How to leave Syria: One man’s journey to Turkey

One morning in October, after nearly a year in a barren refugee encampment along the Syrian-Jordanian border, Abu Sham decided he’d had enough.

A lack of food, water and medicine for more than 75,000 Syrian refugees at the informal Rukban camp has earned outcry from international rights groups and led to the deaths of at least two dozen children since late June, when a nearby car bomb prompted Jordan to close the border, and thereby closed off access to Rukban.

Rukban refugees cannot enter Jordan. Only three reported aid deliveries have arrived to the camp since June. The site is located between two earthen mounds demarcating the border, known informally as “the berm.”

Born in Homs’ eastern countryside, 30-year-old Abu Sham, his wife and daughter lost hope of ever reaching safety in Jordan after months of living inside the berm.

Desperate, Abu Sham devised a new, risky plan.

“After I waited a year, hoping to enter Jordan, I decided to make a journey of life or death to reach Turkey,” Abu Sham tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from his new home in Reyhanli, Turkey.

Guided by smugglers, the small family’s journey spanned 10 days and four provinces, crossing over Islamic State, Kurdish, Free Syrian Army and, ultimately, Turkish lines, dragging them through the various warring parties of Syria.

“To the smugglers, the goods they’re transporting mean nothing. Things pass from one smuggler to another, and it doesn’t matter what those goods are—they only care about the money,” says Abu Sham, now a construction worker in Turkey.

They don’t care if we face exhaustion or death.”

Q: Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and other groups have denounced conditions at Rukban, where food, water and medicine are scarce. How long did you live in the camp at Rukban? What made you finally decide to leave?

I stayed for almost a year in Rukban. There is no assistance there with food or medicine, except for water deliveries.

Q: Did anyone else in the camp decide to join you when you left?

My family and I left one morning alongside two other families and several young men. We enlisted the help of smugglers who transport people in this area for money. There were about 15 of us in one car.

Q: The path of your journey encompassed much of Syria, as you crossed paths with Islamic State (IS) fighters, entered Kurdish- and Free Syrian Army-controlled territory you faced checkpoints and gunfire from various sides of the civil war. Can you describe what happened to you along the way?

We began our journey north on a Monday morning, and after about 60 or 70 kilometers we made it to the first IS checkpoint.

One of the fighters manning the checkpoint asked us where we were coming from and where we were headed. We said we were leaving Rukban, hoping to enter IS territory. The smuggler told us that if the IS fighters found out where we were headed, they would capture all of us, as they consider Turkey an infidel country. They also asked us if any of us belonged to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but we said no.

This checkpoint was located in Syria near the Iraqi border, at the Tanf border crossing.

We continued north, to an area also under IS control. They had another checkpoint, where they asked us the same questions as the previous one.

Afterwards, we headed toward a-Sukhnah, a rural town northeast of Palmyra, then towards the towns of a-Taybeh and al-Koum, and from there to a-Tabqah, a town in western Raqqah province, then to Maskanah, in the eastern Aleppo countryside.

[Ed.: The aforementioned towns are located within Islamic State territory.]

Another smuggler was waiting for us in Maskanah.

We went to his home to rest. At that point, we had been on the road for 10 straight hours. We slept at the smuggler’s house.

The next morning, we rode in the emptied-out tank of a water truck, so that no IS fighters would see us. This truck took us to the very edge of IS territory, and approached the areas under Kurdish and FSA control. We didn’t know the names of most of the towns and villages there.

We stayed with another person until dark, then he sent us walking two or three kilometers and told us that the light we saw ahead of us was a Kurdish checkpoint. We approached it.

We arrived at the checkpoint, terrified, as the Kurdish soldiers shot bullets into the air for no apparent reason, and a warplane flew overhead.

The guards took our names and personal information—where we were from, where we were headed.

Then they brought us to a school building so that we could sleep. Inside were other refugees just like us, who had come from different areas of Syria. Some were hoping to move onward to northern Syria, others to Turkey.

The next morning, we left the school and rode in cars to the city of Manbij, which is now under Kurdish and FSA control. From there, we took buses to Azaz, then Afrin, inside Kurdish-controlled territory, then to the town al-Ghazawiyah in the northeastern Idlib countryside and Darat Izza and a-Dana, and finally the town of Haram in northwestern Idlib province.

Finally, we arrived at the Turkish border.

A smuggler at the border requested $300 per person. We explained to him that we had no money, and he agreed to drive us in his car to a nearby area, where another smuggler joined us and walked ahead of us.  

We walked for about three hours among the rocks and trees until we came across Turkish border guards. They fired gunshots into the air, a few of which landed dangerously close to us.

The soldiers took us to a military camp, where there were many other families who had tried to enter Turkey. Later, they drove us to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which is under FSA control, and they returned us to the same smuggler. We slept at the smuggler’s home.

Two days later, the smuggler brought us back again through a similar route, and we entered Turkish territory. There was a person waiting for us there, who had been communicating with our smuggler via mobile phone. He drove us to the Turkish city of Reyhanli.

 Rukban camp in October, days before Abu Sham left. Photo courtesy of Abu Sham.

Q: How long did the entire journey take? What other difficulties did you face along the way?

The whole journey took around 10 days. Some families didn’t make it the entire way, due to the IS checkpoints, where IS fighters found out they were heading toward Turkey. Others were shot and killed by Turkish soldiers along the border.  

Q: At one point in your journey, you were in transit in the middle of the desert, the lives of your daughter, your wife and yourself in the hands of a smuggler. What was it like to be in this situation?

To the smugglers, the goods they’re transporting mean nothing. Things pass from one smuggler to another, and it doesn’t matter what those goods are—they only care about the money. They don’t care if we face exhaustion or death.

However, the smugglers aren’t the ones to blame. In the end, the entire world is at fault, for seeing what is happening in Syria and not doing anything about it.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.