In the wake of the refugee crisis’ peak in 2015, reverse migration is rising through Europe as a new phenomenon. The story of Maher is the tale of one Syrian refugee’s reverse escape – away from a part of Eastern Europe keeping refugees trapped in uncertainty and misery.
LONG READ | BY FLORIAN ELABDI
SOFIA, BULGARIA — While dragging himself through the frozen forest floor Maher realizes that his time might be up. The agony in his feet is unbearable and his knees are bleeding from crawling through the uneven and snowy terrain in the mountainous woodland. His body is on the verge of collapse.
Maher knows that it will be the end of his 40-year life, if he stops moving through the merciless and cold nature. Instead, he turns to God with one last wish, while clinging on to life with the last bit of diminishing energy in his body.
“God, you may wish for me to die now, but at least prolong my life until I have seen my children one last time,” he whispers.
Maher never imagined that he would one day have to leave his homeland, Syria. Even less that his days would end in a cold and deserted nature reserve on the edge of Europe.
In the wake of the refugee crisis’ peak in 2015, a surprising phenomenon is rising through Europe: Reverse migration.
Although no official statistics are available, several international news outlets have reported on the tendency of refugees leaving Europe, fleeing back to Turkey or even Syria. While most leave Europe through conventional means, others feel compelled to flee illegally over the border by themselves or with the help of human smugglers.
The story of Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud is the tale of one Syrian refugee’s reverse escape; away from a part of Eastern Europe keeping refugees trapped in a limbo of uncertainty and desolation, yearning for what they once called home.
It is also the tale of how much a human being is willing to sacrifice to be reunited with his family. And about holding on to the trust in God, when faith is the only remaining hope of survival.
The Bulgarian limbo
When Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud fled to Europe in 2013, he was detained by Bulgarian authorities and forced to seek asylum on the spot, in accordance with The Dublin Regulation of 1990 determining that every refugee should apply for asylum in the first EU country of arrival.
For the thousands of refugees making their way through Europe at the time, Bulgaria was a so-called ‘transit country’ on their way to Northern Europe. Rarely, if ever, was Bulgaria intended as a final stop.
As a former communist republic located in the Southeastern corner of Europe, Bulgaria is infamous for being the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. Further, the country has a tainted reputation for its hostile attitude towards newcomers.
Racist assaults, police violence, riots in refugee camps and anti-refugee vigilante groups are just some of the subjects making headlines in international media’s Bulgaria-coverage in recent years.
Despite the unwelcoming climate, Maher obtained protection status in Bulgaria securing him a three-year residence permit in the country. He now became one of the many Syrians left to live on the streets of Sofia.
In the end of 2014, Maher received good news. His application for family reunification had been accepted. He managed to procure a room-for-rent for his family in a village situated a-three-hour drive from the capital. For a short period, Maher was reunited with his wife and three children in Bulgaria.
But after a few months, his family chose to return to Turkey.
“Bulgaria is a poor country. There was no chance to find work, so we chose to go back, because I had a job back in Turkey,” says Maher’s wife Ilham Tabsho in a WhatsApp call from Istanbul.
She explains how Maher and their 10-year old son Yazan had to work for a Bulgarian farmer for 6 dollars a day, to be able to put food on the table.
Until the introduction of a halfhearted amendment in 2016, Bulgaria had no official integration programs and the country doesn’t provide any shelter or starting allowance for asylum seekers, when they receive a residence permit.
Though it was his wife’s decision to leave Bulgaria, Maher chose to follow. The Bulgarian limbo had taken its toll on Maher and after almost two years of being homeless, he knew there was no reason to stay any longer in Eastern Europe without his family.
At that time, there was no problem in Maher wanting to leave. Both Bulgaria and Turkey allowed him to travel freely between the two countries.
However, one thing has changed, since the family left Turkey.
In Bulgaria, Maher’s wife, Ilham Tabsho, became pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, Mariam, diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
When the gates shut
The following year and a half, after moving back to Turkey from Bulgaria, Maher worked day-to-day labor renovating houses for wealthy Turks. There was rarely enough work and frequently Maher had to bring his eldest son Yazan with him to earn a little extra for the family.
According to Maher’s wife it was hard to make ends meet for the Syrian family. But Maher’s sister, Ghunwa Abdulfatah Mahmoud, says on a phone call from Holland that her brother was happy despite the hardships, because he was finally living with his family again.
