How I crossed a continent and scoured 70 refugee camps to find my mother

At a Dunkirk refugee camp, Sarah Whitehead hears a story of five sons who lost their mother but who refused to give up until they found her again

The refugee camps along the northern French shores have witnessed the closing chapters of thousands of journeys and the beginning of something else entirely. A freezing morning in Dunkirk last December saw the end to one such journey, when five exhausted brothers finally found their mother after searching more than 70 camps across Europe.

The last time they had all been together was six months before on a dusty street in the city of Orestiada, which is in north-east Greece near the border with Turkey. It was at this point during their escape from Iraq that police separated the group of families they had been travelling with into two vans, one of men and the other women.

“We were terrified. We didn’t know what was going on,” says the eldest brother, Beshwar, 25.

“When we said goodbye, my mum was crying. I kept saying, don’t worry, don’t worry – but she kept crying and told me to look after my brothers.”

Only boys under 14 were allowed to go with the women. Beshwar’s youngest brother, who had just turned 14, was separated from his mother. Like the rest of the men sitting in darkness anxious about the daughters, wives and sisters they had seen hauled into the back of a truck, the brothers assumed that they would join their mother later that day.

Beshwar’s father, an officer in the Peshmerga – the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan – for 22 years, had told his family to flee after their village, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, fell under the control of the Islamic State militant group and family life had been turned upside down. Initially, Beshwar wanted to remain with his father. “I wanted to stay and serve my country but my father wanted us all to leave. He said, I’m speaking to you as an officer, not a father. You have to take our family and go now.”

He told Beshwar he would not join them abroad until they had reclaimed the village. “We no longer had a life there. We had already become refugees in our own home.”

After boarding the truck, Beshwar and his brothers sat in silence for what felt like hours. When the lorry finally stopped and they were allowed out, Beshwar asked the guards around them where his mother was. The answer was simply, “We don’t know.”

“My little brothers kept asking me the same question, ‘Where is Mum, where is Mum?’ I kept telling them she would join us. But I was now not sure.”

The boys entered the first of many camps and waited for their papers to be checked before being sent to prison, where they stayed for five days.

“I couldn’t sleep or eat. I felt so sick. What was my mum doing? I kept thinking about what was being done to my mum – why had they separated us?” The brothers were moved from camp to camp for the next two months around Greece and in each new place asked every officer they saw about the other van.

“We kept being told to be patient. That’s all the guards said. They didn’t seem to know anything.”

‘I couldn’t sleep or eat. I felt so sick. What was my mum doing?’ Photograph: Sarah Whitehead/The Guardian

When Beshwar told one guard his story, he finally got a response. “I remember his name – Nantes, I think. He was an officer and very kind. I told him about my mum and he was very upset. He wanted to help.”

Beshwar had few possessions. One had been his guitar, which guards in Greece had broken and then, laughing, asked him to play. The other was his phone, a lifeline for many refugees. Amid pictures of his friends, brothers and favourite musicians was one of his mother taken years before at a family party. “I showed Nantes the picture on my phone and he said he would look on the system to see if he could find her. I thought yes, she must have been here, surely he will find her.”

Nantes came back three days later and returned the phone saying that despite searching everywhere possible there was no trace of her. “He really seemed sad about it,” said Beshwar.

Nantes was to be the first of many strangers to show kindness to the brothers. After being released by the Greek authorities, the brothers started their search, following the route taken by many other refugees, in the hope that among the hundreds of thousands of paths they crossed they would come across their mother.

“On a train in Serbia we met a group of Syrian Kurds who raised money for us after hearing our story. People we met on trains saw how sad we were. They asked, ‘Why aren’t you happy? We are away from war now – we have hope.’ But, of course, we didn’t feel the same. We would just sit quietly while others celebrated. I didn’t feel free in those times.”

The brothers journeyed on buses, trains and foot, and everyone they spoke to they showed their mother’s picture. No one recognised her – instead they were told about the next camp they should go to.

“You meet so many refugees – I told them I was looking for my mum and they would tell me where to go next: Nuremburg in Bavaria, Traiskirchen in Austria. I knew we had to be thorough and try every camp before we could move on.”

Was there a moment at which they wanted to give up? Somewhere between Serbia and Greece, one of the brothers was certain that their mother must be dead and that they should end their search and tell their father that they suspected the worst. “It was cold, she had no money. I understand why they thought she hadn’t survived,” says Beshwar. “There were times on my own when my brothers were asleep when I just wondered, how were we ever going to find her?

