Syrian Refugees and the Map of a Dangerous Journey: Interview with Alia Malek

June 11, 2016

Interview Transcribed by Adrian Tafesh

Malihe Razazan (MR): Welcome to Status, I am Malihe Razazan. Last summer, Syrian-American journalist and civil rights attorney Alia Malek traveled to the Greek island of Kos, one of several entry points to Europe for Syrian refugees, to cover their long and dangerous voyage. In her latest article in the Foreign Policy magazine, titled “The Road to Germany: $2400,” she writes: 

“Each of the millions of Syrian refugees who fled their brutalized, unrecognizable homeland did so for uniquely personal reasons—the regime bombarding cities, the Islamic State threatening a return to the dark ages, and the loss of jobs in a crumbling economy. Yet their quests cohered around one purpose: They all wanted better lives. Some set out on a complicated journey to Europe with a crude graphic—a flowchart of the route from Turkey to Germany—as a guide.”

I spoke with Alia Malek about her reporting, and the worsening Syrian refugee crisis. The title of your recent piece in the Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400.” The title refers to a flowchart that maps out the route for refugees who are trying to take the dangerous and treacherous journey from Turkey to Germany. The chart also includes the cost for each leg of the journey. It looks like a board game, more than a flowchart. Tell us more about this flowchart, and how it helps guide these refugees, and for them to plan their journey.

An Audio version of this interview is available on Soundcloud and be found here 

Alia Malek (AM): I was asking the refugees that I was following exactly, you know, where they were getting their information from. I was struck that for the most part they were ignoring journalistic sources. They were ignoring, you know, the information that I think the rest of the world was using to follow this story. They had their own sources for what they believed, or how they would find out what was happening, and that was generally people who had done the journey before them, or a few days ahead of them. One of the pieces, like their preparations, was often done on Facebook in Facebook groups or WhatsApp groups. And one of the things that they used while they were on the road [is the chart], it looks like a game board, I think that is the best way to describe it. One of the refugees I was following, Muhanid, had this screenshot on his phone. It is so rudimentary. It has a picture of a sailboat for when you have to cross by sea. It has pictures of trains and busses and the cost, and that is how they use it. I think it was important to sort of filter out any excessive information. When we were on the trail with them, Hungary’s border closed and all of a sudden they had to come up with another plan, and I just said to one of the refugees, “Well why don’t you look at a map of Europe?” and he was like “I do not want to look at a map of Europe.” You know? It was almost like a resistance to excessive information so I think the sort of simplicity of the flowchart was also sort of like mental comfort, almost making it seem like ‘this is simple, and child’s play.’ Kind of like obscuring the reality that this is a crazy journey, especially for some people who had never left their small villages or towns. And all of a sudden they are moving across several countries. I think maybe this was a way to make the whole process seem less intimidating.

MR: And they were texting this map to one another?

AM: Yeah—a lot of people used it, other people had copied it on paper and drawn it out by hand themselves.

MR: By the end of summer, as you said, European countries like Hungary and Croatia and other countries were putting restriction of how many people could come in. Also they were starting to construct fences. So, did this simple graphic, this flowchart, change according to the changing situation on the ground?

AM: Well we were already on the road; we were about a day and a half away from Hungary when the border closed. So our journey was already in progress. But yes, information filtered back. Essentially, we were the first wave to cross using Croatia, so of course they did pass that information backwards to people that were, you know, earlier on in the trail than them.

MR: So why did you decide to do this story to begin with?

AM: As somebody who is currently writing a book about Syria, has followed this disintegration from inside Syria to many of the countries to where the pieces of unraveling Syria have ended up (Jordan, Lebanon, to Turkey, to Kurdistan, to Armenia, to Europe), this was a critical part of the Syria story. In addition as somebody who has written a book about the history of Arabs and Muslims in America, that process of becoming American in a place in which you have no roots. It [inaudible audio] like a collision of both my critical interests: Syria and the idea of hybrid identities and how people become part of a place. For me particularly, the journey is dramatic and it was important for me to report on it directly. But I am much more interested in the tail-end of this story, what it is going to mean for Europe to be remade with all these new populations coming in, and a seeming conscious effort by Europe to re-imagine itself as a multi-cultural place. And what will it mean for Syria to lose all these people?

