A Teenager in Exile
They were desperate enough to entrust their fates to smugglers. Now Malak wonders when his family will be whole again.
Sporting a new haircut, 13-year-old Malak walks casually into the cramped apartment he currently calls home. The hairstyle is a cross between a mullet and a Mohawk, and his father is not impressed.
“This is not the only thing he has done lately without my permission,” says Fewaz, 44, lifting two fingers to his mouth and pretending to smoke.
Like fathers and teenage sons everywhere, the pair sometimes struggle to coexist. Yet a powerful bond holds them together: Fewaz and Malak are refugees from Syria, stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.
Life in exile has been harrowing for each of them. After fleeing Syria with the rest of their family in the summer of 2012, they turned to smugglers and made six perilous attempts to enter Greece, repeatedly risking their lives at sea and being turned back to Turkey. Fewaz and Malak finally reached safety, but along the way they were separated from the rest of their loved ones.
Fewaz’s family belong to the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority in Syria. Back home, he farmed his land, Malak and his siblings attended school, and the family lived in peace. But after the conflict broke out, incursions and street battles eventually made their lives “a living hell,” Fewaz says. Driven from their own country, they fled to Turkey in July 2012 with hopes of making it to Europe.
“My life in Syria was so nice,” young Malak recalls with a forlorn smile. “I had school and friends and we would play. The atmosphere was great. We would go on trips to see relatives. But once the fighting started everything became frightening.”
Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing into Greece. Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky.
That night they gathered on the Turkish coast, where a smuggler had made the arrangements to carry them to Greece. Fifty-four people boarded a six-metre-long boat – six times its official capacity. Each of them paid around €2,000 for their journey into the unknown.
One passenger was given a quick lesson in how to manoeuvre the dilapidated boat. Then, with instructions to puncture the sides as soon as they saw the Greek coastguard, they set sail. Upon reflection, Fewaz expresses second thoughts about the monumental risk his family took.
“I did not realise that I was taking them from one death to another,” he says. “I could have been responsible for killing the very loved ones who are closest to me.”
The family’s third attempt, by sea, brought them perilously close to death.
“I did not realise that I was taking them from one death to another,” says Fewaz. “I could have been responsible for killing the very loved ones who are closest to me.”
After an hour and a half at sea, Fewaz says, a Greek ship intercepted their boat. But instead of offering help, it turned them away. Fewaz remembers a coastguard officer barking orders at them “to immediately return” – and how their small, overcrowded boat rocked violently in the ship’s wake.
Close to capsizing, they were forced to return to Turkey.
But Fewaz pressed on, selling everything he owned and trying again to reach Greece. Finally, on the sixth attempt, his family crossed over at Evros.
While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to join Malak.
“When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can’t describe,” says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. “I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?”
Fewaz’s story is one of desperation and extraordinary resilience, the story of a loving father trying to do what is best for his family while escaping a war. None of them knew it would lead to a lengthy separation.
Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son’s haircut.