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When an Escape to Italy Goes Awry

This article was originally published on Syria Deeply.

By Mais Istanbelli 

A Syrian lawyer tells the story of his Palestinian wife's dangerous trip at sea–and how she ended up in an Egyptian jail.

On October 24, 104 Syrians left Turkey on a boat and headed towards Italy. By November 1, they had washed up on a beach in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. They are now in custody in Egypt and are waiting for a decision on whether they will be granted residency or deported back to Syria.

Fadi, a 24-year-old lawyer from Homs, has been watching the case closely. His wife, Maha, is one of the people who boarded the ill-fated boat; she is now sitting in an Egyptian jail. He told Syria Deeply his account of smuggling gone awry.

We first met in August 2011, got engaged in December 2012 and married in December 2013.

A year after we got married, in 2014, the situation was changing from bad to worse, so we decided to move to Lebanon. Since Maha is Palestinian, the Lebanese authorities did not grant her residency, so she went back to Syria. The reason she decided on illegal immigration is the same reason that prompted thousands of people to do the same: dangerous conditions at home, an uncertain future, a threat to Syrian civilians from all parties to the conflict, along with random shelling. Finding a stable job is practically impossible as well, especially for a lawyer. There is no law in Syria today to have a need for lawyers. So we had no other choice but to leave.

On August 23, Maha traveled with her mother and brother to Turkey illegally. Because they are Palestinian, they need a visa to enter Turkey, but these days the Turkish authorities are not easily granting Palestinian-Syrians visas. During their stay in Turkey, they were communicating with many people, looking for a smuggler with a good reputation. They finally found a person called Abu Saeed, who was supposedly a good smuggler. However, hours before they were supposed to board the boat, Turkish authorities arrested Abu Saeed, so they had to search for another smuggler.

What usually happens in illegal immigration here is that people travel in groups in small boats to a large boat in the middle of the sea, where smugglers gather all the people. Maha was able to communicate with people who had been to the larger boat. They told her that the boat was safe and everything was available including food, water, and lifejackets. On that basis, they agreed to work with the new smuggler, Abu Ibrahim, a Syrian from Idlib. They each paid him $6,000.

They left Turkey on October 24. She was able to talk to me from the shore and told me that they would be leaving soon. After the boat left, a woman on the large boat that Maha was traveling to sent me a text saying that the large boat is going back to shore, and we should tell the people on the shore not to board the small boat. I didn't understand, so I contacted Abu Ibrahim, who told me that there was a mistake and they boarded the wrong boat, and that he was working to fix the situation and transfer them to another boat.

The boat eventually left on October 25 and we lost touch with them completely after that. They were supposed to head towards Italy. We received word that they were safe and still at sea via someone who had a satellite phone on the boat and was able to communicate with his family. But then on November 1 we received the news that they had been detained in Egypt, in a town called Keer, near Alexandria.

We later found out that one of Abu Ibrahim's assistants, Abu Khaled, had transferred the passengers to another boat and escaped with his wife and the passengers' money on the initial boat. Abu Khaled was supposed to deliver the passengers and the money to the Egyptian smugglers, who in turn were going to send the passengers to Italy. The Egyptian smugglers kept lying to the passengers, telling them that they were approaching the Italian coast, but they were just sailing in circles, waiting to receive their money. When the smugglers lost hope, they sailed towards Egypt and forced the passengers to get off the boat on an inhabited island, threatening them with force.

A young man called the Egyptian coast guard to rescue them. Half an hour after all the passengers got out of the boat, an Egyptian officer arrived on a small boat to check the information he received from the phone call. The officer then contacted the coast guard, which transferred the passengers to the port in Alexandria. All of this happened at around 3 a.m. on November 1. I was first able to communicate with Maha at 3 p.m. on November 2, around 12 hours after they reached Egypt.

They were relieved because they had escaped death, but they didn't know where their fate would take them in Egypt. They were supposed to be transferred to a youth center, but then I received a phone call from Maha's brother at around 12 a.m. to tell me that they had been taken to a prison. The next day I found out that they were in a police department in Kermouz, and that men and women have been separated.

I have heard that the situation in prison is really bad; they have no food and the place is full of insects. I have contacted dozens of friends and anyone that may be of help. Thank God, we were eventually able to send food to them inside the prison through the NGO Caritas in Egypt. Caritas and Doctors Without Borders also provided cleaning detergents, insecticides, clothes, and blankets.

On November 3, the Egyptian police began their investigation. The young people, along with six women, were then sent to the public prosecutor to have their statements taken.

From there, the case will be transferred to Egyptian national security, which will decide whether to grant the them residency or deport them. If they were released they could theoretically go back to Turkey, but as Syrian Palestinians they will have a bigger problem. Turkey hasn't been willing to take in Palestinians, and Palestinians cannot enter any country without a visa.

A delegate from the Palestinian embassy visited the detainees and told them they had two choices: either to be deported back to Syria, or stay in prison in Egypt. I think that the Palestinian embassy is intimidating and pressuring them to accept any decision made by the Egyptian authorities, because it doesn't want to take any responsibility for these people. We are still trying our best to communicate with parties that can help; we are contacting European embassies. Perhaps we can find a solution that protects Maha and whoever is with her from more risk.

*****

*****

Mais Istanbelli is a contributor at Syria Deeply.

[Photo courtesy of Syria Deeply]

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