An occasional series on the international refugee crisis By Maria Sacchetti and photographer Craig F. Walker Globe staff
To reach this point, migrants and refugees from Syria and other lands had survived deadly sea crossings into Europe, risked beatings and tear gas, and endured long hikes under a sweltering sun. On the last day of their trek, they were stuck in the cold rain on a bridge over the Salaach River, waiting for Germany to let them in.
“I just want to go to the end of the bridge. That’s it,” said Ali Rezaee, a 34-year-old furniture maker from Iran, wearing a donated parka and a plastic rain poncho on the bridge on the Austria-Germany border last week. “Then everything’s going to be OK.”
But Germany is no longer offering quite the celebratory welcome, with applause and signs, that it did they can screen newcomers more carefully and find shelters for them.
Migrants said they have waited as long as two days to cross the bridge, in temperatures as low as the 40s.
In Freilassing, a small Bavarian city that shares a border with Austria, German police said last week that they were accepting about 20 migrants at a time from the bridge, where the pedestrian walkway has transformed into a tent city.
Police said they slowed the process to conduct an initial screening of the migrants and refugees, including taking their names, photographs, and information about their homelands. Some migrants, mostly men, were also physically searched and fingerprinted. Many migrants had crossed through other countries without such screening, often under full view of officials who encouraged them to keep going.
“The checks on the border take time,” said Manfred Ludwig, spokesman for the German federal police, on duty in Freilassing. “We do our job and that’s important.”
About 1,000 migrants were arriving daily in Freilassing, police said, and the processing, which took place in different locations, including the train station, was largely uneventful. However, police said they found and confiscated a few knives, and last week they arrested at least two men they said were fugitives from the law. One man from Lebanon was wanted for robbery and violence against women, police said. Police declined to comment on why the other man was arrested, saying it was still under investigation.
Meanwhile, others shiver in line, waiting to enter the country and begin a new life.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, a 20-year-old math student from Herat, Afghanistan, said he was desperate to move his family someplace warm. For the moment, he kept them in a plastic-covered tent on the sidewalk to shelter them from the rain, and stood guard outside to keep their place in line.
“We can’t stay in here,” he said. “The police say ‘wait, wait.’ But my father and mother are very old, and my sister is 9 old.”
Still, many migrants could not contain their joy at seeing Germany for the first time.
Temorsha Sadat, a 17-year-old from Mazar-el-Sharif in Afghanistan, was first in line late Wednesday night. “Now happy,” he said. “Now, we stay here.”
Under the street lights, Ammar, a 26-year old former health care worker from Syria who fled to Germany after he was shot during the civil war, stared lovingly into his wife’s eyes. They had not seen each other for nearly two years. And he had not heard from her for days, since she and their 8-year-old daughter crossed into Europe on a rubber raft.
Anxious, he awaited word at home in Kaiserslautern, a German town about 250 miles away from the bridge, where, like other refugees he had been taking German classes and trying to build a new life. Finally, at the bridge, police let his wife use the Internet to contact him. He rushed to them.
She smiled, tears in her eyes. “Feels so beautiful,” she said. “Now, with my husband, I feel so strong,” she later added.
“She has a very brave heart,” Ammar said, declining to give his full name because he said his family still faces threats in Syria.
Volunteers from Austria and Germany tried to keep up the migrants’ spirits as they waited, handing out hats and cups of tea and chocolate bars. “We want to show them that they are welcome,” said David Erabor, a 16-year-old high school student.
Despite Germany’s official embrace of the newcomers, significant numbers of whom are Muslim, in neighborhoods throughout the nation the adjustment is sometimes jarring.
Sources: iMap; Frontex: news reports
David Butler/Globe Staff
In the Munich suburb of Neubiberg, a man named Markus said he was alarmed when a massive pod-like tent housing 300 refugees suddenly appeared on a former airfield behind his neighborhood of condos and bike paths.
“You have no way to say anything about it because if you start to, they will say, you’re Nazis,” said Markus, 50, a software engineer. “We have to just accept it and shut up.”
Others worry about the newcomers’ safety. Mosques have been attacked in Germany; over the summer, vandals set fire to a shed next to a mosque in Munich, outraging Germans and Muslims alike.
But Germans say overall efforts are focused on welcoming the migrants. Mosques are inviting them to dinners and prayers. A soccer team offered a free clinic for migrant youths. A university offered free German classes. And the government typically provides asylum seekers with aid, such as for housing.
