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Rami's Story: Odyssey Of A Syrian Refugee

Rami, who declines to give his last name for fear of possible reprisals against family back in Syria, is currently at a refugee camp in southwestern Germany, waiting for his paperwork to be processed so he can begin his new life.
Rami, who declines to give his last name for fear of possible reprisals against family back in Syria, is currently at a refugee camp in southwestern Germany, waiting for his paperwork to be processed so he can begin his new life.

Rami has shelled out thousands of euros in bribes, been detained by police, and trekked countless hours through forests and along other darkened byways -- all to escape his war-ravaged homeland of Syria.

All to reach his dream destination: Germany.

Now, this 24-year-old native of Damascus sits more than 3,000 kilometers from home, looking relieved following a gutsy journey via the so-called Balkan route into the heart of Europe.

It's a trip that has lured hundreds of thousands of other refugees and migrants, too, from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and northern Africa.

Many arrive first in EU member state Greece, then leave the European Union briefly to travel northward through the Balkans and on to Hungary and destinations in what's frequently dubbed "old Europe."

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on September 8 predicted no let-up, with at least 850,000 people expected to cross the Mediterranean Sea seeking refuge in Europe this year and next.

The huge influx of migrants is putting strains on Europe, testing the strength of the Schengen zone that was designed to eliminate national borders. Like Rami, many migrants and refugees have specific designs on where they want to go, with countries like United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany high on their lists. Berlin says it expects 850,000 asylum applications this year alone.

Seeking Refuge From War

Rami, who declines to give his last name for fear of possible reprisals against family back in Syria, is currently at a refugee camp in southwestern Germany, waiting for his paperwork to be processed so he can begin his new life. He says the Germans have been "good" and he is sure of his prospects there. Rami studied English at university in Syria, and hopes to put those skills to use in his new homeland.

His journey began about two years ago when he left family and friends in Syria, where years of fighting between foes and supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned many communities into rubble and sent millions of people fleeing violence and hardship.

The UNHCR says that 4 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Another 8 million are displaced within Syria itself.

Rami says he first headed for Turkey to earn money for his journey on to Western Europe. With limited Turkish, Rami says he was mainly consigned to backbreaking labor in Istanbul.

By July, Rami says he had saved up some money and was ready to set out for Europe, boarding a boat in Izmir on Turkey's Aegean coast bound for the Greek island of Kos to join thousands of other migrants. Although it was a distance of just a few kilometers, Rami says he paid traffickers dearly for the trip: $1,200.

The Balkan Route

In early August, he says he took a ferry provided by the Greek government to Athens and then boarded a bus heading for the border with Macedonia. He and his fellow passengers crossed into Macedonia at Gevgelija, following the trail of thousands of others seeking a life in the West. (Macedonian officials said nearly 10,000 refugees crossed their border at Gevgelija between September 1 and 6.) In Gevgelija, Rami and his group boarded a train and traveled across the country to the border with Serbia.

Up to this point, Rami says, the journey had gone more or less according to plan.

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That changed when he crossed the border from Macedonia into Serbia in August, he says. Traveling by night and through forests to avoid detection, Rami and others were detected by Serbian border police and taken to a refugee camp in Presevo, where they were issued a 10-day visa.

With the clock ticking and resources dwindling -- but closer to his destination -- Rami says he bought a bus ticket to Serbia's capital, Belgrade, where he stayed a few days before heading north by train toward the northern border with Hungary.

It would take two attempts to get into Hungary, Rami says. On the first attempt, Serbian border police caught him and others in his group of 50, charging them with overstaying their visas. Rami says the Serbian police first took only the men and boys in the group to a police station and then to court, where the judge gave them a choice.

"In the court, they told us either you pay us 50 euros for one person and we can free you, or you have to wait in the prison for about five days; after that you can go out," Rami recounts. "So, we had no choice but to pay this 50 euros, because time is running and we cannot wait so much."

After paying what he describes as a bribe, Rami says he and his group tried to cross the border at Horgos. Luck was on their side this time, Rami says. Heavy rain meant fewer police were on patrol the night in August that he and others snuck across the border.

Smuggling By Taxi

Guided by the GPS navigation system on his mobile phone, Rami and the others traipsed through the forest for about five hours, heading for a specific gas station in what has evolved into a makeshift, yet elaborate, migrant transport system.

"From this gas station, many Hungarian drivers are waiting to take us [migrants] to the capital, to a specific hotel in Budapest. This hotel holds refugees," Rami explains.

Aside from being eager, the cabbies are greedy, charging 250 euros ($280) per person for the hours-long trip to the Hungarian capital, Rami says.

The hotel in Budapest was swarming with refugees and migrants waiting for vans to take them to Germany, or for a lower price to Austria.

"For the taxi driver we have paid about 600 euros for one person. And, of course, this 600 euros was not just for the driver; there was part for the Syrian smuggler. It's not smuggling, but you know, you see in front of the hotel Syrian guys are taking people; they are telling people that 'We have a taxi driver that goes to Germany' and so on. You can pay this 600 euros to this Syrian smuggler and he can take his money and give the taxi driver his cut," Rami says.

The driver, an Afghan, according to Rami, told them he would take them to a town just outside Munich, in Germany. The truth, however, was much different.

"He got us in on the [border] between Austria and Germany and he made us get out and he told us, 'You have to go by foot about 100 meters and you can reach the German land.' So he lied [to] us," Rami recounts.

On the advice of a friend, Rami ended up in a refugee center in Sinsheim.

He says he spent about $3,000 in total to reach Germany, but he has no regrets and hopes to be teaching English soon.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky, based on reporting by Dusan Komarcevic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service

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