On top of the daily struggle to survive amongst more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, severe complications with their daughter Mariam’s Down Syndrome began to emerge. She was born too early with poor health and after six months, she had to endure extensive heart surgery.
Maher witnessed the successful operation, knowing that in a short time he would have to leave his family again. Yet this time, it was only a short return to Bulgaria ahead before Maher could return to his family again. His three-year residence permit needed to be renewed before expiring – simple formalities, Maher thought. He wanted to keep the door to Europe open despite having no plans of settling in Bulgaria ever again.
When he returned in the beginning of 2017, it wasn’t long before his residence permit was renewed. But it turned out to be unexpected formality now standing in his way. When Maher applied for permission to reenter Turkey, it was declined by the Turkish embassy in Sofia.
Turkey no longer recognized temporary Bulgarian travel documents possessed by refugees with a residence permit in the country.
For the second time, Maher was stranded in Bulgaria – homeless and without his family. He managed to get an underpaid job in a factory and went back to live on the streets again, until saving up 1000 Bulgarian lev (630 dollars) with which he bought a 1997 Fiat Punto to sleep in at night.
But in the end of 2017, his level of frustration peaked. Every day, Maher was haunted by guilt and the feeling of being a failure for not being able to be present for his family and particularly his sick daughter.
And it was the zenith of these feelings, mixed with a fair amount of naivety, that made Maher take matters into his own hands. In a last desperate attempt, he drove to the Bulgarian-Turkish border to appeal to the Turkish border guards to let him into the country.
Maher’s passport received an exit stamp by the Bulgarian border police on the 22nd of December 2017. However, his emotional and optimistic appeal to the Turkish border police about his family and sick daughter in Istanbul was to no avail. He was quickly rejected and directed back to the Bulgarian side of the border.
That same night, Maher parked his silver-gray Fiat Punto in the Bulgarian border town of Slivengrad.
It was this cold December night Maher convinced himself that crossing the border illegally was the only available solution if he wanted to reunite with his family.
The merciless escape
The next day, late in the afternoon Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud parks his shabby silver-gray Fiat Punto on the side of the road in a mountainous forestland, near the Turkish border in Southeastern Bulgaria. Before getting out of the car, he places a small plastic bag with food supplies inside his jacket.
Walking through the snowy landscape, Maher encounters the four-meter barbwire-wrapped border fence that Bulgaria began the erection of in 2014, when the flow of refugees crossing from the Turkish side was increasing each day.
He wanders along the fence, until he sees an opening through to the Rezovo-river, that splits the two countries apart.
Maher, 6.13 feet tall, is a physically strong man. Back in his heydays, he was renowned among his friends for being a great basketball player and a tremendous swimmer, when they went on weekend trips to the beaches of Latakia in Northern Syria.
Hence, he knows very well that it is dangerous to cross the river in the winter, but he reckons that he will find a Turkish village on the other side.
This in mind, Maher only hesitates for a moment by the riverbed before jumping in. The strong current drags him 500-800 meters, until he gains a foothold on the other side.
Drenched and cold, he realizes that his shoes and plastic bag have disappeared with the river current. His socks are soaked in water, and he chooses to pull them off and continue barefooted.
Dusk is gradually settling on the forest reserve and the temperature is around zero degrees Celsius. Maher’s only option is to run through the woodland until he finds civilization on the other side. In bare feet, he starts running through the cold and stinging forest floor.
His only fuel is the adrenalin caused by the fear of being wet, cold and alone in the dark forest, where the only thing disturbing the quietness of the night is the sound of wolves howling in the horizon.
That same night, Maher sees something moving in a glade. The moonlight lights up the clearance and while he’s hiding behind a tree from a distance, he realizes it’s a bear wandering around the open terrain.
The border region between Southeastern Bulgaria and Turkey is divided by the Rezovo-river and flanked by nature reserves on both sides of the natural border. It is one of the wildest nature areas in Europe, notorious for being inhabited by a large population of bears, wolves, wild boars and a range of other wild mammals and reptiles.
Maher is gripped by a trembling fear for the wild animals. In the first three days and three nights, he doesn’t sleep, but continues to flee through the wood. The fear and the cold make the thought of sleep impossible. When he’s occasionally struck by dizziness, he lays down to doze off for half an hour before forcing himself back on his legs continuing the escape through the mountainous and snowy forest reserve.
