THESSALONIKI, Greece – After a seven-month quest to escape war in Syria, Dia Kasam thought she and her two sons were finally on their way, headed by train into Serbia and from there on to Germany to reunite with her sick husband and their three other children.
Instead, tricked by Afghan traffickers, they and 90 other asylum-seekers found themselves locked in a freight car headed in the wrong direction — back to Greece, where they started.
As the European Union struggles to hammer out ground rules to distribute asylum seekers among its member nations, refugees are left to deal with the chaotic and costly reality of fleeing war and poverty, which they've done in record numbers this year.
Kasam's route to Europe is typical: She left her home near Damascus for Lebanon and flew to Turkey, where she spent seven months with her 7- and 19-year-old sons before making an illegal crossing boat crossing to the Greek island of Leros. Many thousands of other migrants take the more dangerous Mediterranean sea route from Libya to the Italian coast, and nearly 1,830 are believed to have died so far this year.
Once in Greece, Kasam made her way north, crossing into Macedonia and the border town of Gevgelija where she, her sons and the others traveling with them boarded what they thought was the train to Serbia Wednesday. But after seven hours locked inside, they realized they had travelled just 3 kilometers (2 miles) in the wrong direction, back to the tiny Greek town of Idomeni.
Most of the exhausted party spent the night in hotels in the nearby city of Thessaloniki, to let their children recover from the ordeal and figure out what to do next.
"My husband is on kidney dialysis, and who will look after our children?" said Kasam, 40. "In the state he's in, he's walking toward death, and I won't be by his side."
Syrians arriving in Greece are automatically granted temporary residence, although few want to stay in a debt-ridden country where jobs are rare and unemployment runs at more than 26 percent. But the temporary permits bar them from using trains and intercity buses in border regions.
So Kasam and her sons walked.
"It took five hours. We went through woods and I held my 7-year-old in my arms for much of the time. My feet started to swell."
Once in Macedonia, she refused to pay the traffickers until they reached their destination. "So they hit my 19-year-old son ... Others were beaten up too, next to the rail cars. Police nearby could see what was happening but did not respond."
Most — though not Kasam — were persuaded to part with their money.
Twenty-four year-old Derkam and his wife, aged 19, traveled from the Iraqi city of Fallujah and spent 1,400 euros (nearly $1,600) for the train ride.
"They locked the doors at 3 a.m. and the train didn't move till 10 a.m. We could hardly breathe," said Derkam, who declined to give his last name out of fears for his safety. "Women and children were crying ... It was really hot. It was terrible."
Like many migrants, Mohammed, a 32-year-old Syrian, decided to split up his family to improve his chances of reaching Europe and spread out the financial burden.
He paid 500 euros ($570) to board the train with his 5-year-old son Mosab, while his wife and two other young children waited in Turkey for them to reach Germany.
They lived near Darayya, outside Damascus, where many homes — including their own — were destroyed in heavy fighting.
Mohammed, who also asked to not be further identified, said he did not know what to do next.
"I handed over the last of our money at the train, and now we are back here," he said. "My family is waiting for us to finish this journey. But now I don't know how I will get some more money. I don't know what will happen now."
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