Two teenage Syrian girls describe the harrowing journey from Syria to Sweden, just two of 1,049,716 who made the journey to Europe to seek asylum from conflict in 2015.
BÅSTAD, Sweden – The two girls huddled together bracing against the bumps and jerks of the long journey. In the darkness they could see the outline of the other refugees who shared their ride, but it was too dark to see their faces.
Suddenly, a small window slid open at the front of the truck container. A man’s voice yelled to the group of occupants to be silent. A hush fell over the travelers as the girls wondered where they were, and what danger was lurking on the other side of their metal box.
“The hardest part is not knowing where you are – just the inside of a truck,” said Reny Borro, 15, who now lives in a refugee camp in Sweden. Sitting next to her at the table was her best friend and former travel companion Hanin Atbash.
“We didn’t even know if it was night or day because we were always in the dark. It smelled so horrible in there,” recalled Hanin, who lives in another camp 15km away.
The girls were on a 10-day journey set to change their lives entirely. Any hope of going home had been shattered years ago by the conflict that ignited in 2011, forcing their families to flee to Turkey. Now, they were on route to Sweden.
“The [driver] would open the door and he would just say ‘Move! Move! Fast! Fast!’” Hanin said, recalling how every few days the group would change vehicles. “He was really rude with us. We’d just move from this truck to another truck. He’d say don’t ask where we are or what we’re doing. Just move. That’s how we came here.”
Together with their mothers, young brothers and Hanin’s father, they were a living cargo being shipped across the continent for tens of thousands in cash.
Life in Syria
The girls, now 15, were not yet teenagers when the conflict began four and half years ago.
“Life was normal, happy,” said Reny as she described her childhood in Aleppo, Syria. “Going to school, going to my grandmothers. Being cooked the best food. We had our home. I had my room, my friends. Then all the problems started.”
Reny is Kurdish, a minority group that make up around 10% of the Syrian population. Before the revolution began, Reny said her class paid no attention to religious and ethnic differences.
“We were all friends,” she said.
But as the revolution gained momentum divisions and distrust set in.
“We weren’t a class anymore,” Reny said.
One day, Reny’s brother, then 7, came home in tears. His best friend, also a Kurd, had been beaten by Arab students at school.
“He saw this happen and was so scared and crying,” she said. “From that time on, we didn’t go to school.”
The day the bombing started in Aleppo, Reny’s father booked them all bus tickets to stay with his relatives in the Kurdish town of Qamishli. They packed light planning to return within a few days, leaving almost everything they owned behind including crucial documents and personal treasures.
“I have no idea if my house is still there, or if my room is still standing,” said Reny.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, things were heating up in Hanin’s neighborhood.
“When the protests started it was pretty scary because there were a lot of kidnappings and things, so we stayed at home mostly. But in our area, bombs might come over at any time,” Hanin said.
People had begun to disappear. Thousands were arrested first by government forces and later by ad hoc rebel groups and criminal gangs. Kidnappings to extort money from families were on the increase by all sides. Anyone, young or old, could be targeted.
Hanin spoke of one incident when her mother, held up by street protests and road blocks, was late in picking her up from school. As she waited alone, a group of young men began to gather across the street, staring and pointing in her direction. Scared she walked on but the group followed, all the time watching her.
“I was so scared they were going to kidnap me,” Hanin said. “Then my mother came. I was so scared I was shouting at her in the car for being late. From that day on, I stopped going to school.”
Escaping the chaos
Soon after, Hanin’s father, who had already fled conflict in his native Palestine over a decade before, decided to pack up his family and flee again. But leaving was not so easy. Others who had tried were arrested and imprisoned by the government, disappeared at checkpoints, or simply vanished on route. They were going to need a smuggler.
“We didn’t know who this man was. We didn’t know anything about him,” Hanin said, describing the driver who collected them from her grandfather’s house silently in the dead of night. “He covered his face so we couldn’t even see him. We just gave him the money and got into the truck.”
The trip from Damascus to the Turkish border, normally a mere 4-hour drive, took one week.
“There were other families [in the truck] but we didn’t know them or even speak with them. We couldn’t even see each other. We’d just see some bodies when the door opened,” Hanin said.
The family had no idea where they were or what was going on around them. Silently they prayed in the darkness they were heading out of Syria and no one would catch them along the way.