MR: Alia how difficult was it for you personally to cover this refugee crisis? You are Syrian-American, you have lived in Syria, and you have visited Syria numerous times. So, how difficult was it?

AM: Well it is obviously difficult because it is really hard to process how and why this is happening. To me at least, it seems quite avoidable. We are now into our sixth year of this, it did not have to reach this point. And so it is upsetting, it is angering, and it is incredible to see it happening. At the same time you tried to look for positives. If you recall this summer everybody was obsessed with ISIS, and ISIS had somehow stolen the story about Syria. And I think the refugees in Syria in many ways seem to have become like a chess game, and the people are just sort of the chess board you know, the moves are happening on their backs. There was something about this act agency. Even if it was one born in desperation, the sort of decision to reject what is happening and to go seek out something, there was something quite inspiring about that as well.

MR: During the summer many reporters were covering the mass movement of refugees into Europe. Many focus on the humanitarian aspects of this tragedy, but we have seen a drastic shift in the tone of the coverage. What explains this shift?

AM: Yeah, I think that unfortunately that is correct. I mean basically we have gotten used to really short attention spans here. Even the way in which we did this article by incorporating a comic was sort of a response to the fact that everybody thinks they have already read enough. You have read one refugee article then you sort of understand what is going on. And as far as the tone of the coverage changing, I would like to think it was not inevitable, but it kind of is inevitable. Especially, because there are economies in Europe that can barely support everybody who lives there as it is. While other ones are booming, and of course there are arguments that the refugees will be a boost to the economies but, I mean it is a huge burden. What Europe has decided to do by taking in these populations, I can understand that it is stretching people’s patience and I do not think that is a positive way or necessarily the only way to look at it. But these are not multi-cultural places; these are not countries of immigration the way the Unites States is (I mean not a homogenous culture, but by no means are they as heterogeneous as the United States or Canada for example). I think you are going to see growing pains as the society goes through a massive change. It is going to have to become elastic, and I can see why that would cause tensions in those receiving societies.

MR: Europe is trying to stem the flow refugees by offering three billion dollars and political concessions to Turkey in return for Turkey clamping down on its borders and keeping refugees in the country. And recently at a major donor conference in London, Western countries pledged to provide ten billion dollars to support countries that are carrying most of the burden, namely Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In other words, they are trying to keep refugees from coming in to Europe. Would that work?

AM: Yes of course, but that is not going to work. Because the floodgates have been opened because of the situation in Syria. So like trying to dam it, you need to stop the flood at its source. Obviously Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan, these are countries of the first instance that are receiving it. But it is not going to change the fact that the people are going to continue to flee, and Turkey has clearly proven that it is not interested in preventing this. It is letting those ships leave, let us be clear about that. Erdogan of course will want to put pressure on Europe to do something, and Europe and the United States have been in a position all along, they just do not seem to have the political will.

MR: But it is getting more difficult to enter Europe because countries are shutting down their borders and erecting barbed wire fences.

AM: Well they have obviously shown that the borders are not impenetrable. They are penetrating the borders, and also the Syrian regime is more than happy to see them go. So they are not stopping them, and they are not going to stop the violence that is causing them to leave.

MR: Because of the latest escalation of violence in Aleppo and the Russian bombings of the city, tens of thousands of people have fled. Many have headed to Turkey’s Kilis border region, and there are not accurate figures of how many people have tried to enter Turkey. But I have seen figures anywhere from 35,000 to 70,000 people. Turkey has shut down it’s borders. So tens of thousands of people are stranded on the Syrian side of the border.