At the train station and on the bridge last week in Freilassing, most migrants were not sure what they would do next in Germany.
A woman from Syria about to be photographed by police burst into tears.
“I am afraid,” she said.
But others charged ahead.
Ali Rezaee, the furniture maker from Iran, said he did not sleep for two days because he feared losing his place in line on the bridge. But just before midnight Wednesday, he finally crossed into Germany, ready for a new life.
Trains carrying thousands of bleary-eyed migrants and refugees from Syria and other nations sped to this small border town this week, unloading passengers onto an open-air platform where they squinted and shivered in the cold autumn light.
“Is this Austria?” migrants asked over and over.
When the migrants were told they were still in Hungary, their faces fell. But Hungarian police soon escorted them on a 3-mile hike into Austria — and the migrants exiting the trains said they could not leave Hungary fast enough. The country has recently erected razor-wire fences, lobbed tear gas at migrant families, and lawmakers authorized the use of pellet guns if needed.
“We know in Austria we will be safe,” said Sal, a newlywed from Syria who held his wife’s hand as they walked briskly to the border. Others ran.
In recent days, more than 15,000 migrants have streamed over the Hungary-Austria border, according to the United Nations. Many had been caught in a bizarre international conflict after Hungary closed its southern border. Migrants were then forced to head into Croatia, which allowed in thousands, then temporarily shut its borders and shipped migrants out on buses and trains, including back to Hungary.
Officials in Hungary complained loudly but ultimately relented and let the migrants pass through on their way to Austria and then Germany and other nations. But Hungarian police made sure the migrants left quickly.
On Tuesday, Hungarian police closely followed Mohamad J., a former English teacher from Aleppo, as he carried his 7-month-old daughter, Sara, and walked with his wife and 55-year-old aunt from the train station into the neighboring town of Nickelsdorf in Austria. His wife was suffering from an infection and had not been able to bathe for six days. His aunt’s ankle was swollen.
They said they came to Europe because of Sara. She was sleeping when the Syrian government dropped a barrel-bomb — a barrel full of oil and explosives — near their house, they said. After the blast, the girl slipped into a coma. The doctor who diagnosed her with a bleeding brain fled to Germany. With little water, electricity, food, or hospitals, they feared the child would not survive if they stayed.
“They said she might not talk. She might not walk. She might not study,” Mohamad J. said as he walked across the border.
He added softly, “She was OK when she was born.”
Hungary has fumed over the influx of roughly a half million migrants and refugees into Europe this year, saying they present a security threat and competition for jobs. And right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban this week has blasted the influx of Muslims and claimed that migrants are “breaking” down their doors. “We cannot see an end to this,” he said.
But critics say the dispute over migrants — and Hungary’s hard line, which a UN official called shocking and xenophobic — is fraying European unity and the concept of open borders that until recently allowed for seamless passage from Hegyeshalom into Austria. This week, European Union officials met to find a way to resolve the crisis. United Nations officials say European countries should work together to grant asylum to migrants and refugees who are in danger while protecting Europe’s borders from security threats.
On Monday, the train into Hegyeshalom dropped off Mohamed Daod, a 30-year-old man from Kirkut, Iraq, who said he had worked as an interpreter for the US military. His body is plastered with pro-US military tattoos that made him an easy target for extremist groups. He also wore a metal bracelet in memory of Army Corporal Nicholas Arvanitis, a New Hampshire man who died in Iraq.
He said the troops nicknamed him Elvis and encouraged him to apply for a visa to the United States. He did, but never got it. Since the US military left his country, he faced death threats, his father was shot, and Daod had to go into hiding. Finally, Daod paid $10,000 this month to get smuggled into Europe by land through Bulgaria.
“I didn’t think they would leave me behind,” he said of the US military.
Assa Touma, a 45-year-old jewelry designer and Christian, said he was the last of his family left in Syria when he fled on Sept. 3 with his wife and their 8-year-old son. His sister lives in Massachusetts, but he said he doubted America would take as many refugees as Europe.
“It’s bomb, bomb, bomb, guns,” he said in halting English, describing Aleppo, the city he fled. “My shop, my house, and my car. Because of that I’m going. It’s very, very sad.”
When the refugees left the Hegyeshalom train station in recent days, none of the residents in this small town of quaint cottages with chimneys greeted them as residents have in other cities.
