I never imagined that I would grow so close, and so quickly, to perfect strangers. But the Qasu family will live in my hearts for the rest of my days.
My professional goal since November has been to befriend a newly arrived refugee family in Lesbos and accompany them the rest of the way to their European sanctuary. I failed twice: one journey cut short by a mother’s sudden choice for privacy, the second sabotaged by the pitch-dark chaos of a crowded Macedonian border crossing at 3 in the morning.
Third time proved the charm. At dawn on Dec. 3, I set out along the dirt track on Lesbos’ northern coast facing Turkey and spotted an approaching boat. Wading into the water to capture images of rescue workers pulling people from the craft, I turned back toward shore, and my heart stopped. There stood a husband and wife, clasping their children and weeping. I imagined, for a moment, my own mother and father.
I photographed them from a distance, approached and asked the father in Arabic: Are you OK? Where are you from?
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“I am a Yazidi from Iraq and we are alive but terrified,” said the man I soon came to know as Samir.
He and wife Bessi didn’t hesitate a second in welcoming me alongside to document their effort to reach Germany. I asked if they had a working cell phone and he provided me a Turkish number. Immediately my apprehensions swelled that this phone would stop working inside Europe and I would lose another family midway.
I often had to move at least one step ahead of the Qasus, because officials at most border crossings and boarding points for refugee transportation links bar journalists from tagging along. I’d wait for hours on the far side of the next best-guess destination.
Samir made clear he didn’t want to lose me. Just before they boarded their ferry to the Greek mainland, I asked him: Do you trust me?
“I already consider you one of us,” he said. “The fact that I see you around us every step of the way tells me you care.”
When, some 36 hours later, I spotted the Qasus sitting around a fire warming themselves from the morning cold on the Greek side of the Macedonian border, I was heartened to see how pleased they were to see me, too.
Throughout the Balkans, I had to shadow their train-and-bus journey remotely by car and pray that the Turkish mobile would keep working. They caught sporadic sleep on each link, while I just kept driving.
Reconnecting at each transit point proved a Kafkaesque nightmare at times: The Qasus literally did not know where they were, sometimes not even what country they were in. Each stop was a bewildering experience for them, each reunion a minor miracle for me. Reflecting on it now makes me smile, because I still have no clue how we made it. But in the process, as I used my own experience of each country and crossing to explain to them what might lie ahead, I became a valued part of their journey.
As we walked together on a bridge connecting Salzburg, Austria, to the German border town of Freilassing, Samir approached and whispered in my ear: “Please don’t abandon us.”
After gathering my own emotions, I explained to Samir that I will never forget them; they are not just a story I am covering. They are part of my life, and I am proud to share their experience with the world.
Muheisen, the AP’s chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a Jordanian national based in Amman. Since joining the AP in 2001 he has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work covering wars in Iraq and Syria.
Follow Muhammed Muheisen on Twitter at twitter.com/muheisen81 and on Instagram as @mmuheisen.