′It would be better if you left′ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.08.2016
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'It would be better if you left'

Mohahmmed Hussein set off to Germany last summer with nothing more than 4,000 euros ($4,500) in cash and a few belongings. The sixteen-year-old Mohammed Hussein spoke with DW's Ute Schaeffer about his journey.

Mohammed Hussein was sent on the journey by his parents. "My family hadn't been living in Syria for a long time. Some of them were living in Turkey. And my grandparents decided: "You have no prospects here. You won't be able to study and you can't speak Turkish either. It would be better if you left."

Mohammed is 16 and actually has a Palestinian background. Mohammed's family had already fled once before: more than 60 years ago, they fled from the violence of the first Arab-Israeli war to the then safe and peaceful Syria. Mohammed's hometown is Muzayrib, a large district town near the city of Daraa in southern Syria. "My family is very big. There are eight children at home. Three boys and five girls." Supporting the family was a feat of strength. "My father worked as a taxi driver." Despite this, Mohammed was, as the eldest son, able to go to school for nine years. But in 2012 the family's life in southern Syria came to an end – as it did for many others.

In March 2011, protests against Bashar Al-Assad's regime broke out in Daraa, a city of 80,000 not far from where Mohammed lived. From there the anti-Assad rebels conquered the city and surrounding areas. Tanks, missiles and fighter jets were Assad's response.

Mohammed's family decided to leave Syria. His parents took the younger siblings to Lebanon. Mohammed initially stayed with his grandparents in Syria. Later the whole family reunited in the large Turkish harbor city of Mersin. "We were safe but we were in financial difficulty." In Turkey, refugees are not allowed to work. So there is often no choice but to work illegally – usually in the building or agricultural industries." This was also the case for Mohammed's family. The lack of prospects was what made Mohammed's parents decide to send him on a journey. "Go to Germany. At least you have relatives there. And then they gave me 4,000 euros in cash."

His uncle started looking for a suitable people trafficker who would organize the trip to Europe. A few days later he was successful. In Izmir, Mohammed, together with a group of other Syrian boys, got into a rubber dinghy. "There weren't just Syrians on board. There were also Africans. And there were too many of us. The boat was probably designed for about two dozen passengers – but it was loaded with 60 people." Mohammed survived the trip with his legs up and his head down in order to take up as little space as possible.

"No one was allowed to move. What went through my head? 'Inshaallah!' If it is God's will, then I will arrive safely in Europe. It was very squashed, but I wasn't really afraid that the boat would capsize. Our captain was Algerian. He spent the whole trip on the phone speaking to a people trafficker on land, so he could stay on course. Three hours later we arrived on the Greek island of Kos." There the group sought safety in a church. "But someone called the police. They asked us our names – I knew from my trafficker that it was better to give my age as 18. Then I would be able to keep moving, because minors are immediately arrested. I told them that I was Syrian. Of course I didn't have any papers anymore that said I had a Palestinian background.

From smuggler to smuggler

Mohammed checked in to the ferry to Athens with other young people from Syria. "We just bought normal tickets. We wanted to get to Athens. We knew that another smuggler was waiting for us there. That had already been organized. A smuggler from Afghanistan was waiting for us – he changed his name about as often as others change their clothes. Most of the time he was called Mansour."

Was he relieved when he reached Europe? "No, because Greece is still a long way from Germany. My feeling was more like: you've managed the first lap, that was just the first step. But it is still a long way! It was a very long way. Five hundred kilometers (310 miles), mostly on foot, from northern Greece through Macedonia, to the Macedonian-Serbian border. "We walked day and night. It's hard to remember exactly how long it took, but I would say about eight days and eight nights. We walked all day. Not on roads of course, so we wouldn't get noticed. At night at around 11pm we rolled out sleeping bags and slept out in the open. It was exhausting. The Afghan smuggler left them at the Serbian border to Macedonia. They went on to Belgrade by train. From the Serbian capital it is 170 kilometres to the Hungarian border. "The most important thing was to avoid getting an entry stamp in Hungary. Because this means that this is the first country in Europe that you've entered – and this would mean that you would have to stay there or be sent back there from Germany."

Many people profit from refugees

Mohammed's plans almost failed. "When our group was setting off for the Hungarian border, two policemen came towards us. We basically ran straight into them. They were very unfriendly and wanted to take down everyone's personal details. Negotiations took some time, but in the end it was not so hard. Each of us gave them 20 euros and then they left." Considering that there were 23 people in the group, the two policemen on patrol took away 460 euros on the side. Many people have made a profit from the refugees moving through Europe: from corrupt police and border guards, to bus and transport companies – or the taxi drivers on the Hungarian border. Even today Mohammed can't believe the business that goes on: "Refugees pay horrendous prices to travel short distances. For the trip to Budapest, which took about two hours, each passenger had to pay 100 euros. That is 400 euros for a full taxi."

Desired destination: Germany

Not much was left over for Mohammed from the 4,000 euros that his family put in for his escape. "I had to use the 700 euros that were left over for the rest of the trip to Bavaria. When I crossed the border into Germany I had just 100 euros left." Mohammed traveled straight to Berlin where he has an uncle and some other distant relatives. There were good reasons he chose Germany: "No other European country came into question. And I'm sure that here I will be able to study architecture or become an engineer. That is my goal!"

Mohammed is one of twelve young migrants who have been featured in Ute Schaeffer's book "Einfach nur weg" ("Anywhere but here").