Sixteen days in the life of three Syrian refugees

  • Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, stands in the doorway of his kitchen in Antakya, Turkey, Aug. 22, 2015. Sieo lived in the small border town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border for three years while working under the table for a French NGO before deciding to leave for Germany.
  • Majd Suliman, a Syrian university student and refugee, holds a receipt from a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Aug. 27, 2015. In order to pay the smugglers, Suliman had to exchange his Turkish Lira into both US dollars and Euros before moving any further.
  • Mahmoud Hamwi (left) and Asaad Sieo (center) laugh while catching up with Phillipe Zarif, a friend who lives in Istanbul and allowed them to stay with him, Aug. 27, 2015.
  • A crowd of refugees push their way onto a bus outside of a UNHCR refigee camp near the Hungarian border in northern Serbia, Sept. 7, 2015.
  • Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector from Aleppo, carries a garbage bag filled with life vests as he walks to the Faith Mosque in Aksaray, Istanbul, Aug. 29, 2015.
  • The passengers of a luxury cruise ship look down at a large group of refugees at the processing center located at the Mytilini Port Authority in Lesvos, Greece, Sept. 3, 2015.
  • Mahmoud Hamwi (left) and Asaad Sieo (right) hike to the Mytilini Port Authority in Lesvos, Greece, to board a ferry that will take them to Athens, Sept. 4, 2015.
  • Asaad Sieo smiles after receiving his legal documents in Lesvos, Greece, Sept. 3, 2015. Sieo waited in line for three days in order to get processed and receive documents that will allow him to travel further into Greece.
  • An illegal bus driver collects money from refugees inside his bus in Horgos, Serbia, Sept. 7, 2015. Refugees are detained by Serbian police inside the refugee camp until they are taken by buses to a set of rail road tracks about 1 kilometer away from the Hungarian border.
  • Syrian refugees Mahmoud Hamwi (left) and Asaad Sieo (right) ride the subway to the center of Athens shortly after arriving by ferry from Lesvos, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • Asaad Sieo, a Syrian military defector, waits for a phone call from a smuggler, Aug. 27, 2015. Sieo lived in Antakya, a small border town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, for three years while working under the table for a French NGO before deciding to leave for Germany.
  • Asaad Sieo (left) and Majd Suliman (right), swim and bathe in the Aegean Sea in Lesvos, Greece, Sept. 4, 2015.
  • Asaad Sieo expresses his frustration while waiting for legal documents in Lesvos, Greece, Sept. 3, 2015.
  • A crowd of refugees wait to board a bus outside of a UNHCR camp near the Hungarian border in Horgos, Serbia. Refugees are detained by Serbian police inside the refugee camp until they are taken by buses to a set of rail road tracks about 1 kilometer away from the Hungarian border.
  • Diane Vukovi (left), an American ex pat living in Serbia, and Asaad Sieo (right), discuss information and plans to move further into Serbia and then Hungary. Vukovi has been hosting traveling refugees for free in her home.
  • Asaad Sieo looks out for police while trying to find a route to the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia from Tsoliades, Greece, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • Tsoliades, Greece - September 6, 2015 A man helps a girl down a hill en route to the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia from Tsoliades, Greece, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • A group of refugees look for the border crossing into Macedonia from Tsoliades, Greece, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • Greek soldier redirects a group of refugees trying to locate the unofficial border crossing into Macedonia, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • A group of newly arrived refugees gather at a train station in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 9, 2015, where they are offered medical attention, food and information services. According to many refugees, Vienna was the first city to offer a warm welcome when they arrived.
  • A group of refugees navigate through a field in Tsoliades, Greece, Sept. 6, 2015, in search of the border crossing into Macedonia.
  • Syrian refugees Asaad Sieo (left) and Majd Suliman (right) listen to a group talk about the border crossing into Hungary while at a UNHCR camp near in Horgos, Serbia, near the border.
  • Majd Suliman (left), Mahmoud Hamwi (center) and Asaad Sieo (right) walk along train tracks in Tsoliades, Greece, in search of the border crossing into Macedonia.
  • Tsoliades, Greece - September 6, 2015 Syrian refugees Majd Suliman (left) and Asaad Sieo (right) at an old train platform in Tsoliades, Greece, Sept. 6, 2015.
  • Asaad Sieo checks his phone in hopes of receiving more information about the border crossing into Hungary, Sept. 7, 2015. Earlier he had heard rumors of Hungarian police waiting to detain refugees once they crossed the border.
  • Syrian refugees Majd Suliman (right) and Mahmoud Hamwi (left) hug each in celebration other outside of a processing camp in the small northern German town of Herten, Sept. 10, 2015. Many trains arriving in Munich that are en route to Berlin are being rerouted to smaller cities or towns because of the influx of refugees in bigger cities.

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Cheers rang out inside the packed and sinking dinghy as details of the shore on the Greek island of Lesbos finally came into view. The inflatable boat carrying 35 Syrian refugees had been taking on water from the moment it left Turkey’s western coast, bound for a new home in the European Union. After dealing with a network of smugglers for days, always unsure of when or where they’d be passed off next, it seemed the worst was behind them. The group’s frantic efforts to scoop out the cold sea faster than it was rushing into their boat paid off. They weren’t going to be arrested by Turkish authorities. They weren’t going to drown. And so they shouted: “Allahu Akbar!”

But their journey – like those of over half a million others who traveled roughly the same route this year – was far from over. And many more days of uncertainty would pass before they finally felt safe.

“This is the life of a refugee,” wrote New York-based photographer Christopher Lee in his notes late last summer: “Limbo and waiting in uncertainty.”

Lee was a passenger on the sinking dinghy that day, documenting one group’s quest for a better life. With him were three young Syrians: 28-year-old Asaad Sieo, 25-year-old Mahmoud Hamwi, and the youngest, 24-year-old Majd Suliman. All three were from Aleppo, Syria, but did not meet until arriving in Antakya, Turkey – part of an unprecedented wave of refugees displaced by a years-long civil war.

“With Syrians in Turkey, they’re not legal people there,” Lee said in a recent phone interview with msnbc. “They can’t apply for Turkish citizenship, they can’t get benefits – they’re essentially treated like undocumented workers in the U.S.”

Recalling his initial correspondence with Sieo, Lee remembers being struck by something he told him: “He said, ‘There’s no future for Syrians in Turkey.’”

Since the fighting broke out in 2011, more than four million Syrians have fled their homeland, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Ninety-five percent of them live in neighboring Middle Eastern countries – such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. But a record number of migrants have also flowed into the EU this year, creating a massive bottleneck along the Greek coast and discord among member states over resettlement options.

On one end of the spectrum are countries like Sweden, which has so far taken in the largest number of refugees in relation to its population of all the EU nations, and Germany, which has pledged to spend $6.6 billion to accommodate the 800,000 refugees expected to cross the border by the end of this year. On the other end, meanwhile, are countries like Hungary, which erected razor-wire fencing to keep out migrants, and Slovakia, whose prime minister promised legal action against the EU for its decision to adopt mandatory national quotas on relocating asylum-seekers. The divided EU leaders met Wednesday for an emergency summit to discuss designating potentially billions of euros in new funding for Syrian refugees.

As EU leaders deliberate on a course of action, however, refugees continue to pour in, often at great financial cost and risk to their own lives. Sieo, Hamwi, and Suliman were just three of the estimated 4,000 migrants that arrive daily on the shores of Lesbos, where they’re then forced to wait for days in brutal heat before being cleared to move about the country. At that point, the three had already spent $1,300 apiece just for the boat ride from Turkey.

“It’s tents on tents, crowds of people waiting in line for days to get processed,” Lee said of the scene at Lesbos. “There’s no bathroom anywhere, just people finding whatever corner or bush they can to do their business.”

“For a lot people who go through hardships, if you see a light at the end of the tunnel, you can make it,” Lee added. “If you’re kind of reaching in the dark and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, that’s what makes it hard.”

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