleppo like us. The mother Sara knows one of my aunts. They have promised that they will wait with us for at least a few days on the Island. It will probably take that long to get registered and onto the ferry to the mainland anyway.
Sara is a good mother. She is understandably terrified of the crossing – too many stories of small kids drowning to fill her with fears. We got some supplies for our trip from the refugee centre. Bananas are a good thing to take with us. They are waterproof and sealed.
One of the Café’s in Bodrum has opened up their wifi so we can use it for free. There are some very kind people in the world. The connection was strong enough that we could Skype mum back in Iskenderun. It was so wonderful to see her, Elias and Uncle Sami.
Mum is so nervous about us going off on our own. Four years ago she would never have contemplated sending her two daughters off to another country without her. War does strange things to all our circumstances. Seeing Elias made me realise how much I have been wanting to see him. He is my dear brother and I do miss his annoying ways. He was jumping around in the background like a whirling dervish saying “I want to be there, I want to be there”, to him this is all just an exciting adventure.
Mum’s sister has now arrived in Iskenderun so the flat looked very full of people. They have had a difficult journey. They had to run for their lives to escape the militia near the border. They were lucky to escape in one piece. Uncle has a bullet wound in his leg. They had to walk a long long way to get to safety. They are so relieved to be at the flat in Iskenderun. Mum is going to stay one more day to make sure they are settled and then they will start the journey to join us. It will be hard for her to leave her mother and sister but I cannot wait for them to come.
Uncle Sami was his usual joking self. But he told us to be careful and to stay close to Sara’s family. Two young girls travelling alone is not ever an ideal scenario.
It was hard to end the call and I felt sad afterwards. I just can’t wait for us all to be together again.
The island we are going to is the small island of Leros. It is about 7 miles from a beach just above Bodrum. The smugglers are running boats day and night. We are going in the day because it is a bit safer for the kids.
We have a very early start so I am going to get a good night’s sleep now.
Tomorrow is a big day for us.
Day 19 19th September 2015, Leros, Greece
— WE ARE IN GREECE! WE ARE IN EUROPE! —
I can’t quite believe we are here. Zeinah and I keep looking at each other in disbelief. It feels like such a huge thing. We have really left Syria behind us now. I am in my first ever non-muslim country – it feels so strange. Even the signs are completely unintelligible. The Greeks have a whole differet alphabet. It is not English and not Arabic. The words do not even sound how they are spelt. I feel slightly overwhelmed.
I guess I should start from the beginning to give you a full account of this day – one of the most important days in my life.
We met the smugglers very early in the morning in a secret location just outside Bodrum. It was hard to say goodbye to Dad but it was such a rush it was over quickly. They took us in a large truck to an olive grove near the beach. There were lots of groups of refugees there. We were careful to stick to Sara and her family. I was given seven year old Miran to watch over. He can swim so it felt like a manageable responsibility. We didn’t have to wait long. We were directed towards a small rubber dinghy and we all climbed aboard. There ware about 25 of us in the boat. We started to head out to sea. It was easy to tell everyone was nervous. About 10 minutes into our journey our engine completely died. We could still see the beach we had come from. So we had to paddle back as best we could to where we had come from. It was disappointing and a little bit scary.
People were quite angry by the time we got back to the beach. The smugglers had a look at the engine and managed to fix it. It felt slightly daunting to head back out in the same boat to be honest. The group did ask for a different one but the smugglers would not consider it.
This time things went much better. However once we were into deep water the Turkish Coast Guard arrived. It was very scary. They looked angry and were firing guns into the air. They were trying to intimidate us to go back to the land. They had guns trained on us and were driving aggressively close to the boat to try and ward us back to the coast. Everybody in the boat started shouting “Allahu Akbar” “God is great”. Sara held up her youngest child to show them that there were small children on the boat.
Our captain a very young man kept steering the boat towards Greece. I could hardly bear to look. I just looked down at the floor with my head in my hands and prayed. I felt very sick.
And then suddenly it was all over. The Turkish guard turned away and everyone started to cheer and wave goodbye to them. We had made it into Greek waters. The Turkish coastguard no longer had any jurisdiction.
The mood in the boat changed to one of nervous jubilation. The coast of Leros was getting closer and closer. When we were about 10 metres away some of the young men dived into the water with excitement. I stayed close to Miran holding his hand. And then we were there. We climbed out and pulled our bags up onto the beach.
Zeinah and I just hugged and hugged each other. I did a little dance of joy on the beach and then we got out our phones and called Dad. The relief in his voice was wonderful to hear. It was a brief call because we need to save our battery and calls cost a lot. We don’t know exactly how things are going to turn out on this island and we need to keep up lines of communication. Dad will get the news on to the rest of the family.
Once we had gathered ourselves we started to look around. Some other Syrians had come down to the beach to welcome new arrivals. They directed us to the police station in town to get ourselves registered. And now we are there waiting… There are lots of refugees here but it feels quiet and organized. I think we will be ok here. Dad was right.
