Age: 26
From: Deir Ezzor, Syria

I studied English literature at Ein Furat University in Damascus. I wasn’t able to finish my education because of the war, but I hope to finish it here, there, somewhere. I was in the top 3 of the university. I love reading and I love studying. I have three sisters and my mother. My father died in 2009, before the war. My two older sisters are now in Germany. My mother and my younger sister are still in Syria.

(Audio excerpt from Mohammad’s interview)

The first time I realized that the war was really happening was when the first bomb fell from the government. It was 12 or 1 in the morning we heard something very loud. “Is it a bomb?” “I don’t think so.” “Maybe it’s a gas station or something.” But when the sound repeated, we realized that it was a bomb. I said to myself, “Now it’s dangerous. Now we lose.” I remember this day. I can’t forget it because it was my last day in my house.

In the beginning more than 400 bombs fell each day.

Where we were in Deir Ezzor, there were a lot of people who were part of the revolution. So we escaped to the government area. No one will attack you there, but if you speak about politics in that area then you will be arrested or killed.

Then, in 2015, our area of the city was surrounded by ISIS. We were still in the government-controlled area, but it was just a small part of the city. The rest belonged to ISIS. On January 1, 2015 they surrounded the area and cut off the road and no more food could get in. After the first two months we ran out of food and then for seven months we ate just bread and leaves. Anything on the ground. It got worse and worse. In the last days, we just ate leaves to keep alive. And the situation is still like that there, There are more than 100,000 people still there and a lot of people have died of hunger, including my cousin. We wanted to leave but we couldn’t. The government didn’t let us leave because they didn’t want to be left alone with ISIS.

And it was so hot in the summer. We couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I cried because I wanted to sleep, but it was too hot and I was too hungry. I would sleep for a just a little bit and then wake up. So we found a smuggler and paid him $800 to take us out. Me, my mom and my little sister went by foot. When we left the government area we went into the ISIS area. You can’t go from ISIS to government areas without a smuggler. When we arrived to the ISIS checkpoint– and when I saw that there was food in the shops, I was in shock. Oh, tomatoes! Oh, potatoes! It was a long time that I hadn’t seen them and I missed it and I wanted it because all I had been eating was leaves.

After that, they didn’t let my family leave ISIS area. So I found a smuggler to take me from the ISIS area to Damascus because I wanted to finish my education. It was too risky and dangerous to take my family. So I went alone and left my family there. My sister would just leave her house just to get food and not talk to anyone.

When I went to Damascus to the university, two government soldiers and came to me and said “Come with us.”

I said, “Why? I didn’t do anything.”

They said, “Come with us or we will take you by force.”

I said, “Okay, I’m coming.”

They took me to jail. They asked me if I was working with the terrorists. I told them I came to study, that I’m one of the top 3 students, and that I left my family so I could continue studying. They took my mobile phone and my money and a photocopy of my ID and passport and some other things. Then they said “You have until tomorrow to leave Damascus. After that, if any soldier at a checkpoint sees your ID they will take you to jail.”

I said, “Why? I want to finish my studies.”

They said, “That’s up to you, if you want to stay here you will be in jail.”

I went to the police station to report and told them what had happened. And I told them, I  am not leaving because I want to finish my education.They asked for the names of the soldiers. I said I didn’t know. How could I know?

They said, “We can’t help you.”

Then the soldiers went onto my Facebook page through my cell phone, and they sent messages to my relatives, saying “It’s Mohammad and I need some money. Send it to my friend’s name because I don’t have my ID.” So now I had their names– Mohammad Ali and Ahmad Abd Al Hamid Khalili.

So I went again to the police station and told them I had the names. They wrote a report and said, “Okay, You can leave.”

Then the soldiers started calling me at my friend’s number and they knew I was still in Damascus. They told me to come now, or they would come and arrest me. So I went back to the police station. I told them that the soldiers had threatened me. They said we can’t do anything for you. You should leave.

I said, “I want to finish my education.”

