Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

The refugee mothers who risk it all to take their babies to safety

Some women arrive in Europe pregnant or with infants, feeling they had no choice but to leave, despite the peril

Dania is seven months pregnant. She already knows her baby is boy and has named him Wael. But instead of preparing with a baby shower and breathing exercises, Dania spent the past 15 days on the refugee trail to Germany along with thousands of other Syrians fleeing violence at home. She was the only pregnant woman in the group of 14 people she was traveling with, but two others had infants they carried in their arms all the way to Germany.

About 5 percent of the refugees arriving in Munich's train station are babies, according to Gerhard Bieber, a spokesman for the Johanniter rescue service there. Not all are Syrians; Iraqis and Afghans also make up a large part of the crowds streaming into Germany, which is expecting some 800,000 asylum seekers this year. Last weekend, a refugee baby was born in Munich. The mother went into labor as soon as she reached the emergency shelter, he said. That weekend, a newborn arrived in Munich, born days earlier in a train station in Hungary.

Unlike in the U.S., there is no automatic citizenship for babies born on German soil. They are eligible for German nationality only if one of their parents has lived in the country for at least eight years and has been granted permanent residency. And as the shocking pictures of Alan Shenu — the drowned 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy (reported elsewhere as Alayn Kurdi) whose body washed up on a Turkish beach —showed, the journey can be lethal. Why then, are pregnant women and mothers of infants risking their lives on the arduous and dangerous routes to Germany from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan?

Kamal, 2 months old, whose mother fled Syria with him for Germany.
Sophie Hardach

For Dania, the answer was obvious. “It’s better to walk for 15 days than to be killed by a bomb,” she said.

Like almost everyone in her group, she did not give her last name, out of fear that it might have repercussions for her relatives, some of whom are still in Damascus.

She arrived with her husband; her 18-month-old daughter, Limar; and 12 other Syrians in Munich late on Wednesday. Banding together to protect one another and their children, they became firm friends along the route. They walked through dark forests in the night, slept on the ground and caught buses, trains and taxis whenever they could. Some people helped them; others shooed them away. They remembered Hungary as one of the most hostile places they passed. When they reached Austria, Dania was so dehydrated and exhausted that rescue workers rushed her to hospital. Once she recovered, they let her continue to Germany.

“She’s so strong, to walk like that,” said Ahmad Alnomiry, a Syrian living in Germany. He was acting as a local guide and interpreter for the exhausted group. His best friend, Anas, who also lived in Germany, had several relatives among them. Limar, for example, was Anas’ niece. He had never seen her, having left Syria two years ago. He kept picking her up, cooing at her, his face radiant with joy.

Alnomiry went to Germany in 2014. His journey took five months and cost 7,000 euros, paid to people traffickers. Now that Hungary and Austria have effectively opened their borders to let refugees reach Germany, the journey is shorter and cheaper: 3,000 euros each for Dania and her friends, 1,500 euros for children. The relatively smoother trip in turn makes it more feasible for pregnant women and mothers with small children to join the Syrian exodus to Germany.

“I want her to have a good life,“ said Esra, 21, as she tenderly rocked her 3-month-old daughter, Nadia, to sleep. “In Syria there’s no life, only death.”

With Syria’s conflict in its fifth year, more than 4 million Syrians have fled their country, according to the United Nations. An additional 7.6 million are considered internally displaced. According to the activist network Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, more than 310,000 people have died in the war since 2011.

Refugees take shelter from the rain at a train station in the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia, on the border with Greece, June 30, 2015.
Robert Atanasovski / AFP / Getty Images

Esra put Nadia back in her stroller, a gift from the Austrians, along with a stuffed toy giraffe. Behind her, Sarah, 20, was trying to soothe 2-month-old Kamal.

“He cried a lot on the way. We had to feed him every two hours, change him every six hours,” she said. Asked how they washed him, she replied that they used baby wipes, which they bought along the way.

After a brief medical check at the train station, the families were taken to an emergency shelter in an exhibition hall outside Munich. It was 10 p.m., and everyone looked exhausted, but they decided to leave the shelter, wanting to reach other German cities, where they had relatives. Alnomiry taught them how to say “thank you” in German, and several of the refugees smiled and repeated the words. But as time wore on, their chatter faded. They walked through the deserted exhibition area in stoical silence. He tried to find the way to the underground station and looked up train timetables. At one point the group stopped, wondering where they would sleep.

In the end, they went back to the makeshift shelter in the exhibition center, leaving the rest of the journey for another day. Only one man, a cousin of Anas’, decided to stick with the two German-based Syrians. They were going to travel north to the town where Alnomiry lived. The cousin would rest, wash and eat, then register with local authorities.

Alnomiry had his own worries. In Syria, a bomb exploded close to him and left psychological and physical scars. He suffered from trauma and flashbacks and bad eyesight. But on Wednesday night, he was all strength and confidence as he herded the little families back to their shelter.

“I am 24, but in my mind, I feel 100,” he said.

The babies fell asleep. Limar sucked on her pacifier. Sarah tucked a blanket around Kamal. Asked if she was afraid to take such a small baby on an uncertain and treacherous journey, she shrugged and said, “There’s no other option.”

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