The Sunday Herald, August 9 2015
Mother-of-four Mona Hussain left Calais and arrived in Britain by hiding in the back of a lorry with a man and a woman who was six-months-pregnant.
The 35-year-old, originally from Aleppo in Syria, had been travelling through Europe for weeks before getting to Calais.
She remembers there was a lot of illness in the camp, where she stayed in a tent for about four days.
“It was crowded – people from different countries,” she says from her home in the east end of Glasgow.
“I was worried a lot about my safety and health as well. There were a lot of problems.”
Hussain had been forced to leave her home in a rural part of northern Syria because of Daesh – also known as Islamic State.
“Daesh started asking for money from my husband because he is Kurdish,” she says.
“They said that was how he could be protected – if he paid money.
“We have four kids, we couldn’t afford to pay them.
“They threatened my husband and said they would kill me or one of my children.”
One night in February last year, the couple booked a taxi, woke their sleeping children and travelled to the Turkish border.
They met a charity worker who gave them food, a tent and clothes.
Her husband arranged for a smuggler to take him to Cyprus – but when the smuggler arrived he advised Hussain to go alone instead.
“He said it would be faster for me because I am a woman,” she says. Hussain agreed as she wanted to get to Europe and set up a home so that her children and husband could then join her. “I didn’t even think about myself, I thought about my kids’ future.”
She travelled by boat to Cyprus – there were about 30 to 40 people on board and they struggled to breathe.
In Cyprus she gained a fake German passport from a smuggler and travelled by plane to Paris.
At the airport, Hussain says the trafficker – who accompanied her on the plane – stood behind her telling her not to speak.
“I was shaking, I was so nervous,” she says.
In Paris the smuggler took her to an area with a large Algerian population.
“I stayed there about 15 days,” she said. “At that time I couldn’t think about anything – just my kids. I was crying all the time.
“I couldn’t get in touch with my husband for about five days. I worried they had been killed.”
After camping in Calais, a distraught Hussain, who was weak from barely eating on her journey, was befriended by a Moroccan woman named Maria who took her to a disused flat where lots of other women were living.
“She tried to calm me down,” says Hussain.
“I felt some safety there because a lot of women were speaking my own language and also we were going altogether to get in a lorry.”
Hussain placed her trust and money in a Pakistani smuggler.
She often had to walk for hours to find parked lorries.
“While the driver was relaxing or sleeping we would try and get in,” she says.
At one point she felt utterly hopeless.
“I was feeling very bad,” she says. “The fact that I hadn’t seen my husband and kids was very hard.
“One of the times I fell into a ditch, I was about to sink into the mud. Some friends helped to save me.”
Hussain says conditions were horrendous. It was March last year. “It was very cold,” she says.
Hussain says people were dying while trying to cross the main road, sometimes in darkness as they attempted to get to a car park to access lorries.
Another issue was the destination of the lorry. The smuggler often managed to get migrants into vehicles, only to find they were heading for Belgium, France or Spain.
Hussain was discovered by police sniffer dogs on four occasions.
It was so frequent that Hussain says officers got to know her and would laugh when they saw her face.
“When the police caught me I was pleading: ‘I have kids, I have kids.’
“After that they knew me every time. They were familiar with my face. They were just laughing and smiling. They would say: ‘No London, go and sleep.’”
The police asked her to claim asylum in France but she refused because her children know English and she wanted them to be educated here.
She also felt she identified with the UK because friends, family and strangers would mistake her for being English growing up because of her naturally blonde hair.
Hussain says the goods inside the trucks differed every time.
“One was a lorry carrying refrigerators – new ones,” she says. “One of them had tyres, one of them was carrying machines for factories.
“One of the times the agent tried to put us in a small box in the lorry that was meant for tools,” she says.
“There was a woman who was pregnant and we had to hide in there. We were four women. You couldn’t even move because maybe the driver would hear us. We just couldn’t do it.”
On her fifth attempt Hussain, along with the pregnant woman and her husband, both Eritrean, were smuggled onto a lorry carrying dangerous machinery.
“I found it very difficult to hide in there,” she says.
“I felt I was about to die because of the difficulty and the machines were pushing into me.
“I was being crushed. I was hoping my leg wouldn’t be cut but I was trying not to touch the pregnant women because maybe her baby would die. I was trying to protect her.”
About 15 minutes later the lorry started to move and eventually entered the Euro Tunnel.
Hussain tried not to move a muscle during the short journey. “Even a simple movement would have harmed the woman or the baby,” she says.
The driver took some rest once in the UK. Hussain managed to move herself and the couple onto the top of the machines since they had no need to hide anymore.
They slept there. In the morning the lorry began moving again and about three hours later they were in Liverpool.
They knocked to get the driver’s attention.
“When he opened the door, he got a shock and closed the door immediately,” Hussain says.
“He called the police. He was scared. He was German I think.