On Tuesday, Hungarian police ordered a group of men and a couple of women who tried to sit down to rest to keep going, saying “Go” in English — a language many migrants speak — and making sweeping motions with their hands.
Police also ordered one man who limped with a leg injury to keep walking. The man raised his hand to an officer for help climbing over a small incline, but the officer did not take it.
Asked why they were moving people who said they were tired, one officer said, “Me too, tired. I work 60 hours.”
But at the border, the migrants found a warm welcome from the Red Cross and a group of volunteers from Hungary, Austria, Germany, and elsewhere.
As soon as migrants arrived, volunteers offered water, granola bars, crackers, and hot tea. There were also clean clothes, rubber boots and diapers.
Bettina Zillinger, a college student and one of the volunteers said she drove from Austria to the border after stumbling upon migrant children and adults sleeping on the street in Hungary while she was on vacation. She said she helped them find a place to stay, and they became Facebook friends, which provided her a glimpse into their former lives. Like her, some had been students or professionals in Syria and Afghanistan, and photos showed them dressed up for work or for a night out.
“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “These guys just had a normal life and now they’re sitting here with no food and nowhere to sleep.”
For migrants crossing into Austria, the oasis is short lived.
On the other side, in Nickelsdorf, is a barren border crossing where military and the police have set up a way station for migrants, trying to hurry them to their destinations. Military officers are spooning out mushroom soup and loading migrants onto dozens of buses to take them closer to Germany and other countries.
Nickelsdorf is not a place the migrants want to stay long, with reeking porta-johns and a vast parking lot piled high with garbage the migrants left behind, including brown velour blankets, water bottles, and food wrappers. Bulldozers swept it away.
As he walked into Austria, Sal, the newlywed from Syria, hardly seemed to mind. He and his new wife fed each other granola bars and admired their new wedding rings. They married on Sept. 10 and left Syria three days later.
He was happy to be on his way north, and out of Hungary.
“I know it won’t be perfect,” he said of Austria and beyond. “But the look in their eyes is different.”
With her swollen feet crammed into dusty shoes, the hairdresser from Syria took a moment to rest in the garden. Her son played on the house’s lawn as other migrant families gathered on light blankets.
Then the homeowner pulled her car into the driveway, scanned her backyard, and half-whispered in Croatian: “Catastrophe.”
Soon after on Friday, police ushered the hairdresser, Hekmat Kharma, her 8-year-old son, and the other migrants and refugees back to the garbage-strewn streets of this border town in Croatia, still far from their destination in northern Europe.
“We’re tired,” said Kharma, who left Syria because of the civil war.
Though the trek is rough on all the migrants, physicians and aid workers say families — particularly women, children, and the elderly — present a special concern.
By day, families hike long distances in scorching heat — and shiver at night as temperatures drop. Doctors say more children are developing fevers, diarrhea, and respiratory problems. Exhausted mothers are struggling to breast-feed, some are pregnant, and many do not have safe places to bathe and sleep.
Save the Children, a nonprofit, said research showed that 1 in 4 migrant children who passed through Serbia last week were traveling without their parents or had been separated from their families, raising concerns that they would be vulnerable to human trafficking or sexual assault.
The United Nations and others are urging European nations such as Hungary, Croatia, and Macedonia to speed the migrants’ passage to Germany, Norway, and other welcoming countries in northern Europe, saying they are putting children at risk of harm. Children are among the 2,900 people who are missing or who drowned this year in the sea trying to cross into Europe from Turkey and nations in Africa.
Last week, the United Nations blasted Hungary for firing tear gas and water cannons at a crowd that included children. A doctor who was there told the Globe that the gas was also directed at children.
“They’ve already been through so much. Imagine kids seeing war by bullets and bombs,” said Babar Baloch, which protects refugees and has blasted Hungary and other European nations for failing to manage the influx. “We’re seeing the level of misery at its highest.”
The United Nations says more than 442,000 migrants, half of them Syrians, have poured into Europe by sea this year. Increasingly, Baloch said, they are seeing women and children on a route that had historically been dominated by men.
The United Nations estimates that more than half of the 4 million Syrian refugees worldwide are women and children.
Kharma said she was tear-gassed by Hungarian police last week while trying to cross into the country from Serbia on her way to Norway.
Afterward, Kharma and thousands of others were loaded into buses and rushed east to Serbia’s border with Croatia, where they crossed legally until Croatia said it was overwhelmed and temporarily closed its border last week. Then authorities watched as the families were forced to cross through cornfields and down dirt paths.