In the darkness of the wood on the third night of his escape, Maher finds himself face to face with a wolf. His body stiffens and while time is standing still, he whispers a prayer to God asking for protection in the name of prophet Solomon, who according to the Qur’an mastered the language of the world of animals.
Whether it was divine intervention that saved the life of Maher is probably a question of faith, but after a minute of stagnant standoff the wolf’s yellow eyes disappear into the dark and Maher is once again alone in the deserted forest.
On the fourth day, Maher reaches the foot of a hill ridge. He pulls out his lighter from his trouser pocket. It has been out of function since his dive in the river. He now manages to get it going enough to light a fire. Here he lays down and dries his body and clothes before falling asleep for the first time since his escape.
On the fifth day without food, the desperation is taking over. Even though Maher is finally warm and dry again, he won’t survive much longer, if he doesn’t find a rescue. Consequently, he decides to leave the fire. But he can’t get back on his legs anymore. Hypothermia has paralyzed both of his feet and instead he forces himself to crawl through the snow.
After crawling on his pawns and knees all day, the sun is setting once again. Maher feels his body is on the verge of giving up, leaving him to die in the nature. While he inches through the snow, it isn’t the fear and adrenalin that keeps him fueled anymore. It’s the memories of his wife and children keeping him alive. The memories of his life in Aleppo before the war and his hope that God won’t let him die in the merciless nature.
Memories from Syria
Back in Syria, Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud grew up in a poor home as one of 12 siblings in a rural area in the Idlib-region. After finishing his studies, he worked in a state-run construction company in the center of Aleppo. With a wife, three children, a home and a stable income, life was finally entering a phase of stability, structure and economic latitude.
When protests broke out in Syria in 2011, Maher thought it would be a passing farce. He continued his work and watched while protests and violent clashes gradually spread throughout the country.
“In the beginning of the insurrection, Maher neither supported the revolution or the government. He wasn’t on anybody’s side, but he began to fear for his life, because many of his friends were disappearing,” Maher’s wife, Ilham Tabsho, explains on a phone call from Turkey.
She goes on to explain how the pressure on Maher started to rise in Syria. On his way to work he was stopped in the army’s checkpoints, because he was living in the provincial town of Haritan where daily protests were taking place.
”Maher became really frightened and it started to affect his psychological condition. He visited three different psychologists in the first year of the war, because he was suffering from anxiety,” Ilham Tabsho says.
Once the turmoil worsened and the town of Haritan came under control of rebels, Maher was now stopped in checkpoints on both sides of the conflict.
“We looked on as the war deteriorated by the day and no side showed any mercy. So many civilians lost their lives in the fighting and our daughter was one of them.”
When commuting to Aleppo city in the morning, he was suspected by the army of having rebel-affiliations and when commuting back in the evening, he was suspected by the rebels of being a government sympathizer.
Maher watched insensibly at his homeland descending deeper into chaos and war. And then it happened.
On a fall day in 2011, an artillery impact blasted the neighbor’s house. When the dust settled, Maher and his wife found their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Halla, lifeless – strangled between the bed and the wall. Their neighbor, an elderly woman, also lost her life in the attack and another man was severely wounded.
“It was a very sad time in our life. We looked on as the war deteriorated by the day and no side showed any mercy. So many civilians lost their lives in the fighting and our daughter was one of them,” Ilham Tabsho explains with a low voice over the phone.
After the demise of Halla, the family fled from Syria to Istanbul in Turkey. In 2013, Maher fled on through the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria to reach his brother and sister in Holland. His plan was to apply for family reunification with his wife and children, who remained back in Istanbul.
However, Maher never reached Holland and instead, four years later, he’s now lying on the verge of death in a merciless and deserted wild life area on the edge of Europe’s borderland.
Hope of rescue
Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud continues crawling, while his life is hanging by a thread. It feels as if that thread is getting thinner for every meter he wriggles. The only thing keeping him alive is his stubbornness and his faith in God. The stubbornness to see his family again and the faith that God won’t let him die in the wilderness after saving him from the bombardments in Syria.
Night has fallen again and the skin on Maher’s feet is chapping. Unbearable pain in the bloody and cracked open feet has taken over. The entire night, he moans and prays to God asking to see his family one last time.
He thinks about his wife, who he met in his youth, when he moved to Aleppo. Their sons Ahmed and Yazan, now 8 and 13, who had their childhood in Syria stolen from them. Their daughter Halla, 1, who became one of the countless victims of the war. Mohammed, 5, who never had a childhood in Syria and Mariam, 1.5 years, who has grown up with a poor health and without her father.
