From file: Iraqi migrants at the National Airport outside Minsk, Belarus, 25 November 2021 | Photo: EPA/RAMIL NASIBULIN
From file: Iraqi migrants at the National Airport outside Minsk, Belarus, 25 November 2021 | Photo: EPA/RAMIL NASIBULIN

This is the story of Amer, a former Syrian school teacher who ended up in Belarus from Damascus in search of a better future in Europe. He has been living in a basement on the outskirts of Minsk while waiting for a call from a smuggler who is supposed to take him to Germany.

In a basement on the outskirts of Minsk, Amer, 31, has been waiting for days for the call of a people smuggler who should take him to Germany through Poland or by crossing Russia and Finland.

Amer used to be a school teacher in Syria. His story is one of thousands of others of Syrians, Afghans, Lebanes and Iraqis who have traveled to the border area between Belarus and Poland and now find themselves trapped -- stranded between countries and caught up in a political crisis between Minsk and the European Union.

Contrary to his friend Mahmud, who has already arrived in Germany, Amer hasn't been able to cross the border yet. And now, as he waits in an indefinite place on the outskirts of Minsk, he has no idea what is lying ahead on the other side of the barbed wire, if he will ever be able to cross it. But he is sure that he does not intend to go back to Syria.

I fled Syria but 'now I am trapped again'

The story of his escape started in October when he took courage and followed the example of an acquaintance who advised him to go to Minsk and, from there, to travel to Germany.

Amer hadn't been able to make ends meet in Syria for a while. More than war and the pandemic, his life had become unsustainable in Syria. Hit by US sanctions the country's economy slumped and the lira plunged to new lows against the dollar. Amer's salary "of starvation" was increasingly reduced.

"I wanted to escape from the trap in Syria," he said over the phone from Minsk. "But now I am in another trap."

He paid 3,500 dollars, which he raised thanks to his family, for a trip organized by a "travel agency" as part of a package that included a visa to enter Belarus, a one-way plane ticket and a few nights in a hotel in Minsk.

He left on October 27. He carried a bag with his last savings -- 1,000 dollars -- a cell phone and a few sandwiches. He was asked where he was travelling when officials checked his passport in Damascus.

He told the truth: "I am going to Germany."

"Lucky you," the Syrian policeman reportedly told him.

He was welcomed differently when he arrived at the airport in Minsk, after travelling on a full plane "with mainly families, as well as many youths: we landed at 7 at night and we left the airport the following morning," said Amer, who still remembers how police treated them.

"There were Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, they moved us from one side to the other like a flock of sheep."

Waiting for a call to cross the border

Outside the terminal, the majority of people "travelled toward the border (with Poland) because they had taken agreements with smugglers," said Amer, who instead arrived too late.

"My friend Mahmud, who paid another 2,500 dollars to traffickers, was able to pass when Belarusian soldiers were still raising the barbed wire. He crossed into Poland and then Germany."

Amer and the others were "left 20 kilometers from the border by the taxi driver. We walked in the dark through the woods for hours and when we arrived we thought soldiers would let us pass. Instead, they hit us and took our cigarettes."

Amer and his group returned to Minsk, first on foot and then paying 100 dollars to a taxi driver. From the taxi, he called an Arab mediator he had met outside the hotel the first night.

"Through him we rented a basement for 1,000 dollars", he said. Now Amer and his companions are waiting for a call to return to the border. "Or we could go to Russia and from there to Finland. We sure won't go back to Syria," he said.


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