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2 brothers' epic escape from Syria to a new life

BERLIN, Germany -- After a harrowing journey to escape their native Syria, brothers Mohammed and Khaleel Turani have begun a new life in Germany. Getting there took them more than a year, thousands of dollars, and could easily have killed them.

The journey from Damascus to Berlin saw them smuggled through borders, nearly drowned at sea, shot at, detained and tortured.

Khaleel, having just turned 18, left first. He went to join family members in Dubai and worked there as a fisherman.

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Mohammed stayed behind to continue his studies as an economics student at the University of Damascus, but he lost his home in an airstrike. He couldn't afford to rent an apartment, so he stayed for a while at Yarmouk, a sprawling refugee camp in Damascus for Palestinians.

"But there was trouble there," he said. "I stayed at a friend's house, then at another friend's, before going to Dubai."

Unable to stay legally in the United Arab Emirates and unable to return to Syria, Mohammed decided to make an attempt to reach Europe using a fake passport stamp.

He encountered the first major roadblock of his journey when he flew to Istanbul to try and catch a connecting flight to Amsterdam. Turkish authorities realized his passport stamp was a fake and detained him. They told him that he had no choice but to return to Dubai.

"I told them I am not allowed to go back to Dubai. They then put me in a room and asked me again if I want to go back to Dubai. I did not accept, then they started to beat me," he said.

A week later, Mohammed gave in and accepted a flight back to Dubai. Emirati authorities sent him to Beirut, where he was detained again for having a fake passport stamp. He spent another month in prison, where he says he was routinely intimidated and beaten, but eventually a friend helped him get a lawyer and he made it out.

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Meanwhile, Khaleel decided to leave Dubai, aiming for Europe with hopes of a college degree.

"I cannot study in the UAE and have no future there," he said. He made it to Turkey and called Mohammed to tell him they should meet there and find a way to Europe together.

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Death in the Mediterranean

Mohammed had to travel through war-torn Syria to get to Turkey. He took a bus from Damascus to the front-line northern city of Aleppo.

He got on a bus bound for the border with Turkey. The bus was stopped several times, including once by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"They stopped the bus and when they saw my Palestinian Syrian ID they told me to get off the bus," he said. When the militant told him he must come with them, he refused. "He put a gun to my face, but a woman on the bus told him I was with her and begged him to let me go. He said 'okay, I will let you go because of this woman.'"

Mohammed made it into Turkey and met up with Khaleel just over the border. The two of them went to Mersin, a port on Turkey's southern coast that has become a hub for migrants hoping to be smuggled onto ships bound for Italy.

The brothers met a smuggler who offered to get them onto a ship for 12,000 euros (about $13,000), but he wanted the money up front. They refused, afraid they would be duped into paying without being put on a ship.

Instead they traveled to Izmir, looking to get aboard a boat bound for Greece. For 2,000 euros, a smuggler got them onto a dinghy with nine other people, and pushed them out into the sea in the middle of the night.

But between the Turkish and Greek coasts, the boat started taking on water and sinking.

"We called the Greek Coast Guard for help. They said, 'You're in Turkish waters, call the Turkish coast guard.' We called Turkey, they said, 'You're in Greece, call the Greek Coast Guard," Khaleel said.

Mohammed (left) and Khaleel Turani on a boat in the Mediterranean
Mohammed (left) and Khaleel Turani onboard a ferry in the Mediterranean, from the Greek island of Samos to Athens..

Eventually, after being told there were women and children aboard, the Turkish Coast Guard responded.

"We thought they would help us right away but they circled around us taking photos for 20 minutes before pulling us out," said Khaleel.

They returned to the same smuggler, who told Khaleel and Mohammed another boat was about to leave. That one got them to the Greek island of Samos, not far from the Turkish coast, just before daybreak the next day.

They were processed by Greek authorities and put in a detention center for 10 days before being put onto a ferry bound for Athens.

In the Greek capital they were given refugee permits, valid for six months, which gave them the right to apply for asylum in Greece. But unable to find work, they set their sights on northern Europe.

