It was the first week of 2015, and everyone in Alexandria was talking about the weather. It was one of the coldest weeks in recent memory; an icy slush coated the seafront road and huge waves broke over the barrier walls that dropped down to the rocky coastline. In the weak winter sun, teenage boys posed on the concrete, trying to capture selfies with a particularly ferocious bit of spray. But mostly, those who could stay indoors did.
For the more than 136,000 Syrians living in Egypt, the weather meant one thing: no one would be traveling to Europe that week. The seas were too rough, and the boats that left the north coast daily over the summer had thinned as cold weather came on, though some continued to attempt the crossing as late as December. Last year had seen a travel “high season” that began in April and ended in September, the period when seas are calmest. But as the war in Syria ground on, hopes of return winked out, demand grew and the boats to Europe kept going.
Syrians famously call the sea crossing to Europe “the journey of death.” They call the boats “the boats of death” and the smugglers “the agents of death.” The International Organization for Migration estimated that in 2014 at least 3,200 migrants had died at sea while trying to reach Italy (usually the first port of call), more than four times as many as the year before. Three-quarters of all migrants who died crossing sea and land borders worldwide perished in the Mediterranean.
And yet, week after week, month after month, they kept going in a way that seemed jarringly casual. In a Skype conversation with Abdou, a 26-year-old pharmacist now living in Norway, I asked him why he’d taken the risk, attempting the trip to Europe twice—once from Egypt and once from Libya. Abdou (who, like most Syrians interviewed for this article, requested a nickname or pseudonym) is from Ghouta al-Sharqiya, a town on the outskirts of Damascus that captured the world’s attention in 2013 after the Syrian government attacked it with chemical weapons, killing several hundred civilians.
“Only 10 percent of people drown,” he told me. “Your chances of success are much higher. My friend told me that the journey is very dangerous; at any moment you could die or drown. But if you make it to Sweden or Norway, it’ll be a good future. I wanted to have a good future, to continue my studies. I didn’t see any other way.”
Abdou had lived, by his account, a comfortable middle-class life in Ghouta before Syria’s uprising began in 2011. His family owned a pharmacy, and he planned to join the business. But as the conflict developed into a full-fledged war and he could no longer avoid mandatory military service, he fled to Egypt. “I didn’t want to participate in the killing. I didn’t want to share in the blood,” he told me. His family stayed behind.