And if it were you? Part three

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This is Part 3 of the harrowing true story of how one family made its way from its home in Homs Syria to a new life with us here in the Languedoc. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here. The series will be concluded next week. Languedoc Solidarity with Refugees (LSR) presents this story in an effort to help the readers put themselves in the place of good people doing incredibly difficult and dangerous things because they have no choice. To learn about LSR please go to the website here

In the previous episode, we left the Adjimi family who had managed to get through to Mococco, but their eldest daughter Riyana aged eight, had been stopped by the guards. Panic struck.

And if it were you?

There followed a period of great misery for the Adjimi family. Instead of walking down to the port to take the ferry for Malaga on the Spanish mainland and continuing on to France and Germany, they were grounded. Many things can happen to refugees on their journeys but the one thing no one expects is that you actually lose a child.

Said was stumped, as any of us would have been. He found a relatively cheap hotel room for the family to rest in while he went in search of information. He eventually discovered that all minors suspected of irregularities are housed in children’s hostels in Melilla. He lashed out 40€ for a taxi to take him straight to a hostel, only to find that the hostel housed only boys. Girls were in a different children’s home, in another part of town. More money for another long taxi ride to arrive at the girls’ hostel. Here the first guard was unhelpful, saying she was not there.

Just imagine the terror that would strike into your heart. Where was she? However, eventually it was determined that she was indeed there–but, no, Said could not take her away. He was told they could visit her, one hour a week only. This is not where you want to be as an eight-year-old child: alone, in a strange country where all languages are foreign, with an hour a week to see someone from your family. Lesser things leave permanent scars.

Every time they visited her there were tears on all sides. The stress was such that finally a kindly guard took pity on them and allowed them to visit more often and for longer periods. Riyana was a little reassured, but release was not going to be quick.

Officialdom had decided that the case could be decided only by DNA tests. Swabs were taken from Said’s and Riyana’s saliva, and sent off to Madrid for analysis.

It was two months before the news came back, and family and daughter were finally reunited, now free to take the ferry for Malaga. But Said’s wad of notes had thinned a lot over these weeks as he paid for hotels and food for five people. When they finally did leave, Riyana had to leave the only Syrian friend she found in the hostel who was in a similar situation. Except that something had gone wrong with her DNA sample and it had to be redone. This separation nearly broke both their hearts.

And before they could leave there was another problem, relating to what is known as the Dublin Regulation which stipulates that the country in which applications for asylum and refugee status are processed should be the first European (EU) country in which they arrived. Many, probably nearly all, potential refugees do not want to have to live and work in the EU country in which they first set foot, most often Greece, Italy or Spain. The best chance of finding work often lies elsewhere. So perhaps do some of their relations.

Regulations here are complicated. New arrivals are meant to be fingerprinted, and indeed the Adjimi family were, in Melilla (except for Riyana who was whisked off to the centre for child refugees). The records are stored centrally and can be consulted by any EU country, with only minor exceptions. And these fingerprints tie you to your country of entry. If you can show you have relatives in other EU countries, you may be allowed to apply for asylum there.

Otherwise, there is no way out. Well, actually there are, all of them unpleasant, some horrific. Many potential refugees try to remove the prints their fingers have left. They do so with emery paper (a long job), razor blades and red hot iron bars (quick and medieval). Do I need to ask what would you do?

More frontiers

If things can ever be said to go smoothly for refugees, the next few days did. The sea journey was long from Melilla to Malaga and it was made in the dark. But Said was up on deck: ‘First time ever on boat. I stay up looking at sea until too cold’.

From Malaga Said and his family were taken to an inland village where several Syrian families were able to stay in relative comfort. Said remembers the few days spent there as a peaceful and recuperative time, largely thanks to a voluntary organization which was there to help them. But they soon had plans for the next steps, particularly because Fatima now realised she was getting almost close to her brother in Alès in France, whom she was desperate to see. The voluntary organization gave them tickets to Madrid but from there they were on their own. In Madrid, it was said, they would be met and given more tickets to continue their journey, this time as far as Hamburg in Germany. For Said the goal was now to get to Germany. For Fatima the next goal was to see her brother in France.

Things went from bad to much worse. It was cold and raining and no one met them in Madrid. They soon discovered the meeting was planned for a different station. So what do you do? You take a taxi there, of course. How easy is that with no Spanish, four small children and a pile of luggage?

