You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

“We Had No Choice, They Had Guns”

Refugees at the Croatian border town of Tovarnik share their stories.


Mamdouh Altajjar, age 24

Origin: Damascus, Syria
Occupation: Lawyer and English teacher

I am from Damascus. I left Syria one year and seven months ago. I went to Thailand, and I found a job as an English teacher. But now they close the Syrian consulate because of the bomb in Bangkok. They tell us we have two months to leave, but I can’t wait for the winter in two or three months, it will be too difficult to cross. I looked for a job in Cambodia and Malaysia, but as a lawyer, I can only work in Syria. I spent a couple of weeks in Malaysia but I couldn’t find any job there, they only take people who are native English speakers. In Thailand it is no problem. I didn’t want to come here but I have no choice.

We were lost in the forest in Turkey. The smugglers just point in a direction and tell you to go to the sea. For four days we were in the forest. We had no choice, they had guns. The Turkish smugglers count us by pointing pistol at us, one, two, three. They took our clothes. We have no clothes here. Some people steal our money here. We have to keep everything with us in our bags all the time. If there is no train, I spend four nights here. My brother crossed the border fifty days ago so I come to meet him. He is waiting for me in Germany, and then we hope to travel together, to Sweden.

Mehrnoosh, age 39
Origin: Tehran, Iran
Occupation: Accountant

What made you leave Iran?

Because I am Christian, I began talking about Christian, it was a problem for me over there. I can’t sleep. And I run away. One year ago. I studied, and talking to the people I gave them the Bible, and teaching them. And knowing to people who is Jesus Christ. It started to my problem.

What kind of problem was it?

Government. They don’t want to, if you’re Christian it’s okay, but you have to go to your room and pray. You can’t teach others, you can’t introduce Jesus Christ. But when you started, they come and arrest you, going to the jail. I am travelling with my husband and with my friends. We were a group of five. It was one year ago, it started. But we are come two weeks ago. We travelled through Turkey, to Greece, Macedonia, and then Serbia, and then here. Crossed from Turkey to Greece by boat. We had many problems because our engines broke, and we have to row, but we reached to the Greece. Forty-one people, everyone is okay. We had many problems. You see what’s going on, and for me, I’m so scared. I don’t know what’s happening to us. I just pray, and I trust God. That’s it. They said to us, maybe going to Slovenia, or maybe to the Austria, I don’t know. Today train left two hours ago, and we can’t go by train and we are waiting. Full and very crowded, and they are pushing each other and we can’t go. We fell down.  But I talk to the people and they say they are four days here.  I would like to go to Sweden, Stockholm.

Hussam Ahmed, age 29
Origin: Raqqa, Syria
Occupation: Supermarket clerk

Before, I work in supermarket. Daesh [ISIS] is there, they kill everybody. Take my home. I don’t want fight for him. After that, he tell me that they only want you to work for him. After that I go in Turkey, to Urfa. I stay there, I look for work but they don’t have work in Turkey. After that I go to sea, to Azmir, for boat. In boat, forty people. You have families there. Maybe twenty-seven is die, they fall. Turkey police come and boat falls. I swim. You fall in sea in Greece but police come from Turkey. Another boat comes to take you. My bag is in the sea. From Turkey to Greece, ticket is $1400 for Syrians. For Iraqis is $1600 or $1800. You die, no problem for them. If you don’t want to go, no money back. You pay, and they say if you don’t want to go, no problem, but keep money. 

From Athens to Macedonia is no problem. Is bus station, you have three days there. Serbia not good for train, for bus. Everybody say you need twenty-five euro but price is ten euro. We come here at night. I travel here only me, but I have friends here. Family in Syria. They can’t go here. This lady [pointing at lady in group], all family dead. My mother, my father, in Syria. I left Syria one year ago. After Daesh, I no go Syria. They kill family. I want Holland. But Hungary you take me, I don’t know.

Diomandé Lasana, age 34
Origin: Sikaso, Mali
Occupation: Tailor

I left Mali when the war began. The Touregs, they tried to enroll the youth to try to fight for their cause. I said to myself I couldn’t do it, because I don’t see myself killing my own brothers. Whether you’re Muslim or not, we’re all the same. Everyone is the same, they have their right to their religion, whatever you do it’s up to you. Wanting to fight in the name of Islam, I can’t accept this type of behavior. So I said to myself I have to leave there. I took the plane to come to Turkey, and in Turkey I tried like everyone else to come here. It’s been nearly a year and a half now. I fended for myself a little, as a tailor by profession. I had my tailor workshop in Mali. In Turkey, I tried to work with the people there, trying to get by to live. You know, in Turkey, it’s not a place for asylum, because it’s very difficult to live there. The situation there, there are no human rights. You see, the Syrians who came to Turkey, they’re all fleeing to Greece. In Greece, I stayed for three weeks. I saw some young Africans who were also there, living in Greece. I stayed with them, but after a while I hit the road.