“He got upset because the police were investigating – they thought maybe he had some kind of knowledge.”
Hussain was then taken to a detention centre where she saw only women. On the fifth day she was moved to Glasgow.
The worst part of Hussain’s journey was when she lost touch with her family.
When she reached Glasgow her family fled from Turkey to Cyprus. They were reunited in Glasgow in December last year after work by the Red Cross, the Uniting Nations in Scotland (UNIS) group and the Scottish Refugee Council.
Although Hussain made it to the UK, she doesn’t advise people to make the illegal journey from Calais to the UK. She spent 5000 Euros – about £3500 – in total to get to the UK, which she borrowed from family.
“It’s very difficult,” she says. “If there are reasons like war then I understand but I don’t advise people to do it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people die on the road and even in Calais camps. There was a lot of sickness.”
Hussain uses a Syrian phrase which means she saw young people losing their lives.
She says: “There were people the age of roses dying.”
Talal Zaid, another refugee from Syria living in Glasgow, says the social network site Facebook is an effective way of tracking down smugglers.
“I was using Facebook,” the 40-year-old from Damascus says. “There are some pages which talk about how to get here to the UK, for example, so there are numbers for smugglers.”
Zaid describes the moment he reached England through the Euro Tunnel as “the first days of happiness”.
He got through by hiding in the back of the lorry. It was his third attempt.
He didn’t see any children while he was camping in Calais, waiting for the right time to try his luck. There were lots of men and a few women.
Zaid paid £2000 to a smuggler to get him onto a lorry.
It was the beginning of April this year and he stayed in Calais for just over a week.
“The conditions were not good there – the sanitation,” he says.
“It was very stressful situation. For example it was very difficult to get my mobile phone charged. It was stressful because for four months I’d been travelling and I was still waiting to get to my destination.”
Zaid knows some English and was determined to get to the UK to rebuild his life. He left his 32-year-old wife behind in Syria and hopes they can be together in Scotland in the future.
He camped outside the fence of the travel hub in Calais and nearby Coquelles, with a tent and sleeping bag given to him by a charity.
“There was an area where refugees gathered in order to wait for our chance,” he says.
“There were some charities offering food. There was a big camp with about 1500 people but I was in the smaller area with about 250 people.”
Zaid says there was always someone waiting to take your place.
“If someone manages to get to the UK somebody else takes that sleeping bag immediately,” he says.
The smugglers bundled groups of refugees up into vans and took them to a spot near a car park. There were curtains over the window so no one would see in or out.
On his first attempt Zaid and five other people got inside a lorry carrying fridges.
They hid inside overnight. In the morning police officers opened the door.
“They moved us to a building for ten minutes in the port of Calais,” says Zaid.
“It’s very normal for police to do that there. French police know there are hundreds of people who are trying to get across. There are 1500 people, what can police do?”
The second attempt also ended up with Zaid in the police station.
The third time, a smuggler arranged for Zaid and two others to climb into the back of a lorry.
“The goods inside was bird seed,” says Zaid.
It was a short drive from the port. Zaid tucks himself into the brace position to indicate how he got through the journey and says: “I was like this.”
He knew from his previous attempts there were two check points. The first is a scanner and the second involves sniffer dogs.
They made it past the security checks and into the Euro Tunnel.
“There was relief,” he said. “We were happy.”
Zaid left Syria in 2012 with only the clothes on his back.
He owned a shop selling stationery. He had been taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime when his family was rocked by a tragedy.
At a demonstration his 25-year-old nephew was “shot by the security forces”, says Zaid.
“During the grieving process when somebody is dead, people hold him up and walk around the street,” says Zaid.
“There was about 25,000 people when we carried my nephew. The regime attacked that walk. Everything is documented on YouTube.”
When his brother was arrested Zaid was forced to flee. He was in danger, too.
About a year ago his brother was killed. He was executed inside prison.
Zaid travelled to Lebanon using his old passport. His family was worried for his safety there so he visited his other brother in the United Arab Emirates. He was granted a visiting permit.
He couldn’t work so travelled to Turkey and then Greece, staying for longer periods of time. Zaid travelled to Macedonia and found a smuggler.
He was desperate to reach the UK to get on with his life. Zaid says he admires the UK’s reputation for human rights.
The smuggler gathered about 50 refugees and they were placed in crowded cars. They were driven to Belgrade.
“That meant that we are at least safe from the Macedonian authorities who would send us home,” Zaid says. “When you arrive in Belgrade there is relief.”
He said the smugglers he got in touch with were mostly from Pakistan and collaborated with local people from the area he was in.
“He planned short journeys through the rest of Europe to decrease his chance of being caught. He took a train from Germany to Calais.
The journey through the Euro Tunnel from Coquelles near Calais to Folkestone took about 20 minutes.
When the three asylum seekers felt they were safely onto the other side and past the security checks they began knocking to get the driver’s attention but he did not hear.