On Friday, buses of migrants pulled up at a dirt road in Serbia and accompanied those on foot for a few miles into Croatia. Men, women, and children, including the elderly and disabled, struggled down the paths in the scorching heat, some wearing just flip-flops or sandals. Muslim women, clad in long garments in keeping with their religious modesty, sweated and tripped. Passing cars kicked up thick clouds of brown dust.
Along the route, a woman from Iraq plowed through the cornfields carrying a duffel bag, along with her husband, who carried their daughter. Their son, wearing plastic sandals, walked nearby.
“We need safe,” she said when asked why she left Iraq. “We need safe to live my children.”
Near a bend in the road, a 16-year-old girl named Sham sat in the middle of the path, struggling to breathe. She had vomited. Her mother sat nearby, dizzy, as their brother begged for help. They said they were from Iraq but then changed their minds and said they were from Syria. Syrians are widely viewed as more sympathetic.
Croatian police standing around the corner headed toward the girl to help. The United Nations says they have offered translators and other aid to Croatia and other countries to help with the influx of migrants but said the country has not taken full advantage of it.
Croatia appeared unprepared for the sudden influx of migrants this week, forcing many to sleep on the street. The United Nations refugee agency said the safety of women and children is a major concern.
Jota Echevarria, an orthopedic surgeon from Spain who works with Doctors without Borders, which has an emergency tent in Tovarnik, said women as many as eight months pregnant are making the trip. He said the nonprofit has seen recent refugees as old as 82 and as young as 8 days old.
Other volunteers say women are frustrated by the lack of privacy, and many women are afraid to use the bathrooms, especially at night.
Among them are Hannan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria, her elderly mother-in-law, and other relatives who sat on a filthy road next to a row of garbage bags.
That night, police decided to put the migrants on buses again, though their destination was not always clear, and lined people up on the street. Fights broke out, and parents struggled to keep hold of their children. Some said the buses were going to Hungary; others said they went to other countries.
“Please don’t push. Only women and the children,” one Croatian officer called repeatedly Friday night as migrants boarded buses.
Migrants said they were eager to move on. But as they departed, newer migrants replaced them. According to the United Nations, some 4,000 migrants are arriving daily in Greece.
Hamira Hashimee, a 29-year-old from Afghanistan, said she had not been able to bathe or wash her clothes in a long while. She was in line for the bus out of town but unsure when her turn would arrive.
For now, she stayed close to the Doctors without Borders tent. The night before in their tent, her daughters, 8 and 2, ran fevers. “They are sick,” she said, glancing at her little girls.
In Tovarnik on Sunday, the nonprofit set up a play tent under rainy skies where children could play with blocks or draw pictures as their parents waited in line for a bus.
Alice Klein, a spokeswoman, said the nonprofit doesn’t tell the children what to draw, but many drew homes — in big apartment buildings, a yellow house with a red roof, a house with red curtains. The artwork hung Sunday inside the tent.
“Often it turns out that they draw what makes them happy,” she said.
The doctor begged Amjad to wait until he had recovered from surgery to join the thousands of refugees flowing toward Germany. But days after the operation, the 37-year-old shop owner from Syria limped over the dusty border from Greece and into Macedonia.
His wife and two children are still in hiding in Syria, a nation fighting a civil war, and as soon as he settles in Germany, he said, they will try to join him.
“How can I wait?” Amjad said Wednesday, showing a reporter his two children’s photographs on his phone and the gauze bandage on his abdomen from the surgery. He asked not to use his last name because his relatives are still in Syria. “I want to bring my family.”
Anxious migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other unstable nations continued to pour into Macedonia this week, propelling themselves on donated water and light meals toward Germany and other nations offering shelter.
After four years of war, more Syrians are seeking sanctuary in Europe.
Sources: United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees
James Abundis/Globe Staff
They may have survived the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece, which has claimed thousands of victims this year. But the journey through Europe, which they start planning almost as soon as they land, remains arduous and unpredictable.
Even at calmer border crossings, circumstances such as broken trains, searing heat, and the migrants’ own exhaustion conspire to slow them down. And they know that much worse conditions may lie ahead.
This week, Mohammad Y., a thin 30-year-old man from Syria, said he and his travel companions watched in horror on YouTube as Hungarian police cracked down on migrants.
