Šid, Serbia — Mohammad Jamal al-Mousa would say his home was in Aleppo, but bombs from Bashar al-Assad’s planes razed the house. So now, just his family remains there, he says nervously. He thinks the place he left them is relatively safe. He still calls often.
Standing under the shelter of a tent where migrants can stop to charge their phones, he shows me their pictures. His two daughters, the eldest 10, pose grinning in matching white tights, black skirts, and red shirts. One has red bows in her pigtails. His son, a little younger, sits between them. The five-month-old baby boy isn’t pictured.
Al-Mousa worries most for his daughters, growing up not only under Assad’s repressive regime but also as the Islamic State seizes large portions of Syria.
“Can you imagine a child seven years old, who has to be fully covered in a hijab?” he asks me. “They took away her childhood. I want my daughters to be educated and happy. Now, my children are so small, but they’ve learned what a bomb is, and they can recognize warplanes.”
So for the sake of their children, al-Mousa says, he and his wife made a pact: He’d leave them behind in Aleppo and make the perilous journey to Holland, and when he got legal status, he’d bring them along.
Al-Mousa is hardly alone. Many of the men I interviewed traveling solo told me they had left their families behind and intended to reunite with them once they’d been accepted by a safe European country.
This helps to clarify why so many of Europe’s newcomers are young men. Of 102,753 registered arrivals through Italy and Greece, the International Organization of Migration found that 68,085 were men, with only 13,888 women and 20,780 children. At both the Hungary-Croatia border and the Serbia-Croatia border, I saw a noticeable majority of men, though it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without capturing at least one woman or child in the background.
“They tell us, ‘We do this dangerous trip on our own, we get asylum, and there is a law in the European Union that the family can come,’” says Christof Zellenberg, the chairman of the Europa Institute, who has been heavily involved in volunteer efforts in Vienna. You see few newcomers over 50, he adds, because “this is a grueling trip, and you need to be young and strong.”
Many patriarchs are well aware of the risks of bringing their families with them.
Many patriarchs are well aware of the risks of bringing their families with them. Zellenberg says the migrants he’s worked with have told him stories of violent criminal smugglers who rape women and threaten men with guns during the journey.
My Arabic and Serbian translator, Mina Bajrami, also works as a volunteer in Belgrade. She told me of a woman in her early 20s who recently arrived in Serbia with a mangled hand, the result of unspecified violence inflicted during the trip. The woman didn’t want to answer questions about it, but when aid workers took her to the hospital, Bajrami says, she learned the injuries were so severe that she’d have to have several fingers, if not her entire hand, amputated. But such an operation would delay the journey to Europe, so she bandaged her hand as best she could and carried on with her family.
Even those who don’t fall into the hands of malicious smugglers or criminals have a rough time just enduring the rigors of the trip.
Madeline Meshka, a young Syrian mother traveling with her two-year-old, tells me they decided to leave after war not only devastated her region but also left her without power and heat as winter approached. Traveling to Europe has been hard, she says, and today was especially trying. A bus took her to the Serbia-Croatia crossing, but pouring rain had turned the entire area into a thick mud. Still, she scooped up her baby and mustered a smile when we talked about the life she hopes will await her.
#share#If many of these male migrants are simply traveling alone to spare families they intend to bring to Europe later, it may alleviate one major concern raised by some of the most fervent critics of this population shift, who have bluntly warned of a “Muslim invasion” of fighting-age men into Europe.
But a future influx of families could cause another problem, as Zellenberg notes. Europe is already struggling to deal with the financial burden caused by today’s newcomers, who are pouring across European borders at levels not seen since World War II. If the majority of these men plan to bring families later, the current numbers are totally off. Multiply it by four or more, he says.
Of course, not all of the men crossing into Europe alone have families at home. Fadi McLeash, a 23-year-old Syrian traveling with six other men in their early 20s, tells me he decided to leave because he’d finally given up hope that his country would return to normalcy. Rolling up his sleeve, he encouraged me to feel the bump on his arm — a piece of shrapnel from a mortar that exploded near him in January 2014, his souvenir of Syria, he says.
McLeash calls it “the funniest day of his life.” As he lay on the ground bleeding, he says, an old man asked him what was wrong. Apparently he hadn’t heard the explosion; maybe his hearing was gone. So McLeash quipped despite the pain that nothing was wrong at all. He’d just been diving for a football, he said. He describes the entire story in perfect English, but there’s an edge to his voice.
#related#With good reason, an increasing number of European politicians and thought leaders warn of the potential security risks. Many migrants come without proper paperwork, and the haphazard approach in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere has meant newcomers often entering the territory of the European Union illegally, without any sort of regular registration or tracking.
“Statistically, it is impossible that there are no troublemakers among them,” says Zoltán Kovács, a spokesman for the Hungarian government. The Charlie Hebdo massacre showed the horror that even a few evildoers can inflict.
Nonetheless, McLeash says he implores the West to treat the incomers mercifully. “We are not refugees or asylum-seekers,” he says. “We are students, doctors, teachers. We are not statistics. Every one of us has a story, has a past.”