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Monzer's Journey: The Long, Hard Slog Of A Syrian Refugee

Monzer Omar (right) gives his friend Hatem Alhees a shave after they and hundreds of other Syrian refugees spent the night in a city park in Budapest, Hungary. NPR has followed Omar on his journey from Turkey to central Europe. Joanna Kakissis for NPR hide caption

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Joanna Kakissis for NPR

Monzer Omar (right) gives his friend Hatem Alhees a shave after they and hundreds of other Syrian refugees spent the night in a city park in Budapest, Hungary. NPR has followed Omar on his journey from Turkey to central Europe.

Joanna Kakissis for NPR

Editor's note: Monzer Omar is one of the more than 4 million Syrians who have fled their homeland since war erupted in that country in 2011. NPR correspondents Ari Shapiro and Joanna Kakissis followed him as he made his way from the Turkish coast to Central Europe in search of a new home.

Izmir, Turkey

It's close to 100 degrees in the city of Izmir, on Turkey's western coast. Dozens of people sit on the sidewalk, some sleeping on broken-down cardboard boxes. All are from Syria, including Monzer Omar.

Omar is 33 and the father of two girls. He was a teacher in Syria. Then the war started, and government bombs destroyed his village, near Hama, he says. When the government tried to force him into the army, he paid a smuggler thousands of dollars to bring him here, to the edge of the Aegean Sea.

Omar (center) and Alhees (left) traveled by raft from Izmir, Turkey, to Lesbos, Greece. Courtesy of Monzer Omar hide caption

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Courtesy of Monzer Omar

He has been in Izmir for a week, waiting for another smuggler to send him across the water to Greece — and the promise of a better life in the European Union.

A cafe owner across the street lets Omar use the Wi-Fi to communicate with his wife and kids, who are living with his parents still in Syria. His daughters are 1 and 3. "Papa, come home," says the 3-year-old.

Each night, Omar waits for the smuggler to call. But after more than a week, the only call comes from a panicking friend, also in Turkey, whose nephew is on a sinking, overcrowded raft. When Omar tries to call the nephew and other passengers to get the raft's GPS coordinates, nobody onboard picks up their phones.

Finally, Omar decides to try a different route. He takes a bus three hours to the city of Bodrum, only a few miles from the Greek island of Kos. At 1 a.m., he sends a series of text messages:

There is a big problem.

Two smugglers are conflicting on the same starting point.

The first one is Turkish; the other is Pakistani.

Pray for me please.

More text messages come a few hours later:

Our group didn't go to Greece from Bodrum.

There was a crime as a result of the conflict between the smugglers.

We saw dead bodies on the seaside.

We have to go back to Izmir.

Omar returns to the same sidewalk where he first sat on that cardboard box.

Two days later, he sends a voice memo, and his relief is audible:

"I'm here on Mytilene Island."

Mytilene is a city on the Greek island of Lesbos. He has made the crossing.

"I'm waiting to go out of Greece to Macedonia," he says.

This leg of his journey is complete. But he has many miles left to travel.

Turkey To Greece

The giant blue-and-white ferry docks in the port of Piraeus after a 12-hour trip from Lesbos. All of the hundreds of people onboard are refugees and migrants who've just left the Aegean island, where they'd arrived on inflatable rafts from Izmir.

Omar is in the crowd. He lost his glasses in the chaos of the nighttime sea voyage from Izmir to Lesbos, so he's squinting a bit. He's grown a beard, and he's wearing a tan cap, with Greek letters, and a black T-shirt. He's holding a backpack with a change of clothes, some toiletries, his phone charger and a yellow teacup given to him by a pizzeria owner on Lesbos.

The Eleftherios Venizelos ferry, which Greece now uses exclusively to transport refugees from the Aegean islands, arrives in the port of Piraeus near Athens. Joanna Kakissis for NPR hide caption

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Joanna Kakissis for NPR

The Eleftherios Venizelos ferry, which Greece now uses exclusively to transport refugees from the Aegean islands, arrives in the port of Piraeus near Athens.

