Syria Refugee Crisis: How One Lucky Family Survived the 'Journey of Death'

PHOTO: Syria Refugee Crisis: How One Family Survived the ‘Journey of Death’PlayEvan Simon/ABC News
WATCH Steps Into a High Calm: A Syrian Refugee Family's Harrowing Journey to Europe

Batoul Hilel, 30, ran as fast as she could. Six months pregnant and wearing sandals, tears streaming down her face, she ran toward the airstrikes battering the neighborhood where her children played.

“I expected one of my children to be dead,” she says. "Absolutely."

The airstrike missed by a few yards. All five children survived.

“After that, I had enough,” Batoul says. “I had to leave. So we decided we would leave for Turkey and never return to Syria.”

At 4 a.m., she told her children they were going on a trip. She packed the necessities and left the wedding albums. They rolled into Raqqa, Syria around sunrise, and by sunset, they had crossed the Turkish border.

It was Sept. 10, 2014. Born and raised in Deir Ezzor, a strategic city in eastern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates River, Batoul had never set foot out of Syria. Now, she was leaving alone with five children under the age of 10, in the middle of the night.

PHOTO: The Hilel Family: 30 year-old Batoul, 31 year-old Laith, 11 year-old Hala, 10 year-old Aday, 7 year-old Tib, 5 year-old Fatima, 3 year-old Houmideh, 14 month-old Fahed.Evan Simon/ABC News
The Hilel Family: 30 year-old Batoul, 31 year-old Laith, 11 year-old Hala, 10 year-old Aday, 7 year-old Tib, 5 year-old Fatima, 3 year-old Houmideh, 14 month-old Fahed.

Reunited with her husband Laith, 31, in Turkey, a sixth Hilel child was born in a refugee camp: Fahed, now 14 months old. Batoul turned 29 in that refugee camp on the Turkish border. And marked her 10th wedding anniversary in a tent.

That’s also where Batoul was forced to leave her two eldest children. Aday, 10 and Hala, 11, made the journey to Germany with a cousin months later, after the family had saved up enough money. Batoul and Laith traveled with baby Fahed, Hamudeh, 3, Fatima, 5, and Tib, 7.

ABC News met the Hilels a year into their journey in Izmir, Turkey.

Izmir is a coastal resort city once flush with summer weekenders from Istanbul and now flush with refugees and migrants.

They slept everywhere: on the sidewalks, next to the mosque, in parks.

The Hilels found a small patch of grass on a quieter street -- pieces of cardboard stacked, wet laundry hanging on a bush.

At night, temperatures dropped into the 30s as wind whipped off the Aegean Sea through the city streets.

“I reached a stage where I did not even have a blanket to cover my children,” Batoul says. “We covered them with cardboard.

“I felt the world was very bad.”

As a mother, she says "I can't even describe to you."

ABC News
PHOTO: An animation shows the route that Batoul Hilel and her family followed from Syria to Germany.

It costs $1,200 a person to travel the 10 miles of open water from Turkey to Europe. Such is the market rate in Izmir. The middlemen round up their clients, taking a small cut.

But even the middlemen don’t know the identities of the smugglers. Some are Kurdish mafia, refugees said, while others we saw were Pakistani. Few spoke Arabic, the only language the Hilels speak.

Armed watchmen guarded the curvy Turkish coastal roads at night. Taxis full of Syrians raced in convoys down to the beach, turning off headlights to avoid detection.

On the night of their departure, the Hilels hid in the bushes at the launch point in Çesme, Turkey, just down the road from Izmir. They were jumpy when we arrived. They had failed to launch six nights in a row and their nerves were frayed.

“I die, I die, who cares? That is enough. But if we go back to Syria, we will die for sure,” Batoul says.

PHOTO: The Hilel family shortly before the Greek Coast Guard rescued them after spending 6 hours in the Mediterranean. Hilel family photo
The Hilel family shortly before the Greek Coast Guard rescued them after spending 6 hours in the Mediterranean.