AM: Yeah, and I believe there are reports that some people are starting to get in, but this is not a tenable situation. This is no longer a problem for the Syrian regime. They do not care. I do not see it stopping, let us just put it that way. As far as I can tell the problem is in Syria. So the situation is not going to change drastically enough for people to stay, unless it appears the regime and the Russians are moving towards taking Aleppo back. Not that it is theirs legitimately, but that appears to be happening, and that might mean that there will be some stability and maybe some people will decide that ‘Enough. We will live under these conditions.’ But I think that the trust obviously between the people and the regime is long gone. So if there is an opportunity to leave, I imagine that people will continue to leave. And the regime wants them to go, I mean it is changing the demographics of Syria to its advantage.

MR: Who are the new wave of refugees?

AM: The ones who made the Mediterranean crossing, that was not inexpensive. It takes a lot of money to start off in Syria and make your way to Germany. The people who did that were people who had the means to do that. So on the trail, we saw people from the working middle class and the professional middle class. Now the people who make it to the camps that are right on the borders obviously are of lesser means if they have to live in a refugee camp, but the society has been emptied out across classes. And then of course the very wealthy, a lot of the businessmen who had factories in Aleppo and in the countryside, moved them long ago to Kurdistan, Egypt, or other places where they were able to reopen. There has been an emptying of the country across class.

MR: Going back to your piece “The Road to Germany: $2400” you shadow and followed eleven individuals who are trying to get from Bodrum in Turkey, to Germany. And they come from different backgrounds. Four of them come from Damascus, some come from Latakia. How did you find these people and why did you try to focus on these individuals?

AM: Well I actually met them once they had made the crossings from Bodrum to Kos. So my photographer and I went to Kos. There were Syrians everywhere. I just happened to be in a garden and I saw this group speaking different accents Syrian Arabic. There were physical cues that indicated that they were from different classes and backgrounds, and different levels of religious observance. It was very curious to me: what was this, and how was this group together? So I started talking to them and I found out that they had met on the raft coming over and had hated the situation on the raft. They hated the smugglers. They felt like there were some really bad people on the raft with them, and they had decided to stick together once they had gotten to Greece. In Greece refugees tend to spend about six days before they can get their authorization papers to leave. So in those six days, they had shared information with each other, shared cigarettes, shared coffee. They had stuck together and were supposedly going to make the trip together, and I decided to follow them because they were really an interesting cross-section of Syrian society. One woman was the daughter of Palestinian refugees, so that already points to some of the traumas that have been perpetuated for generations in the region. There were two sisters and a brother who were very, let us say, very comfortable in the kind of urban class you find across the world. They spoke English and Arabic. One sister was in art school, the other had already graduated from college as an interpreter. They were not just positively Syrian, they could have been anything! The other group included a man from Idlib, and his wife who was from Salma. Another guy was from Latakia was an abandoned teenager from Homs. This was an opportunity to give a reader a lot of information about Syria, and to present a non-monolithic experience, because journalists often do. They only have access to activists, fighters, government officials, or opposition officials. This was a way to remove that layer of people who have been the voices that we hear in the media, and get to a more diverse group. At the same time it was heavily female and for a lot of these refugee stories, the journalist has not had access to women and it has been much more about men, and children. To me it seemed to me like the right group and they were very gracious about accepting me, and the photographer that was with me, onto this journey with them.

MR: In order for them to leave Syria, they had to sell their belongings. Mohammed and Sawsan, they saved 18,000 dollars by selling their car and some gold jewelry, but hoping to return some day, they asked a relative to mind their apartment.

AM: I mean I think everybody would love if the country was at peace, and it was a viable peace that did not depend on complete oppression and the depravation of rights. Nobody would choose to live in these cold rural areas, like some of these camps in Germany and Sweden, over what is their home. I mean everybody loves Syria. They would of course rather be close to family and friends. In the case of Sawsan and Mohammed and their apartment, it is very hard to sell an apartment in a situation of war. They have money tied in that property, so they are asking a relative to tend to it so squatters will not come and live in it while they are gone. This is something that is happening to people’s property in Syria. You know I have a relative in Aleppo, middle class, who will not leave because she does not want some kind of internally displaced people to come and take her house and then she never get a chance to get it back. I mean there are some people who navigate this in different ways. It is a choice that everybody makes.