Joanna Kakissis for NPR

He's still shaken up by the trip from Izmir to Lesbos, which he made in a tiny raft packed with men, women, children. He thought about his own little daughters.

"I thank God for not bringing them with me," he says. "You could die any minute, any second. Some babies were crying all of the way."

Smugglers avoid making the Izmir-Lesbos journey to elude arrest, so a Syrian refugee who had never been in a boat before steered the raft instead. Midway through the journey, the raft's engine stopped.

"Every one of us was praying," Omar says. "We had no hope."

Then the wind picked up, and so did the waves. The passengers used plastic bottles to empty out the seawater that sloshed into their vessel. They floated for three hours before reaching a rocky beach early in the morning on Lesbos. They were accosted by men who took the raft's engine and tried to rob them. "But we were a big group, and they ran away," Omar says.

Refugees are crammed together on a raft during the journey from Izmir, Turkey, to Lesbos, Greece. Courtesy of Monzer Omar hide caption

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Courtesy of Monzer Omar

He spent several days in a crowded camp on Lesbos until he got temporary transit papers — he has a passport but no visa to enter Europe — and then took the ferry out to Piraeus, a 12-hour journey.

Greece To Macedonia

Now, Omar and two families from his hometown are trying to get to the border of Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. They're in a rush to head north. From Macedonia, they want to cross into Serbia, and from there to Hungary, Austria and finally Germany.

They have to take a bus from Piraeus to get to northern Greece, but they don't know where or when it leaves. "We are so confused about the time of the journey," he says. "No one knows the details. It's just go, go, go."

More confusion ensues. A plump man shows up on a motorbike, introduces himself simply as Ahmed, and tells them, in Arabic, that he's from Aleppo, Syria. He offers to take them directly to the Macedonian border in a special bus for about $60 each. But he speeds off when he sees a group of angry employees from the state-run bus company charging toward them.

"What's going on?" Omar asks.

"Shut up, shut up," one of the bus employees snarls. "I'm calling the police."

The state-run bus company has set up a special service to transport refugees to northern Greece. Its employees are angry that unlicensed companies are stealing their customers.

Two young policemen later explain that the bus Ahmed was leading them to was likely a scam. Drivers aren't registered or monitored. They often take double or triple the price of the ticket during the journey. Sometimes they don't even bring refugees to the border, just dropping them in the middle of nowhere.

Omar and the others eventually buy tickets for about $50 on the state-run bus that will take them to the northern city of Thessaloniki and then onward to the border with Macedonia.

It's nearly midnight when they leave. The bus reaches northern Greece just before dawn. The two-lane road leading to the border is lined with people traveling on foot. Omar and his group join them. They walk for six hours.

Macedonia To Serbia

The border is a muddy patch of grass bisected by train tracks and surrounded by cornfields. Omar and his friends wait, then walk about a mile across to the Macedonian town of Gevgelija. There they take a train, then a taxi, for about $120, to the Serbian border. After a brief stop at a camp in the Serbian town of Presevo, the group boards a bus to Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The next day, they take another to the Hungarian border.

The crowded bus stops at a migrant camp. Omar is both exhausted and wired. Stepping off, he has no idea where he is.

"Kinjay?" he says, fumbling with the name of the nearby town. It's called Kanjiza, and, like other border towns on the great migration from Turkey to Germany, it's a rest stop. Families stay here in parks and train stations and use Wi-Fi at the local cafes.

Omar finds no rest here. He's tense. A knife fight breaks out when too many people try to board a bus to another town. He wants to get out of Kanjiza as soon as possible.

"I just want to arrive to Germany and take a rest," he says.

Clothes dry on the side of a fence at a city park in Budapest where Syrians camped out. Most hotels and hostels don't rent rooms to refugees and migrants. Joanna Kakissis for NPR hide caption

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Joanna Kakissis for NPR

Omar says Chancellor Angela Merkel has done more for Syrians than his fellow Arabs have. Like many Syrian refugees, he calls her "Mama Merkel, the mother of Syrian people."

His wife and two small daughters are in hiding back in Syria, waiting for him to receive asylum and send for them.

"I tell my wife everywhere I go," he says. "I tell her I am in Serbia, I am on the border with Hungary. She lives this with me."

He communicates with his wife and his parents through voice memos on WhatsApp, a smartphone application.

"I remember my mother and father," he says, as tears well up. If he receives asylum in Germany, it won't be easy to bring them. "Maybe I will never see them again. But my wife and daughters, I hope I will see them in the near future."

Serbia To Hungary To Germany

Omar leaves behind some of his group at the camp near Kanjiza. They're tired and want to rest. He decides to travel with Hatem Alhees, a friend from back home. Alhees is a shy, slight agricultural engineer. They take a bus to another border town, then prepare to walk 2 miles overnight to reach Hungary. They join a group of fellow Syrians, all of whom are walking so fast, they're practically running.

Omar uses the GPS on his phone to guide him, but he struggles with the difficult Hungarian names on the map. Along the way, smugglers try to rob the group. Omar considers, but thinks better of, taking out his pocket knife. He's only ever used it for cutting fruit.

Once in Hungary, they hide from the border police in cornfields, then run till they find a road. Taxis are waiting, and one takes them to Budapest.

The taxi drops them off outside a rundown hotel that charges refugees $20 just to sit in the courtyard. Hungary doesn't allow refugees and migrants to rent rooms in hotels or hostels. So Omar and at least 1,000 other Syrians, most of them families, spend the night in a nearby park. He washes his blistered feet at a water tap and fills his plastic bottle with water.

Three elderly Hungarian men, fishing at the park's pond, watch him without smiling.

Families camp outside Keleti station in Budapest after the Hungarian government prevented them from traveling. Joanna Kakissis for NPR hide caption

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Joanna Kakissis for NPR

"You really feel less than human," he says. "But I am so tired, I don't care."

The next day, he shaves his beard and puts on his favorite aftershave — he's carried a bottle of it from Syria. As he shares dates with the other Syrians at the park, they tell him they've heard Hungary is letting migrants travel by train to Austria. Omar and Alhees leave the park and spend the rest of the day and all night waiting in a long line with thousands of other migrants at the Keleti train station to buy tickets.

Omar (center) and Alhees (right) camped out for days outside a strip mall and hotel in a rundown part of Budapest, after Hungarian authorities kicked them out of Keleti station. The hotel would not admit them. Joanna Kakissis for NPR hide caption

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Joanna Kakissis for NPR

Omar is exhausted but hopeful.

"There is something that really makes you strong," he says. "That is the last stage of your journey."

But just as he reaches the front of the line, ticket sales to migrants are canceled.

"Now we must find a smuggler," he says, sounding deflated.

He spends the next three nights camped outside another rundown hotel that won't admit him. Smugglers are everywhere — Hungarians, Romanians, Turks. His neighbors from Hama, who also were shut out of train tickets, are camped out with him.

"I'm so tired that I'm worried I cannot make a good decision," he says. "Oh, just to close my eyes and to have a shower."

Exhausted refugees sleep on a bus to Vienna from Budapest. The bus was so crowded that Omar couldn't find a seat, and he crouched on the floor. Courtesy of Monzer Omar hide caption

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Courtesy of Monzer Omar

On Saturday, there's good news. Hungary decides to bus migrants to Austria. He gets on one of the buses. There's nowhere for him to sit, but he doesn't care.

"I am on the border of Hungary and Austria," he says in a voice memo from the bus, "and really, really joyful."

The next day, he arrives in Germany.

"I made it, my love," he tells his wife.

He's arrived at a camp in Dortmund. He's finally slept and showered.

He's safe. His journey from Syria to Germany took 25 days.