Picking Up the Pieces - A Syrian family find safety in Germany, only for tragedy to bring them back to Sicily, where their European journey first began.
UNHCR, 19 Aug 2015
Rimaz and her husband, Mohammed, are flicking through photos on their smartphone while their young children explore a park in Catania, Sicily. There’s Liain’s third birthday party a few months ago, four-year-old Iyad enjoying a horse ride, Rimaz’s mother, and the bloodied body of a relative killed this month in Syria.
The photos narrate the struggle that this family has endured in recent years, a journey which took them to safety in Germany before tragedy brought them back to Italy.
Mohammed still remembers the moment he found out that his mother-in-law had died en route to Europe: “A Syrian man phoned me, whose sister was on the boat, and said; ‘Your [wife's] mother is dead.’”
Rimaz’s mother, Muyasar, had fled Yarmouk refugee camp, a Palestinian community of 18,000 in Damascus, in the hope of following her daughter to Germany. Her Palestinian origins made it difficult for her to enter Egypt, so relatives say they paid US $3,000 to buy a visa.
Two days after crossing the border, Muyasar wrote to Rimaz and told her she was boarding a smugglers’ boat bound for Italy. “Pray for me, that I arrive safety,” the message said. But Muyasar never saw the Italian shore. According to officials, her death on board was related to diabetes.
Four-year-old Lyad and his three-year-old sister, Liain, play at a children's garden in Villa Bellini in Catania, Italy. UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli
Rimaz knows just how arduous the journey to Europe can be, having walked out of Yarmouk with her three children more than a year ago in the hope of joining Mohammed in Germany. At first, they moved to the Jaramana district of Damascus, desperate to leave the bombings behind them. But when the war intensified, Rimaz took her children to Turkey.
They travelled onwards across the country, before boarding a smugglers’ sailboat carrying about 40 others to Greece. An overland trek followed, walking through the forests of The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and through Serbia and Hungary, from where the family of three boarded a train to Munich.
“A Syrian man phoned me, whose sister was on the boat, and said, ‘Your [wife's] mother is dead.’ ”
Their route has become a well-worn one by Syrians, while others such as Mohammed have chosen the sea route from Egypt or Libya. He arrived ahead of Rimaz and the children, landing in Catania, Sicily, after being rescued by a Korean ship last July along with about 400 others.
“I found someone in Egypt who said they could take me to Italy,” he remembers. “He said it was a nice boat – he was lying. We were 10 days at sea with a cup of water a day. There were lots of people with disease.”
Mohammed eventually reached Munich by train, following a lengthy bus ride through Milan and Verona in northern Italy. After being joined by his wife and children, the family gained refugee status in Germany, which continues to be the largest recipient of asylum applications in the EU.
Three-year-old Liain plays with her brother near the grave of their grandmother at the municipal cemetery in Catania, Italy. UNHCR/Fabio Bucciarelli
Today, living in a village outside of Munich, the family is fairly isolated but the children have started integrating. “I don’t understand what he’s saying!” says Mohammed, laughing, as Iyad chats away, speaking an incomprehensible blend of Arabic and German.
However, despite their young ages, Syria is never far from the children’s minds. “The children always say, ‘I want to go to Syria’” their father says.
“The children always say, ‘I want to go to Syria.’ “
For a week, the family have been staying at Catania’s mosque, where they share a room with newly arrived refugees from Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. They had planned to travel down from Munich and bring their family back together – but instead they are here to visit Muyasar’s final resting place.
Her grave is adorned with flowers and a gravestone, naming Syria as her birthplace but no place of death. Muyasar’s grandchildren play in the freshly turned soil while her daughter prays and pours holy water from Mecca over the grave.
Rimaz hopes one day to bring her mother’s remains to Germany, although the visit to Italy has helped her come to terms with the great loss.
“I was sad, because my mother was everything,” she says. “It felt like my life was over, but now I will live through her memory.”
WRITTEN BY ROSIE SCAMMELL