Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee's Journey from Izmir to Greece
11 August 2016
By Ramzy Baroud
(Based on interviews with Palestinian refugees from Syria.)
The refugee camp of Yarmouk was ever present in his being, pulling him in and
out of an abyss of persistent fears that urged him to never return. But what
was this refugee without Yarmouk, his first haven, his last earth?
How could any other spot in this unwelcoming universe ever be a 'home' when he
had learned that only Palestine, which he had never visited, can ever be a
home? When questioned, he always answered without hesitation: ''I am from the
village of so and so in Palestine.'' Yet the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria was
all that remained of Palestine, as the Palestine he knew only existed in books
or the tattered map in his family's living room.
But at least he had her along to share his grief; without her he would have
never embarked on his quest. His name was Khaled al-Lubani and her name was
Their first attempt at crossing the sea was doomed to fail. The one thousand
American dollars that Khaled's father had given him in Yarmouk was almost
depleted, and the money promised to him by his aunt in the UAE was still
nowhere to be seen. By then, they had settled in Izmir at Turkey's farthest
western corner, and the closest in proximity to Greece.
Wanting opportunities and a chance at a real life, they knew this was just a
temporary stopover in their long-term plans.
After a short stay at a cheap hotel, they sought an even cheaper
accommodation, a small flat that cost them 400 Turkish liras each month. But
with money running out, and Maysam's anxieties increasingly suffocating her
every thought, Khaled felt the pressure mounting. As he waited and waited for
his aunt's money, he felt as if she were dangling him off the side of a cliff.
When the Syrian war started, Khaled cared little for the politics of war. He
had reached the conclusion a long time ago that nothing good came out of
politics and that anyone wearing a government or militia uniform could not be
trusted. However, the war inched closer to Yarmouk, despite the pleas of the
refugees to the warring parties to spare them more agony.
And when Yarmouk was roundly destroyed, Khaled, pressured by the tears and
pleas of his parents, fled. A long, costly and agonizing journey landed them
both in Izmir.
Their first attempt to cross the sea was with Abu Dandi. There was something
about his shady looks and face that suggested he lacked honor and could not be
trusted. In his fifties, he was heavy, with a large, protruding belly, and
short white hair. He was addicted to overcooked black tea, and spent most of
his time at the 'Syrian Club' playing backgammon, oozing the crude confidence
of an unatoned gambler.
Other Palestinian refugees pledged all of their faith to finding a new life
via this no-guarantees trip. But an hour after their journey began, the
dinghy's small engine came to a complete halt.
In one single, heavy choke, without any sign or introduction, it completely
expired. As alarm permeated Khaled from head to toe, he knew going back was
just not an option. Adding to the acute drama, Maysam's fears and anxieties
were culminating into unintelligible mumbles about the scary sea below.
Left without any options, Abu Dandi called the Turkish coast guard, who
eventually showed up and hauled them back to an Izmir prison.
They had met the captain of the second dinghy, Abu Salma, while in prison.
Captured freshly after his own failed expedition, Abu Salma promised them
deliverance or their money back, guaranteed. Sadly, their original payment was
never refunded by the miserable smuggler with the protruding belly.
The second expedition was not successful, either, although, this time, the
smugglers managed to take the boat much further. The engine did not abruptly
stop, but nervously made a ticking sound before it quickly began to hemorrhage
a line of dark diesel fuel into the crisp, blue Mediterranean Sea. The
pathetic dinghy then suddenly stalled, immediately on reaching Greek waters.
When the coast guard intercepted them, they threw out a rope from their large
boat so that they could haul the unwelcome passengers to safety.
Trying to circumvent the Greek boat, the passengers rowed frantically and with
all their remaining energy. It was as if this was their final task in their
epic struggle to feel human again. But the dinghy was brought to a forced halt
as the crushing emotions of defeat weighed heavy on their slouched backs.
With little interest in bringing the refugees to their side of the sea, the
Greek coast guard robotically tuned out their chronicles of death and
disgrace, and quickly telephoned the Turkish gendarmes who hauled the dinghy
back to square one, holding its passengers prisoner for two more days.
Swearing in the name of his three-year-old daughter once more, Abu Salma
insisted he was still the best smuggler in the business, and if it were not
for their cursed luck, they would have already reached Greece and would have
been dining like kings while the Greek gods watched from above. Promising the
group a bigger and faster engine for their fourth try, Abu Salma, once again,
led the passengers back to the same old designated spot where the dinghy was
supposedly tucked away; but the boat was nowhere to be found.
Emotionally drained and tired, they walked back to the main road, only to find
the gendarmes waiting for them.
When they attempted again, the group of nine had materialized into twenty, and
included other war refugees, longing for the safety they were denied at home.
This dinghy was slightly larger than the last one, but the engine was even
smaller than their first. Heated reactions by the men ensued as they yelled
and roared in anger. The women cried out in pain, some grabbing their hearts,
some dropping to their knees. Maysam broke down and buried her sopping wet
face into the sand.
Most of the passengers just walked away and stood in the sand trying to
conjure up a plan that no one had envisioned prior. But the Palestinians,
along with Khaled and Maysam, stayed. Their will was just too strong to give
up after all they had gone through. Assuming the role of leader, they were
urged on by Khaled, yet again.
''Just go this way,'' the smuggler pointed his stubby fingers into some
direction in the dark. And that is just what Khaled did. He challenged the
darkness and what he saw as the final push towards freedom. For the entire
journey, Maysam quietly sobbed and held onto his arm for dear life.
Then, finally, the much awaited lights of the Island of Mytilene glittered in
the distance. ''Ya Allah, Ya Allah, Ya Allah,'' muttered Maysam in a final
attempt to cram in as many prayers as she possibly could so that the dinghy
would reach the shores, bringing an end to the Syrian and Turkish nightmares,
and freeing them from the abyss of the condemned.
A small jar of crunchy peanut better was all that Khaled and Maysam had left
in their small duffel bag when their feet first touched the sand of Mytilene
late one night. The exhilaration of their success blasted up their spines as
they cried and jumped for joy.
But as they tried to process the unbelievable comfort the white sand offered
them, it was quickly overshadowed by a haunting, unforeseen and unexpected
fear of the future. The water soaking through their trainers suddenly felt
like a cold omen.
– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20
years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an
author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books
include ‘Searching Jenin', ‘The Second Palestinian Intifada' and his latest
'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story'. His website is: