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Escape From Yarmouk: A Family’s Journey to Germany From Hell on Earth in Syria

VICE News followed a Palestinian family as they fled Islamic State militants in Syria’s besieged Yarmouk refugee camp, heading north through Hungary toward Western Europe.
September 13, 2015, 2:08pm
Foto di Matthew Cassel

As the train packed with refugees left Budapest's Keleti station in the direction of Austria, only one family remained on the platform. "We couldn't buy tickets because we don't have any money, armed thieves took everything from us," said Tarek al-Hajj Khalil, a Palestinian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria.

The 19-year-old refugee sat flanked by his five sisters: Nour, 18, Reem, 17, Rama, 16, Raneem, 15, Bayan, 4, and her twin brother Aamer. The group arrived the night before after being released from a Hungarian detention facility, and looked to continue onward to Germany, where they hope to receive asylum.

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"Everything is broken from the trip," Tarek said as he banged away at a Samsung phone with a cracked screen and missing battery cover.

He tried desperately to reach his brother Mustafa, who had crossed into Austria three days earlier with their mother. The family became separated after they were robbed on the Serbia-Hungary border. Thieves took nearly $5,000 in cash, and now the family had only $1,000 left hidden on one of Tarek's sisters. A smuggler demanded exactly that much to drive his mother and brother Mustafa to Budapest after they crossed into Hungary.

Related: Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

Nour and Bayan walk through the Keleti train station in Budapest. (Photo by Matthew Cassel)

The siblings who stayed behind hid in the trees for an hour or two until the police caught them. They spent five days in two different detention facilities before they were released and made their way to Budapest, where they joined hundreds of other refugees sleeping at the Hungarian capital's main international railway station.

Tarek and his family hadn't eaten in a day, and they were unaware that around 200 generous Hungarian civilians were handing out food, clothes, toys, and other goodies to refugees gathered just outside the train station.

As soon as they walked outside, they were bombarded by generosity from Hungarians of all ages, including parents who brought their children to help welcome the travelers. Chocolates, croissants, apples, bananas, juice boxes, and an endless supply of water bottles were distributed. Aamer and Bayan's big round eyes widened even further at the stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, and bright red toy sports cars being handed out.

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'There was no food, there was nothing, no electricity. No one could enter the camp. They ate tree leaves, people even ate cats.'

For the past four years — since the birth of Tarek's twin siblings — the situation in Yarmouk has been hell on earth. The refugee camp was originally established for Palestinians like Tarek's grandparents, who were forced from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Since 2011, when the conflict in Syria began, it has been one of the worst areas in what's arguably the world's worst ongoing war.

The camp is surrounded by both regime and opposition checkpoints, making it difficult for goods and people to leave or enter. "Yarmouk was under siege," Tarek said. "It was the worst siege in Syria."

"There was no food, there was nothing, no electricity. No one could enter the camp. They ate tree leaves, people even ate cats," he said.

As if it the situation couldn't get any worse, earlier this year Islamic State militants seized control of large portions of the camp and drove out many of those residents who remained.

Related: The Islamic State Moves Into Yarmouk — a Refugee Camp 'Failed by Everyone'

Tarek's sisters Raneem and Rana on the train after leaving Hungary. (Photo by Matthew Cassel)

Tarek's recollection of the exact date isn't clear, and he often relies on the aid of his sister to help him remember when things happened, like when their father was killed 14 months ago.

A fishmonger, Tarek's father was killed by a mortar shell that struck his car while he was driving in the camp to pick up smuggled fish from Syria's coastal region. A bag of rice was going for as much as 16,000 Syrian pounds ($85), a price few could afford. Smuggled fish was even more expensive, but the trade was a tradition that Tarek's family carried with them from Palestine, and one his father refused to give up.

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The family's home was leveled in fighting earlier this year, leaving them with no choice but to escape once again. But the journey to Europe and safety is not so simple for Palestinians. Lebanon is less than one hour west of Damascus, but the country bars Palestinian refugees from entering. Their only option was to make the trek north to Turkey.

'We have two countries, Syria and Palestine. One day we'll go back to one of them.'

They paid smugglers around 200,000 Syrian pounds ($1,000) to take them. It was once an easy route, but it now requires passing both government and opposition checkpoints. At one of those checkpoints, Tarek was detained by the Syrian army and held for a few months before he was able to again pay a smuggler to take him to Turkey, where his family was waiting.

Afterward, the family took the route that nearly 200,000 others from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have followed, heading to Greece by boat before crossing the Balkans and finally reaching Hungary.

Related: Disturbing Video Shows Migrants Being Thrown Food 'Like Animals' in Hungarian Camp

Nour and Bayan on the train to Austria after leaving the Keleti train station in Budapest. (Photo by Matthew Cassel)

Back at the Keleti train station, a Tunisian-Czech activist named Mona helped direct Tarek to where he and his siblings needed to take the train. Other volunteers took up a collection to help them purchase the tickets for 3,300 Hungarian forint ($12).

As they boarded the train, Tarek finally had a chance to relax. He realized he was far away from home. "When I come here I can't understand anyone," he said. "I go to the shop and tell them I want to buy a packet of cookies, and they don't understand me. In your country you know how to talk people."

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As the train sped toward Austria, Tarek's sister Nour began crying as she listened to a song by Syrian singer Hossam Jneid on her phone. "It reminds her of our grandmother," said Raneem. "She used to stay with her in Syria."

When the group finally reached the border with Austria, a free train was waiting to take them to Vienna and then to Munich, where they could reconnect with their mother and brother, and start the asylum process.

"We have two countries, Syria and Palestine," Tarek said. "One day we'll go back to one of them."

Related: So You've Made it to Germany: On the Ground in the New Refugee Mecca

All photos by Matthew Cassel. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewcassel