From Student and Husband, to Refugee and Survivor
One Syrian refugee’s story about crossing one of the most dangerous migrant routes in search of a better life.
By: Gabrielle Bremer
*The main figure in the story has requested their name to be changed due to privacy reasons*
“I didn’t want to kill anybody,” said Gaber Obady, a 25-year-old refugee from Syria. In a cafe near Termini train station in Rome, he sipped espresso and described how the Syrian army was going to force him to become a soldier. He could either join the army, be killed, or leave his country. In 2016, Obady had just married his wife, and was studying statistics.
Now, Obady is faced with a difficult choice. The Italian government has given him three months to decide whether he is going to stay in Italy or move to another country. If he stays in Italy, Obady has to choose whether he is going to work or study. “I want to study, but my Italian and English is not good enough” Obady said. He believes going to work might be the best option until his language improves. He has narrowed his country choices down to Italy or Germany.
Obady fled to Khartoum, Sudan in April of 2017, in hopes of finishing his studies there. This is one of the only countries Syrians can go to without a visa. However, he could not afford it. Obady found a man who would smuggle him to the coast, so he could sail to Europe in August of 2017.
The scorching desert of Libya consists of miles and miles of endless sand. The only way out is by paying African smugglers $1,000 for a seat in an open-air truck, and to hold on tight. If anyone falls out, the truck won’t stop to get them. This is only the first part of Obady’s journey to safety from the Syrian War that started in 2011.
Unfortunately, Obady’s story is similar to the stories of 5.6 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country since November 2018, as reported by CNN. More than six million have been displaced within Syria, and have not been able to leave.
There were about 22 people in the truck when Obady started his journey. Space was tight and people were hanging their legs off the edge. Once the truck was in the middle of the hot desert, the smuggler demanded the people call their families and ask for $1,000. “He said if you don’t call your family, we will kill you,” Obady said.
The Syrian War began as a peaceful uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring in 2011. Since then, over 500,000 innocent civilians have been killed, as reported by CNN. The war was between four different groups: the Assad regime, ISIS, Kurdish forces, and other oppositions, such as Jaish al Fateh.
Obady describes the driver as erratic, he would drive 110 miles per hour while drinking alcohol and smoking. On a blistering hot day, the truck flipped on its side and fifteen people fell out. One man’s legs were twisted and mangled. The driver was going to take the man to the hospital and promised to bring back some water. The driver was gone for a day and a half. The refugees were left in the sand, slowly dying from dehydration. “We couldn’t move, the driver came and put water in our mouths,” Obady said.
According to journalist Lorenzo Meloni, Libya has become one of the largest gateways to Europe for migrants. Migrants flock to Libya to battle the deadliest stretch of the Mediterranean in hopes of life without war. In 2013, it is estimated that almost 182,000 refugees have landed in Italy from Libya.
Obady arrived at a farmhouse outside Ajdapeia, Libya. The boss smuggler came and asked for $10,000 in exchange for freedom. Obady offered $2,000 and said, “take it and kill me, I don’t want to live.” The boss refused, saying he can’t make a profit if Obady is killed. Suddenly, the group was set free and nobody knows why.
After three months in the desert, he is brought to Zwara, Libya, a city on the coast. There, Obady sailed to Europe. About 55 people cram into a wooden boat that’s about 10 meters long by 2 meters wide. They were in the boat for about 22 hours until the Red Cross rescued them. Then they were transferred to the Italian Coast Guard.
Obady survived one of the most dangerous and trafficked routes in the world. According to the New York Times Magazine, there have been over 15,000 recorded deaths since 2014. These refugees pay extortionate prices to sail across the Mediterranean in the equivalent of a pool floaty. In 2017 alone, one out of every 29 of these people died.
When he saw the coast of Italy from the boat on November 20, 2017, Obady “felt like my life was beginning again.” Obady settled in to the refugee camp nearby and started working for Hummustown, a non-profit organization that helps Syrian refugees make money by cooking their Syrian cuisine. “We are like family,” Obady said when describing his relationship with the other refugees of Hummustown.
The founder of Hummustown, Syrian-Italian Shaza Saker, wants to make the lives of the refugees a little easier by fostering a community where they have each other. If the people don’t have someone to go back to, at least they can have somebody to go to.
Saker brought her group of 12 refugees together for a meeting after her recent trip to Damascus, Syria and described the things she saw to the refugees. People were smiling, they had laptops, they were busy. “Everybody had a job, everyone had something to do,” Saker said. She spoke with radiating enthusiasm and energy about rebuilding Syria.
Someday, Obady wants to return to Syria to be with his family. He also wants to finish school and work. “I want to make something of my life,” Obady said. Unfortunately, Obady cannot return to Syria because he will be drafted into the military. When asked to reflect on his journey, he replies, “If I think about it all the time, I will go crazy.”
After having his life put on hold, Obady has started to push forward and do something. With help from the Italian government, he will receive a passport and the opportunity to study or work. After five years, he can apply for citizenship. Europe has given Obady the ability to live a better life without bombs and constant war. However, he admits he’s not happy here in Italy. Despite this, there are small things Obady finds joy in. He loves chocolate, going for long walks around Rome, and listening to American pop star, Avril Lavigne.