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Following One Migrant's Journey Across The Sea To Europe

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to trace one man's journey, which is the same journey a quarter-million people have taken this year. We're talking about migrants who travel across borders, across the sea, searching for a better life in Europe.

MUNZER OMAR: My name is Munzer, Munzer Omar.

SHAPIRO: I met Munzer Omar last week when I was in the city of Izmir on the western coast of Turkey. He was sitting on the sidewalk on a flattened cardboard box in the shade. The afternoon was steamy, around a hundred degrees.

Where are you from?

OMAR: From Syria.

SHAPIRO: Is everyone here from Syria?

OMAR: All of them, all of them.

SHAPIRO: The sidewalk was crammed full of people.

There are so many children here. How do you find food for the children? How do you...

OMAR: We are suffering from that. It's a big problem.

SHAPIRO: He showed me a large water jug that they all share. Munzer Omar is 33, with a kind face and bookish glasses. Before he left Syria, he was a teacher. The war started and he says government bombs destroyed his village. The family had to move.

OMAR: We have no - no home, no house. All of us destroyed.

SHAPIRO: He has a wife and two young daughters, 1 and 3 years old. They are still in Syria with his parents. When the government tried to draft Munzer Omar into the army, he paid a smuggler to bring him here to Izmir.

OMAR: We're here - we are here from one week.

SHAPIRO: A friendly cafe owner across the street lets him use the Wi-Fi to Skype with his wife and kids. He doesn't tell his wife how hard this journey is. She has enough challenges living through the war, he says. Every time they talk, his 3-year-old daughter says, Poppa, come home. He has no idea when he will be able to hug his wife and his girls again, so he tries to focus on the prize - Europe, just across the Aegean Sea.

Well, how does it happen? Does a smuggler come and say, now go?

OMAR: Someone, smuggler, smuggler call us. We'll be ready five minutes.

SHAPIRO: Five minutes.

OMAR: Five minutes - get ready and go in the night. We don't know, we'll go.

SHAPIRO: It could be tonight.

OMAR: To the beach - to the beach - get, get, get, get - we'll go.

SHAPIRO: Late that night on the waterfront, I look out at the dark Aegean Sea. I know that crowded rafts are floating out there. I don't know whether Munzer Omar is on one of them, aiming for the lights of Greece on the horizon. The next day, I go to find out.

It's morning now and everybody's still right where I left them last night. They're asleep now. It looks like the call they were hoping for didn't come last night, and they'll spend another day of waiting, hoping for it tonight.

A few hours later, I see Munzer using the Wi-Fi at the cafe and ask if he'll join me for a drink.

OMAR: Want to drink tea?

SHAPIRO: Yes, perfect, let's have tea.

He says the smugglers called last night and told him there were too many police out to try the crossing. Then he got another call from a panicking friend.

OMAR: What do you want? Oh, my friends - my friends are sinking in the sea and we want to call the U.N., coast...

SHAPIRO: His friend said call the coast guard. Call the U.N. My friends are on a sinking raft. My nephew is on that raft. Omar tried, but he couldn't get the GPS coordinates. Nobody on the raft picked up their phones.

OMAR: They were out of coverage area. Their mobiles not ring.

SHAPIRO: Do you know what happened to them?

OMAR: I don't know.

SHAPIRO: The fear of drowning at sea haunts him. But he keeps saying I have no other choice. After another night on the sidewalk, Munzer Omar decides to try a different route. He takes a bus three hours to the Turkish city of Bodrum, and around 1 a.m., I get a series of text messages from him. Someone else reads them here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is a big problem. Two smugglers are conflicting on the same starting point. The first one is Turkish; the other is Pakistani. Pray for me please.

SHAPIRO: More text messages came a few hours later.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our group didn't go to Greece from Bodrum. There was a crime as a result from the conflict between the smugglers. We saw dead bodies on the seaside. We have to go back to Izmir

SHAPIRO: The next morning, he told me he was back in the spot where I first met him on the cardboard box on the sidewalk. Two more days went by. I left Turkey and returned to London. And then, on Thursday, I got a voice memo from him.

OMAR: Hello, Ari, how are you? I'm here in Mytilene, Mytilene Island.

SHAPIRO: Mytilene is a city on the Greek island of Lesbos. He made it across the Aegean Sea, but his journey is not nearly over.

OMAR: I'm waiting for - to go out of Greece to Macedonia.

SHAPIRO: Last week, Macedonia closed its border with Greece. They have since reopened it. Macedonian police have used tear gas against migrants. We will continue following Munzer Omar on this journey as he makes his way across Europe and perhaps someday reunites with his wife and children. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.