Interview with Palestinian refugee from Syria detained in Egypt after trying to escape by sea

Karmouz Detention Center in Alexandria, Egypt, (source: Karmooz Refugees) Karmouz Detention Center in Alexandria, Egypt, (source: Karmooz Refugees)
(Interviewed by Wassim Ghantous on 25 February 2015)

Q: Who is Muhammad Darwish?
Muhammad Darwish is a 29 year-old journalist and director of a relief organization. He is Palestinian refugee from Al-‘Aideen Refugee Camp in Homs, Syria; originally from the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Shajarah, near Tiberias; and currently detained at Karmouz detention center, Alexandria, Egypt.
Q: When did you decide to leave Syria and why?
A: It was between late February and the beginning of March 2014 when I decided to leave Syria. The regime forces started acting in the area of Homs at the beginning of that same year. In the camp and the area around it, there were also militia groups, and the fighting fronts increased consistently. At a certain point, when the regime surrounded the camp and its forces started entering the camp I decided to leave, since I am wanted for the regime for two reasons: first, they want to recruit me to the army; and second, I was the director of a relief organization and the regime did not like that.

Q: How did you leave the camp, and how would you describe your journey?
A: At this point I started to look for people who could smuggle me out of the Homs area, since on the way I would need to pass through many checkpoints that belonged to the regime. I found somebody who also collaborated with the regime and I paid him $1,000 to take me out of Homs area, where there are no more checkpoints. From there I wanted to go to Turkey, where I have friends.

The day I left, I was taken by a driver with three other people I did not know. We passed the regular checkpoints of the regime, and it went smoothly, but later on we were stopped by a “flying checkpoint” (mobile checkpoint) that was run by the regime’s informal militias (Shabbiha). They started to ask many questions and wanted to check whether we were wanted for the regime, especially because one of us had a broken ID, and they thought that he had done it as an act of disloyalty to the regime. I came up with the idea to show them my journalist card, and when I did so, they started treating us differently and with more respect, and luckily at the end they let us go without checking our names. However, this incident showed us that the smugglers cannot really protect us as they claimed, and we that we would have been under real danger if the militia members had gone ahead with their inspections.

Later, we stopped in one village, at another smuggler’s house, who replaced our driver and took us closer to the Turkish border. We spent the night at his place, and he woke us up at five in the morning to continue our journey. This trip was very hard and long, we were seven people squeezed in one regular taxi (made for 5 passengers), and due to the situation in Syria the driver could not take the direct route to the border, he had to drive around. We finally arrived at Bab al-Hawa area on the border at 11:30 at night. During this trip, we crossed many areas that were controlled by different militias such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and others, and at one point, in a checkpoint controlled by the Islamic State, we were stopped and interrogated, but luckily the driver (smuggler) managed our crossing.

At Bab al-Hawa, as we had already crossed the danger zone, we hired a taxi to take us to the Turkish side. On the border I was denied entry by the Turkish authorities and I was sent back together with others, because we were Palestinian refugees residents of Syria. Only Syrian citizens could enter freely. Then I went with a group of Palestinian refugees to another area on the border, were we had to pay smugglers to transfer us across a river in small boats to reach the Turkish side. Once I crossed, I hired a taxi with other passengers to go to Istanbul, which cost approximately $100. This trip lasted for about 17 hours, but I finally made it.
On the border I was denied entry by the Turkish authorities and I was sent back together with others, because we were Palestinian refugees residents of Syria. Only Syrian citizens could enter freely.
Q: What did you do in Istanbul? How long did you stay there?
A: I have Syrians and Turkish friends who live in Istanbul, and they received me and accommodated me when I first arrived. Later on, I used to move around and spend some periods in hostels. I also went to other cities in Turkey where I spent some time. Life in Turkey is very expensive and sometimes I needed $50 a day to cover my food and accommodation expenses. Thus, I started to do some freelance work for organizations working with Palestinian refugees, although the work was not permanent and stable.

During my stay in Turkey most of my Syrian and Palestinian friends from Syria left to find refuge in Europe. Some ended up going to Greece by land or by sea to Italy, and from there they continued to other destination. My plan was not to stay in Turkey. I wanted to continue to Sweden, where my sister lives or to Holland where my brother had found refuge. However, since I did not have enough money, I stayed longer in Turkey until I managed to save enough money.

After spending almost eight months in Turkey, I decided to leave through the sea, first to get to Italy and later on to join my brother in Holland or my sister in Sweden. Crossing through land to Greece and then to reach the countries of destination costs around $7,500, while through the sea is much cheaper, around $6,000. Therefore, I went to the city of Mersin where I heard that ships frequently sail to Italy. There, I met with some people that I knew from my camp in Syria, and who were also waiting to sail to Italy. They were better informed about these ships and the smugglers who can do this job. Finally, we gathered around 50 people from my camp and we decided to arrange our travel together.

