The man sways as the U-Bahn groans through the darkness beneath cobbled streets. He stares a thousand yards in a car ninety feet long. His suit is worn shiny at the elbows; sleeves dusted with the finest skein of flour. A white patina on his shoes, the ghost of bakeries, present and past.
The train reaches Bahnhof Meidling and he steps onto the platform. The throng flows to the escalators and he is borne along, emerging into the cold Vienna streets.
Abid Kahlil Nassir – a husband, a father, and a baker – is not yet fifty. He was born in Syria, near the ruins of Palmyra. His birthplace was old, when caravans followed the Silk Road.
His work at the bakery used to begin before dawn kissed the ancient ruins. Like his father, Abid baked flat loaves of khoubz. His wife Fadwa cared for their children. Ali was lean and quick, a natural at football. Sana was bright and cheerful. With the children off to school, Fadwa took her place selling bread from behind the counter.
The Arab Spring blossomed into the civil war and Abid baked bread. He baked through the UN ceasefire, when the firing did not cease. War raged again and still the ovens baked.
When Ali turned eighteen, Abid bribed officers to keep his son from the fighting. It did no good. The army needed bodies more than bribes. Ali was conscripted. In less than a year he was dead, his body buried far from home. Abid choked as he broke the news to Fadwa.
On the heels of their grief came the Battle for Palmyra. The rebels stormed in and the army retreated. Then came the executions. Hundreds were executed and thousands more became refugees. The rebels killed anyone suspected of cooperating with the Assad regime.
Ali had been a soldier and that made the Nassirs a target for vengeance. Abid’s family joined the flood. They were three drops of water in a river of sadness. The bakery was left behind, cold ovens losing the aroma of bread.
It was seven days to the Turkish border. Roofs were piled high with bundles and families rode in truck beds under the baking sun. The Technicals raced past, pickups with machine guns that forced the civilian convoy off the road. The young men hid behind rocks during these episodes. No matter what flag they flew, the militias needed warm bodies.
Vehicles that refused to start were abandoned. Loads were reshuffled; families crammed into less space. Dead trucks and taxis littered the roadway until the convoy disintegrated.
Luck carried the Nassirs to the border village of Jarāblus. In trade for their van, a family of smugglers agreed to guide them. They took only what they could carry. Fadwa shed tears over her wedding linens, then repacked one suitcase apiece.
The older smuggler dropped them at the end of a dirt road. His son stood with the Nassirs as his father drove away. The son motioned and they followed him along a goat path marked with discarded belongings.
Twenty miles beyond lay the Turkish village of Birecik. Their guide led them beyond the border to where the trail joined a small road. He wished them luck and disappeared. Alone they trudged through the darkness, lugging their heavy suitcases. A second dawn found them huddled at a village bus station.
The ticket agent heard Abid’s Arabic, then his eyes fell to the stack of Turkish Lira. There was a pause before the agent’s hand closed over the money. He pushed three tickets forward and offered no change. Abid scooped up the tickets and hurried away.
They reached Ankara after midnight and changed buses for Istanbul. Fadwa and Sana slept as Abid watched over them. He fingered a paper in his pocket, the phone number of a man in Istanbul who knew the secret ways to Europe.
They were out of Syria; Alḥamdulillāh, praise be to God. The thoughts of what he must do echoed through Abid’s mind, like a prayer. You must avoid the refugee camps and make it to Europe. You will find this man, cut the hidden money from your clothing, buy passage so your family will be safe.
In Istanbul, the taxi driver knew the hotel. Once inside the cramped room, the family collapsed. Abid made the phone call, heard the smuggler’s voice at the other end of the line. Later that night the smuggler appeared at the hotel and walked Abid to a café where they could speak away from Abid’s family.
Yes, it was possible. They must wait, perhaps three days. The man named the price: seven thousand Euro each, more money than Abid had in the world. The smuggler heard his protests, nodded over his tea. Three for the girl, seven for the adults, the best he could offer. Abid had no choice. The family was left with nine hundred Euro to begin a new life.
