Syrians leaving their homes for the safety of Europe often rely on people smugglers to help them reach their destination. But it’s impossible to know who to trust and things can go wrong. One woman ended up seeing a man, whose real name she didn’t even know, walk off with her one-year-old daughter.
Zizit knew she had to leave Syria when she became a target for snipers and a bullet hit her car.
She had taken a job as a doctor in a hospital in Damascus where an Islamic militant group approached her and demanded that she go and work for them. When she refused, the death threats started.
“They tried to kill me twice,” she says. Afraid for her one-year-old daughter, Maya, Zizit decided she had no choice but to leave. “I was not happy to leave Syria, I love my country. I left for my baby, not for myself.”
Zizit and her brother Ghassan took Maya to Turkey. The first smuggler they met promised to take them to Greece over land for $13,500 – they paid up front and waited for him to collect them from a hotel. But after a few days they realised he wasn’t coming back.
They then turned to another smuggler who sold them a place on a small inflatable dinghy. After a traumatic journey in the middle of a storm they reached Greece – their boat bursting when it was dashed against the rocks on arrival.
It was common knowledge which cafes people smugglers frequented in Athens – so Ghassan went to meet them. He brought a man, who called himself Abu Shahab, back to the house where he and Zizit were staying.
The smuggler offered to get Zizit a fake Brazilian passport and a ticket for 4,000 euros. It would be another 4,000 for Maya but there was a catch – mother and daughter could not travel together.
Children, he said, had to go with a European citizen, someone who could talk to the security personnel. He was originally from Syria and now had Swedish citizenship, so he would pretend to be Maya’s father and take her on his own daughter’s Swedish passport.
They would go through security checks first and Zizit could follow separately later. She could get on the same plane but she would have to stay out of Maya’s sight so that Maya remained calm and didn’t give the game away.
Zizit didn’t like the plan but felt there was no alternative – she knew she had to move quickly because of the risk of running out of money. It wouldn’t be a direct flight to Sweden – it’s common for people smugglers to break up long journeys into a number of shorter legs, so they would first fly to Italy, then to another unspecified country and then finally to Sweden.
Five days after they first met Abu Shahab, Zizit prepared for the first flight.
With a heavy heart, she packed Maya’s bag with milk, warm clothes and a coat as winter was approaching and the weather was getting colder. She also gave her a dummy.
Abu Shahab came to collect the little girl from the house. “He gave Maya chocolate and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, we will be in the same plane,'” says Zizit.
“She was sad and cried a lot when he took her, she didn’t like him – he was a stranger. He gave her sweets to make her OK but she refused everything.” By the time Abu Shahab carried Maya away, she was in tears, crying for her mother.
The image of her screaming daughter being carried off by a man she barely knew has haunted Zizit ever since. Her previous experiences with smugglers had not ended well and she didn’t even know Abu Shahab’s real name – the smugglers all used pseudonyms.
At the airport, Abu Shahab and Maya went through passport control without any problem. Then he called Zizit to tell her to follow.
Zizit was scared and upset – Maya’s reaction to their separation had unsettled her but things were about to get even worse. The officers at passport control saw that her Brazilian papers were fake and refused to let her through. Then they threw her out of the building.
But Maya was now on the other side of security in the arms of a people smuggler.
“I went hysterical. I went mad,” says Zizit. “I took my daughter out of Syria, risked her life at sea and now she has gone! My daughter has gone – Maya is gone! I don’t even know this guy’s name or where he lives.” She didn’t know what to do.
“I was walking and walking. My mind stopped, I couldn’t think. I thought I had lost my daughter. I think I aged 10 years,” she says.
She didn’t want to tell the airport staff that her daughter had already been cleared to fly because she feared that if she exposed the smuggler, this might put Maya in even greater danger.
Zizit’s brother, who was waiting outside the airport, tried to calm her down reminding her that, as they had arranged to pay Abu Shahab when they arrived in Sweden, he would need to contact them in order to get his money.
After six hours, imagining the worst possible scenarios, Zizit’s phone rang. It was Abu Shahab calling from a hotel in Italy.
“I shouted and cried. He said, ‘Take it easy. I am human, I love babies, don’t worry.'” He had washed Maya, fed her and put her to sleep.
He wouldn’t tell her which city they were in, but he reassured her that Maya was safe and sent a picture he had taken earlier of the little girl sleeping. “I have children as well and I will treat her as if she is one of my own,” he said.