I am so glad I have Zeinah here with me. I cannot imagine how hard it is for the children that are travelling alone. There are lots of them. Everybody looks out for them but it is not the same has having your sister with you.
Well that is enough for today.
What an emotional day!
Day 20 20th September 2015 Leros, Greece
— A Party –
We have set up our tent with Sara and her family. I hope Dad is coping OK without it. In some ways things are more comfortable here for us. It is a very beautiful peaceful place. The islanders are kind and are doing all they can to cope with this difficult situation. They do not have much money themselves but what they do have they share. Sometimes you find it is almost as if the less people have the more they are willing to share.
Sara has been very kind to Zeinah and I. She knows exactly how sad we are to leave our family behind. She keeps reassuring us that they will come soon. It is so lovely to have a mother figure looking out for me again. I am missing my mum so much. I try not to cry but sometimes I can’t help it, the tears just spill out of me. This last few weeks have been so shocking. When you are on the move you just cope with all that is happening but when you have time to site in the sun and rest then the full enormity of all that has happened hits you – sometimes it takes my breath right away.
There are ferries leaving the island every day be we will have to wait our turn. We have put my whole families name down on the list so that hopefully when they come we can all leave together quickly. I guess that is one advantage of sending an advance party.
This afternoon we were invited to the town hall. They had arranged a party for all the children. I counted as a child. It is strange I no longer feel like a child. I am an independent woman heading out into the world! Still it was lovely to be a kid again for a short while. There were ballons at the party and all of us chased them around the room. I feel a special bond with Miran as I was the one charged with bringing him safely over here to Leros. The islanders are very generous at the party there was lots of food. I will not be hungry today.
Zeinah is just drawing and drawing, so I can tell she is emotional too. She is better at hiding her feelings than me. Maybe she believes that she has to be strong for me. I guess that is the role of the eldest. I just do her crying for her. We both feel exhausted with all the emotion. I think we will just rest for what is left of the day.
One of my biggest feelings is just pure relief, maybe this is all going to be ok. We are trying hard not to listen to the news about what is happening to the refugees in Eastern Europe. It is just too upsetting. Zeinah saw a picture of a Dad holding a child. They were both covered in blood. Right now we are not in a state to cope with those images. We are not ignoring those people – just trying to manage our strength. We have to hold on to hope. That is all you can do.
So “Hold on to hope”
Day 21 21st September 2015 Leros, Greece
— A day on the beach —
The news from Dad is that Mum is catching the bus to Izmir tonight. Thank goodness they are starting the journey towards us.
Life on the island is peaceful. It is a good place.
We have been hanging out on the beach quite a bit. Welcoming new arrivals as they come. Miran and I flew my kite – beaches are great places for kite flying. He and his siblings loved it!
One of the biggest problems here on the island is food. It is a really small place and they are not set up for such an influx of people like us. The people here are really kind but I am glad we brought those banana’s with us.
One of the local people took us out today and showed us how to catch fish with simple nets made from bits of cloth. I managed to catch a few. Some others are learning how to find shellfish. We don’t eat shellfish but perhaps we could barter them for other food.
We collected some wood and made a fire and cooked our fish. It was good. This feels like a little break in the midst of all the chaos.
Zeinah and I have been trying to work out how long it will take my parents to get here. If mum arrives in Bodrum tomorrow they could even come tomorrow night or the next day. It all depends what Dad can arrange with the smugglers.
I guess it is more likely that they come during the day. It is much safer then. We have been sending Dad information about what exactly he needs to bring with him. A priority is food. He is glad to hear that we are feeling safe here. Stories from some of the other island’s are worrying: Nationalities fighting with each other over meagre resources; Harsh responses from the police and so on. I have met some Iraqi’s here. They have had a hard time themselves. I understand why they come.
Sara’s family are keen to move on to mainland Greece. They may have to leave before my parents get here. If they do they will find us some guardians. This refugee life is certainly always changing. I will miss them if they go on ahead of us. We have only known them a few short days but they have been emotional ones.
It is Eid very soon. Maybe we will all be together for that.
Holding on to Hope
To be continued
A bit of background
I am Amira is daily story telling experiment. It is a FICTIONAL Facebook diary by Amira, a 13 year old girl from Aleppo, Syria in the latter part of 2015. The account is informed by comments provided by the community and information found on the web. “I am Amira” is a facebook storytelling experiment which aims to use the internet to create positive outcomes. https://www.facebook.com/I-am-Amira-1…
The “I am Amira” Facebook page is updated on a daily basis with the day’s entry which is informed by events from articles and video found on the web. Links to these sources are posted under each days entry. In this way we hope to build up a useful resource base for understanding the refugee crisis which is accessible to all.
The episodes will be published on a weekly basis as long as the experiment runs.
Week 1 of Amira’s diary is now available as a podcast:
On Apple itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/i-am-amira-podcast/id1039350513
Youtube version of the podcast: https://youtu.be/xwbI9oJ8xOM
Web Page: http://iamamiraaleppo.com
© Anna Austen 24th September 2015
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Commercial copying, hiring, lending is prohibited.