They said, “It’s up to you, you are in danger. We advise you to leave. These soldiers have people in the government who support them. And you don’t have anyone to support you. It’s a jungle. The strong eat the weak. You are in the right, but if you pursue this you will end up in jail and they will be free.”

So I went back to my family in the ISIS area.

In the ISIS area, they forced us to have a long beard and wear short pants, to the middle of the calf. The women have to wear all black and you are not able to even see their eyes. And if you don’t do what they want you will be punished. My mother and sister rarely go outside. If they have to leave to get food, they would wear that and not talk to anyone.

And you can’t smoke. If they see you with a package of cigarettes they will arrest you. They caught me once with cigarettes and they arrested me. They put me in a room with three dead bodies for 20 days. For the first three days I couldn’t sleep. I was close to losing my mind; I was so afraid. The first two days that I slept I had bad dreams. Finally, after 20 days, they gave me papers and told me to memorize them. If you memorize it well, we will let you leave. If not, you will stay until you remember them. On the papers it said that you should fight and kill the unbelievers, that you shouldn’t smoke. They said this comes from the Koran. But I know the Koran. I’ve read it many times and I never saw these things, so how could it be from the Koran? I said, “No.” They said, “If you don’t believe that means you are a kaafir, an unbeliever, and we can kill you.” So I didn’t believe what was on the papers, but I memorized it.  They tested me and I passed.

They tried to get me to fight with them many times. If you are a man between the ages of 18-40 everyone wants you to fight. I don’t want to fight and I don’t want to kill anyone. I never touched a weapon in my whole life not even for hunting or anything. I couldn’t stand it. I was stuck there for two months, they didn’t let me leave. I wanted to leave to Turkey.

Finally, I found a smuggler to take me out of this area. We arrived to the checkpoint of the Kurdish area. When they saw my beard, they thought I was from ISIS. They stopped the car, took me from the car, and stood me in front of a hole.

A Kurdish soldier put a gun to the back of my head. She said, “What are you doing here?” I told her I was going to Turkey. She said, “You are ISIS?”

I said, “No, I’m not.”

She said “No, you are ISIS. Look at your beard and your clothing.”

I told her, “They force us to wear this. It’s not my choice. Look at my pictures on Facebook and see how I’m dressed. Without a beard, with spiky hair.”

She didn’t believe me. She said, “I will shoot you.”

I told her “Okay, go ahead. Shoot me.

“I will shoot you.”

“Go ahead, shoot me, I’m ISIS!”

She said, “See I told you, you are ISIS!”

I said, “Ma’am, for the past ten minutes I’ve been telling you that I am not ISIS. Then the one time I tell you that I am ISIS, and you believe me. You clearly want to believe what you want. So go ahead, shoot me, I don’t care.”

She took me and put me in jail for two days. They questioned me about ISIS, what I believe, am I with the government, do I have any problems with the Kurds. After two days they let me leave.

I began my journey to Turkey.

I got stuck for 15 days in a village near the border between Syria and Turkey. I tried to cross the border eight times. Each time the Turkish army started shooting at us, not to deter us, but to kill us. There were electronic weapons, if they sense any movement, they automatically shoot. One of the eight times I tried to cross the border, a woman and her baby were killed. The bullet went through the baby, killing it instantly and then into the mother. We tried to take the mother to the hospital, but after a few minutes, she also died.

I kept trying. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn’t have any choice. I couldn’t stay in the Kurdish area. You have to be Kurdish or have permission or protection from a Kurdish person to stay with them. And I couldn’t go back to ISIS, so I didn’t have another choice. I tried and finally I made it to Turkey, after paying $700 to the smugglers.

I went to Izmir and I stayed there for three days to find another smuggler to take me by boat to Greece. There are thousands of smugglers.

The first time, after we got into the boat and set out to sea, the Turkish police saw us and their boat tried to circle us to get us to stop. But we didn’t. So they came up behind us and stopped our motor and took us back to the police station. After a few hours they let us go.

The second time we tried it was nighttime, and waves were rough. When we saw the sea, we told the smuggler, “It’s too dangerous, we can’t go.”