They attempted several times to fly, sail, and even walk out of Greece. On one attempt they made it into neighboring Albania, but were spotted and shot at by police before returning to Athens.

Khaleel (left) and Mohammed stop to pose for a photo during an attempt to walk across the Balkan Mountains into Albania
Khaleel (left) and Mohammed stop to pose for a photo during an attempt to walk across the Balkan Mountains into Albania.

The brothers were stuck there for five months in a small apartment they shared with 11 other refugees, paying 100 euros each, per month.

Eventually they decided to part ways and try their luck separately.

Khaleel obtained a fake passport, which he used to catch a flight to Munich. It worked.

"I did not know what to do when I got to Munich," recalled Khaleel. "I called my brother who called a friend in Greece who was German. He told me go to Berlin and I will meet you there."

Since he was still only 17, Khaleel was put into a camp for unaccompanied minors until his birthday. With the help of community organizations, Khaleel received legal aid to wade through the bureaucracy associated with applying for asylum and getting legal residency in Germany.

Five months later and just three days before he turned 18, Khaleel was officially granted asylum, gaining the ability to reside freely and legally in Germany.

Mohammed wasn't as lucky. He decided to leave Greece on foot and risk the trek through the rugged Balkan Mountains again, in the middle of winter.

"A lot of people told me, 'Don't go that way, wait till summer,' but I did not accept. They told me 'you will die.'"

He traveled to the northern Greek city of Yannina, where he met a smuggler who charged him 500 euros and sent him to the Albanian border.

A photo taken by Mohammed Turani shows other members of the group he joined on the smuggler-organized trek over the Albanian border from Greece
A photo taken by Mohammed Turani shows other members of the group he joined on the smuggler-organized trek over the Albanian border from Greece.

Along with 22 others, Mohammed walked for eight hours through the night to a location where a truck was waiting to pick them up and take them to the border with Montenegro. There they met the next smuggler, who would get them across the mountainous border into the tiny country.

"We climbed the mountain for seven hours without stopping, without eating or drinking or anything," Mohammed said.

Once in Montenegro, Mohammed was walking through a village when he met two men who let him spend the night at their house and offered to help him get papers to stay in Montenegro. But he was determined to continue his journey into Europe.

He set off the next day for Serbia. He found a smuggler who got him into a taxi, which left him near the border.

Mohammed Turani, seen in Montenegro, during his journey from Greece to northern Europe
Mohammed Turani, seen in Montenegro, during his journey from Greece to northern Europe.

Then Mohammed set off on foot again. He walked nine hours through the night, only to be caught by police in the first village he reached in Serbia.

The police told him to turn back. "The cop put a gun to my face and said, 'If you don't go back to Montenegro, I will kill you,'" said Mohammed.

He went back, but returned the next day and made it to the Serbian capital, Belgrade. He tried to stay in a hostel to get some rest, but without any documentation, none would take him unless he agreed to pay 50 euros -- more than 4 times the normal price.

In Belgrade, however, Mohammed's luck changed. He met a man who was about to drive to Austria, and who offered to help him get that far. He took Mohammed to Serbia's border with Hungary and let him out to sneak across the frontier on foot, as he wouldn't make it through the checkpoint without documentation.

They spent a day in Hungary before going to Austria, just to be sure none of the border agents had spotted Mohammed getting back into the vehicle just inside border.

By the time Mohammed made it to Vienna, well into the heart of Europe, he no longer needed to worry about sneaking through borders -- but at that point he had run out of money.

He called a friend, who called another friend in Austria, who offered to help get him on a bus bound for Munich, and from there onto Berlin to reunite with Khaleel.

After 15 days, his trek from Athens to Berlin was finally over. Mohammed was placed in an open detention center where he could live until his asylum application was completed, almost three months later.

Now both young men have been granted asylum in Germany, which has taken in more refugees than any other country in Europe.

Khaleel found a place to live in Berlin and has started taking German language classes.

"I appreciate that I'm still alive," he said. "A lot of people died on the way to Europe and I really appreciate that I came here and I'm safe."

Nick Barnets is a freelance journalist based in Athens.

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