Waves of Young Syrian Men Bring Hope, and Risk, to Europe

Migrants landed on Lesbos from Turkey this month after battling rough seas. Aid groups say the chaotic nature of human traffic has left them without a full picture of the people reaching Europe.


LESBOS, Greece — When the conflict in Syria began more than four years ago, Mustafa Alabi was a 17-year-old soccer whiz who had quit high school to sew clothes in his father’s workshop.

But the war soon consumed his life. The shop burned, and rebels occupied his home in Aleppo. Sheltering with relatives, Mr. Alabi rarely went outside, fearing the army would draft him and send him to the front line.

Then, like many before him, Mr. Alabi fled to Europe, where he landed last month: 22 years old, with a backpack, a ninth-grade education and little idea what to do next.

“I have no specific hopes,” he said hesitantly, after struggling to buy bread here because he speaks only Arabic. “But God willing, after I register, if there is a way to play soccer. …” He added, “Maybe I can sew?”

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Of the more than half a million migrants and refugees who have arrived in Europe this year, many are young men like Mr. Alabi. While some are educated or bring skills, many have lost critical formative years to violent conflicts that have interrupted educations and aborted careers. Some have borne arms, languished in prison or lived under radical Islamic groups like the Taliban or the Islamic State, experiences that have left them with physical and emotional scars.

Migrants arrived on the northern shore of the Greek island Lesbos last month after crossing by rubber raft from Turkey. Many asylum seekers have lost critical formative years to violent conflicts that have interrupted educations and aborted careers. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The mass displacement of so many young men poses great challenges to countries like Syria, homeland to more than half of those fleeing: The exodus deprives them of a demographic vital to reconstruction and economic growth.

There are also great risks for Europe, which has long struggled to assimilate immigrants and could face the creation of a new underclass that taxes the public purse. Many also worry that pockets of radicalization could grow if the aspirations of the new arrivals end in isolation and poverty.

“We know on the positive side that migration can boost economies and trade and lead to cultural exchange,” said Lado Gvilava, the head of the International Organization for Migration in Turkey, the departure point for most migrants. “But if it is mismanaged, it becomes a problem for both the receiving states and the countries left behind.”

Aid groups say the chaotic nature of the human traffic has left them without a full picture of the current wave of people reaching Europe. The United Nations refugee agency says that just over half are Syrians, followed by smaller groups from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and elsewhere. Sixty-nine percent are men, 13 percent women and 18 percent children.

The largest single group appears to be young men, open to adventure but woefully ill informed about what they are getting into. Among the dozens of them interviewed recently in Turkey and Greece, only a few spoke any languages other than their native tongue, and most knew little about the countries they hoped to make their new homes. Some were surprised to learn that beer and pork are prominent in German cuisine.

“Our only hope is in Europe,” said Mohammed Atiyya, 21, a Palestinian from Damascus who had been training as a metal worker when he was drafted into the Syrian Army.


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After nearing the end of what was supposed to be a two-year stint, he realized he was more likely to end up dead than decommissioned, so he deserted, later fleeing to Europe by raft.

He is now in Hamburg, Germany.

United Nations officials report meeting with many educated Syrians, including engineers, civil servants and small-business owners, who were solidly middle class before the war, but have since lost their homes and businesses.

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