MR: The style of your piece is also very interesting; it is a hybrid of a non-fiction comic and a long form essay. Josh Neufeld, who is a non-fiction cartoonist, collaborated with you on this project. Why did you decide to add the comics element (the story includes eleven pages of comics panels)?

AM: Yeah I mean that was the idea of the editor-in- chief, Mindy Kay Bricker, at Foreign Policy because the story, even though the action all happened in September and October, the story was coming out in January. As we discussed earlier people think they know the story, and there is something non-intimidating about comics. Comics make people feel that they can access and engage in this story and it is not out of their reach because they do not know enough. It also does not make you feel guilty that you do not know enough or are not doing enough. I think maybe, for whatever reason, our brains are programmed to think of comics as something that children can access, and so I think we have much less of a defensiveness in approaching the material. It seems to have worked. We were taking a gamble because a lot of refugee stories keep coming out, but this one got a lot of play and a lot of attention because it was told in a novel way.

MR: And it also lets the refugees tell their own stories. These panels really fill the gaps. I am sure you took a lot of notes because I am not sure in the beginning whether you knew that this was going to be in a hybrid format, or whether the bulk of it was going to be in these comic panels.

AM: I did not know, I mean I went because this is important to my work in general. I do intend to use the material in a much longer way, and over a longer period of time in the future, but I had written out the narrative. This made it much easier for Josh to only take a small piece of it. This is not even the full adventure, but it is a small piece of it, and that makes it digestible.

MR: And it also incorporates real photographs?

AM: This was the one thing that I wish we could have incorporated much more. There was an award- winning, well-regarded photographer from Magnum , and his pictures were some of the most beautiful on the journey. I am Syrian-American, and I speak Syrian Arabic, so we had much more access to the refugees than other journalists that I know. I was not on the margins; I was able to talk to a lot more people. His pictures, which unfortunately are not featured to their maximum potential here, are really some of the most beautiful but they can be seen at Magnum. I think they will continue to have a longer life as well because they are a part of a much larger project of his work.

MR: You were there, so you were witnessing some of these conversations that later on were reflected in these comics.

AM: We obviously never crossed illegally into any countries, so in those moments we would go across legally and be waiting for them at their illegal crossing. So, there were moments when we were not together. The way that they did this in the comic is through the pink scenes. These are scenes where we were actually there for them.

MR: So as you said, there have been so many articles and news stories written about refugees, what was the story that you wanted to tell with your reporting?

AM: I think I wanted readers to know these people much more because in all the stories that we have read, the refugees’ voices are not a huge part. You know they were always like “We love Angela Merkel, Germany. We love our country but our country is not safe. There is war.” I wanted to let the readers or viewers have a more intimate relationship with the people that were making this trip.

MR: So are you following the lives of these eleven individuals that you covered? Can you tell us where they are now?

AM: Naela and Maysam are the sisters who did not make it to Holland because they got arrested in Germany, they are in Germany. They will do just fine, they can move in and out of different cultures easily. Sawsan, Mohammed, and their kids have been given an apartment of their own and they will soon be starting Swedish lessons. Muhanid, because he is a single guy, has not really been given a place to live yet by the Swedes. I think they obviously see single young men as much more threatening, especially after the reports of sexual assaults coming out of Europe. Ihsan has completely disappeared. I am going to Germany next month and it will be easier to search for him from there. But they do not want to be reached by Muhanid because they are paying him back obviously.

MR: Alia Malek is a Syrian-American journalist and author of A Country Called Amreeka: Roots, American Stories. She is currently a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute, and at work on a new book about Syria. For Status, I am Malihe Razazan. Join us again later for another edition of Status.

This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya.com