“We are so angry,” he said while waiting for the ferry to mainland Greece, the next step in a journey that would take him to Macedonia, Serbia, and then Hungary on his way to Sweden. “We have dignity. We are humans after all.”
Conditions in Hungary would soon worsen with media reports of border guards hitting refugees, including children, with tear gas and water cannons, drawing condemnation from the United Nations.
Other migrants along the route wrestled with similar fears of clashing with authorities or getting lost.
On Tuesday, a volunteer dropped a man named Ali Farkame and his wife Mariam at the Athens train station. They had tickets on the 6:18 p.m. train to a city near the northern border with Macedonia, their next stop en route to Germany. Farkame struggled to focus and his wife kept crying. She said they were from Iran.
The couple boarded the train, but Farkame panicked, grabbed his bag, and raced to the doors, which closed in his face. As the train picked up speed, a 26-year-old passenger named Pillati Petro reassured Farkame that he was on the right train.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Petro said, counting off Farkame’s next destinations on his fingers — Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, then Austria and Germany, until Farkame flashed the thumbs-up sign that he understood.
In 1996, Petro and his family were also refugees, fleeing unrest in neighboring Albania, where his mother was a teacher, his father a forestry worker, and the family had a spacious home. But in Greece, his parents toiled longer hours in the tobacco fields and lived in a tiny flat.
Nineteen years later, Petro is a college graduate who speaks several languages and hopes to apply to Rutgers University to earn an MBA.
“In the end it was better for us,” Petro said. “You don’t remember the bad things.”
For thousands of migrants who arrived in Macedonia on Wednesday, that journey is just beginning.
Last month the scene at the border of northern Greece and Macedonia was chaotic and frightening, with border guards clashing with refugees trying to cross on their way to Germany. Photos showed the guards holding riot shields as children wept.
In Greece, a Syrian man drowned in a river while hiking to the northern border. At that time, police said migrants were not allowed to ride the bus all the way to the line.
On Wednesday, United Nations officials said police on both sides of the border were cooperating better.
In Greece, police allowed buses to drop off passengers closer to the border. Refugees and migrants walked a short distance past fields to the train tracks. Police divided them into groups, assigned them numbers, and ushered them across the border, which was fringed with razor wire.
On the Macedonia side, the riot shields lay unused against trailers as camouflage-clad special forces ushered the migrants across a garbage-strewn field to a camp, where the United Nations and the Red Cross offered food, medical care, a play tent for children, cooling stations, and water.
Some police even shook migrants’ hands and tried to cheer them. “Smile, smile,” said one Macedonian police officer, speaking in English.
But few smiled. In mid-July, 1,500 to 1,700 migrants crossed here, but now the camp sees 6,000 to 8,000 newcomers a day, said Lorenzo Leonelli, field officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Leonelli said some migrants have suffered mild heart attacks. Others are pregnant, with some close to delivering their babies.
“You see that it’s people that need to move,” Leonelli said. “People are exhausted. They’ve stayed under the sun for hours. It’s really difficult. They are psychologically destroyed. They’re not used to this kind of situation.”
Ahmed Ibrahim, who said his family was fleeing violence in Syria, stood hollow-eyed in line under a blistering sun at the Macedonia border with his wife, their twins, a boy and a girl, and their six-year-old daughter, who stumbled and fell on the dirt path as they crossed the border. Ibrahim’s elderly father tried to keep busy by helping mothers fix broken wheels on strollers, but he had tears in his eyes.
The Ibrahim family and hundreds of others received temporary permission to stay and apply for asylum in Macedonia, though most did not. Macedonia is a poor nation of 2 million people with roughly 30 percent unemployment.
“I just want to leave,” Ibrahim, 31, said as he waited in the 80-degree temperatures. His babies, stripped to their diapers, were red-faced and crying despite their parents’ efforts to cool them.
He brightened when he said his family planned to join relatives in Norway. “I like the snow,” he said.
After they crossed into Macedonia, migrants with legal papers were allowed to leave for buses, trains, or taxis to their next stop. Those without papers had to wait for the train, which cost $25 euros apiece.
On Wednesday, the train to Serbia was supposed to arrive at 1 p.m., but an hour passed, then two. Some restless migrants tried to slip away, prompting police to shout and chase them, though it’s unclear if they were ever found. Most waited in crowded tents near the train tracks. They cheered when a freight train rumbled by, then fell silent when it did not stop.
