And if it were you? Part two

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Part two of the true story of how the Adjimi family made their way from their now destroyed home in Homs Syria to a new life in the Languedoc follows. You can read the first part of their story here

Written by a member of the Languedoc Solidarity with Refugees association (LSR), its aim is to explain the real-life problems refugees have to confront. Bad things really can happen to good people, who somehow often do find the strength to keep moving towards a better, safer place for their children.

The frontiers

As a refugee, all frontiers are to be dreaded and, where possible, avoided. One way of avoiding lots of frontiers is to take a boat, but doing that will be the dodgiest decision you ever made. Boats cost serious money even though neither seats nor life jackets are guaranteed. Some boats float, others not for too long. Some have enough fuel to reach Europe. Many don’t.

In the past 12 months, an average of 11 men, women and children have drowned each day trying to reach safety in a boat. More than 3000 in the first nine months of 2016.

For Said, working in Algeria, there is a safer but also expensive and uncertain solution. To cross the border into Morocco and then to head towards one of the two Spanish territories, Ceuta and Melilla, found on the Moroccan mainland. Thence by ferry to mainland Spain and onto France and then Germany.

None of this is going to be easy but the worst will be getting into Morocco. Without a visa for either Algeria or Morocco and no prospect of getting one, Said was forced to find a ‘helper’ to cross the heavily guarded border. In Algiers he found someone who agreed to help his family and two others get to Nador (the nearest Moroccan town to Melilla) for US$700 per family – cheap compared to other prices they had heard quoted. But it was a large group to move, 11 children and 6 parents.

They were told to wait to be picked up by minibus at a given place and time, after dark. This happened, though later than promised, and they were taken to a half-way house near the border and told to wait for half an hour when three cars would come to collect them. They watched fearfully as the minibus drove away, leaving them alone in the night. Would someone actually come to collect them? It was three nerve-wracking hours before anyone showed up. They were then packed into three cars and driven for another 20 minutes before being left locked in an old farm building on the border. They were warned to be quiet and use no lights until it was safe to cross the border.

This time they waited, in fear, for five hours. These five hours dragged on until they seemed like five weeks, each full of tension and even terror. Eleven children had to be kept quiet (photo 1). As hour after hour passed, the fear that they had been abandoned grew. In a sense they had: when someone finally did arrive, they were told that they could not cross that night but that they should return the next night to try again.

While you and I might have been overcome by indecision at this point, Said just used his Arabic equivalent of the famous Russian ‘Niet’. He simply said ‘La’, and demanded to be taken back to the hotel and reimbursed. They did return to Algiers and, surprisingly, $500 of the $700 was eventually repaid.

Said then found a Syrian who would help them for $900 per family, much of which would be spent bribing officials and guards. This time they were driven, again at night, to an isolated place on the border that was marked by a deep trench. There was a 20-cm wide wooden plank across the trench over which they would have to walk without alerting the nearby guards.

Imagine trying to do that. No, better still, just try to do it: turn off the lights, carry a heavy backpack, hold a child on each hip and walk an imaginary and unsteady 20-cm path. Add on the terror, a pounding heart and shaking knees.

But they did it. And they did it carrying children and backpacks with them. After a short walk, they were met by cars that took them in about 30 minutes to the motorway to Nador. Another 90 minutes to Nador and they were within reach of Spain.

It was easy enough to write those few words. Not easy at all for Said to narrate them. Nor for Fatima to hear them. As Said described this journey, in the relative comfort of his room in south-west France, Fatima became increasingly shaken. Even though understanding only some of the words she clearly recalled the events all too well – her face tense, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes full of remembered terror.

And then–where next, and how? 

Both of the Spanish enclaves are protected by triple fences topped with razor wire, that of Ceuta, just over the sea from Gibraltar, being 7 metres high. Still, people do climb it and arrive, lacerated but alive, on the other side. If you can swim (chances are as a refugee you can’t) you can swim round and avoid the fences. You also have to avoid the military patrols on the shoreline. Spain’s Interior Minister has admitted that police have fired rubber bullets to prevent potential refugees from swimming to shore.

Said: ‘Neither solution possible with four children. So in Nador we wait to find a trafficker to get us documents to cross the border, at a price we can pay. Is urgent; I have wad of notes in pocket but everyday gets thinner. Hotel and food for six people very expensive. This is Rolls-Royce solution for refugees.’

Though probably neither the Honourable Charles nor Sir Henry would have seen it as such. They might have liked the wad of notes, though. In fact, it was several wads accumulated from Said’s savings at his job and the sale of Fatima’s gold jewellery. This money had to be carried with them at all times, sometimes sewn into the lining of the children’s clothing.

They had to spend a month in Nador City before they could find people to help them enter Melilla at an affordable price. So what does the trafficker actually do? He sells you a stolen Moroccan passport. The better the trafficker, the wider the range of passports on offer. You have to select the one with a photo that looks the most like you or one of your children. A child costs more than an adult since the trafficker must cross the frontier with the child. If found out, he will be arrested.

All told the month in Nador, plus the fees, cost about 5000€.

To enter Melilla there are three gates, one after the other. The first two are manned by Moroccan soldiers and the last by Spanish officials. The queue is often long as each pair examines visas, passports and other documents as they see fit. Moroccan passports often just get waved on because every day many Moroccans pass through to work in Spain quite legally. Photo 2.

This is not a process you are able to handle calmly. Just think how worked up you can get in Europe when the gas bill is wrong, the promised delivery is not received or the tax office smells a rat. None of this has any significance compared to getting into Melilla. Many of your problems are solved once in Melilla. There you are in Spain, in Europe. In Europe your right to demand asylum cannot be refused. Your future and that of your family rests on success.

Success comes, suddenly and unexpectedly but only partially. For some reason, the guards gather, perhaps to discuss a difficult case. Their backs are turned.

Said: ‘I say “Fatima: run.” ’

Fatima runs. And runs and runs. She makes it. She is in Europe. Her next step is assured.

There is just one tiny problem. She is called Amal, a baby, not yet one-year-old, who drinks only breast milk. She is in Said’s arms – and still in Morocco.

So what would you do now? Appeal for help from the officials who have just been out-manoeuvred? Find a Moroccan policeman and ask for help? Try to pressurize all around to speed your departure?

Said did none of these things. He took Amal and walked back into town. He found a woman with a baby who looked as though she might be breast feeding and asked her to feed his child.

He did this four times that day, each time asking a different woman. The next day this particular problem was solved when Said and the three younger children made a more official though still illegitimate entry into Spain to join Fatima using “borrowed” passports.

As is often the case for refugees, the problem that was solved was soon replaced by another and much more serious one.

While Said and the younger children were indeed waved through by the Moroccan soldiers, the eldest, Riyana, then eight, was not. She was crossing with a Moroccan handler who was using his daughter’s passport for Riyana. The official opened her passport, held its photograph up next to Riyana’s face and said, ‘This is not your daughter.’

When Said turned to protest, Riyana was gone. Panic struck, yet again.

Part three will be published next week.

Photo 1 – Waiting to cross the border, by Freedom House

Photo 2 Border fence at Melilla, by Noborder Network