Syrian refugees: A journey through mud, fire and cold

18-year-old Batoul with her baby in Serbia, after a terrifying journey through Turkey and Greece

Hala Youssef captures the compelling story of one young woman’s flight to the Balkans

In February 2016, Batoul packed a bag, carried her four-month-old baby, and headed into the unknown all by herself. She fought with smugglers, escaped a fire, almost drowned with her baby, had no food for three days, walked for a week in a cold forest, and travelled thousands of kilometres by bus, boat, and on foot until she reached Serbia in June 2016.

Batoul is 18 years old. Before February, she had hardly left her house, let alone her small town in Syria.

Standing at five feet tall, the determined young woman holds onto her blue-eyed baby and walks around the refugee camp at Presvo, on the Serbian border with Macedonia, with the confidence of a world traveller. Her final destination is Germany, where her husband went in August 2015 with her nine-year old brother. Batoul was seven months pregnant then and the couple did not have enough money to travel together.

It took her husband 10 days to reach Germany. Batoul has been on the road for four months and does not know how much longer it will be before she is reunited with her husband who is yet to meet his first child.

She had 650 Euros to cross the Turkish border. She tried several times and failed. She was forced to get rid of her only bag, and was left with nothing, not even a diaper for her baby. Finally, on her sixth attempt, Batoul made it into Turkish territory. She recalls:

It was so dark and it was raining hard. The river got high and muddy and, before I knew it, my baby and I were drowning in the mud.

Batoul screamed for several minutes but none of the other hurrying refugees could hear her. She thought she was going to die when a hand grabbed her and pulled her out of the mud. She said:

It was a Syrian young man who heard me. I owe him my life and my baby’s life.

Batoul opted to rest for one day only in Turkey before paying 450 Euros to get to Greece. She was kept in a refugee camp for three months, living on a diet consisting solely of lentil soup. One night, a fire broke out in the camp and she managed to escape from a hole in the fence, along with 200 other Syrian refugees, and her baby who had a 40-degree fever.

She walked with the group of escapees for six days through a forest trying to reach Macedonia. They ran out of food after three days. Batoul recalls:

I would look at the woman next to me and ask her if she was hungry, and she would deny it. When she asked me in return, I’d say that I don’t even think of food.

She finally found a smuggler who had a van and offered to drive her and 53 other people to Serbia. The police stopped them, arrested the smuggler, and brought the group to Presevo Camp.

“I am only going to stay for a few hours. I must try to get to the Hungarian border as soon as I can,” the young woman said about her next plans. At the border that was closed three months ago, she will join more than 300 stranded refugees. The Hungarian authorities only allow 15 people to enter every day and Batoul is hoping she will be one of the lucky few.

“The first thing I want to do when I get to Germany,” Batoul said in a determined tone, “is to study English and German.”

I will put my son in a nursery and find a job so I can help my husband create a good life for our family.

When asked if her conservative husband, who did not allow her to finish high school in Syria when they got married, would support her plans, she firmly responds: “He will,” adding:

Women are strong and we have a role to play.

Hala Youssef, who works for CARE Egypt, was on a three-week deployment to Serbia to support the regional emergency response team.

CARE’s emergency response in the Balkans

CARE and its partner organisations in Croatia and Serbia have assisted refugees and migrants on the western Balkan route since the summer of 2015. Despite the border closures, there are still about 300 people daily who cross the border into Serbia, hoping to continue to northern Europe. CARE and its partners provide food packages, warm clothes, shoes and hygiene packages. Refugee centres have been supported with water and sanitation facilities as well as furniture such as beds and heaters. Child-friendly spaces are being supported with heated tents. In addition, CARE partner organisations offer translation services and information for families passing through or staying in Croatia and Serbia. For those staying in the Balkans, CARE and its partners now also offer recreational activities and psychosocial support. To date, CARE has reached almost 125,000 people.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.