“I know what it’s like to make a new life in another country. To have no one. I am the best placed person to help,” Omar Alshakal says, speaking carefully in English, a language he is almost fluent in despite only beginning to learn last year.
Alshakal is 23, but says he feels like he’s 100. It’s not surprising: like every Syrian forced to flee their home during the last six years of civil war, he has witnessed horrors both in Syria and on the refugee trail that eventually took him to Greece.
Speaking via a Skype video call, Alshakal is illuminated by bars of bright spring Mediterranean sunlight which pierce through the smoke of his cigarettes. In the background, birds are singing.
Like everyone who works on the front lines of the refugee crisis on the island of Lesbos, he says the natural beauty is at odds with the suffering and misery of the hundreds of thousands of people who have braved the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since 2014.
While every illegal crossing is dangerous, Alshakal faced even more hazards than most: he swam to Greece, despite a crippling leg injury.
Born and raised in DeirEzzour, now subject to a siege by Isis, Alshakal left Syria for Lebanon in 2010, where he worked as a lifeguard.
When the civil war broke out he returned home to his family, and was arrested for his activism against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the early days of the uprising.
“I saw horrible things in prison. They beat prisoners until they died,” he said. “When I got out after six weeks I did not care if I lived or died anymore.”
Alshakal began volunteering as an ambulance driver on his release. In May 2013, an air strike hit the road just behind his vehicle, which was already crammed with six injured people.
The blast killed everyone else on board. While Alshakal’s life was spared, the incident left him in a wheelchair with a serious shrapnel wound to his right leg.
He went to Turkey in search of adequate medical treatment, but couldn’t find what he needed. “The doctor told me, go to Europe, go to Germany,” he said.
Eventually, Alshakal began to think: why not? Many others were starting to make the same journey at the mercy of smugglers in unseaworthy boats. Read More…
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