He said, “You will go now.”

We said, “No we will die.”

The smuggler pulled out his gun and said, “Okay,” He shot in the air. ”Everybody in the boat now!”

We said, you will kill us in the boat.

He said, “If you don’t go I will kill you here.” So we got in the boat.

When the Turkish police saw us again, they didn’t stop us, instead they followed to protect us until we reached the Greek waters, and then left. When the Greek police saw us, they came and stayed with us until we reached Greece. It depends on the officers in the boat if they want to let you go or if they will bring you back.

When we reached the beach, we thought that we would find respect. That’s what we missed in our country, there nobody cares if you are dead. We just wanted to be treated as humans. Now it’s not Greece’s fault. The other countries closed the borders. So the people are stuck now in Greece and Greece has a really bad economic problems. Even the Greeks have problems with money, so they can’t afford to give the refugees good conditions. The people are in a bad situation here, living in tents, and nobody cares.

When I arrived to Greece on the 5th of March, I arrived to the island of Lesvos. I was in Moria camp just for one night and I took a ferry to Athens. When I arrived, I heard that people were stuck at the border in Idomeni. But I thought I would go join them and wait for the border to open. So I bought a ticket to Idomeni, but a voice inside me said “Don’t go there. The border will not open.”

I heard about the relocation program and I went to the organization PRAXIS and they put me in a hotel and then an apartment. I waited for the first interview with the asylum service. The way it works is that I first have an interview with the asylum service in Greece, where they learn everything about me. Then they send my profile to the other countries, and the countries choose which people they want. Then I have an interview with the embassy of that country, and I wait to hear if they say yes or no. If they say yes, I go for a medical exam and they fly me to their country. If they say no, I have to stay in Greece. You only get one chance. It usually takes three months. It has been 2.5 months and I haven’t even done the first interview yet. I know some people who have agreements with Spain and France. I will give it a shot.

I don’t care where I go. I just want to be somewhere where I can start my life. I don’t care if I stay here. I just want them to tell me already so I can start to learn the language. I want to feel like a person again.

I was in the PRAXIS apartment and I saw on the news that some people were stuck in tents. And I thought, volunteers from across the world came to help, and I am just one hour away. So I decided to go and help because I speak English and can help translate and help people get what they need. So every day I come here to the port. I go around to the tents to see if there are any medical problems, pregnant women, single mothers with children.  Sometimes it’s cold, hot, rainy. Not a healthy situation. I serve  food, and I listen to their stories if it is a relief to them. Sometimes I succeed in helping them. Sometimes I don’t. When I see them smile I feel happy.

My mother and younger sister are still in Syria, in the ISIS area. They have no choice. They couldn’t come with me, it was too risky. My mother can’t walk very well. She told me to leave. I said, I can’t leave you here.

She said, “If you go and talk to me and tell me that I’m eating and sleeping, I’m okay. Then it’s better here, they will take you from me and put you in the fight, I won’t know if you are alive or dead. If you are dead, I won’t be able to reach your body. It’s better to know than to not know, so go. I don’t want them to force you to kill anyone, not even the terrorists. They also have mothers.” So I left.

I talk to them once a week. The connection is not good, and it’s difficult to connect to them. When I see the news on Facebook that something happened near them, I worry that maybe they are dead until I’m able to reach them. Two weeks ago I saw a picture of my home–destroyed.  I cried for two days because I thought my family was inside until someone told me that my family was alive.  

And my friends, some of them are in Germany, in Europe, some are in Turkey, some of them are fighting– not by their choice but they were taken by the government. Some of them are dead. Fourteen days ago, my friend was killed by an ISIS sniper. I’ve lost three friends.

Governments pretend that they care about human rights. The American, European, Turkish, Syrian governments. Every government contributes to keeping the war going. They want the war to continue. They don’t want it to end. Everyone wins. The only losers are the people– they’ve lost their kids, their brothers, their sisters, their families, their houses, their cities, and their rights. They’ve lost everything.

Mohammad helps the refugees living at Piraeus Port in Athens.

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