Muhammad Idrees Ahmad reviews The Journey from Syria, Matthew Cassel’s new documentary tracing the remarkable journey of a Syrian refugee from his home in Damascus across half of Europe, and finds “a human story about ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary circumstances.”
Early in Matthew Cassell’s documentary for The New Yorker about a Syrian refugee’s quest for asylum across Europe the stakes are made clear.
“If the boat sinks, try to stay away from the others,” a voice on the phone tells Aboud Shalhoub, the Damascene jeweller around whose exodus the film is centred. “Many don’t know how to swim, and they’ll grab on to you”.
Before Shalhoub makes the parlous sea crossing, he has already made four failed attempts to reach Europe. Shalhoub had left Damascus to find work in Turkey, leaving behind a wife and two children. He failed, and his return was blocked. The only hope is for him to find asylum in Europe and evacuate his family from Damascus. The documentary tracks Shalhoub’s progress as he enacts this plan.
After making it to Athens, Shalhoub waits weeks for his brother, who eventually arrives with Fadwa, a schoolteacher he met on the way. Having a woman and her two young daughters will certainly complicate the journey, but they can’t leave her behind either. They set off together. Surreptitiously they cross into Macedonia. They avoid trains because if you are caught riding one, you are sent back to Greece. Taxis and cars are also a risk. The only safe option is to walk. Train tracks and farmlands are the safest bet, though not always.
Travelling in large groups is unwieldy. Fourteen people were run over by a train earlier when a group of refugees could not clear the tracks in time. But large groups are necessary for security. Thieves, gangsters, and vigilantes have beset many refugees. Shalhoub’s group is also menaced by a gang of twelve. But with 140 people in the group warily watching, the thieves don’t get a chance.
Cross-country treks can wear down the most vigorous. But these grim processions include children and the elderly. One old man has to be left behind when his feet give way halfway across Macedonia. A younger man trudges forth on flip-flops, still carrying scars from the eight bullet wounds he sustained in the war. The children walk on, oblivious to the dangers.
Save the Children estimates that of all the refugees arriving in Greece this year more than a third were children. Last year, 26,000 children arrived unaccompanied. And in just the past two years, Europol has reported over 10,000 missing.
As Shalhoub’s convoy races forth, some of the families with elderly women struggle to keep pace. Seeing them as a liability, some of the younger men make the pragmatic decision to abandon them at a train station. This would likely get them deported, but one man cajoles them (or assuages his own conscience) with the unconvincing argument that, as families, they will not be sent back. The larger part of the convoy moves on.
And then comes deus ex machina. A Serbian pro-refugee activist tells the group that they no longer have to travel surreptitiously. Laws have changed. The group members buy bicycles at inflated prices in the next town and make their way to Belgrade; from Belgrade a train. The train is stopped at the border and the refugees are ordered off it. But police let the refugees walk into the EU. From there, travel is relatively straightforward, though exploitation attends the refugees every step of the way (A taxi driver demands €500 for a one-hour ride).
The documentary is made more compelling by interspersing Shalhoub’s struggles with scenes from his home in Damascus. The hopes and apprehensions of his wife and children track Shalhoub’s progress across Europe. Even after his arrival in the Netherlands, there are bureaucratic hurdles to be negotiated. It takes six months before Shalhoub is able to organise papers for his family to leave Syria. The remaining episodes deal with their attempts to settle into a new society that offers them security without a sense of belonging. With news outlets obsessed with refugees, they are never allowed to forget their status as outsiders.
The Journey, however, is more than the chronicle of an exodus. It is a human story about ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonists are normal people—a jeweller, a hairdresser, and a schoolteacher—who have to face dilemmas that jewellers, hairdressers, and schoolteachers do not normally face. The film is well constructed and tells its story with minimal editorialising. Through its relatable protagonists, it offers viewers a mirror to consider the choices they might have made had similar circumstances been thrust upon them.
This context is important for the kind of debate currently raging in Europe. The last segment of the documentary shows movements like Pegida and demagogues like Geert Wilders stirring up xenophobia. The refugee exodus has served as a boon for the European far right. Across Europe, far right parties are now ascendant. Refugees are routinely demonised.
But if the left has failed to challenge this wave, it is because they, just like the right, have been unwilling to address the root causes of the Syrian conflict. The organised left across much of Europe has shown little sympathy for Syrians fighting oppression. Some have tacitly supported the regime; others, such as the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have backed Russian military intervention while opposing safe zones for civilians. (Some of the tropes the right has used to stereotype refugees were first used by the left to demonise Assad’s opponents, painting them all as “extremists” and “jihadists”)
To the extent that root causes have been addressed, everyone has focused on ISIS. But a poll of Syrian refugees in Germany shows that the primary cause of their flight is Assad, not ISIS. In lieu of a lasting solution, at the political level, the refugee issue has become an occasion for grandstanding or demonisation. For the left, refugees are victims without agency. For the right, they are intruders stealing jobs and benefits. For both, the refugee is a category without context.
But as far as civil society goes, the left has played an admirable role in mobilising support and assistance for refugees across Europe, while the right has fed fear, xenophobia, and cynicism. At one point, one of the film’s protagonists rues the fact that Europe has judged them without bothering to get to know them.
The same German survey cited earlier shows that 93% of Syrian refugees in Germany would return to Syria if they could. They did not come to Europe by choice, they came because of a lack of choice. One of the refugees, playing with her children in a park, sums up the issue best: “I wish we could have this life in our country”.
Since the making of the film, the Balkan trail has been closed and transit camps in Greece bulldozed. The remaining refugees face deportation to Turkey or paying extortionate prices for the uncertain prospect of being smuggled into the EU. Among those who have risked the latter, many have been robbed, some have ended up as hostages in the custody of Macedonian smugglers.
This situation has, once again, diverted refugee flows to the more dangerous Mediterranean route. In the past week alone, the UN has reported 700 refugees drowned. The summer has only started, and in the 9 months since young Aylan Kurdi’s body was found lifeless on a Turkish shore, European borders have only grown more inhospitable.
From Greece to Croatia to Denmark, laws and measures have been introduced to penalise any assistance to refugees. And to its enduring shame, Denmark has also earned itself a place in history’s halls of shame by passing a law to make the country a “little less attractive” to refugees by seizing their valuables.
EU states in general have tried to discourage pro-refugee activism by criminalising decency. In one outrageous incident, a group of rescue workers let 31 refugees drown without assistance for fear of being prosecuted under the new human trafficking law that has been introduced to discourage such assistance. One Danish couple was fined £5,000 for giving a refugee family a ride and refreshment.
The protagonists in Cassell’s film are healthy, resourceful and young. They are the luckier ones; they are part of the 7 percent of Syria’s 4.3 million refugees that Europe has accepted. The majority languish in the refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. An even larger number, nearly 7 million, is marooned in Syria, internally displaced, often besieged, with few resources and even less hope. The Journey invites us to wonder that if the conditions are this fraught for those who seek and find sanctuary, what must it be like for those that are left behind.