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For Syrian Refugees Hoping To Reach Europe, Turkey Is The Jumping Off Point


A quarter of a million people from Africa and the Middle East have crossed the sea to Europe so far this year. Every day, boats land in Greece, overflowing with Syrians fleeing war. We're going to start this hour in the place where many of them cast off from - the western coast of Turkey. There, Syrians board crowded inflatable boats for nighttime crossings. NPR's Ari Shapiro sent this report from Izmir, Turkey.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At a park in the center of Izmir, traditional dancers jump and spin for a bride and groom. In most of this city, life goes on as normal. Fishermen cast their lines into the Aegean Sea, cyclists roll along the promenade and Turks from Istanbul enjoy their summer holiday on the coast. A few blocks from the central train station, though, it's a very different scene.

This is like a little piece of Syria in the middle of Izmir, Turkey. It's a square where people are sleeping. People have hung out their laundry to dry. Kids are running around. People are buying bread and tea from little shops that Syrians who have been here a bit longer than the others have built.

Nearly everyone here is waiting for the same thing - a phone call from a human smuggler saying it's time to go to Greece. But Hussein Ramadan is not waiting. He got the call last night at 2 a.m..

HUSSEIN RAMADAN: (Through interpreter) The smuggler said, it's done, my friend. Get ready to leave. I bought a life jacket. About 40 of us were crammed into a van.

SHAPIRO: They reached the beach a couple hours before dawn. The smuggler inflated a raft big enough for 10 and all 40 people piled on.

RAMADAN: (Through interpreter) We put the women and children in the center of the boat. The men all sat on the edge. We'd only just started when the boat hit the rocks. It started to take on water.

SHAPIRO: The raft deflated and sank. With his life vest, Hussein Ramadan swam back to Turkey. The experience was so traumatic he has decided to abandon his plan and return home. He switches to English.

RAMADAN: I will go back to Syria.

SHAPIRO: That sounds like a very difficult decision.

RAMADAN: The war, it is the best of the sea and the death.

SHAPIRO: You're saying the war is better than dying at sea.


SHAPIRO: Officially, there are 70,000 migrants registered here in Izmir, but local aid organizations say the real number could be well over 100,000. Izmir is just a few miles from Greek islands that promise a better life in the European Union. And Izmir is full of people trying to make money off of these travelers. A dirty, cramped room costs $100 a night, not including the shower. Mohammed Elwan and his family sold their home and all their belongings to get here. Now they sleep on the ground.

MOHAMMED ELWAN: (Through interpreter) It's extortion, totally. The hotel will scam you. For food, you'll be charged a fortune. It's sad.

SHAPIRO: Human smuggling is a huge business here. The ride to Greece is $1,200 - half that for kids under 10. So each overcrowded raft can make around $50,000 for the smugglers. And word is smugglers will kill anyone who tries to buy their own raft. But there are people in Izmir who treat the Syrians like humans. Outside of a cafe, a folding table is full of power strips. Every plug is occupied. The migrants standing here don't want to give their names.

Tell me what's happening here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Charging our mobiles.

SHAPIRO: But WHO - do you pay somebody?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, free.


SHAPIRO: For free.


SHAPIRO: It's a little restaurant called Alisa Vitamin Center, owned by a Turkish man named Ali Demir. He lets people wash in the bathrooms here, and even though it's not technically legal, he lets mothers with young children sleep upstairs in the office.

ALI DEMIR: (Through interpreter) These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.

SHAPIRO: It's small-scale philanthropy. Most of the people he's helping don't have enough spare money to buy a meal from him. And almost none of them will stay around long enough to become loyal customers. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Izmir, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.