I Refugee

A refugee’s harrowing journey to safety.

Whenever I think of my hometown, I remember the seasons, especially autumn, when trees turn golden before dropping their moor hills, watching a game of cricket on the Recreation Ground, and chatting with friends in the Square. It’s a small town, so I knew almost everyone.

We truly believed it would be a safe place for our children to grow up.

I miss my house. My wife and I had spent a lot of time and money making it a beautiful home. We enjoyed entertaining and having people around for dinner in our spacious dining room. Our favourite place was the roof garden where we relaxed on warm evenings with a glass of wine after a long week working in a local hospital.

But, things in my country changed. It began with rebel protests and fighting in cities against Government Militia. Food became scarce, shops were empty. In our county, the government commandeered farmers’ crops and livestock for their militia. People were going hungry and soon there were shortages of fuel for vehicles and energy to light and heat our homes. That winter, thousands died from cold. Civilians had to forage what they could; it was hard. I was at the hospital most of the time because more and more sick and injured people were coming in every day and night.

One evening, two armed men broke into my house and stole what they could carry, then shot my wife in the stomach. Thankfully, with the help of friends and neighbours, she survived. Soon afterwards, the bombing started.

I knew we had to leave, but she was too weak so we decided I should go, alone, to find a safe place for us. I kissed her goodbye and felt tears on her eyelashes. “I don’t know where I am going, but I will send word when I get there,” I promised. Leaving my wife in England, my birthplace, was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

I set off on my bicycle carrying a rucksack with a few clothes, a mobile phone and about £250 in cash. I headed for the south coast, travelling only at night. Every day, when dawn broke, I hid in abandoned buildings or in a ditch. I rode through housing estates, shattered by missile attacks. I saw children, some in tattered rags, others completely naked, running from gunfire and explosions. A part of me died because I couldn’t stay longer to help them. I sent a message to my wife whenever I could.

After five days, I reached the coast and stumbled upon a group of men hiding in a forest. The next night, we exchanged all the money we had for a fishing boat. One of our group also found some provisions in a car, the driver had been shot. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

We set sail for France.

My body was weak and I was lonely, but the other men gave me energy. I came to realise I wasn’t alone and that many of my brothers had suffered more than I had. Some of them had seen their entire family killed. We stuck together, not as refugees, but as human beings.  

We hid our boat and tramped to the nearest road where we were picked up by the border police and driven to a camp. There, we were greeted by a mass of people, many hundreds of men, women and children huddled beneath white plastic sheeting in a sea of mud. Fifteen of us shared a tent; the roof leaked, and we slept fully clothed, shivering from cold and damp. The French Authorities gave us no food, clothing or anything else, instead, we had to rely on Syrian and Australian Aid Agencies for a small breakfast. We were grateful for that. Almost every night, fascist mercenaries, sympathetic to the British Government, armed with batons and iron bars would raid the camp and beat us, screaming that we were vermin who deserved to die. Seven of us decided to leave as soon as possible. Even though the cordon around the camp was heavily guarded, it was a risk we had to take. By some miracle, our boat was where we had left it.

We sailed around the Atlantic coast of France and Spain, through the Bay of Biscay and onwards into the Mediterranean. Whenever we went ashore to scavenge fresh water and provisions a few kind people helped us but, no European country would welcome us. We landed six months later at Oran in Algeria. Only five of us survived the journey.

From Oran, we were flown to a detention centre on the island of Djerba off the Tunisian coast while our asylum applications were processed. New refugees arrived all the time. Although we were given food, we had to remain in our cells for 20 hours a day. Many people were deported back to England, but my application for asylum in Syria was approved because I was medically trained. Two years after leaving my hometown, I arrived in Aleppo.

I am safe, but I still don’t know what happened to my brothers on the boat. Thanks to the International Red Cross, my wife is coming from England in two weeks; it will be nearly four years since I last saw her, kissed her goodbye and felt her tears.

© Rod McRiven 2021

Pictures: BBC and Moss Holder

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