Hiba Ezzideen, a 29-year-old Syrian activist, recently made it to a refugee camp near the German border after a perilous 20-day journey. She had set off alone from southern Turkey, walked for hours, rode in a sealed truck, boarded an overcrowded raft, slept on the streets and in a jail cell.
A college English professor before the war, Ezzideen first joined the protests against President Bashar Assad in 2011 and hoped the popular demonstration could transform her country.
She founded the first women’s center in Syria’s northwestern city of Idlib after rebels liberated the surrounding countryside. When radical Islamists took control of Idlib, a provincial capital, earlier this year she organized journalists and activists to challenge them. When militants threatened to kill her, she fled to Turkey and continued her work.
But a few weeks ago her hope ran out that there would be a resolution to the Syrian war any time soon. So she, like so many others this summer, headed to Europe.
“Suddenly, I felt we are doing nothing serious for the people,” Ezzideen told me via Skype from the refugee camp.
I had interviewed her in southern Turkey just a few weeks earlier, a dynamic activist committed to shaping Syria’s future. But shortly afterward, her resolve collapsed.
“It was one night. I had to make a decision. I didn’t sleep. Is there a future in Turkey? And I said ‘no.'”
The Prospect Of Additional Refugees
The Syrian refugee crisis now descending on Europe may just be the beginning, says Rae McGrath who heads Mercy Corps operation in northern Syria and Turkey.
The Syrians reaching Europe are only a small percentage of the 4 million who have fled to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan over the past four years.
“Those of us here knew if the war didn’t stop, then things are going to get worse, ” he says.
The latest exodus began as summer weather reduced the risk of a Mediterranena Sea crossing in flimsy boats from Turkey to Greece.
“A lot of this is about education,” says McGrath. Turkey has been the most welcoming to Syrians but the language barrier has meant many refugee children have not been in school for years. More than a dozen private schools in Turkey offering courses in Arabic closed this year due to lack of funds.
“The one things that all (Syrian) parents say, and it’s always the same — education,” says McGrath as the reason for making the dangerous trip.
With an interconnected Syrian population, “everybody is talking to each other. “They know the trip is brutal, but no worse that risks in Syria and “nobody wants to be at the back of the queue,” he says.
“All this talk about walls and fences in Europe will have the opposite effect, Syrians will conclude, ‘We have to go now,'” he says.
The best and the brightest are going. Aid agencies that work on Syria are losing the most qualified staff, doctors and engineers, to the pull of Europe.
The surge is mostly coming from southern Turkey, where Syrian refugees now account for more than 50 percent of the population in some border towns.
Surprisingly, another wave is headed to Europe from pro-government areas inside Syria.
“Mostly, what I’ve seen is people coming directly from regime areas to Turkey to get out,’ says Bassam Al-Kuwatli, a Canadian-Syrian who moved to Gaziantep, Turkey to help the opposition. “It’s pro-regime and anti-regime.”
Hiba Ezzideen weighed all the risks. Facebook and Internet forums explain every step along the way. Still, the harrowing journey was filled with unexpected dangers.
She survived two failed attempts to escape by sea. Smugglers stopped her crowded boat at gunpoint to steal the engine in the dead of night, forcing passengers to paddle back to the Turkish shore.
On her second attempt, an overcrowded wooden ferry began to sink after five hours lost in the water.
“The Greek coast guard rescued us. They were yelling a us, ‘Why do you keep coming?'” she recalls.
The landing on the Greek Island of Kos was the beginning of a 20-day odyssey through the “Balkan route” familiar to Syrian refugees. Her traveling companions included a wounded rebel commander and a regime supporter from Damascus.
“In my camp, more than half of the people are (regime) supporters. Really – it’s strange,” Ezzideen says of the refugee center where she’s now staying. She asked that her exact location not be disclosed.
More Syrians Are Expected To Try
As more Syrians reach northern Europe, it is encouraging more to try.
“The success stories of people who are reaching Europe are influencing those still in Syria, even those who are in safe areas,” says Rami Nakhla, a Syrian activist who was granted asylum in the U.S. and now lives in Washington.
When his brother applied for asylum in Germany to join his wife, German Embassy officials in Turkey told him his appointment to review his application would take a year. So, he hired a smuggler and joined the wave of refugees headed to Europe.
“The minute by brother reached Germany, five relatives called and said they wanted to go,” he says.
In a way, the dramatic images of refugees at a train station in Hungary, a beach in Greece and the iconic picture of a young Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish shoreline has stirred worldwide sympathy for Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict.
But that sympathy won’t necessarily translate into more funding for international aid organizations that have dramatically cut programs for refugees in the last year.
Syrians can read the signs, too, and make their own calculation, says Nakhla. “They have no hope in Syria for 10 or 20 years.”
For many, the answer is Germany, Europe’s powerhouse economy, which also offers the possibility of education, health care and jobs.
“If you ask me, it’s a good investment. Syrians are willing to integrate and with enthusiasm,” Nakhla says. “They won’t just go to Europe and sit on the couch.”
It is a pragmatic calculation that Germany has come to over the past few weeks. The country is a rapidly aging society with a shrinking population that could benefit from an influx of highly motivated newcomers.
“People here realize it’s not so difficult to integrate Syrians into German life,” says Volker Perthes, head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think tank that advises the German Parliament and government. “You get these statements from policy makers and business people that the majority are well educated and well trained.”
Refugees now call Germany’s Angela Merkle “Mama Merkel” after her statement that Germany is willing to take up to 800,000 refugees this year. But without a more comprehensive policy in Europe, the chaotic scenes in Greece and Hungary could be repeated through the winter.
“In a way, you can make a cynical argument, the Germans are taking in the Syrians so we won’t have to take in the next wave.” Says Perthes. “We can take in 800,000 this year, but not 800,000 every year.”
Still, Syrians are willing to play the odds.
Along the Turkish coast these days, the temperature drops as the sun go down and winds whip up the sea. The season is changing. A boat trip to Greece gets more dangerous by the day. Still, the Syrians arrive on the coast, families with light luggage and high hopes of a better future.