The Invisible Railroad for Syrian refugees

After five days in a crowded boat on the Mediterranean, the Khalil family journeys to Austria, hoping to avoid detection

MILAN, Italy – Ahmad Khalil knew his family’s days in Syria were numbered when security forces and militia cordoned off his neighborhood in the Damascus suburb Rif Dimashq in April 2013. He says the massacre began shortly after.

“The attack was atrocious. We saw knives and cleavers and witnessed killings by the Syrian regime and militia,” said Khalil. “That’s when I decided we had to flee Syria as soon as possible, by any means necessary.” 

In Syria, Khalil owned a store selling dental supplies and equipment. He fled the violence on foot with his wife and three children, now six, 10, and 14, expecting to die at the hands of Syrian security forces at any moment. Days later, Khalil and his family made it to safety in Egypt. His journey, however, had just begun.

The conflict in Syria has displaced 6.5 million people internally and caused another 3 million to flee the country entirely. While the majority of those refugees end up in border countries like Turkey and Jordan, an increasing number of Syrians are fleeing to Europe. Since the fighting began in 2011, 150,000 have applied for asylum there. After spending two years in Egypt hoping the situation in Syria would improve and they could return home, Khalil and his family joined that number.

The Mediterranean graveyard

For Syrian refugees, getting to Europe alive is anything but certain. One of the most popular routes is across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, where smugglers have operated with impunity since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. The soaring demand means smugglers are using less-seaworthy vessels, and piling in more migrants than ever. Over 20,000 migrants have died attempting the crossing since 1998, and this year is on track to be the deadliest ever – at least 1,750 migrants have already lost their lives. Security services estimate 1 million more migrants are gathering to make the attempt this summer.

The last boat the Khalils took across the Mediterranean was standing room only, crowded with 500 people.
Ahmad Khalil

Khalil will never forget the crossing. He paid thousands of dollars to a network of smugglers who shuttled his family from boat to boat before the final Mediterranean crossing. The last boat was the worst: crowded with 500 people, standing room only. Food and drink were scarce, he says, and the children were crying and screaming. Khalil slept only two or three hours that whole week.

On the fifth day, they hit stormy weather. Over the next two days, Khalil says there were high waves and people expected to die at any moment. Just as the boat began taking on water, they were rescued.

“When I saw the Italian Red Cross, I felt safe,” he said. “I felt like the angels of mercy were hovering with their wings above us, ensuring our safety.” 

Last year, Italy spent 114 million euros on the “Mare Nostrum” naval operation, which rescued more than 100,000 migrants in 2014. The project was discontinued in October and replaced with a European operation that has about a third of the funding. Last year, 170,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores and the country is expected to receive another 200,000 this year.

Like most Syrian refugees, Khalil doesn’t want to stay in Italy, which has one of the worst welfare systems in the EU.

“I don’t have the financial ability to sustain my family in Italy,” said Khalil. “Tuition is expensive and so is the cost of living.”

Italy also doesn't want all the refugees to stay. But according to EU law, a country that first receives a migrant must fingerprint them and file the application for asylum. Often, Italian authorities are more than happy to turn a blind eye to the incoming refugees, hoping they head to another country. Khalil and his family were able to leave the welcome center without being fingerprinted. Others aren’t so lucky. In the last few months, the EU has stepped up pressure on the Italian government to live up to its legal obligations after other countries have complained about its permissive approach. Refugees that are fingerprinted can be denied asylum in other countries and deported back to Italy.

The home stretch

Youssra Khalil, left, is still traumatized by memories of the harrowing Mediterranean voyage.
America Tonight

From the welcome centers in Sicily, migrants head 850 miles north – some in smugglers’ cars or buses, but most riding the rail – to Milan, reaching for the open borders of Europe.

On the train to Milan, Khalil's daughter Youssra glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of the sea. It triggered the dark memories of their Mediterranean voyage. She buried her head into her father's shoulder and wept.

It takes just a quick look around Milan Central Station to notice the large groups of Syrians, still illegal and undocumented, gathering openly as police drift by disinterested. The train station is truly just a resting point in the journey north – most stay no more than 48 hours. Of the 60,000 Syrians who came through last year, only 50 chose to ask for asylum in Italy.

Khalil and his family stopped in Milan for one night for a much needed rest before boarding a train to their final destination: Austria. For him, any country in Europe offers a safer life than the one he left, but he did his research and thought Austria would provide the best future for his family. He says it offers him a good chance of getting health insurance and education for his children.

“Other things are of less importance to me, he said. “For the future of my kids, I can bear anything.”

The Khalil family sent us this picture from their new home in Austria.
Ahmad Khalil

But Khalil’s real dream, he says, is to see stability and peace in Syria. He hopes one day people can enjoy a comfortable life there.

“Syria is a beautiful country. Syria is where the oldest alphabet in the world was invented,” he said. “Syrians enjoy a rich history and ancient civilization. The Syrian people make many sacrifices. They are great. Syria and its people deserve to live a life of freedom and dignity.”

With only the clothes on their backs and a bag full of Burger King, Khalil and his family began the final leg of their journey. Despite concerns of trouble at the border, the family made it to Austria without incident, happy and hopeful for their new life. 

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