In the darkness far out to sea, Hashem Alsouki can’t see his neighbours but he can hear them scream. It’s partly his fault. They are two African women – perhaps from Somalia, but now is not the time to ask – and Hashem is spreadeagled on top of them. His limbs dig into theirs. They would like him to move, fast, and so would he. But he can’t – several people are sprawled on top of him, and there’s possibly another layer above them.
Dozens are crammed into this wooden dinghy. If anyone tries to shift, a smuggler kicks them back into place. They don’t want the crammed boat to overbalance, and then sink.
It is perhaps 11 o’clock at night, but Hashem can’t be certain. He’s losing track of time, and of place. Earlier in the evening, on a beach at the northernmost tip of Egypt, he and his companions were herded into this little boat. Now that boat is who knows where, bobbing along in the pitch darkness, lurching in the waves, somewhere in the south-eastern Mediterranean. And its passengers are screaming.
Some of the screams are in Arabic. There are people from across Africa here, others from across the Middle East. There are Palestinians, Sudanese and Somalis. And Syrians, like Hashem. Some of them have been on the move for years. They want to get to northern Europe: Sweden, Germany, or anywhere they can start a second life after the collapse of their home countries. For that distant hope they are risking this boat trip to the Italian coast. All being well, they should reach Italy in five or six days. But for now, Hashem doesn’t know if he’ll survive the night. Or if anyone will.
An hour passes. They reach a second boat, a bigger one, and then a third, bigger still. At each new vessel, the smugglers toss them over the side like they’re bags of potatoes. Now they have a bit more space, but they’re soaked. They had to wade through the waves to get to the dinghy, and the second boat was full of water. Their clothes drenched, they shiver. And they retch.
The person squeezed to Hashem’s left vomits all over him. Then Hashem pays the favour forward, spewing all over the person to his right. He looks up, and realises everyone’s at it – everyone’s clothes are caked in other people’s vomit. Each has paid more than $2,000 to spew over fellow refugees. “It’s a vomiting party,” Hashem thinks to himself.
It’s just the latest indignity of Hashem’s three-year odyssey. He’s a bulky 40-year-old with a gentle smile, whose greying hair make him seem older than he is. He first left his home in Damascus in April 2012, and all that remains of his house is the key in his pocket. The rest was blown up by the Syrian army.
Sitting on this deck three years later, Hashem is fleeing his third country in as many years. He thinks of his children – Osama, Mohamed and Milad, far away in Egypt. He’s risking this journey, so they don’t have to. So that they and their mum, Hayam, can be legally reunited with him if he reaches the other side – and if he later reaches Sweden.’
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