"There is No Safe Place": Syrian Refugee Recounts Harrowing Journey by Boat to Escape Violence

September 09, 2015


Zaher Majzoub

23-year-old Syrian refugee.

Erik Leidal

volunteer with the community-run relief group Train of Hope, which is providing assistance to the migrants passing through the Central Train Station in Vienna, Austria.

The United Nations estimates that 4 million Syrians are displaced outside the country’s borders by the ongoing war. Today, we speak to one of these refugees: 23-year-old Zaher Majzoub, who fled Syria after finishing his degree in business administration at a university in Damascus. His months-long journey included first traveling to Turkey and then traversing the Mediterranean en route to Greece by boat. Along the way, his overcrowded boat took on water, inspiring Zaher to jump overboard because he was one of the few who knew how to swim, and he feared for the lives of the women and children. From Greece, he continued his journey to reach Vienna, hoping eventually to reach England. We speak with Zaher and Erik Leidal, a volunteer with the community-run relief group Train of Hope in Vienna.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We go now to Vienna, where we’re joined by a 23-year-old Syrian refugee named Zaher Majzoub. With him is Erik Leidal, a volunteer with the community-run relief group Train of Hope, which is providing assistance to the migrants passing through the Central Train Station in Vienna, Austria.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ERIK LEIDAL: Thank you.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Erik, could you start telling us what your—what the Train of Hope is and what you’ve been seeing in your efforts to help the refugees?

ERIK LEIDAL: Sure. The Austrians, they don’t take to the streets in protest very often, but they’re showing enormous compassion with their help during this crisis. Train of Hope isn’t run by the Red Cross or Caritas. It’s self-organized, and well over a thousand volunteers have helped out over the past week at the Central Train Station here in Vienna. It’s a very diverse group of individuals who want to make a difference together. And I’d say Train of Hope is resonating off of Occupy in many ways and is taking full advantage of the capacity for social change through social media, like Twitter and Facebook. We’re even using an Indiegogo campaign to fund transportation, as well, and that’s at "Help Syrian Refugees Get to Germany." And essential to our team are translators of Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other languages. We have doctors and lawyers on our staff who volunteer. And I’ve even met volunteers who have only been in Austria for less than a year, who are able to help translate and help us with the assistance.

The train station where we meet them, for many, this is the first stop in Austria and after getting out of Hungary. And most of them are exhausted and confused. A lot of them don’t even realize that they’re not in Germany yet. Many want to travel on to Germany immediately, but those who do want to get off can do so at our center. The trains are often filled to the brim, and many of them have not eaten for days. Many must wait overnight, some for longer, at the train station for further travel. And many sleep in the West Train Station of Vienna, but others travel on to Munich or wherever the train can take them in Germany. Most describe their experience in Hungary as hell, hell on Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaher Majzoub, can you describe your journey, where you left and how you made it to Vienna, Austria?

ZAHER MAJZOUB: Yes. I started, first of all, from Turkey. We take a boat from Turkey, from Izmir, to Greece, to Greece island. We go to the beach at about 1:00 a.m., and we got in the boat. And it’s about 43 people in it, and it’s long, seven-and-a-half meters. We were in it—we were in it for about—we keep sailing for about two hours, and then the boat started to leak, started to leak after two hours. And I decided—it was full of water. I decided to throw myself in the water, me and another person, because maybe we are the only people that we can swim. We throw ourselves in the water, and the ship or the boat kept sailing. And it’s far from us, for about one kilometer. Then they about—they almost reach the island—I don’t know its name, a small island. And the police guard coast hear them, their screaming, their lighting, their whistle, and came and rescued us. And they told them, the police, that the two other persons throw themselves in the water. And the police keep searching us for about half an hour, until I took out my phone, until I took out my phone and turned on the flashlight and waving with it to police, and they immediately see me. So they saw me, and they immediately came and rescued me with the other person I have, yes, and took us to this small island. And they rested us for about 12 hours, until a ship, a big ship, came and moved us to Samos island. And from Samos island, we took a plane to Athens.

Next day, we went to a bus station. We go by a bus to the Macedonian border, Macedonian-Greece border. We let about for—we keep walking together border after we—the bus send us to there. We keep walking for about three hours. Then we cross the border. We cross the border, and then we took a train across Macedonia to reach the border of Serbia. After that, we wait about for six hours to get into the Serbia, to Serbia. Then, after they gave us—the U.N. was there. They gave us water and food and medical care to some injured or some patients. We cross the border and go to bus station and take—we took a bus to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Then we took another bus to Kanjiza, which is on the border of Hungary-Serbia border. Then we go inside Serbia to cross. We bribe the police there to reach us—to could us enter the border. We obligate of this. We bribed him. And then we walked for about six hours to reach a razor-wire fence. And we go—we go under them. We go under the razor-wire fence. And the planes always go and see if there is refugees to catch them, to arrest them, or to obligate them to have fingerprint in Hungary. But the plane couldn’t see us, so we cross the border and go to somebody who has—know a taxi driver. We went there, and we took a taxi, and we paid for him about 300 for each person to reach, to go to—to reach us to Budapest.

After that, after we reach Budapest, we stayed there for about three days. Then, after we know that there is a taxi driver could reach us to Vienna, we talked to him, and we agreed that he will take us to Vienna. But there is—there was a lot of police, and he let us on the border of Austria, Hungary. And we keep swimming to reach—sorry, we keep walking to reach the first village in Austria. We kept walking for about six hours until we find this village, and somebody told us that we have to go to station, to train station, to take a train and to reach Vienna then. We decided to walk there, and we reached the station. Then we took a train and go—we went to Vienna. And that’s what happened until now.


ZAHER MAJZOUB: It take about, from Syria—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to—let me ask you, if I can—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, let me ask you, if I can—that’s a harrowing journey that you’ve been through now. Could you tell us, so for our viewers and listeners to know, why you felt you had to take that journey? What made you decide that you had no other choice?

ZAHER MAJZOUB: I don’t have any other choices, because there is in Syria no safe place to go in. And maybe it’s more dangerous than this journey even. That’s why I left Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have family that remains in Syria?

ZAHER MAJZOUB: Yes, I left my family there. They can’t go. They can’t went, because we don’t have any other choices. I left Syria because I don’t want to be a part of what’s happening in Syria, just the personal problems that I have in Syria. That’s why I left Syria. I can’t tell you now.

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