Not easy. There were huge queues. Most Madrid taxi drivers speak neither Arabic nor English. At least many of them say they don’t in order to avoid contact with Syrians. In any case, none would take the family in one taxi. It took Said two hours to find a pair of taxis to go the 3 km to the next station. Night had fallen again and the cost was near ruinous. The rain was torrential. The people they did finally meet in Madrid were able to offer a hotel for a night or two but not the train tickets. Said decided to use more of his dwindling bank roll to purchase the tickets himself (550€) to go, by bus, to Hamburg.

Then there is another frontier to cross: Spain to France. If you are a refugee, it is best to do this in torrential rain, as in this case. The bus arrived at the frontier and the police just waved them through, not wanting to leave their warm and dry frontier guard houses. The sighs of relief of those in the bus must have been nearly audible, even so.

Have you ever gone from Madrid to Hamburg by bus? There are several routes, all 2000-2500 km long. But if you are a refugee family travelling during the night of 13/14 November 2015, it is best not to go via Paris. There, terrorists have just killed 130 people and wounded another 368.

Said and his family don’t know this. They are puzzled by the names of the towns they pass through, tired and hungry. They have been on the road for two days already. Fatima starts to cry but this time they are not mixed tears; they are tears of sadness, desperation and fatigue. The rest of the journey is ‘La’! As Said put it, “I saw his tears and made my decision in one second; we will get off at the next station and go and see her brother.”

A sort of compromise is reached. Fatima will be happy once she has seen her brother. Then she may feel strong enough to go on to Germany. But yet more water has to pass under the bridge before then.

Somehow they persuade the driver to let them off at the railway station in Strasbourg. There they are horrified by an enormous presence of heavily armed police, soldiers and huge dogs wearing muzzles. Said can hardly believe they are looking for him. They are not. They are looking for the terrorists who have just killed 130 people and wounded another 368.

Fatima’s brother is phoned and says to meet them in the station in Lyon. He will be there in ten hours with a car to take them back to Alès. Meanwhile Said goes looking for the toilets, leaving Fatima, the children and their bags in a safe-looking spot.

On his return, this safe-looking spot is surrounded by police, soldiers and dogs, leaving him wondering how safe this spot really is. Talk yourself out of that one, with no French and only some English. Arabic does not seem to be the chosen language of this particular moment.

And the rain is still pouring down, they need to buy tickets for Lyon and they have to leave the station which is closing for the night.

Outside they have a stroke of luck, meeting an Arabic-speaking woman who has good advice to offer. Never mind the tickets, she says, get on the first train to Lyon in the morning. You can buy the tickets from the conductor on the train, providing you tell him your are ‘sans billets’.

So a transaction has to be made. The conductor is found and he correctly asks around 200€ for the four-hour journey to Lyon for the six of them. Said has about 575€ on him. He proffers the 500€ note.

Readers who know France even a little are aware this is a very bad idea. Such notes are treated with suspicion, most of them having a chequered history of one kind or another. SNCF conductors are much less likely to take them than even supermarkets.

Stalemate. Well, nearly. Said shows the conductor the rest of his change. The conductors smiles, takes it and walks on. Vive la France (sometimes).

The dramas of this stage of the journey are nearly over – but not quite. Getting off the train at Lyon is a relief but the absence of the brother is not. He is waiting for them at the other station. And he does not know how to drive from one to the other (few people do, unless they are Lyonnais) so he walks.

The reunion is passionate. How could it not be after such a journey? So then the brother walks back to fetch his vehicle. Would you believe that he can’t remember where he left it? You better had, because he can’t. Though of course he does eventually and indeed they also get back to Alès.

Once there, no one is enthusiastic about setting off again for Hamburg. Would you be? Indeed, Fatima’s brother has had a relatively smooth journey through the French bureaucracy, starting from the nearby Préfecture of Montpellier (100 km) – well, nearby compared to Hamburg (1500 km)! He urges them to start in Montpellier.

So, was this tortuous journey worth it? It is not for me to judge but they are here, in a small room in the south of France, telling me their story. Perhaps it would be best to finish with the questions with which we started?

* * *

The final part of the story of the Adjimi family will be published next week.

As ever, if you want to help in any way to the plight of the refugees, please go to the LSR website, or contact Gary Kilmer on gdkilmer@gmail.com, or contact Languedoc Living directly and we will pass on your message.