Mazen Bahtiti, a 25-year old Palestinain born in Syria, speaks to Erika Widen of The Times Kuwait about how he fled from Syria to Egypt, and sailed the risky Mediterranean Sea to eventually reach Sweden with high hopes and dreams in mind.
Due to the ongoing turmoil within Syria and with no solution in sight, Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Board, announced in September 2013, that it would grant permanent residency to all Syrians who reach Swedish shores.
Subsequently, days after the Swedish announcement, Mazen Bahtiti, decided to leave Syria and travel via the Mediterranean Sea, considered the world’s deadliest migrant crossing, to Sweden.
Even though, Palestinians fled to Syria more than five decades ago, they are not entitled to a Syrian nationality. The are provided only with a residency permit that does not allow them to travel to any nearby country. However, when the former President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi was in power, he allowed Palestinian families to enter Egypt for a period of one month on a tourist visa, and Bahtiti took this opportunity to exit Syria. He traveled to Alexandria, Egypt with his father and younger brother and was in contact with smugglers as it was the only choice he had in order to reach European shores. “When I was in Alexandria, we met with smugglers and my father paid US$3,500 for my brother and an additional US$3,500 for myself in order to reach Italian shores by boat,” says Bahtiti.
He adds that many people who still had houses in Syria would sell them in order to leave the country. “Many people that arrived to Sweden, have paid approximately EUR10, 000 and the same applies to reach Germany and Denmark. My father had five houses in Mokhiam Al-Yarmook, a suburb outside of Damascus where predominantly Palestinians live, and now he has none. One house was bombed, the other was hit by a missile, and the remaining three were overtaken by the Syrian rebels. So, we rented a house outside of our area. We had to pay 100,000 Syrian Liras per month, and my father’s salary was 30,000 Syrian Liras, and we are a big family,” recalls Bahtiti.
He followed his father’s advice that he must get out of Syria, since if he remained he could either be killed or they might have forced him to join the military – in addition to not being able to find a decent job. Bahiti adds,“There is no life for young people in Syria, for old people it is okay,”
Bahitit details his voyage: “The first boat was very small, we were 25 people; it was approximately three metres long, therefore, very crowded. It was not a real boat, it was a local fishing boat made out of metal, which had a hole for fishing and we could not sit on it; there was a rooftop and we had to get under it…But, we had to swim in order to reach the fishing boat, and we stayed there for around three to four hours until we reached another boat, which was probably 18 metres long, and made out of wood.”
According to Bahtiti, there were already 50 people in total on the larger boat and they sailed for an additional ten hours till they reached another boat, which was made out of metal and was approximately 20 metres long. In total by that time they were 100 people, and ten of them were the Egyptian smugglers. “This larger boat was located approximately 100 kilometres from the coast, already in international waters. We stayed for one day without sailing since we were waiting for an additional 100 people to arrive. The next day, we were told that the remaining 100 persons were caught by the Egyptian police, so we had to sail without them.”
He further adds that they sailed for an additional nine days, and dragged the second wooden boat along. “Before we travelled, the smuggler said we would have plenty of water and food and not to worry. However, the water we were given was salty, almost like seawater, and we were given bread with mould and rice. For three days, I was like unconscious, I felt sleepy, exhausted and dehydrated.”
Subsequently, they were told that they had to jump back to the previous wooden boat, which they had dragged along, since one of smugglers said they were only 60 miles from the Italian coast. “They said that the children and women had to jump on the other boat first, and we had to wait another three hours in order to jump – to ensure that the sea water was calm, and to prevent the wooden boat to smash against the metal one.”
Simultaneously, the remaining eight smugglers returned back to Egypt, while the other two were forced and threatened to remain with the migrants. However, prior to the departure of the eight smuggles, Bahtiti describes how the smugglers mentioned that they had already checked on their navigation device, and ensured that everything was set and all what the remaining two smugglers had to do was just sail straight. “One of the smugglers before he left said that after six hours he would call the Red Cross, since by then he would be safe and already in international waters, but the call was never made, he lied, no-one rescued us, and the two smugglers did not have a signal device to call for help,” says Bahtiti.
By that time they had run out of food and water. “The smugglers lied to us – we were told that we only had 60 miles to cross and would arrive within six hours, but in reality we had 160 miles left since we arrived after 24 hours, and with no signal equipment to call the Red Cross for help.”
Usually, smugglers call the Red Cross when they are 100 miles off Italian shores in order for Italy to send ships, and helicopters to rescue the migrants. “Most of the people on the boat were families and little children. The youngest was probably three months old. By chance we arrived directly to the Italian coast in Calabria,” recalls Bahtiti.
As a result, the Italian police came and placed them all in what seemed like a big restaurant and they were not allowed to leave. “All people who arrive in Italy do not want to stay there due to the economic crisis. When we were in the restaurant, we were surrounded by police, and they did not allow us to leave as we are supposed to register our fingerprints and stay in Italy,” continues Bahtiti, “After six days, people from the Church came and helped us by distracting the police and told us to go. The Church people placed us on a bus that was written on it ‘Church Members’, and drove us to the train station.”
From the train station he went to Milan along with his 17-year-old brother, once they arrived they contacted another smuggler and paid an additional EUR1, 800 each to fly from Milan Airport to Copenhagen, Denmark with Hungarian Identifications. Once, they reached Copenhagen, they travelled via train to Malmö, Sweden – where Bahtiti met with another smuggler in order to return the identifications they were given back in Milan. “Most of the migrants have money with them, and are aware of the costs in Europe, some people even took taxis from Milan to Sweden.”
Nonetheless, Bahtiti’s journey did not end there as he continued to Örebro since he has a relative there, and once in Örebro he went with his brother to Migrationsverket, where he also applied for family reunion in October 2013. Shortly afterwards, Migrationsverket then took them to Gävle, and then they were transferred to Norbygården in Fagersta, Västmanland. Norbygården is the temporary asylum accommodation, which has the capacity to host more than 200 people.
“I chose Sweden because it is a good country and has a strong economy, and I thought that I can get a job fast. In addition Sweden provides financial benefits, education, healthcare and permanent residency. After a few years I can also apply for Swedish citizenship,” continues Bahtiti, “ However, before I came here, I had a dream, high hopes, I thought I would have a job and learn Swedish very fast. Instead, when I arrived I crashed with the reality, the difficulties to get a job and to learn the language.”
Coupled with this is his impression of the Swedes: “They do not offend nor humiliate me, but they avoid me. After more than one year in Sweden, I still do not have a Swedish friend. It is hard to find work and it will take a long time to learn the language. I fear that I will not grow in the future and perhaps stay in low working positions. I am facing a difficult reality. I think that after three to four years I will have a low level job and not grow to be a manager. Maybe my younger brothers will have a better future, but I feel I won’t,” concludes Bahtiti with a sigh of disappointment and frustration.
Nevertheless, after he finalises his Swedish studies, and the equivalent of Swedish adult high school, which is a programme designed for immigrants, he plans to proceed to university in order to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Accounting.
On a positive note, Bahtiti is finally reunited with his family. His parents and siblings arrived in Fagersta in the fall of 2014; and he is grateful to the Swedes and the government for their generosity.