Finally at 4:01 p.m., a battered orange and mustard-yellow train, scarred with graffiti, rolled up and a hush fell over the crowd. Police arranged migrants into lines, using megaphones with help from Arabic speakers, and tried to make sure that nobody rushed in and got hurt.
After Serbia the migrants still had to decide whether to try to cross into Croatia or Hungary. This week, media reports said both countries had closed their borders to migrants passing through.
After the train pulled away, even the Macedonian border guards looked wiped out.
“It’s so horrible,” a special forces officer said, lighting a cigarette as passengers waved goodbye. “Nobody understands our job. We are here to help everybody. Let God join us.”
Around 7:20 p.m. Friday night, a rubber dinghy floated in with men singing verses from the Koran. On land, they hugged one another tightly. The voyage from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos was supposed to last 30 minutes, or so the smugglers told them. Instead, they floated on the sea for two hours.
As they crossed, water leaked into the flimsy boat, covering their shoes and then their ankles.
A 23-year-old man from war-ravaged Syria, who asked not to be identified because he still has family in Damascus, said he and his friends frantically bailed water from the boat. They had not slept for two days. Before the trip, the smugglers had hid the group in the woods and forced them to carry the boat for several hours to the launching point in Turkey.
When they finally landed on Lesbos, he realized he had lost his wallet to the sea.
“I’m alive,” he said with a shrug. He still planned to head to Sweden, and would have to pay for part of the journey, but he believed he would make it. He explained: “I have my friends with me.”
“Nobody cares. Why?”
Late Friday, after a long, hot walk from their boat’s landing on Lesbos, a few dozen migrants and refugees discovered the bus did not arrive until the next day.
Instead of starting the next leg of their journey to Germany and other welcoming nations that night, a few dozen men, women and children from Syria, Pakistan, and other countries set up camp in the in the fishing town of Skala Sykaminias. In a little square, a group of men lighted a bonfire of cardboard boxes and paper scraps to dry off. People hung wet clothing from the trip on guardrails to dry. They filled water bottles at a fountain and bought cheese, bread and toasts for dinner.
Families sat on the stone streets and fed their children, who fell asleep there. When a reporter approached, they offered food, which she declined.
Brothers Ali and Saleh sat together on the street, with Ali’s wife and child. They had lived apart for nearly two years since Ali fled Syria in 2013 to work as a chef in Turkey and send money home. But when the civil war intensified -- Syrians say the government and the extremist Islamic State are both terrorizing civilians - they decided to flee to Europe.
Both said they were grateful to Germany’s chancellor, who agreed to take in 800,000 refugees this year.
“Angela Merkel,” Ali said. “I love that lady.”
But they were incredulous that President Obama pledged to accept 10,000 people.
“Only 10,000? Why?” Ali said. “Every day the children die (in Syria). Nobody cares. Why?”
The crisis no one wants to talk about
On Monday morning in the two refugee camps on Lesbos, children giggled as they twirled on a crooked merry-go-round. A man faced toward Mecca and prayed. A woman washed a boy’s hair with a bottle of water. A man disfigured by war injuries walked unsteadily down a path to a tent.
Migrants and refugees are constantly pouring in to the refugee camps to register with Greek authorities before taking the ferry to the mainland on the next leg of their trip. The camps have food, water and medical care. Nobody wants to stay long, but they are unsure of their destinations.
David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, which aids refugees, arrived at the camps on Monday to urge wealthier countries such as the United States, the Gulf states and the United Kingdom, where once he was foreign secretary, to accept more refugees. Monday, he said the United States should accept 100,000 refugees instead.
“The Syrian crisis has been too often in the last four or five years the forgotten crisis. It’s been the crisis that no one wants to talk about,” he said.
The next day he got on an airplane and headed back overseas to explain again what he had seen in Lesbos, and how he believes it is not going away.
Getting to a better place
He was a 17-year-old student facing compulsory military service in Syria. So he decided to run, instead.
“I don’t want to kill anybody,” said Abdullah, now 20.
Tuesday morning, he stood at the main port on the Greek island of Lesbos to wait for a ferry trip to mainland Greece and then, an uncertain destination.
He had dreamed of landing in New York or Washington and becoming a teacher or a lawyer. He studied English and speaks it fluently. But English-speaking countries are taking far fewer refugees than say, Germany or Brazil. He does not speak German or Portuguese.
“In Brazil, oh my god, what am I going to eat?” he said. “What will I do?”