On that seventh night, a smuggler whose name they never learned pushed them toward Europe.

“They call it the 'journey of death,'” Batoul says.

And for good reason, because more than 4,000 people attempting that same journey have died in the past year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

Their rubber dinghy, designed for 20, sagged under the weight of 45 people and the boat started to sink almost immediately. None of the kids knew how to swim.

As the Greek Coast Guard approached, Batoul waved her son Fahed above her head in a desperate attempt to catch their attention. It worked. The Coast Guard spotted the baby -- cold, wet, crying -- in his bright-yellow life jacket. “We totally lost hope that we would be saved from the sea.”

They had been in the water for six straight hours, Batoul says.

The Blue Star ferry boat we took made the same short journey in 45 minutes. No one wore life jackets.

For the next 17 days, and about 2,000 miles, we rarely took the same form of transportation at the same time as the Hilels. At each border crossing, we passed through passport control while they were forced to cross illegally.

That’s how we were separated in Hungary.

Despite the changed realities of today, in the summer of 2015, traveling from Macedonia to Hungary was the easy part of this march north through Europe. It took the Hilels just 24 hours to move from Thessaloniki, Greece, to the Serbian-Hungarian border.

PHOTO: The Hilel family pictured in Serbia as they walk the train tracks towards Hungary.Molly Hunter/ABC News
The Hilel family pictured in Serbia as they walk the train tracks towards Hungary.

Even with the shiny, new barbed-wire fence the Hungarians were building, a set of train tracks from Serbia into Hungary provided a de facto highway for this river of humanity. The barbed wire parted for the tracks, though we never saw a train pass.

It was a 3 mile walk from Serbia into Hungary. A long 3 miles for little legs, but those resilient kids skipped into Hungary, quite literally. There were games played on the track’s trestles and apples snatched off trees as we walked, and they giggled, as children do.

Batoul and husband Laith encouraged their family as if out for a Saturday hike. “A little bit longer and then we’ll take a water break,” Batoul would promise. “Almost there.”

An aunt fainted in the 100-degree heat, a pregnant cousin in her 39th week stopped frequently to lie down, but none of the children cried.

We waved goodbye at the Hungarian border, planning to see them in a few hours.

A few hours came and went with no word.

We didn’t hear from them that night or the next night. Or the next.

As the Hungarians drew heat for their brutal treatment of refugees and the weather turned foul, we knew they were behind a fence. Somewhere.

We checked every camp in Hungary and moved north to Austria. Still no sign of the family. Finally, in Munich, a kind Red Cross woman squeezed my shoulder: "You can't find them. They must find you."

We watched the waves of people flowing into Munich's train station. She was right.

The train station in Munich was one of the places where we would eventually find the Hilels.

PHOTO: This cell phone image shows the conditions of the Hungarian prison, where the family was held for seven days.Hilel family photo
This cell phone image shows the conditions of the Hungarian prison, where the family was held for seven days.

The Hilels had spent seven cold nights in a low-security, prison-turned-refugee detention center in southern Hungary. No hot food, no hot water. Caged like animals, sleeping on cell floors.

Each person received one bread roll a day, and going to the bathroom required a police escort.

“The children were hungry. I couldn’t do anything for them,” Batoul says, again crying, remembering months later. “They didn’t understand.”

Locked in, Batoul suffered another kind of hell. Once again pregnant, she miscarried in her first trimester.

“It was torture for me,” she says of her solitary agony.

Only later did she tell her husband.

Finally released, we found the Hilels on a train platform in northern Hungary.

The next train was headed for the Austrian border and then, after a few miles on foot, the Hilels -- tired, cold, but mostly hungry -- would be safely out of Hungary.

Seven-year-old Tib had ditched her white sparkling sandals halfway through the walk, her little feet raw and blistered. She carried them, twirling them as she marched into Austria barefoot. They were still, after all, her favorite shoes.

