By night, they’re crowded with families huddled together on blankets. Some are waiting to make contact with a smuggler who can arrange a bus to take them to one of the beaches along Izmir’s coast and pile into crude rubber dinghies powered by cheap Chinese-made motors. But many of the people we spoke to are simply stranded because they don’t have the money to take the trip. They say the cost is around $1,500 USD per person. Some told us stories of how they sold everything they owned in Syria, only to come to Izmir and give it to a swindler posing as a smuggler.
Some of the main streets there are lined with life vests for sale. Those who can’t afford them can be seen carrying around black inner tubes. We even saw little arm floaties made for children, which may be sufficient for a swimming pool but not for the Aegean Sea, which lies between Izmir and the Greek island of Kos.
Right now there is a rush of human smuggling in Izmir. We saw men who seemed to be mapping out their journey ahead and others who appeared to be co-coordinators, gathering groups of people, apparently for the journey. Cold weather is coming and many of those passing through Izmir want to secure passage to Kos so they can avoid the rough waters that accompany winter. Even when they get to Greece however, they will have a long journey ahead, passing through the Balkans, where the temperatures will drop to below freezing in the months ahead.
More than one of the Syrian refugees we met seemed to be unafraid of taking a more perilous winter journey by sea and a harder trek across eastern and central Europe. They told us that the harrowing reality of their lives back in Syria made the prospect of dying while trying to reach Europe easier to accept as a risk. “What other choice do we have? We are fleeing from certain death,” said Othman, a father of six who is try to reach Germany so he can bring the family he left behind in Deir Azzor, Syria. Othman expressed concern for his children saying that there is ISIS in the area and that his hometown is being heavily bombarded by Syrian and by Russian warplanes.
For those forced to stay behind, they appeared hopeless about the prospect of starting a new life in Turkey. Those we spoke to told us that they didn’t think that they could find employment in Turkey and make a living. “There are no job opportunity here and life is costly,” said 25-year old Amar, who has already failed twice to reach Greece via the narrow Aegean Sea crossing. Amar’s mother is living in Istanbul taking care of his child, while he tries to make it to Germany so that he can bring his family there one day. We started our day negotiating with Amar because he didn’t want us to film some of the families struggling to leave Izmir. But by the end of our day, he was relieved to share with us his story and his hardship. He expressed gratitude for Turkey and its people taking in so many Syrians. But he also told us that he was determined to leave Turkey and that he would get to Europe even at the risk of death.
Authors: Mouhssine Ennaimi & Randolph Nogel