Q: How did you arrange your trip from Turkey? What obstacles did you face?
A: At the beginning, we contacted a Syrian man who worked for the smugglers, we reserved a place in a ship, and we waited for him to tell us when the ship would sail. While waiting we heard about ships that were being stopped by the Turkish authorities before sailing. After a few days, we heard that the man we contacted had been arrested by the Turkish authorities while carrying big amounts of cash. We then contacted another smuggler and waited for him to give us a date and time of our travel. In late October 2014, we were told that we would leave Turkey and our journey started.

We were transported in small boats to a big ship that was waiting for us outside the Turkish regional water. One of those small boats did not arrive to the ship and mistakenly went to another, so we waited for them a whole night until they managed to find our ship. We were 104 passengers in total; the vast majority of us were Palestinian refugees from Syria and Syrian citizens. The members of crew of the ship, including the captain, were all Egyptian nationals.

After all the boats arrived to the ship, the captain refused to start moving as he had not yet received his money. The captain spent two whole days trying to reach out to the smugglers in Turkey and asking for his money. After this period we started sailing, although we got to know from him that he did not receive his money. Many people, including myself, were very tired throughout the sail in the sea. I was vomiting frequently as the ship was not stable; mainly when we faced a storm and the waves were very high. There was only one toilet in the ship and it was dirty. Can you imagine 100 people, with women, children and older men using one toilet for almost ten days!? Moreover, we did not have enough food, as we were not allowed to bring any food with us to the ship. For the first few days we only ate one meal of rice that the crew cooked, and when they ran out of rice, we ate one meal a day of dry bread and fish that the team fished. We were all worried and anxious as the trip took much longer than expected, and because of the bad conditions of the ship and its services.

A day and a half after leaving Turkey, the ship stopped near the Egyptian regional waters and the captain informed us that we had to wait for a bigger ship to come and transport us from there to Italy. We waited in the middle of the sea for around three or four days. Around midnight we were surprised to see a small boat coming towards us with few armed men on board. They threatened us and ordered us to go with them on their boat and took us to a big rock in the middle of the sea (a very tiny island) located near Alexandria and left us there. Luckily one of the guys with us had stolen a cell phone from one of the Egyptian crew members. With this phone we called the Egyptian coastguard and asked for help. Six hours later, at around six in the morning, a small boat arrived and took us to a customs center on the shore of Alexandria.

Q: How did the Egyptian authorities treat you?
 A: In the customs center the authorities followed the formal procedures, such as filing reports, taking testimonies from us and documenting our personal details. At night, they took us to the Karmouz detention center in the city (Alexandria), where we are still locked up to this day. We are prisoners although we did not commit any crime, our freedom is being retained. We are locked in three rooms on the second floor of the detention center. We are not allowed to leave the rooms or go for refreshment, only after consistent protests we were allowed to go to the roof to see the sun once or twice a month. We were also allowed to leave for ten minutes a day to meet with other detainees, which also allows members of the same families to meet each other. Moreover, we receive one meal a day and a medical check once every two weeks from UNHCR.

In the beginning of our detention at Karmouz, we had a trial where the Egyptian Attorney General dropped the charge of illegal entry to Egypt as we were subjected to fraud, and thus we should have been released. However, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior issued an order to keep us in Karmouz until we could be deported. Then we heard that we might be deported back to Syria, which could put us in real danger, but finally, an Egyptian lawyer appealed against this attempt and the Judge agreed not to deport us. 31 of the Syrians among us, whose passports were valid and accepted, were capable to return to Turkey. The rest of us, 73 in number – including 15 children, eight women and 50 men – are still in the detention center (Karmouz), for more than 150 days now.
During our time here, a representative of the Palestinian embassy visited us a few times, but did not offer any tangible assistance and just told us that the solution will come soon. Every time he mentions countries that may accept to host us, but five months have passed and nothing has really changed!

During our time here, a representative of the Palestinian embassy visited us a few times, but did not offer any tangible assistance and just told us that the solution will come soon. Every time he mentions countries that may accept to host us, but five months have passed and nothing has really changed!

We have organized ourselves and have agreed on certain requests such as to put pressure on countries to accept our resettlement, and a specific call for European countries where some of us already have families there to accept us. We started a hunger strike on 9 February, in order to draw attention from politicians, countries and international organizations to our cause and suffering. I personally ended my hunger strike because I am the spokesperson of the group and I work on advocating our cause through a Facebook page and by contacting international organizations and media. Today there is no formal body that has helped with our cause, not even UNHCR (except with its limited services), and we call on all responsible bodies and politicians to intervene and help us out.