“This man was a nice one,” says Zizit. “I felt relieved and a little calmer.
“I told him what happened and he asked me, ‘Where do I leave your daughter? I need someone you know – not the police or a refugee centre.'” He wasn’t angry but he couldn’t look after Maya indefinitely.
The only person Zizit could think of was a woman called Hasna, a Syrian who used to be one of her patients and was now living in Germany as a refugee. She contacted her on Facebook.
“I begged her, ‘Please Hasna, can you look after my daughter until I get to Germany?'” Hasna promised to look after Maya if the smuggler could take the girl to Dortmund.
The smuggler went straight there, but refused to enter the house. He left the child outside and phoned to let them know she was there.
“My son picked the child up from the doorstep and brought her inside,” says Hasna. “When I saw this little girl, I fell in love with her, as if she was my own daughter.
“In the beginning Maya was afraid. After a few days she wouldn’t leave my side – she clung on to me everywhere I went.” Hasna sent Zizit photos every day.
Zizit was still desperate. “I was longing for Maya and I lost weight,” she says. “I wasn’t used to sleeping without her by my side, with her head on my chest. I missed her so much, but at least I knew she was safe.”
She didn’t know how she would get to Germany but she was determined. “I would swim if I had to, I felt very strong,” she says.
A week later, one of Abu Shahab’s contacts delivered a plane ticket to Austria and another fake passport – an Italian one. This time she felt more confident, even brash. “I wasn’t scared of anything,” she says. “Even though I was doing something wrong, and using a fake passport.”
And the plan worked perfectly. In Vienna a taxi took her to the railway station and the driver showed her where to buy a ticket to Frankfurt.
“On the train, I was so tired I fell asleep and I was dreaming of Maya,” she says. But the sound of someone calling, “Passports! Passports!” woke her up. Terrified and shaking, Zizit took out her fake Italian passport and handed it to the officer.
To Zizit’s horror, he asked her to say something in Italian. She didn’t know any so replied in English asking where they were – and when she heard they were in Germany the relief of finally being in the same country as Maya was too much to contain. “I lost control,” she says. “I told him ‘I’m from Syria, I’m not Italian. Please help me – I need to find my baby.'” He told her she was safe, that everything was all right and that he would help her.
“The Germans are very good people – I’m supposed to be the criminal and I’m being told ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe now.’ In Syria they would have hanged you.”
Zizit was, however, fined 500 euros for forgery, questioned about the smuggler, and taken to a refugee centre in Munich – still 400 miles away from her daughter.
Meanwhile, the German police were acting on information that Zizit had provided about the smuggler and Hasna. As she couldn’t speak German and the police officers couldn’t speak Arabic, the conversation was conducted in English and some of the detail was lost in translation.
The result was that police raided Hasna’s house in the middle of the night suspecting her of being part of a smuggling ring.
They then asked Zizit five times if she really wanted to leave Maya with Hasna. In the end they agreed to leave Maya there, but it transpired that Hasna was still under suspicion.
Zizit stayed in the Munich camp for two weeks waiting to be moved to Dortmund but nothing seemed to be happening so one evening she slipped away from the camp and got on a train. She was finally reunited with Maya after 20 days apart.
She arrived at Hasna’s flat at about midnight. “I looked at Maya and noticed she had changed, her hairstyle was short and she had thinned a bit. I kissed her and she woke up, and she started crying. We were strangers to each other. She wanted to go to Hasna, she was reaching for her and crying. But she seemed to recognise my voice somehow,” says Zizit, who had lost about 10kg herself.
She hugged her daughter for three hours and even checked her birthmarks to make sure it was really her, “One on her neck and one on her belly.”
They re-registered as refugees in Dortmund and started building a new life.
A few months later Hasna was shocked to receive a letter summoning her to appear in court to face charges of people smuggling. All Zizit could do was apologise.
For the next few weeks, the legal action hung over them. “I didn’t sleep during this time,” says Hasna. “It was my first time dealing with the police and the court but I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
At the hearing, the judge asked Hasna if she was working with Abu Shahab and whether she had been paid. She explained that Maya “was the daughter of a friend from my country and it was the moral thing to do… I did what I felt was right”.
In the end, the judge apologised for bringing Hasna to court, commended her for her bravery, said she should be proud and dropped the smuggling charges.