In summer 2015, Maisam thought that she would soon be starting her second year at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus. But then her sister Souad, whom she hadn’t seen in a year, called with surprising news: She was no longer in Turkey but in Amsterdam, seeking asylum. She encouraged their mother, Suhair, to follow with Maisam, her older sister Naela, and their brother, Yousef.
With the war in Syria only escalating, they hurriedly prepared to leave Syria forever, making every step of the journey from Damascus to the Greek island of Kos together. But once there, they would have to split up.
Unlike most Syrians who that summer traveled via ferry from the islands to the Greek mainland and then over land through the Balkans to northern Europe, Maisam’s family traded on their looks — they can pass for Europeans. While on Kos, they secured fake IDs from a smuggler who assigned them Czech nationality and told them to travel separately, as he hadn’t made them relatives. They booked the earliest flights they could to anywhere within Schengen Area borders. Maisam and Naela found tickets to Zurich. Their mother and Yousef would leave the next day after them for Brussels.
It would be the first time Maisam would spend even a day away from her mother, and she took it for granted that within 48 hours, the entire family would be together again in Amsterdam. Sitting in a pension in Kos the night before their departure, Maisam painted her nails.
The next morning, she and Naela separated as soon as the taxi dropped them off at the airport. They pretended not to know each other and never made eye contact. Should one get caught, the other would keep going. Maisam was nervous about the deception — she had never been to an airport by herself — but imitated the behavior of others. Though both sisters were able to board, they only acknowledged each other in the bathroom in the Zurich airport, where they hugged and changed into warmer clothes. The hardest part, they thought, was now behind them.
Instead, 15 hours after bidding their mother and brother goodbye and about eight hours until they were to reunite with Souad, the plan fell apart. They were on the train that would carry them across Germany to the Netherlands, when the same fake IDs that had worked so well in Greece were detected at the Swiss-German border checkpoint. German police now had them under arrest. Sitting in the police station, Maisam realized it was over, especially when she saw her sister Naela — who had kept it together all their lives, from bearing the brunt of their father’s rage, to planning their mother’s escape from the marriage, to getting them this far — fall to pieces.
As the youngest daughter, Maisam rarely had to bear the full weight of the family’s burdens, even as, in the years before their departure from Syria, both her country and her parents’ marriage unraveled. Both disasters had led to multiple displacements, first to Jordan, then to smaller and smaller apartments in Damascus as her father withdrew any financial support and her mother’s savings and sisters’ earnings dwindled. Through it all — the different schools, cities and houses — Maisam’s bond with her siblings and especially her mother was steadfast. “I was just happy to have everyone,” she says. “I never felt lonely.”