When the morning sun rises and lightens up the wood again, Maher notices a beehive from a distance, hanging from a tree on the top of a hill. On the side of the tree, a cottage appears. Maher finally eyes his rescue and fights his way to the hut. He knocks on the door with the palms of his hands. Nobody opens. He keeps knocking and shouting, but still no answer.
As a devout Muslim, Maher prefers not to break into a stranger’s house and instead he sits to wait at the door, hoping for the owner to show up before too long.
With his newfound energy and gratefulness for having found a possible rescue, he waits persistently for several hours, until dusk is settling again. Now, an intense downpour sets in and his feet have begun to bleed furiously from the open wounds caused by the hypothermia.
Maher acknowledges that it’s no longer time for piety, so he finds a large stone and smashes the door lock. Stepping into the cottage, it feels like the owner just left the place. The living room is nice and clean. In the bedroom there’s two new beds, with a nicely folded jumpsuit placed on one of them. On a shelf in the kitchen there’s a bottle of wine, a bottle of whisky, a can of sardines and a half empty jar of honey.
Maher hasn’t eaten since he left Bulgaria. For almost a week, he has merely ingested water from the countless natural creeks and water holes in the forest. Instinctively, the first thing he does is to open the can of sardines and eat it desperately with his fingers.
Next day, the hunger kicks in again and he moves on to eat the honey left in the jar. Maher now looks at the wine and whiskey, the only sustenance left to ingest. As a religious Muslim he’s faced with another dilemma; when God has finally answered his prayers, it would be ungrateful to commit a blatant sin in response. At the same time, Maher knows that Islam even permits eating pork, if it’s a question of survival.
“Forgive me God, but I have to do this,” Maher says and opens the wine bottle.
He drinks the whole bottle that evening and sleeps till the next morning. It’s the best sleep he has had on the whole journey and for once his brain suppresses the nerve signals reminding him that something is terribly wrong with his feet.
For the next couple of days in the hut, the ecstasy of joy from finding safety develops into desperation because nobody is coming to save him.
”Will I be found by the animals, before being saved by humans?”
There’s no more food left and the pain in his feet makes Maher lie sleepless at night. Occasionally, he dips some of the whisky in a piece of clothing to clean his wounds.
There’s neither water nor electricity in the house. Although 50 meters away, there’s a barrel with rainwater he crawls to every day to fill up a bottle. Once the weather clears up and the sun starts to appear again, making temperatures rise, he starts to eat the grass in front of the hut to get some nutrition for survival.
Slowly, the desperation develops into paranoia. Maher believes that the animals in the forest are closing in on the hut. Every night he feels as if the howling of wolves in the horizon is approaching. He sinks deeper and deeper into a hole of mental decay.
”Will I be found by the animals, before being saved by humans?” Maher asks himself.
Despite being disillusioned and paranoid, his realization is essentially rational. Nobody will probably come and find him, before it is too late.
The animals are closing in
It has been two weeks, since Maher left the car on the side of the road and headed towards the border fence. A week in the forest and a week in the tree hut, where he’s slowly realizing that no help is coming.
Maher’s despair increases with each passing hour. The relief of having found the hut is replaced with desperation. Desperation is replaced with paranoia. And now paranoia is replaced with hallucinations. All the animals of the forest are closing in on the hill ridge. Bears, wolves, wild boars and deer. They’ve all come after him.
He blocks the door with a metal bar to keep them out. In the night, they scratch the door trying to get to him. His feet are bloody, inflamed and feel like small volcanos of pain. Every day he prays to God that the owner of the house will show up.
But it will be a few more days, before anything happens. It is a bright morning and warmer outside than normally. It has been 18 days since Maher crossed the river and ventured into this nightmare of a survival trip.
Maher crawls outside to eat some grass. He hasn’t eaten for days and the hunger is penetratingly nagging him again. After ingesting a little nutrition, Maher spontaneously calls for help. Fluctuating between Turkish, Bulgarian and English: Bana yardım edin! Pomog! Help me!
He shouts with the combined power of his lungs creating an echo of his own desperation throughout the peaceful wood. For two or three hours he lies there like a madman giving his last remaining power in a hopeless attempt to be heard.
Maher knows that he doesn’t dare to take the chance of leaving the cottage by crawling back into the nature on his knees and pawns. At the same time, he realizes that he will die in the hut if he isn’t found before too long.