After waiting four days, they were driven to another hotel where two more families squeezed in. The van twisted through the streets of Istanbul until it pulled into a gravel lot. A long-distance lorry idled in the darkness.
The traffickers called it the Black Box. Seventeen people huddled on the wooden floor when the door rolled closed. Outside, a lock snapped. They heard loud voices and slamming doors. The diesel revved and the lorry lumbered away.
They were five days in the box, murmuring their stories. Aleppo, Hamah, Palmyra; bombs falling, homes destroyed, families splintered. They took turns holding the children. Sana invented games to keep the little ones occupied. The adults looked away when someone squatted over the foul bucket.
The third night, Sana became ill. By morning she was feverish. She lay with her head in Fadwa’s lap. The women tended her, crushed aspirin in water, raised her head to help her to drink. Sana vomited the water onto the wooden floor. The men shouted and beat on the front wall of the lorry.
After an eternity, the truck lurched to a stop. The cargo door rolled open and the driver shouted, asking what was wrong. His Arabic was not good, but he understood the words “sick girl”.
The driver climbed aboard, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He squatted to look at Sana, shooed away the pleading women. “Doctor not possible. This is bad place, bad for refugees. We are almost to border. In Austria you get doctor”, he said.
He motioned the men to one side. In a low voice, he gave them the choice. “You leave sick girl and police find her. Then maybe police look for me This cannot happen. Everyone gets out there, or everyone go on. You must decide. Now.” The men were silent, their eyes on Abid.
The circle of their faces became the circle of their stories. Abid saw bombed neighborhoods, skeletons of buildings, the bodies of dead children, the eyes of his dead son. He did not look to his wife and daughter, even as his heart begged him to. He nodded to the driver, spoke the hardest words since the death of his son: “We will go on.”
That last night in the lorry was the longest of Abid’s life. He prayed in the darkness. Men sat on either side, hands on his shoulders. The voices of the women murmured over his daughter.
Then it was done. The morning light blinded them when the door rolled open. The driver’s rough voice: “Austria. You get out now. Put bags here, quickly”.
The lorry idled beside a tangle of railway lines. The driver pointed across the tracks: “There is station. Take any train going to Vienna, yes? You speak German? English? English is okay.” He pointed to Abid, “ Tell police you need doctor. Doctor, you understand?” The driver rolled the door closed without waiting for an answer. Gears lurched and the lorry drove away.
Sana survived and the family spent a year in the Traiskirchen refugee camp. Time moved as slowly as their paperwork. The family waited for news, for an answer to their prayers. Finally, it came, their request for asylum had been granted. They received a stipend and moved to Meidling, a working-class neighborhood in Vienna. For refugees, rents were high. They found a tiny one-bedroom apartment.
That first cold winter, Fadwa prepared breakfast for Abid and Sana. With Sana off to school and Abid out to look for work, Fadwa spent her days with other refugee women, speaking of home over cups of tea.
Two years have passed, and the Syrian war still goes on. Abid goes to the café for news of home. The men talk of families bombed, relatives shot down, of poison gas and missiles. Abid hears the words but can form no reality from them. Five million refugees the men say, shaking their heads.
Abid works in a modern bakery. His days begin in the darkness before dawn. He feeds sacks of flour into steel vats. Mechanized arms knead the flour into dough.
At the end of his shift, Abid rides the U-Bahn. As he steps from the train, the faintest trail of flour floats behind him, a trace that leads all the way back to ruins in the desert and the ghost of bread in ovens gone cold.
Marco Etheridge’s The Ghost Bread poignantly captures the sadness, desperation, and the faint glimmer of hope that the uncertain life of a refugee embodies. Tracing the journey of a family from war-torn Syria to Vienna, it delineates their brutal dehumanization and exploitation at the hands of human traffickers and agents. Yet even as the refugee reaches her desired goal resettlement in a foreign land – the pain of displacement and loss lives on.
Syria has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis for over a decade, with over 10 million men, women and children being displaced and in need of asylum.