Abdullah is a 30-year-old Palestinian from Syria with short black hair, a thin frame and shadows under his eyes. Fleeing from the civil war, he boarded a small fishing boat heading to Libya on the night of the 10th of October, 2013 with more than 400 people. At around 4PM the following day, the boat started to sink about 75 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. It’s estimated that 260 people died from the shipwreck, but only 26 bodies were pulled out from the water.
“The rescue team never came until 6PM,” said Abdullah. “I remember watching hundreds of bodies floating around me in the sea.”
Abdullah survived, though he was hospitalised for two days, then confined to a refugee camp in Trapani, a city on the west coast of Sicily. However, he escaped to Milan the next morning. A few days later, Abdullah approached a group of people for directions next to the city’s central train station.
“He asked my friends and me how he could get to Sweden,” said Gabriele Del Grande, an Italian journalist and migration activist. “After we told him he couldn’t go there directly, we invited him to join us for coffee.”
Moved by Abdullah’s story, Del Grande invited two of his closest friends to his home a week later. He spent the night drinking grappa with Italian filmmaker Antonio Augugliaro and the Palestinian poet Khaled Soliman Al Nassiry. With mutual friends affected from the civil war, they met to discuss how they could help Syrians find asylum in Europe.
More than 2.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave the country. Most of them fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey (764,000), Lebanon (1,093,069) and Jordan (597,328). According to a UNHCR report from March of 2014, Europe had only granted asylum to 89,000 people. Although Sweden offers permanent residence to Syrians arriving at its borders, strong border patrols throughout Europe made it unimaginable to help anyone get there from Italy, until Gabriele’s idea occurred.
“What border official would ever stop a wedding convoy?” Del Grande asked Augugliaro and Al Nassiry as he finished his last glass of grappa.
The next morning, Augugliaro told Del Grande that his idea to devise a wedding procession destined for Sweden was not only brilliant but would make for an excellent documentary. Al Nassiry committed to directing the film, and their project was sketched in place.
They would use the film to help five Syrian refugees get from Italy to Sweden. They called the project On the Bride’s Side. Before it could go any further, they needed to recruit a wedding party.
“Gabriele called me two weeks after we met. He asked if I wanted to go to Sweden dressed up as a groom,” said Abdullah. “I told him yes straightaway.”
“When they asked me to be the bride I thought it was a great idea,” said Tasneem, a 25-year-old Palestinian German who fled Yarmouk right before the chemical weapon attack. “We all share the same sky, and we should all share the same right to travel.”
A 12-year-old Palestinian boy named Manar and his father would come along for the journey. They had escaped from Syria to Egypt, then boarded a boat from Alexandria to get to Italy. Born stateless – like most Palestinians in the region – Manar has found refuge in music and wants to be rapper when he’s older.
Del Grande also approached Mona and Ahmed, a Syrian and Palestinian from Yarmouk. They lived in Libya for five years with their children before leaving for Lampedusa. With their children also born stateless, they fled to Europe hoping to give their family a freedom they never knew. Once they too agreed to join, Del Grande asked everyone to dress up in their wedding outfits and took them to the hairdresser.
“I told the barbers that Tasneem and Abdullah just got married and to make the entire family look beautiful,” said Del Grande.
Everyone looked ready for a wedding, but they still needed friends to come along for the ruse to be complete. They were all eager to find the protection that Sweden would offer, so they needed to quickly find others willing to join their risky operation.
“The subject line read 'Top Secret',” said Valeria, a 32-year-old Italian legal scholar from the University of Milan. Since she understood the consequences of their plan better than anyone, she was hesitant at first. According to Article 12 of Italy’s Immigration and Asylum law, smugglers can receive up to 15 years in prison for assisting irregular migration. Ultimately, however, that didn’t deter her from joining.
On the 14th of November, their journey began. A fake wedding party of 23 people – mostly strangers to each other – left Italy on foot and headed southwards through the mountains to France, a path that would ensure they could avoid the strict border controls between Austria and Switzerland.
“It wasn’t so long ago when our grandfathers travelled this way to escape fascism from Italy,” Del Grande told me. “Today, Syrians are escaping for the same reason. So what’s the difference?”
When they got to France, they split into four convoys covered in wedding ribbons and bows. The first only had people with legal documents. They drove half an hour ahead of the other three cars. If they were stopped at the border, they would call the others behind them to abort. They never needed to.
“The police told us congratulations on the wedding in five different languages,” said Tasneem, smiling.
The group travelled more than 1,800 miles in three days. They drove through Luxembourg, Germany and Denmark. From there, Abdullah, Manar, Abu Manar, Mona and Ahmed all boarded a train to Sweden. Protected by the presence of the camera and the bride, they arrived unchecked. They were finally safe to apply for asylum, but crossing the final border marked the end to their memorable journey.
“I have never had a more beautiful experience,” said Abdullah.
Today, On the Bride’s Side needs €75,000 to pay for production costs (about £60,000) before entering the documentary into the Venice Film Festival in September. They’ve only reached half their goal so far, but their crowd-funding campaign has connected them with thousands of people across Europe who believe in the same cause.
“Europe isn’t just a fortress,” said Valeria. “It can also be a place committed to bettering the lives of everyone, each day.”