As they neared the border, a Red Cross table overflowed with food and water and, sensing an oasis, the kids all ran toward the provisions.

That night, while the Hilels piled into the back of a big van headed for the Vienna train station, we got into our van, too, speeding off down the same highway.

But while they spent their last night before Germany in Vienna’s main train station, we slept in a warm hotel.

Westbahnhof, like many train stations, is cold and wind blows through from the tracks. The floors are hard cement, but the Hilel family didn't care. They were so close.

High-fives were shared and tears of exhaustion flowed as refugees emerged from the trains in Munich, Germany.

The Hilels were diverted from Munich onto another train, but that night they slept in clean sheets at a processing center near Dusseldorf, Germany.

"We feel like humans,” Laith said just hours after arriving in Dusseldorf. “Our dignity is respected."

During the fall of 2015, crowds of Germans cheered with signs reading “Welcome to Germany!” Now, six months later, no one is cheering.

PHOTO: Houmideh and Fahed play soccer outside their new home in Hattstedt, Germany.Evan Simon/ABC News
Houmideh and Fahed play soccer outside their new home in Hattstedt, Germany.

The Hilels arrived in Germany three months ago. As they transited through different processing centers, the family's asylum paperwork was filed and a court date was set for later this month.

The Hilels are just eight of more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers now living in Germany. The backlash against the new arrivals was swift and harsh but, thankfully, not universal.

Friends of Batoul’s told her about neo-Nazis hurling rocks through their windows. Batoul and Laith worried they would be next.

“For sure there are people who don’t want us here [in Germany],” Batoul says. “For sure.”

“But not here,” Batoul says of Hattstedt, their new hometown.

PHOTO: Batoul shops for Syrian goods inside the only Islamic grocery store in Husum, Germany.Evan Simon/ABC News
Batoul shops for Syrian goods inside the only Islamic grocery store in Husum, Germany.

With a population of about 2,000, it is an upper-middle-class suburb outside the nearby city of Husum.

It is a winding residential neighborhood, with Volkswagens and Volvos in every driveway, next to neat brick houses. Surprisingly quiet, it’s a family neighborhood, filled with blond German families.

“I know that a village doesn’t have noise and traffic. I love noise and vibrant cities," Batoul says.

But refugees get little choice in the matter and the state disperses families based on availability.

Secretly, she says, she had been praying to be placed somewhere near other Syrians in a bigger city. Although nearby Husum has one mosque, it’s a different sect, so they don’t attend frequently.

Evan Simon/ABC News
PHOTO: As opposed to the rural village she was sent to, Batoul Hilel wishes her family ended up in a city, like nearby Husum, where she found an Islamic grocery store.

Husum's Islamic Center is the only place to buy halal meat, the only kind of meat Batoul serves at home. The Hilels are Arabic-speaking Muslims, and their neighbors are mostly German-speaking Catholics.

It’s isolating, both parents say, and lonely. But language and education top the Hilels' priority list.

The kids are adapting, picking up the German language quickly, and each one, except Fahed, is in school.

“I want them to forget all the fear, exhaustion and pain that they have experienced,” Laith says.

Which is hard, even at 10 years old.

We asked the two eldest, Aday and Hala, about their hometown. Their eyes haunted and voices soft, they told us about their friends before the war. Five-year-old Fatima froze, unable to say anything.

At home, news from Syria flickers on the television in the living room and with it comes the constant din of war. Here at least they can turn down the volume. They’re the lucky ones.

“We need to learn to speak their language; use strong language, not simple words in German to express our gratitude," Batoul says, explaining that the first night neighbors brought over food and clothes. “I didn’t even know how to invite them in for tea.

“I want them to know how grateful we are,” she adds. “And maybe we’ll get used to living here.”

For now, it is enough that Tib and Fatima have learned to count to 10 in German. There is food on the table and there are clean sheets on the beds.

Evan Simon/ABC News
PHOTO: The Hilel's new house seen at dusk.