Without even a toot of the horn, the Lady Su slipped slowly out of the harbor in northern Lebanon, loaded with trucks and cars as well as a human cargo – hundreds of Syrians embarking on the first leg of an odyssey that they hoped would end in Germany or northern Europe.
The Lady Su was 14 hours behind schedule, and there would be no food other than soft drinks available for the 12-hour journey to southern Turkey. But for the passengers, this was probably the high point on what was likely to be an eight-country travel ordeal.
Some 1,000 to 1,500 Syrians travel this route daily, according to Turkish port authorities, making it one of the main wellsprings for the flood now inundating Europe.
Just getting to the ferry last Tuesday had provided a preview of the abuse that would mark the journey. For those coming from Syria, Lebanese guards had held up their taxis or buses for up to two days at the border, and when they got to the run-down port with its primitive facilities, hundreds had to wait for two more days, told that the ferries don’t leave until they’re full – of trucks, that is.
Families with small children slept on the steel benches in the open air, waiting for the call to reclaim their passports, leading to a chaotic scramble and eventually boarding – through the vehicle bay and up a steep ladder to the passenger lounges. No schedule was posted nor even a listing of ferries, but according to local police, no ferry leaves on time.
Salma, a schoolteacher who like many of the people interviewed for this story asked not to be identified by family name to avoid government reprisals against relatives, was en route to join her husband in Austria. With her were three children, aged 18 months to 13. She’d fled her mostly Christian village near Homs, Syria, because “everyone was leaving.” Just one problem: she had hadn’t yet sold her house, which was to pay for the trip.
“Would you like to buy it?” she asked an American reporter.
Iyad Alturk, 23, a certified physical therapist, had abandoned his temporary quarters in Homs rather than wait to be inducted into the Syrian army next spring. “If I stayed through winter, I couldn’t get out,” he said.
Shama, 33, a seamstress, couldn’t take the fast-falling living standards, the constant power outages, the hours of waiting at security checkpoints and the lack of freedom in the coastal city of Latakia. But the last straw was the arrival of Russian forces. President Bashar Assad “brought in Russian troops to fight his own people,” she said. “It’s unbearable.”
There were at least 500 Syrians on board the roll-on, roll-off freight and passenger ferry when it left Tripoli, north Lebanon, for Tasucu, southern Turkey. Turkish-owned, it is flagged in Sierra Leone.
But they were not your typical war zone refugees. None of the 50 or so people interviewed had suffered regime “barrel bombs,” lived without all basic services or been viewed as an enemy of the state. They were legal emigrants from government-held areas, all carrying passports.
They had purchased their tickets – $175 to $200 for adults – at local travel agencies in Syria, and arrived at the port by taxi or even chartered bus. Most were educated and from the middle and lower-middle class.
They lived an apolitical life, and even after leaving Syria, few had adverse words for the Assad government. But all said they have no future there. Almost everyone was a Sunni, who comprise 70 per cent of the country, which is ruled by members of the Alawite minority.
“A lot of people are not running away from war. But they are chasing a dream to be citizens in Europe in the 21st century,” said Obaeda Farran, 38, from Idlib in northern Syria whose family has set up a restaurant in Mersin in southern Turkey.
“The poorest people, the ones suffering the most, cannot travel because they do not have the means,” he said, referring to the nine million Syrians who’ve fled their homes but remain inside the country.
Now their life of relative privilege was over, replaced by a hostile reality. It began in Syria where around on Sept. 17, the government shut down the travel offices selling ferry tickets, leaving would-be emigrants high and dry. Lebanon, once like a second home, now treats Syrians as unwelcome aliens, issuing 24-hour visas and penning them into primitive port facilities.
And when they arrived late Tuesdaynight in an obscure Turkish port with no facilities or transportation, they had to stay on board until all the cars and trucks empty first. It was only a first test of their resilience.
Abdulhakim Junaid, a mattress maker from Homs, had brought his wife and five children – the youngest, age two – had bought his tickets in Homs earlier this month and tried to change to a later date. But when he went to the travel office Sept. 17, it was shut down. Emigrants from at least three cities had the same experience.
Junaid’s family had to wait seven hours at the Lebanon border before they were cleared to enter, a faster passage than many, but the transit visa was good for exactly 24 hours.
Junaid hopes to reach Germany and join his 18-year-old son who left nine months ago. To raise the trip budget of $9,000 for the entire family, they sold their house. The most expensive part of the trip was the still-to-come crossing from the Turkish mainland to a Greek island, at a cost of $1,300 per adult and half price per child.
Still, he expected a friendly reception in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel laid out the welcome mat. “When I saw her on TV, I was so happy,” he said. He had made up his mind to leave before that, he said. Together with his wife and children, ages 2, 4, 7, 10 and 13, they have some long walks ahead.
“We will depend on God. We will go,” he said simply.
The emigrants could only guess why the government shut travel offices down. Was it to stop the flight of draft-eligible males, a concession to please East European governments with which Syria still has friendly relations, or an attempt to extort more money from emigrants? An official of the U.N.’s refugee agency in Beirut said she’d learned of the action from refugees but didn’t know the answer. “We are not sure yet whether this is a temporary or a permanent decision,” Lisa Abu Khaled told McClatchy.
Some passengers would have given up if they couldn’t buy tickets in advance, but others said they would have found a different escape route.
A group of 40 Christians, aged 17-30, traveling together from the small town of Toumine, between Homs and Hama, found a work-around for the closed offices – sending a car and driver to Beirut to purchase their tickets.
The agony for them began when they arrived at the port for the Saturday sailing, where they were told no ferry would depart before it was full. But Lebanese authorities had already taken their passports, so along with hundreds of others, they slept on the steel benches outdoors until Monday night. Some 600 people had to spend the weekend at the port, local police said.
A 45-year-old woman, who asked to be called Umm Mohammad, or Mohammad’s mother, was traveling with two daughters and two other female relatives from Latakia to visit relatives in southern Turkey. They’d been delayed at the Lebanese border for 22 hours.
“We had tickets, but the Lebanese guards said the travel agency had failed to send our names ahead,” she said. They arrived at the port at 1:30 Tuesday morning – 5-1/2 hours after scheduled sailing. But that was plenty of time, for the estimated departure time was 6 a.m. In the end, the Lady Su set off at 10 a.m.
Perhaps the biggest single group on board was young men of military age. Seven men from Damascus, aged 18 to 33, had bought their tickets Sept. 9, eight days before the expected sailing, and arrived at the border the border in a convoy of buses on Sept. 17. They had to wait two days at the border and two days inside the port. “They hate all Syrians,” said Ammar, 25, referring to Lebanese authorities.
All made it plain they were leaving to avoid fighting – for any side.
“Both sides will lose, and we don’t want to be a part of it.” said Inas Hroube, 33, who designs wedding dresses.
He acknowledged that at least he had a choice in whether to stay or go. “I live in Damascus,” he said, where shelling from rebel forces is intermittent. “I can only imagine how people in the countryside live.”
And then there were the underage youth like Hamza Alfajr, 14, from Al Safira, south of Aleppo, who was traveling on his own to find a construction job in Turkey before moving on.
His father, a van driver who’d supported rebel forces, disappeared in Daraa in southern Syria in late 2011, leaving two wives and 14 children without support. They fled to Lebanon where Hamza and an elder brother worked in construction.
But now Lebanon, which is hosting an estimated 1.3 million Syrians, is blocking them from working, and he had no choice but to flee. He knew he faced many risks ahead.
“I’m 14, but I’m smart,” he said.
Uday, 19, a companion Hamza met at the port, wasn’t so sure. “Pray for us,” he asked.
It was a worthy request: Hamza met a Syrian family on the trip, who decided to take him along as a son. He changed plans, joining them on the bus to the Turkish port city of Izmir, where they boarded a dingy for the dangerous trip to Greece.
The dingy sank Thursday night, and one passenger drowned, but the family planned to try again Friday night, Hamza reported by phone.
Special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria on board the Lady Su and Duygu Guvenc in Tasucu, Turkey, contributed.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc