Scattered By Conflict, Syrians Flee To Europe More than 200,000 Syrians have made their way to Europe on crowded ships and forged documents. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Joanna Kakissis, who has spent months tracking families on their journeys.
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Scattered By Conflict, Syrians Flee To Europe

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Scattered By Conflict, Syrians Flee To Europe

Scattered By Conflict, Syrians Flee To Europe

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The Syrian civil war sent millions of Syrians to flee in desperation for safety. More than 230,000 have made it to Europe on crowded ships or forged documents. Last month, two ships of Syrians nearly wrecked when they were abandoned by their crew of smugglers and set adrift. Joanna Kakissis, who reports for NPR from Greece, and Holly Pickett, a photographer, spent much of last year following some of these Syrian families who made it to Europe and their lives thereafter. NPR's Visuals team has a web feature on their project, which you can find at Joanna Kakissis joins us from Athens. Joanna, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Where do these refugees start? What are some of the ways in which they get to Europe?

KAKISSIS: Well, if they have the money, they leave their homes and travel through Syria by bus or by car, sometimes even by foot. Many also ride small, crowded boats, maybe rubber boats with motors from the western coast of Turkey to some Greek island. It's a very scary trip. Holly and I met two sisters from Raqqa just after they had arrived on the Aegean island of Chios last year. Here's Dania, who's 13, describing the boat trip.

DANIA: Our boat drowning. I don't know what happened, but we were having problems, everyone was screaming and say bad words. They were so angry.

KAKISSIS: The boat was drowning, as she said, or sinking because the smuggler had instructed them to cut it - to slash it so it could sink in Greek waters.

SIMON: And when they arrive, do the refugees tend to stay in Greece and Italy or move on?

KAKISSIS: Most don't stay in Greece or Italy, no. There just isn't a good enough social welfare net there to help refugees who have literally lost everything and who don't speak the language and need help to restart their lives. Here's Sam Khaled, a young marketing student from Latakia. He had run out of money to pay his rent.

SAM KHALED: We want someone to hear us - let's say, like, to feel us, you know? Like, we are really good people who just want safe place, that's it.

KAKISSIS: You know, but moving is so challenging. We've met people who have tried 10, 11, 12 times to fly out with fake papers, but they've been caught. And some stow away on trucks or boats to get to other countries deeper in Europe - to northern Europe.

SIMON: Where are they trying to go?

KAKISSIS: Germany and Sweden are top destinations because they offer things like asylum and free shelter, education and job training. But the adjustment is very hard, especially for people who are in their 40s and older. I'll let Rafat al-Ayidi, he's a really intelligent young man from Damascus, explain. Holly and I have known Rafat's family for almost a year now. They live in Germany. His father Wisam was a successful businessman in Damascus.

RAFAT AL-AYIDI: In Syria my father was, like, all the day outside. But here there's no job, there is no friends. That make him sad because suddenly everybody gone, everything gone.

KAKISSIS: We also met one very talented young woman in Sweden. She's legally blind but writes poetry, stories, plays. And she even said she misses hearing the bombs in Damascus simply because that's a sound she now associates with home.

SIMON: Joanna, is it hard for families to stay together?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, it's really, really hard. Maybe one family member might have a different immigration status that might make him or her eligible in some countries but not others. Some simply just don't have the money. And others are struck down by illness. Wisam, he's the businessman I mentioned earlier, and his younger brother Muafak (ph) had spent two years trying to reunite with their younger sister Manal. But last year, Manal was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

MANAL: I hope all my family in the future came to Germany to live together.

KAKISSIS: Manal arrived in Germany in October, but she died just a couple of weeks ago. She had told me that wasn't intent on getting back to Syria. And many of the Syrians we met never will return. But Manal was just so happy to see her brothers again.

SIMON: Joanna Kakissis. Her series on Syrians in Europe has aired on NPR. You can also find it on It was reported with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Thanks so much, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Scott. Thank you.

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