Skip to main content

One man's journey to Europe: Syria’s Givara heads north through the Balkans

One Syrian refugee's journey across Europe in a bid to seek asylum
A Syrian migrant couple carry their child in a temporary centre for refugees on the border between Serbia and Macedonia on 23 August 2015 (AFP)

Over the last few weeks, Middle East Eye has been following the story of the young Syrian director and actor Givara al-Ali as he makes his way across Europe to seek asylum.

Givara first fled his native Syria to Turkey, before reaching Greece where he made a controversial video that showed migrants trying to swim ashore amidst a sea of dead bodies. The video was not designed to be real, but quickly went viral as people mistook it for genuine coverage. 

After two weeks, he made his way north to the Macedonian border, where he witnessed fierce clashes between refugees and border police, the latter of whom were trying to limit the flow of refugees to the small Balkan country after it had announced a state of emergency due to the unprecedented influx. After waiting for several days, he was able to get an official stamp to enter the country. He then took a taxi to the Serbian border. This is the latest part of his voyage in Givara's own words. 

After four days of closure at the Macedonian border, where they were only letting in five families every two hours, some 200 people - myself included - charged at the border police and managed to make it into the country. 

As I had nothing to do but wait until it was my turn to receive the official stamp, I began asking around different taxi drivers who would accept to drive refugees who didn’t have the stamp [you need to legally transit].

I made a deal with one driver that for 300 euros ($340) he would drop me off at the Serbian border. As I was getting ready to leave, five buses pulled up and the drivers all yelled, "Get inside, you don’t need a stamp!". We stood there not sure what to do. Then they said: "The Macedonian government sent us because they are under pressure and don’t have the capacity to deal with all the refugees.”

27-year-old Gevara Ali (pictured in the middle) poses with two friends (Facebook)

We clambered in, and paid 30 euros per person ($34) and we reached the [northern] border that same day. Once we got off the bus, we saw that there were around 2,000 people milling about the border. The newcomers wanted to enter the border with the 2,000 others, who were readying themselves to push through. I didn’t have a good feeling about this, but no one would listen to me.

In the end, I managed to convince 100 people to stay behind for a bit. We watched the thousands trying to charge their way through across the border and [we saw] many of them were caught. It was night by then. We took advantage of the Serbian border police dealing with them and we slipped through unnoticed.

On the other side, there was an international human rights group, but I didn’t ask which organisation they came from. They had come with lots of buses, and were waiting for the refugees to cross through in order to transport them to a camp. They told us that the buses were free of charge, and that we could have food and some rest up in the camp until we obtained the official stamp from the government so we could continue our journey.

After a short distance, we reached the camp.

Before we were about to go inside, a group of men shouted that they had taxis that could take us to the capital. I told one of them we had no stamps but he said: “Pay and you’ll reach your destination.”

We looked around us. No one tried to stop us. Serbia was strange; it was chaotic but easy-going. I don’t know why.

I broke away from the crowd and I and ten other men made our way to where the taxi drivers were. We paid 25 euros ($28) per person. But the drivers lied and told us to get out some 50 kilometres away from the capital. They took off, leaving us behind.

In the end, we found a bus and we finally reached Belgrade on Sunday morning. The people with me wanted to book hotel rooms to rest as we were all very tired. But I told them that the Hungarian border control was getting tighter by the day.

I told them that I would not rest and that I would go to the border straight away. 

They eventually decided to come with me. We took a bus to the border. There were thousands of people there, and makeshift camps were set up everywhere. I asked some people why they were still here in camps. They replied that the road to Hungary is very difficult and gruelling, and that most people get caught.

“You can’t escape from their border police,” they warned me. “If you’re caught, you have two choices: you get finger-printed and either get imprisoned for a month or get let go; if you refuse to be finger-printed, you will be humiliated and imprisoned and then sent back to Serbia.”

If you get fingerprinted, you automatically lose the chance to be granted asylum in the country of your choice. They said that around 1,000 people refused to get fingerprinted and are now in prison. Another 1,500 relented because they desperately needed shelter.

Out of the ten men who were with me, half decided to pull back and wait their chance. The five other men, including myself, pushed on forward to Hungary. 

Middle East Eye will be following Givara's story as he continues his real-life journey north through Europe over the coming days in hopes of seeking asylum. Follow his journey through #JourneyToEurope 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.