“[The driver] would give us something – I can’t call it food – just something to stop the hunger. For the bathroom we had to hold it most of the time."
When they arrived safely in Turkey, Hanin said they saw their travel companions for the first time.
"We were all like, “Oh my God, were you the families with us in the truck?” It was kind of like freedom because I was so scared in Syria and then in the truck thinking the police could take us at ay time. We were really scared. So it was a relief.”
In Turkey, Hanin met Reny whose family had also fled there from the Kurdish region which was now under threat from extremist forces who had developed a bitter rivalry with the Kurdish militia groups.
To Europe in the back of a truck
For more than a year, the two families struggled in Turkey without legal status or decent work. Finally, with all hope of returning to Syria lost, they began planning an escape to Europe.
Reny’s mother ruled out sea travel as stories of boat wrecks and drowning’s trickled back to them every week. Last year, the Missing Migrants Project recorded 3,771 dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea on route to Europe.
So a journey by truck was planned. But the smugglers were notorious for swindles and more deadly deceits, so Reny’s father stayed behind in Turkey with the smugglers, ready to pay as soon as he received word that the two families had arrived safely.
Again Hanin sat in the dark, never knowing where they were or if they would make it. But on this journey she had a friend and the girls became a great comfort to each other.
“This time if we die, we die together,” Hanin said. But still she became overwhelmed by fear and sadness as she thought of her grandparents and others she left behind.
“I was terrified and overthinking. Our parents tried their best to comfort us and talk with us. I was mostly in my mother’s arms. Then one day, [the driver] just opened the door and said ok you are here, go and do whatever you want. That was it. We didn’t have anything to say to each other, even thank you because he was so rude with us.”
The girls found themselves in Sweden. This time it was Reny who struggled. She missed her father deeply and had received news that he was ill and would undergo surgery in Turkey alone.
“I felt so bad inside,” Reny said. “Everything was different. I couldn’t understand the language. I was feeling so empty…[The immigration center] was full of people smelling so bad. It was horrible.”
After a few days they were sent to a camp. Reny described their tiny room as smelly and dirty.
“Our room didn’t even have a toilet.”
The family soon moved to a second camp in Bastad. Although the room she shared with her brother and mother was small, it was clean, but still Reny struggled with her emotions.
“For 10 days I didn’t leave the room. I didn’t eat. I didn’t talk to anyone.”
The start of a new life
Reny soon settled and began making friends and attending Swedish classes with other refugee students. Seven months later, both families are still waiting for a decision to be made about their residency applications. But already the girls are enjoying their new stable lives and making plans for their futures.
With her passion for languages, Reny hopes to work as a translator. Hanin wants to study psychology.
“It’s great in Sweden! We can look up at the sky and nothing is following us. There’s no danger. Its quiet, no people screaming,” Hanin said. ”Here I can reach my dreams.”
Overall, they say the Swedes have been kind and welcoming, but things aren’t always smooth.
“There are some Swedish people that don’t want us here,” Reny said. “Cars come past the camp and they stick up their fingers or yell bad words – these are the people that have closed minds. But on the other hand, there are many good people and I’ve made a lot of friends.”
Hanin added the Swedes “have taken us all into their hearts” and have provided well for the many immigrants that continue to arrive. But religious stereotypes in the West have come as a shock.
“When people think that I am someone who would kill them, or I’m a bad person just because I’m Muslim, it makes me sad,” Hanin said.
“Everyone loves his own country. There are reasons we come here. The judgment is not good,” Reny added.
Even within the camp, it’s not always easy. Without a man in the family, Reny says she has received some harassment.
“There are some bad guys so I got hassled. Most of the women wear hijabs. As Kurdish we have a more open culture so as you can see I don’t wear one. But the camp is full of people from all over the world. Some are bad, but most are good.”
In the days following this interview, Reny’s father finally arrived in Sweden to an emotional reunion. Both families are confident they will receive their decision soon.
“When I was in Syria I felt like it’s over – everything was hopeless,” Hanin said as they reminisced about the day they emerged from the back of a truck into a very different world. “In 10 days your whole life has changed.”
Wherever they end up, the one thing the girls say they are sure of is that they will always be friends.
“We’d lived a really interesting and horrible and successful story together,” said Reny as Hanin nodded and laughed in agreement. “These days we call it an adventure. But, it was really scary. I don’t want to live it again, but it’s a memory that will never disappear.”