Kunkush the cat was a beloved member of another family who became refugees when they fled Iraq. Travelling through Greece, family and cat became separated. An international online search was co-ordinated in the hope of reuniting him with his family.

Their mother’s name is Roonak, which means brightness. She is also a former soldier – tough, resourceful and clever. After graduating from university with a degree in international law, Roonak was a Peshmerga fighter for 10 years, in conflict with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Knowing this gave her sons hope.

“She is independent and has a good brain. She is tough and has seen many difficult things. I thought, she will be OK,” Beshwar says. “I kept telling the others we had to keep going. I just had a feeling.”

At night, in the tents of the many camps they visited, Beshwar dreamed his mother was travelling. Awake, he thought of his mother playing with her boys as children, cooking at night, reading them poetry: “My mum is a great writer and I loved listening to her read to us. I missed her very much.”

Many people the brothers spoke to told them about family lost in Syria or Iraq. “But we still had hope and I think that was our energy.”

As summer turned to autumn in Austria and brown leaves were replaced by frost in Germany – “something we had not seen before in Iraq” – the energy that fuelled them began to run down, even for Beshwar.

“I had shown so many people this photograph, but nothing. I remember getting to Cologne and showing a group in the camp the photo, but again people shook their heads.”

Beshwar put his phone back in his pocket but then he heard a woman shout, “Hey, show me again.”

“She grabbed my phone and looked hard, then said, ‘I’ve seen her. I’ve seen her. She was here!’”

“At that moment I started to cry. We all did. I had been desperate to hear someone say these words.”

A migrant camp in Dunkirk.
A migrant camp in Dunkirk. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

It emerged that, until Cologne, the sons had been just behind their mother, who arrived at each camp before them and left before they did.

According to the woman, Roonak, who had no photograph of her sons to show round, had been asking everyone if they had seen five brothers, aged between 14 and 25. “I think she knew we would have stayed together,” says Beshwar. “But I wanted to check she had been there. I showed my photo to a police officer. This time they came back and told me she had been here but had not stayed.

“I asked where she had gone but no one knew. I was told she could have gone back to Greece or Macedonia, or perhaps carried on to France.”

Beshwar tried to imagine what his mother would have done. She is, like him, meticulous. “I knew she wouldn’t have stopped until she had finished searching properly. She would have wanted to go everywhere like me.” This meant their search would come to a conclusion in France.

“The mood was horrible in Calais. It brought us right down. Kurdish people are not treated well there.”

They were told there was another camp in Dunkirk.

“I felt so weird. Something was making me go faster and faster. This was my last chance. It was the end now. I thought, if my mum is alive she will be here. If she is not she will be dead. It sounds strange but that is what I felt.”

Beshwar walked into the mud-soaked Dunkirk camp. “Suddenly everything became very slow – I felt dizzy. I arrived in the camp and saw all the people, the tents and the mud. I was shouting her name. My heart was beating so fast. It’s strange but it was like a dream. I was looking everywhere like a crazy person. Shouting.”

Then he saw his mother.

“I knew it was her!” Finally, months of patience paid off because there, standing in front of a tiny stove, was Roonak.

“I screamed ‘Mum, Mum!’ We ran together and enveloped her. We were all crying. I remember people around us shouting – ‘It’s the sons, it’s the five sons!’ I reached her and we hugged and hugged. I will never forget that feeling – I knew then why I had kept going for so long.”

Roonak is now living with her five sons in Dunkirk, waiting to be re-housed in a new purpose-built camp. Beshwar has talked to his father to let him know they are all together and safe. Roonak, who doesn’t speak English, has been listening patiently as Beshwar tells the story. I ask her how she felt emotionally when she saw her five boys and Beshwar translates.

Roonak looks up and shakes her head: “You can’t imagine,” she says.

Beshwar stands up to go for some fresh air, exhausted.

Outside, he lights a cigarette. “My mother still doesn’t know I smoke,” he says, looking through the window. “Like I said, she can be very tough.”

Although Roonak had been very ill in Germany, once in Dunkirk she had kept busy by cooking for other people in the camp. “She is even known as the mother of Dunkirk,” he says, laughing.

“I am still shaken when I think about how we got here,” said Beshwar. “But, you hear so many stories. So many people here and on our journey have told me about what has happened to them. The story I am telling you is just one. Every day I am reminded that we are actually one of the lucky ones.”


Sarah Whitehead

The GuardianTramp

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