In the end, he gives up and gets back inside. But shortly after getting back in, he sees a figure passing the window. He shouts again and a Bulgarian policeman steps in the door.
At the hospital in Sofia
On his 41st birthday, the 9th of January 2018, Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud is found and evacuated by the Bulgarian police after spending 18 days alone in the wilderness.
We meet Maher in room 9 at Pirigov Hosptal’s department for treatment of burn wounds. He greets us lying on a pink sheet with a brown blanket covering his body and a tasbih (Islamic prayer beads) resting in his right hand.
On the side of the bed there’s a half-full urinal bottle and a trash filled plastic bag hanging on the edge of his rolling hospital table.
In the decaying room’s windowsill there’s a deodorant.
“Sorry, if I smell. I haven’t showered for four days,” Maher says and sprays the fragrance on his body in a s-shaped motion.
He quickly pulls out his phone and starts showing us pictures of his children.
“This is a picture of Mariam from today. She has Down Syndrome,” says Maher with a proud smile on his lips.
After sending a week in the regional hospital of Burgas, Maher was transferred to the Pirigov Hospital in Sofia for treatment of the damages caused by hypothermia in his feet.
But the right foot was too injured to save. On the 17th of January 2018 he had his right leg amputated from the middle of the shin and four of his toes on the left foot, still covered in bandage.
“In the first three weeks, I endured phantom pains. Each night I would wake up and feel agony in my missing leg. When I pulled away the blanket, I realized my leg still wasn’t there,” Maher explains looking down at his absent leg.
We spend all day in the hospital interviewing Maher about the story of his life and his escape from Europe. He appears gaunt and according to Maher himself, he has lost around 20-25 kilos since his escape.
The hospital journal from the day after Maher was found shows a severely augmented infection number in his bloodstream and a worryingly low albumin-level, which is an indication of malnutrition.
In the numerous hospital journals, Maher has narrated the same account about crossing the border river 18 days earlier.
We have to no avail attempted to reach the Bulgarian police for comments. Albeit a summon for interrogation by the police confirms that Maher was found in the border area on the 9th of January 2018.
Thereafter, Maher was charged by the police for having crossed the border illegally and now he’s waiting for the date of trial. This information is confirmed by the rights organization Association of Syrian Refugees, which is in contact with the Bulgarian authorities.
You’ll end up losing everything
Even though all evidence testifies to Maher Abdulfatah Mahmoud’s history, we are left with one unanswered question. Why was Maher found by the Bulgarian police, when he crossed the river to Turkey?
When we put forward this question, Maher explains, that he quickly lost his sense of direction in the woods and he doesn’t know the exact answer himself.
Scrutinizing the border area between Bulgaria and Turkey, there are minor land areas on the other side of the river that belong to Bulgaria. It is technically possible that Maher ended up in Bulgaria despite crossing the river.
”My wife and children are everything I have left to live for. I don’t have anything but them left in this world, not even my health anymore.”
In all circumstances, everything indicates that Maher never made it very far or that he may have wandered in circles. Another possibility is that he never actually crossed the border river, instead crossing one of the many side-rivers originating from the Rezovo-river flowing on the Bulgarian side, away from the border. It remains an open question for now.
It’s now late in the evening and Maher dials his family in Istanbul. We speak to his wife and children through a WhatsApp videocall.
“I feel terrible about what happened to Maher. He was a tall and handsome man and now he’s handicapped,” his wife Ilham Tabsho says.
“At the same time, I’m paralyzed; If I go back to Bulgaria, I can’t return here, where the children are going to school and I’m working. At least we are getting food on the table in Turkey,” she explains while Maher bursts into tears on the hospital bed.
”My wife and children are everything I have left to live for. I don’t have anything but them left in this world, not even my health anymore,” Maher says after hanging up the phone.
Before leaving, we ask Maher if he has any last comment to add. He looks out into the open hospital room with a cynical stare in his eyes:
“I want to give an advice to all refugees dreaming of the European fairy tale. There’s nothing to come for. Stop dreaming. If you want to cross the border like I did, you’ll end up losing everything.”
Maher was released from the hospital in March 2018. He lives in a rented apartment in Sofia that his siblings are paying for. He still isn’t allowed to reenter Turkey. His health condition has improved, and he’s now able to walk with crutches.
Photography: Martin Thaulow. Web editing: Hanan Chemlali