In Syria, he said he had a girlfriend who helped him escape the Army, but he said she died two years ago during the war.
“I believe that she’s in a better place,” he said. “Maybe her grave is better.”
At dusk the passage seemed safe enough, but then came the unexpected weather.
A lifeboat carrying 70 desperate people, including war refugees and small children, had sailed into the fast-fading light. Halfway across the channel between Turkey and Greece, the engine died. On suddenly rough seas and amid a bank of light fog, mothers struggled to hold onto shrieking children. Some passengers became violently ill.
“We see our deaths,” said a passenger, Mohammad, a 27-year-old refugee from Syria, who was fleeing threats from terrorists and feared for his family back home.
The fleeing migrants, with the help of fishermen, made it to this island’s shores Saturday — greeted by the incongruous scene of seaside tourists sipping white wine and eating salads. But it is a measure of their desperation that refugees are still braving uncertain waters to reach Europe despite growing roadblocks along their journey and the threat of drowning that has claimed thousands of lives in the past two years.
On Sunday, 34 more refugees, half of them children, drowned off the island of Farmakonisi.
About 500,000 migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other lands have fled to Europe this year, and most have landed in Greece. And they are arriving in the greatest numbers on Lesbos, a picturesque island of stone streets and olive groves where many Greek-Americans in New England have roots.
But few would recognize the island now.
Thousands of discarded life jackets clutter the rocky beaches, deflated rubber rafts hug the shore, and refugees slog for miles on the winding dirt roads into town, hoping to register with Greek authorities before heading to Germany or another nation willing to accept them.
For Greeks already dealing with a economic crisis, the influx is a shock. Many volunteers from Greece, the Netherlands, and other countries are trying to help, handing out water, offering directions, or providing dry clothes.
“What you realize is you have a lot,” said Andrea Sarris, a Greek-American who lives on Lesbos but grew up in Dover, Mass. “While we psychologically have gone through a lot in Greece, these people have gone through war. They have the clothes on their backs. They have babies.”
Few Syrian refugees have made it to Massachusetts. The United States has accepted just 1,600 refugees from Syria since the unrest began four years ago. This month, the United States pledged to take 10,000 more over the next fiscal year. But the International Rescue Committee says 10,000 refugees arrive on Lesbos each week and Monday urged the United States to accept 10 times more by the end of 2016.
Sources: iMap; Frontex; AP
David Butler/Globe Staff
Four million refugees have fled Syria alone — a number larger than the entire population of Connecticut — since a brutal civil war broke out after peaceful prodemocracy protests in 2011. About half fled to neighboring Turkey, 6 nautical miles across the Aegean Sea from Lesbos. Other migrants come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and other places.
On Lesbos, 2,000 refugees arrive daily along the northeastern coast, according to the International Rescue Committee, which helps settle the newcomers. The point on Lesbos closest to Turkey is Skala Sykaminias, a fishing and farming village with a quaint marina where tourists sip strong coffee as fishing boats bob nearby.
In Skala Sykaminias, the refugee boats arrived at first light Saturday — and kept coming all day.
At 6:56 a.m., as the fishermen headed out into the Aegean, one of the first refugee boats was speeding toward shore. Everyone aboard smiled broadly.
As soon as the rubber dinghy hit land, the occupants of the overcrowded boat poured onto the beach. Passengers laughed and snapped photos with the driver. Smugglers charge refugees as much as $1,800 apiece for the one-to-two-hour journey — which can take much longer if it goes awry — but the “captains” are often other refugees who cannot sail or swim.
Now that anxiety was behind them. Hassan Al-Baghdadi, a 25-year-old lawyer from Iraq, whipped out a selfie stick to take photos. His friend, a burly gym owner, changed into a dry shirt: a Boston Celtics jersey, a gift from a friend.
They had each paid $1,300 to cross. The lawyer said it was worth every cent.
“Iraq is full of terrorists,” he said.
At 10:33 a.m., high on a hill, a stout fisherman named Dimitris Karapanagiotis scanned the horizon for boats. He spends all day waving life jackets to guide the boats to shore, so he can grab their engines and then resell them for cash. Some frown on the practice, saying the authorities should confiscate them instead.
But in Greece, one in four people is unemployed. He needs the money.
“The criminals are the politicians for doing this,” Karapanagiotis, 47, barked while waiting for the boats. “They call themselves peacemakers. Actually, they are causing all these problems.”
