The Syrian Civil War has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. It has disrupted life for ancient Christian communities that can trace their existence to Apostolic times.
And, the conflict has caused hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in the West.
One of them, a Christian we will call Joseph out of concern for his safety, shared his story with Aleteia. It is a harrowing story of escape from war, death at sea, sickness and imprisonment.
He recounts his story below. Shared with Aleteia through Whatsapp, it was originally published in our Arabic edition. It has been edited for clarity and length.
I was studying mechanical engineering in Syria and about to finish, when the worsening conflict forced me to leave the university. After failing to attain refugee status in one of the Gulf nations and being unsuccessful in finding work in Turkey, I finally found a job in Lebanon. But the situation for Syrians in Lebanon became difficult, so I went back to Turkey with my cousins. We ended up in the seaport town of Bodrum where, together with a friend, his wife and their children and his sister, we set out on an inflatable boat towards Greece. We tried three times, but with either engine failure or the risk of capsizing, we we decided to seek help of certain persons who made a living off of the plight of people like us.
We gathered in a hotel with about 300 people, including almost 75 Christians. Our smugglers forced us to get into refrigerated trucks that were used to transport meat. We stayed inside the vehicles for an hour and a half and felt we were going to die.
I was tracking the journey on GPS, so I could see that we were going to the north of an area called Surba. They dropped us there. We found ourselves on a cliff. We went down, through rocks and thorns. It took us two and a half hours to get to the seashore. We were exhausted. Some of us tried to go back but couldn’t. Now, we were in the hands of the Turks and smugglers who treated us very badly. But we had to go on. We stayed there for about three hours until the boat came.
When we boarded, we could see how dilapidated the boat was. Families stayed below decks, and young people topside. I sat next to the pilot, who was from Latakia. But soon, one of the refugees who knows a little about sailing took the wheel.
An hour went by without any problems, but then a coast guard boat appeared. They started to circle us with their boat. We did not stop at first, but then they began to circle us very quickly, and the wake they made threatened to capsize our boat. People began to panic. We showed them the children that were with us.
But they began firing on us, so we hit the deck and we do not know if they fired in the air or at our boat. The coast guard continued to sail around us, training cameras on us.
Finally, they stopped, but by now water had begun to seep into our boat. They asked us to move to the back of the boat. So we gathered in the back, but the boat began to take on water very quickly. They took some of the children, women and men in a small boat. Our boat sank and while some of those who were down below got out, others were trapped inside. We lost about 30 people, including 13 children. One whole family perished.
Suddenly, everyone was in the water. I was not wearing a life jacket. I found one and gave it to a girl and went to help the others. Members of the coast guard were filming us from about 200-300 meters away. People swam towards them begging for help, but they moved away whenever we approached them. We felt despair. Planes above us also were filming the incident.
Finally, the coast guard threw us some ropes, and we climbed on board. We sat for three hours under the sun. We didn’t know what they were waiting for. Then they took us to their headquarters in Bodrum. They gathered us on a small naval pier for nearly four hours, and then divided us into three or four groups and took us to the centers of the Turkish police. We stayed there about 24 hours. We lay down on the ground without blankets. They gave us some food, but not enough for everyone, and hardly any water. Some of us went without eating.
The next day, buses came, and we were told they were moving us to Mugla, about 60 km away. But we knew that we are not heading to Mugla but to a camp. We refused to get into the buses and we formed a wall of women and children. Young people stood in the back, but we were beaten and forced to get on board. Armed men dressed in civilian clothes went with us. Most likely, they were from the Turkish intelligence. Police accompanied the buses during the journey that took about 18-20 hours. We didn’t know where we were. We stopped for a break to eat and drink and tried to resist and refused to return to the buses.
To no avail. In the end we got to a camp in an area called Ottomany in Docitchy province. We felt lost. There were guards everywhere—a fence, watchtowers and cameras. It was a mountainous region where the temperature gets very low at night, and the caravans we stayed in do not keep the cold out. The food was bad—merely bulgur or rice for lunch and dinner. We learned that a young man died in his room and stayed there until his friends took him out.
This was a prison, not a camp, we discovered, and there were Islamic militants detained there. We saw some of the injured from the war in Syria. There are also beggars, and we discovered that we were here on charges of begging.
Recently, a group from UNHCR came and did some interviews. They promised us nothing. They said they are working on a report and will hand it over to the United Nations.
On Oct. 6, Turkish authorities began to release us. They brought us to the bus station and left us there, many of us in poor health. Many of the children needed to go to the hospital.