Written by Mostafa Fadi, with an introduction by Dana Sachs
I go to Greece regularly with a small aid team, Humanity Now, and on Lesvos Island I met Mostafa Fadi, a 26-year-old refugee from Syria. At the PIKPA Camp, which shelters 85 people, Mostafa and I worked together on a crew repainting a small bedroom for a family to live in. The project took most of the day—hard going in the June heat, particularly for Mostafa, who was fasting for Ramadan. After we finished, though, Mostafa went to another room and started painting that one.
“Don’t you want to rest?” I asked.
I was standing in the doorway of the second room, and he was rolling white paint along an ugly red wall.
Mostafa, a slight man with gentle features, shook his head. “I like to keep busy,” he told me.
For most of the day, Mostafa, the only non-American on our painting crew, had worked in silence, hearing our constant chatter without participating in it. Now, I discovered that he spoke a hesitant but functional English. We began to talk about his life.
Painting walls, Mostafa wore an expression of determined attention, but talking about his past brought more emotion to his face—joy when he told me about studying journalism at the university in his hometown of Aleppo, and grief when he described how war cut short his university career, destroyed his home and his city, and caused him to flee the country, leaving his family behind.
In Syria, young men like Mostafa are among the most vulnerable. Any of the fighting factions could force him into military service, which for many male Syrians becomes a sentence of death. Mostafa had also participated in what he called “demonstrations for freedom in my country,” which put him in additional peril. Thus, he fled.
We discussed politics, of course. Even in the refugee camp, he retained his interest in journalism and followed international events. We discovered a shared dislike of Donald Trump.
“Assad and Trump are the same kind of men,” I told him.
I expected Mostafa to agree, but he didn’t. He stopped painting, turned to me, and said, “There is only one Assad.”
I realized that I had ignored the difference between a leader who has the potential to cause catastrophe and a leader who has caused catastrophe already.
For a moment, I struggled to clarify my meaning. I was trying to say that Trump and Assad have similar characters, that I didn’t imagine Trump would have qualms about bombing a city, but my idea was too far from reality, my point too thin. In that moment, I realized I wanted Mostafa—this soft-spoken, observant young man, this one-time journalism student—to speak for himself.
“Could you write something?” I asked.
He looked surprised and pleased. As it turned out, he’d been writing all along and had an essay ready for anyone interested in seeing it. “Would you like to read the story of my trip to Greece?” he asked.
Here it is.
Let’s talk about the time I fled on a rubber boat.
It was August 4, 2016.
I was with a group of 60 people, all of whom had slept on a mountain in Turkey for two days, where we were stranded after our smugglers’ car broke down. Finally, they returned for us, and we embarked on the crossing to Greece—what everyone calls “the Journey of Death.”
My home in Aleppo had been smashed by a bomb attack. I wanted to go to Europe to continue my life in a safe place and find stability. I dreamed of completing my university studies.
We inflated our 6-meter-long rubber boat. The women and children sat in the center of the boat and the men were on the sides. The boat was way over-packed, but we had a lot of faith in God. We started sailing.
Less than an hour had passed in what was supposed to be trip of only a few hours, when the waves grew higher, the sea more aggressive. The boat was flying off of the water and falling back down. Fear overtook everyone. The calls and cries for God to help us grew louder. Half of the distance of our journey passed through this horror, the certainty that we would all drown. The waves became so high that water started to come into the boat. The boat began to sink, death closing in. The sea had no mercy, but we still had faith in God.
I had an idea: Why don’t the men jump out of the boat, giving the elderly, the women, and the children a greater chance of survival? I shouted this idea out loud. No one reacted; everyone was too scared. After all, the thought of death by drowning is not that pleasant.
Still, something had to be done. So I jumped.
I expected that when others saw me jump into the sea, they would find the courage within them to do the same. No one did, except for my friend, Ziad. By jumping out, we made the boat lighter by 150 kg. That turned out to be enough to save everyone. The boat eventually arrived on the shore of Lesvos Island, and everyone who was still on it was finally safe. Ziad and I, however, had been left behind, far, far away in the sea. We cried for God to save us.
For five hours, we attempted to stay alive, to stay afloat in the sea. We swallowed so much sea water, our hearts were exhausted, our lungs filled with water, our limbs were very sore. We finally lost hope. I praised and thanked God for everything. When I realized that death was approaching, I made the conscious decision to die while sleeping. That seemed better than suffocating. I wanted to be able to tell the ones who loved me that I was okay, but I gave up. I fell asleep and went unconscious.
Then God wrote me a different fate. A wave splashed my face and woke me up. I thought I had died in the middle of the sea. I saw a ship sailing towards us. I screamed and cried tears of happiness. The ship pulled up right next to us. The lifeguards from the ship threw us a plastic ring, a life preserver. I supported my body on the ring and fell unconscious again. I woke up later in a hospital. Ziad and I were safe and sound, all praise and thanks be to God.