Seconds later, he spotted another boat.
A rubber raft skidded to shore, and a group of Afghan students from an all-boys school in Kabul, some too young to shave, jumped out in T-shirts and jeans. They huddled to figure out what to do next.
Few Afghan migrants speak English. But Mohammad Husain, 16, had taken a class.
Afghanistan is so chaotic and poor that the life expectancy is less than 50 years. He said his family borrowed money from a rich man to send him here.
“It was so dangerous,” he said in English. “The situation in Afghanistan is not good. We are compelled to come here.” He wants to seek asylum — which would give him official refugee status.
At 10:54 a.m., another boat barreled toward shore, but this time nobody smiled. The passengers leaned forward, as if willing it to land. And when it did, they staggered out, speechless. A white-haired man clad in a soaked business suit under his life vest. A young Afghan interpreter who spoke English and said he used to interpret for the US Army.
Saghar Karimi, 22 and from Afghanistan, clutched her 1-year-old niece and sobbed. “The motor wasn’t working,” she said.
At noon, a rubber dinghy arrived with a group of men from Damascus, a city in Syria badly damaged by the civil war. The men refused to give their names, saying they feared the repressive government or the Islamic State extremists would harm their families back home.
Instead, they showed a reporter their scars.
One man lifted his shirt to reveal bullet scars in his abdomen and a long scar down his torso.
Another rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a round scar on his arm, from a bullet.
A man named Anwar pointed to a jagged scar on his cheek.
Omar, a gaunt man in a green jacket, was on crutches. A friend unwrapped an ACE bandage covering his disfigured right leg. Then, with no buses there to help him, Omar turned with his friends and hobbled to town on the dirt road.
By 12:14 p.m., temperatures soared to 80 degrees. When the next boat landed, everyone fled to the shade.
Except for Hiwa Amine, a 30-year-old from Syria. Thrilled to have arrived safely, he stripped to his shorts and charged back into the sea.
“Everything is OK! Everything is OK!” he shouted in English, splashing in the water. “Because Europe is life. Europe is love.”
Minutes later, at 12:56 p.m., a rubber raft veered toward the rocks at the bottom of a steep hill. On land, volunteers shouted at those in the boat to aim for the beach. But then the engine stopped, too far from shore.
The two groups stared at one another, helpless.
Refugees blew emergency whistles. Volunteers strained to search for the coast guard. Finally, a refugee jumped into the water to propel the boat with his legs. With more than 40 people on board, it barely budged. More men jumped in the water. Another paddled with a single oar. Others clawed at the sea with their cupped hands.
As they struggled, a European journalist flew a buzzing camera drone over their heads.
Finally, they arrived at the rocks. A man with Parkinson’s disease had been on board. Minutes later, the coast guard sped by.
“We’re Syrian,” a man said, to nobody in particular.
All day and night, the boats kept coming. At 4:03 p.m., an Afghan family of 10 arrived in rough seas and stood soaking wet just steps from a luxury tour bus ferrying Austrian tourists around the island.
Nobody imagined more refugees would brave the rough seas that night. But more did.
Just after 9 on Saturday night, the dinner crowd gathered at elegant outdoor cafes surrounding a tiny marina in Skala Sykaminias looked up from their meals. Four fishing boats were hauling in the lifeboat that carried the 70 refugees.
Onlookers applauded the fishermen as refugees flooded the port shrieking and sobbing and searching for their children.
A woman in an elegant white dress spotted unattended children hauled off the boat and rushed to hold them for their parents, grabbing one, then another, until she could not hold them all.
Nearby, another woman folded her arms and stared.
Many on Lesbos worry the migrants and refugees are driving away tourists, even though this island has erected statues to honor refugees. One monument, a Greek woman huddled with her children fleeing war in 1922, eerily resembles today’s refugees.
But Saturday night, authorities quickly swept the newcomers to an alley out of view.
In the dark, Rima, a teacher from Damascus, huddled with her family. She tugged on a reporter’s arm to display photos on her telephone from the life they once had. Her husband had worked at a fancy hotel. She wore a glittering white gown at their wedding four years ago. They have a daughter.
Then her husband’s brother was killed. Shelling destroyed the city.
“This trip. It was crazy,” the woman said in English, asking that the Globe not reveal their names because their parents are still in Syria. “But what do I do? Let my daughter grow up in Syria with fighting and bombs and killing? I have two choices, and both choices are ugly.”