His life upended by the Syrian war, Aboud Shalhoub embarked on a seventeen-hundred-mile migration to Europe. The filmmaker Matthew Cassel documented his journey.
THE JOURNEY FROM SYRIA, PART ONE
One afternoon last April, a Syrian jeweller named Aboud Shalhoub sat in a messy apartment in Istanbul, wrapping his legs in plastic film. For two and a half years, Shalhoub had tried to build a life in Turkey, away from the perils of wartime Damascus, where his wife, Christine, and their two young children would remain until he could afford to relocate them. As Shalhoub learned Turkish and took on several jobs, his children came to know him mostly through Skype calls. Finally, he decided that his best option was to travel to Europe as a refugee, apply for asylum, and submit paperwork for family reunification. If all went according to plan, his new country could facilitate travel out of Syria for Christine and the children.
After reviewing a satellite map on a laptop, Shalhoub and his younger brother, Amer, who had recently joined him in Istanbul, packed their rucksacks and waved goodbye to their neighbors. They set off for Edirne, a Turkish town near the border with Greece, and waded across the Maritsa River, with their legs sheathed in plastic, hoping to avoid Greek police officers and deportation. It was Shalhoub’s fourth attempt to enter Europe.
The journey that followed was defined by uncertainty at every stage. Shalhoub is one of more than a million people whose lives have been so upended by desperation and violence that they fled to Europe last year. Most of these treks take place in obscurity, but Shalhoub was joined by the filmmaker Matthew Cassel, who documented—and participated in—his seventeen-hundred-mile migration, which was fraught with peril and exploitation but also punctuated by moments of extraordinary kindness.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, Cassel’s colleague Simon Safieh recorded the lives of Christine and her children, for whom a ringing telephone could just as easily bring news of Shalhoub’s death or failure as it could of his success. Shalhoub’s son found special meaning in a performance by the Belgian artist Stromae, who croons, “Où t’es, Papa, où t’es?” (“Where are you, Papa, where are you?”)
Beginning today, The New Yorker, in collaboration with Field of Vision, will feature Cassel’s documentary, “The Journey,” which documents Shalhoub’s travels in six episodes.
Now, having reached Athens, Shalhoub hikes up to the Acropolis, in the center of the city. “We’ve reached a country where there’s real freedom,” he tells the filmmaker Matthew Cassel. “I’m speaking from the birthplace of democracy.”
Shalhoub plots out his options. “Greece is just a stop for the Syrians who make it here,” he says. His goal is to reach the Netherlands and apply for asylum and family reunification, so that his wife and two young children can join him.
Amer had not come to meet Aboud in Greece alone, as expected, but in the company of a young Syrian mother named Fadwa and her two daughters. Fadwa sought to build a life in Sweden, while Amer and Aboud were determined to reach the Netherlands. But in the Balkans, it was best to travel as a group.
About a hundred Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Afghans decided to walk together. With little assurance about the journey ahead, at least there was safety in numbers. Ordinary people—the young, the frail, the weary, the asthmatic, the wounded—prepared themselves to walk across a continent. “Are you going to cross Macedonia with flip-flops?” the filmmaker Matthew Cassel asked a man trudging through the countryside. He replied, “In flip-flops and this bullet that’s still in my leg.”
For more about Aboud Shalhoub’s family and the story behind “The Journey,” read an interview with the documentary’s director, Matthew Cassel.