One of the migrants poked his head out of the lorry. When the driver saw he pulled over, stopped and called the police.
“We were waving at the police when they came,” Zaid says.
They were taken to a police station and then onto Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre.
After a few days Zaid was moved to Easterhouse and is now learning more English to try and get a job.
“If you are looking for milk, you will get milk. If you want water you get water, if you want an agent you get one.”
Agent means people smuggler, and Mohammad Almafalani is describing how rife the camps at Calais are with ‘agents’.
The 32-year-old Syrian was granted asylum after arriving in Scotland a few months ago and is now living in the south side of Glasgow.
Like many refugees who risk their lives to escape violence, rape, persecution, terrorism, war and famine, Almafalani used his savings and borrowed from friends and relatives to pay smugglers to get him into the UK.
He estimates he gave ‘agents’ 12,000 Euros – about £8500 – in total throughout his journey.
“Calais is popular with smugglers,” adds Almafalani. “If you ask people there you will find one.”
Almafalani’s journey across the Channel was easier than most.
He paid over the odds to get him from France to Glasgow.
He says: “I paid him almost 4000 Euros on the agreement that I was moved to Glasgow.”
Almafalani hid in the back of a lorry carrying industrial-sized water filter equipment.
The lorry entered a ferry on the Calais-Dover route. He stayed in the back of the vehicle until they arrived in the UK.
Nearly an hour later and on the other side Almafalani was allowed to sit in the front with the driver when it was safe to do so.
“He drove all the way up the motorway,” Almafalani says. “He dropped me off near Glasgow Airport at the side of the M8.
“It was very quick. The driver stopped, he opened the door, I got out and he drove away.”
Almafalani, a painter by trade, had left Daraa, in southern Syria, three months before because he was called up to do military service.
It was New Year’s Day or January 2. He paid a smuggler cash to drive him to the Turkish border to avoid the check points.
He says: “I had two options. Either kill people or die. If I do not obey orders I die – they will kill me. The security forces, the army, the authorities they would kill me.”
He discussed the options with his 25-year-old wife and they decided he should try and find a better life for them.
When he got to the border, the smuggler left him with a boy, aged about seven or eight.
Almafalani says: “It was snowing. The snow was up to my knees. I walked between Syria and Turkey on foot.
“My smuggler who took me over the border was about seven or eight-years-old. He was a boy, from Syria. He knew the area.”
Once in Turkey he travelled to Mersin and spent two months trying to travel to an island – such as Cyprus – by boat.
It did not go to plan after smugglers tried to pile 150 people into a yacht and the refugees feared for their lives.
“I tried to use this route but I wasn’t successful – I just gave up,” he says.
Almafalani then tried to fly from a Turkish airport to France.
“I used a fake passport but I was caught at the control,” he says.
“I was arrested and slept for a night in prison. They knew Syrians would try to get to Europe so they just released me.”
He went to Turkish city Izmir and tried using an inflatable boat with an engine – organised by a smuggler – to get to Greece but he refused when he saw how overcrowded it was.
He went to holiday resort town Marmaris and eventually got on to another inflatable boat with an engine. It was 5am when they left.
“There were children, women and men,” says Almafalani.
“People were stressed out, they were frightened, they were waving for ships.”
Despite engine problems, they made it to the Greek island of Syme in about three hours. They removed the engine from the boat and dropped it in the sea before getting to shore, in case the authorities ordered them home.
Almafalani handed in his belongings and was given legal documents.
He travelled to Rhodes and then Athens. He ended up in an Italian port after a bus journey and met another smuggler. There were 10 men and they hid inside a lorry with cotton seeds.
“It made us very allergic,” he says. “We were all sneezing. I spent three days sneezing the dust from this. One person was diabetic, he was using medication.”
The journey took about 48 hours. He took no food or water to avoid needing the toilet.
The driver left Almafalani and another refugee in a remote area about 200 miles from the Italian town of Bari.
They were caught by police.
“They asked about our documents,” he says. “ I told them I was a painter working in Milan to avoid getting my finger prints taken.
“If finger prints are taken, the Home Office in the UK will send you back to the country.”
The pair walked to a nearby train station. They took a train to Milan, then Ventimiglia in Perugia. They were then smuggled over the French border at a cost of 150 Euros and dropped off in Nice.
Almafalani travelled by train to Paris and then onto Calais, where he says there were about 500 people of all nationalities camping out.
His brother had already arrived in Scotland months before and he wanted to see him.
After he was dropped near Glasgow Airport by the lorry driver, Almafalani walked to Paisley. He entered a library and asked staff to call the police. Later, he was moved to a flat near Maryhill .
When he thinks back to Calais his expression darkens.
“There was death there,” he says.
“The fence is even higher now. People were trying to climb it as it was and they were hurting themselves.
“I also heard that nine people had died trying to get through the Euro Tunnel.”
He was lucky, he says. “I paid more money so that I didn’t have to risk my life like that.”
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