Two nameless bodies washed up on
And usually, in Norway, dead people are identified quickly. So the police started searching through missing reports from the local area, national missing reports, and looked for accidents with a possible connection. They found nothing. So they ran a DNA profile, and they started searching internationally through Interpol. Nothing. This was a person that nobody seemed to be missing. It was an invisible life heading for a nameless grave. But then, after a month, the police in Norway got a message from the police in the Netherlands. A couple of months earlier, they had found a body, in an identical wetsuit, and they had no idea who this person was. But the police in the Netherlands managed to trace the wetsuit by an RFID chip that was sewn in the suit. So they were then able to tell that both wetsuits were bought by the same customer at the same time, October 7, 2014, in the French city of Calais by the English Channel. But this was all they were able to figure out. The customer paid cash. There was no surveillance footage from the shop. So it became a cold case.
We heard this story, and it triggered me and my colleague, photographer Tomm Christiansen, and we of course had the obvious question: who were these people? At the time, I'd barely heard about Calais, but it took about two or three seconds to figure out Calais is basically known for two things. It's the spot in continental Europe closest to Britain, and a lot of migrants and refugees are staying in this camp and are trying desperately to cross over to Britain. And right there was a plausible theory about the identity of the two people, and the police made this theory as well. Because if you or I or anybody else with a firm connection to Europe goes missing off the coast of France, people would just know. Your friends or family would report you missing, the police would come search for you, the media would know, and there would be pictures of you on lampposts. It's difficult to disappear without a trace. But if you just fled the war in Syria, and your family, if you have any family left, don't necessarily know where you are, and you're staying here illegally amongst thousands of others who come and go every day. Well, if you disappear one day, nobody will notice. The police won't come search for you because nobody knows you're gone.
And this is what happened to Shadi Omar Kataf and Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria.
Me and Tomm went to Calais for the first time in April this year, and after three months of investigation, we were able to tell the story about how these two young men fled the war in Syria, ended up stuck in Calais, bought wetsuits and drowned in what seems to have been an attempt to swim across the English Channel in order to reach England. It is a story about the fact that everybody has a name, everybody has a story, everybody is someone. But it is also a story about what it's like to be a refugee in Europe today.
So this is where we started our search. This is in Calais. Right now, between 3,500 and 5,000 people are living here under horrible conditions. It has been dubbed the worst refugee camp in Europe. Limited access to food, limited access to water, limited access to health care. Disease and infections are widespread. And they're all stuck here because they're trying to get to England in order to claim asylum. And they do that by hiding in the back of trucks headed for the ferry, or the Eurotunnel, or they sneak inside the tunnel terminal at night to try to hide on the trains.
Most want to go to Britain because they know the language, and so they figure it would be easier to restart their lives from there. They want to work, they want to study, they want to be able to continue their lives. A lot of these people are highly educated and skilled workers. If you go to Calais and talk to refugees, you'll meet lawyers, politicians, engineers, graphic designers, farmers, soldiers. You've got the whole spectrum. But who all of these people are usually gets lost in the way we talk about refugees and migrants, because we usually do that in statistics.
So you have 60 million refugees globally. About half a million have made the crossing over the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year, and roughly 4,000 are staying in Calais. But these are numbers, and the numbers don't say anything about who these people are, where they came from, or why they're here.
And first, I want to tell you about one of them. This is 22-year-old Mouaz Al Balkhi from Syria. We first heard about him after being in Calais the first time looking for answers to the theory of the two dead bodies. And after a while, we heard this story about a Syrian man who was living in Bradford in England, and had been desperately searching for his nephew Mouaz for months. And it turned out the last time anybody had heard anything from Mouaz was October 7, 2014. That was the same date the wetsuits were bought. So we flew over there and we met the uncle and we did DNA samples of him, and later on got additional DNA samples from Mouaz's closest relative who now lives in Jordan. The analysis concluded the body who was found in a wetsuit on a beach in the Netherlands was actually Mouaz Al Balkhi. And while we were doing all this investigation, we got to know Mouaz's story. He was born in the Syrian capital of Damascus in 1991. He was raised in a middle class family, and his father in the middle there is a chemical engineer who spent 11 years in prison for belonging to the political opposition in Syria. While his father was in prison, Mouaz took responsibility and he cared for his three sisters. They said he was that kind of guy. Mouaz studied to become an electrical engineer at the University of Damascus.
So a couple of years into the Syrian war, the family fled Damascus and went to the neighboring country, Jordan. Their father had problems finding work in Jordan, and Mouaz could not continue his studies, so he figured, "OK, the best thing I can do to help my family would be to go somewhere where I can finish my studies and find work." So he goes to Turkey.
In Turkey, he's not accepted at a university, and once he had left Jordan as a refugee, he was not allowed to reenter. So then he decides to head for the UK, where his uncle lives. He makes it into Algeria, walks into Libya, pays a people smuggler to help him with the crossing into Italy by boat, and from there on he heads to Dunkirk, the city right next to Calais by the English Channel. We know he made at least 12 failed attempts to cross the English Channel by hiding in a truck. But at some point, he must have given up all hope. The last night we know he was alive, he spent at a cheap hotel close to the train station in Dunkirk. We found his name in the records, and he seems to have stayed there alone. The day after, he went into Calais, entered a sports shop a couple of minutes before 8 o'clock in the evening, along with Shadi Kataf. They both bought wetsuits, and the woman in the shop was the last person we know of to have seen them alive. We have tried to figure out where Shadi met Mouaz, but we weren't able to do that. But they do have a similar story. We first heard about Shadi after a cousin of his, living in Germany, had read an Arabic translation of the story made of Mouaz on Facebook. So we got in touch with him. Shadi, a couple of years older than Mouaz, was also raised in Damascus. He was a working kind of guy. He ran a tire repair shop and later worked in a printing company. He lived with his extended family, but their house got bombed early in the war. So the family fled to an area of Damascus known as Camp Yarmouk.
Yarmouk is being described as the worst place to live on planet Earth. They've been bombed by the military, they've been besieged, they've been stormed by ISIS and they've been cut off from supplies for years. There was a UN official who visited last year, and he said, "They ate all the grass so there was no grass left." Out of a population of 150,000, only 18,000 are believed to still be left in Yarmouk. Shadi and his sisters got out. The parents are still stuck inside.
So Shadi and one of his sisters, they fled to Libya. This was after the fall of Gaddafi, but before Libya turned into full-blown civil war. And in this last remaining sort of stability in Libya, Shadi took up scuba diving, and he seemed to spend most of his time underwater. He fell completely in love with the ocean, so when he finally decided that he could no longer be in Libya, late August 2014, he hoped to find work as a diver when he reached Italy. Reality was not that easy. We don't know much about his travels because he had a hard time communicating with his family, but we do know that he struggled. And by the end of September, he was living on the streets somewhere in France. On October 7, he calls his cousin in Belgium, and explains his situation. He said, "I'm in Calais. I need you to come get my backpack and my laptop. I can't afford to pay the people smugglers to help me with the crossing to Britain, but I will go buy a wetsuit and I will swim." His cousin, of course, tried to warn him not to, but Shadi's battery on the phone went flat, and his phone was never switched on again. What was left of Shadi was found nearly three months later, 800 kilometers away in a wetsuit on a beach in Norway. He's still waiting for his funeral in Norway, and none of his family will be able to attend.
Many may think that the story about Shadi and Mouaz is a story about death, but I don't agree. To me, this is a story about two questions that I think we all share: what is a better life, and what am I willing to do to achieve it? And to me, and probably a lot of you, a better life would mean being able to do more of what we think of as meaningful, whether that be spending more time with your family and friends, travel to an exotic place, or just getting money to buy that cool new device or a pair of new sneakers. And this is all within our reach pretty easily.
But if you are fleeing a war zone, the answers to those two questions are dramatically different. A better life is a life in safety. It's a life in dignity. A better life means not having your house bombed, not fearing being kidnapped. It means being able to send your children to school, go to university, or just find work to be able to provide for yourself and the ones you love. A better life would be a future of some possibilities compared to nearly none, and that's a strong motivation. And I have no trouble imagining that after spending weeks or even months as a second-grade citizen, living on the streets or in a horrible makeshift camp with a stupid, racist name like "The Jungle," most of us would be willing to do just about anything. If I could ask Shadi and Mouaz the second they stepped into the freezing waters of the English Channel, they would probably say, "This is worth the risk," because they could no longer see any other option. And that's desperation, but that's the reality of living as a refugee in Western Europe in 2015.