Walking on Thin Ice
Elif Derin (+Video)
Elif never imagined that buying a pair of snow boots would be preparation for a rugged escape one year later. After six months of turmoil from the so-called coup attempt in Turkey, she reaches a painful conclusion. She must leave her homeland. One night in January 2017, during a blizzard, her family flees with strangers in a small boat over the fast-moving icy Maritsa River. Five days later, after risking death, they make it to Canada. Elif and her snow boots continue to walk together.
It never occurred to me that buying a pair of snow boots, which seemed unnecessary at the time, was in fact preparation for a very rugged escape one year later.
After six months of total chaos from the so-called coup attempt, my husband and I realized we had to leave Turkey while we could. My family fled one night in January 2017, with only two backpacks in a flimsy inflatable raft over the fast-moving icy river Maritsa in the middle of a snow blizzard.
I was sitting with my husband, fifteen-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter in a café in a city at the border of Greece. It took six hours for someone to take us to the abandoned part to continue waiting along with another couple. As it got dark, the six of us were shoved into the back seat of a vehicle. While I was putting my backpack in the trunk, I heard one of our smugglers say to the other, “It’s not a damaged boat this time, right?” The other couple was not as small as us. My son and I were sitting on my husband. We stopped feeling our legs so that an hour’s journey seemed three times longer.
On a narrow and bumpy road, the jalopy we were in was the only vehicle. Everything was covered in snow, and there was no light. The driver and the man sitting next to him were discussing where to stop to cross the river. We were afraid to even breathe to avoid getting caught by the border guards. Before we reached the riverbank, the driver dropped us off with the guide. We inflated the boat ourselves and carried it for around an hour to the shore. Seven people boarded this boat. It was the size of a single bed. We were sitting on top of each other again. As we were caught by the flow of the river, we drifted a little until we reached the opposite shore. The banks of the river were frozen. The ice cut off one side of the boat as soon as we began approaching the shore. The boat began spinning because of the leaking air. We started dragging again. Meanwhile, the boat was deflating.
Finally, my husband managed to catch the branch of a tree on the shore and stopped the boat. First, the guide sitting in front of the boat jumped onto the shore. My husband threw my son, daughter, and me ashore and jumped himself. Just at this moment, Ayşe fell into the water because the boat was almost completely deflated. While trying to get him out, Ahmet also fell into the water. They finally managed to come out, but they were too wet. It was minus eighteen degrees Celsius. I think it’s a miracle they didn’t have hypothermia. We were running in panic in single file behind the guide. After a while, we realized that we were running in circles in the same place. The guide had lost his phone in the river, so he couldn’t find his way around. For a moment, I even feared that we might have accidentally landed back in Turkey due to the drifting and turning of the boat. They had us turn off our phones because of the concern that the signals would be followed. When Ahmet risked turning his phone back on, we realized that we were on an island in the middle of the river. We had tired ourselves out for an hour—all for nothing! Worse still, the boat had collapsed and was lost in the water.
We circumnavigated the island and found only one place where the water was frozen. To check the strength of the ice, the guide went first. Then we followed him. The same question was always gnawing at my brain, but I didn’t want to even think about the answer. What would I do if the ice broke and one of my children fell in? After I came here, I learned that some mothers had to answer this question and I felt their pain deeply. My husband and I agreed that if one of us was taken, the other would go on with the children. We were literally walking on thin ice, so we all said goodbye to each other before we stepped onto the river. A few times, my feet got into the water. My snow boots proved to be waterproof.
After coming close to death during that night escape, we eventually made it to Greece, and then the longest, coldest, scariest, and endless run of my life began. We had to walk for five hours over the snow which covered our legs to the knees, making it very difficult for us to walk. We were freezing. The young guide with no load was going very fast. We were almost running so as not to lose sight of him. Since there was a snowstorm, the gendarmerie was not on patrol, but we often heard the wolves howling.
Ayse was not appropriately dressed for this escape. Her wet clothes had gathered all the snow and had become quite heavy. She was stumbling, struggling to climb behind me at the end of the line. Every time Ayse fell, my husband, who was walking ahead of me, would turn back, and rush to lift her…Ayse was crying, asking to be left behind. My son was asking when it would be over. I was saying it was almost time, but in fact, I felt like it would never end. We were passing by the shores of wide fields and through bushes, just dragging our weary bodies, not knowing what was beneath us. When my daughter asked for water, my husband had to thaw the frozen bottle on his stomach.
Finally, a light appeared far, far away. The guide said that it was the train station, that we had to walk towards that light without stopping and that we would see the police station and the hotel after crossing the rails. Then he disappeared. It was almost morning when we reached the train station with one last exertion. We had to reach the hotel before it was light and the police could see us, otherwise we would have had to spend the night in the detention centre. At least, we had reached civilization.
After enduring this dangerous journey in which we risked everything, including our children’s lives, we eventually arrived in Toronto safely five days after leaving Turkey. My snow boots not only brought me to Canada but also made it easier to adapt here. We have come a long way together. It’s been tough but not fatal.
Elif is a former judge from Türkiye. She came to Canada with her family in 2017. After serving ten years in different departments of Turkish government and then ten years as a judge, she had to leave everything behind for a free future. Elif enjoys spending time in nature with family and friends and exploring the beauty of Canada.