Ibrahim, age 23
Origin: Lattakia, Syria
Occupation: Former student

About forty-five days [ago] I leave Lattakia. Now it’s so bad, the war in all Lattakia. It’s so bad. If you want to go out, we go out. We don’t need to go to Syrian army.

Do they want you to fight in the army?

Yes, yes, to Syrian army, we won’t go. I don’t want go. And everybody in Syria don’t want go. Because the war is so big. It’s so dangerous to travel. I go from Lattakia to Aleppo, from Aleppo to Idleb. From Idleb to a mountain of Lattakia and go to Turkish. After, go from the sea in the little boat, about sixty people in the little boat, nine meters or eight meters (26-30 feet). Sixty people from Turkey to Greece. And walk about 60 kilometres  (37 miles) from Greece to the camp. Then go to Athens, in a big boat, then walk firstly to Macedonia. People and president of Macedonia is very good, but Serbia no, it’s so bad. Walking alone, and police it’s so bad, and camp it’s so bad, and it’s so hard because about fourteen hours to take card, papers of Serbia. After go to here, it’s Croatia, it’s so good. Good people, and good camp, and good way. Mountain and rivers and everything so hard. But now, fine, hamdul’illah.

Did you spend a lot of time in Turkey? 

Yes, about one month in total.

What did you do in Turkey? 

Search people to make us from Turkey to Greece.

Where would you like to go? 

To Germany. It’s the best, the best country. Because it’s safe, and the work is good, and the life is good, and everything in Germany is good, and it’s near from here.

How many people are you travelling with?

About eight people, and me. Family, my son.

Qutaiba Al Msalm 27, his sister in law Samah Hizam, 26, and her daughter Senorita,

Origin: Daraa, Syria
Occupation: Duty Free shopkeeper, university student

Qutaiba: We come from Daraa. I worked in a duty free shop on the border. I stayed in Turkey for three months. We took a boat from Turkey to Greece with smugglers. I had to drive it but I have no license, but you have no choice. You must do these things. The boat sank just before the island, Greece. I swam to the island and helped people to come, it was just before the beach.”

Samah: I lived in Damascus for four years because of war. The University in Daraa was destroyed. I study I.T. [Information Technologies], I finished study but look for job, and then had Senorita. My husband is in Germany, with my brother and my sister. Only my little sister is still in Syria, she must finish her studies. Senorita has brought these [teddy bears] with her from Syria. It’s been sixteen days since we left. Through Turkey, to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, but now we are stuck here. Croatia to Hungary was closed. Slovenia, closed. Now open. What do we do? 

Lama Husseino, age 25
Origin: Lattakia, Syria
Occupation: Student of English Literature

I go out of Syria because they want to take my husband by force for military. I don’t want him to end up like those with Assad. I was studying in university. I have no children. We don’t want children now, here. If I have children I can’t cross the sea. Turkish smugglers took our bags and threw in sea, they said it was overweight. Our boat sank in the sea and the Turkey coast-guard took us, after they sunk us with a wave from their boat. We were in Greek waters! We think they get money for papers they give us. They cannot take us in Greek waters unless is problem with boat, so they sunk us. 

I was one and a half years in Lebanon. I can speak English, I can operate a computer, but I cannot work. My husband’s job was stopped. We cannot find any job so we decided to come here. We leave Lebanon twenty-five days ago. We are six people in my group, but there are many people here. They are talking about transportation problems. If they want us to walk, we can walk, but they don’t let us walk out of this place. They can transport from here but they don’t and they don’t tell us why. All we want to know is what is our future in this country. I want to go Germany. There are some smugglers here. They say 600 euros per person to cross the border. We stay in their house for some nights, until calms down. 

Rakam Rahma, age 27, and his wife, Amira Qurab
Origin: Damascus, Syria
Occupation: Computer technician

When did you leave Damascus? 

Last Sunday. One week. To Lebanon, Turkish, and Greece, and Macedonia, Serbia, and here. Damascus to Beirut taxi, Beirut to Turkish, airplane. Turkish to Greek, boat. We were sixteen people, one family. My wife, and my mother, and together with some friends.

Why did you leave Damascus now? 

War, and airplanes boom, and our house destroyed. And no water, no electric.

Did you have problems going from Turkey to Greece,? 

Problem very much, and God save us. Time to time we were failing, but God save us.

From here where would you like to go?

To Germany. Because we have family there. My brother and his cousins.