Abdelhay Eydy, a 9-year-old boy from the Syrian city of Idlib, isn’t quite sure how he got separated from his parents as they were making their way to Europe last month. Though hardly shy, Abdelhay is a taciturn kid, and answers most questions about his story with a shrug or a suspicious smile. The truth is that Abdelhay’s experiences aren’t all that rare — and seem in some ways inevitable — among the hundreds of thousands of migrants now making their way from Syria to the European Union.
Around noon on Sept. 6, when a TIME photographer first met Abdelhay, he was swimming and playing beside a pier full of small fishing boats on the tiny Greek island of Leros. Asked how he had gotten there, he looked up at the Syrian asylum seeker he’d been traveling with for the past three weeks, Ahmed Abu Kashef, who said he found the boy stranded and alone in Izmir, a city on the western coast of Turkey.
Abu Kashef then filled in the details of their story as Abdelhay went back to jumping off the pier into the clear blue water. On Sept. 2, he says he met Abdelhay at the edge of a teeming crowd of travelers at Izmir airport, a common transit point for migrants heading through Turkey to Europe. The boy said his family had escaped from Syria to Lebanon and was planning from there to join the exodus of refugees heading to Europe. But somewhere along the road they seem to have lost each other, and after failing in the course of that day to find any sign of Abdelhay’s parents in Izmir, Abu Kashef decided to take the boy with him rather than leave him marooned in the airport.
“We’ve been traveling together ever since,” he says. A few days after they met, Abdelhay and Abu Kashef made the short but perilous crossing from the Turkish coast to Greece, where their tiny boat, packed with about 15 other migrants, landed on the island of Leros. Roughly a thousand asylum seekers have been arriving on that island alone every day since late August, when Europe’s refugee crisis peaked, and Abu Kashef, who is 43 years old and also hails from the city of Idlib, has been asking everyone he meets along the way whether they know the boy or his parents.
He hasn’t had much luck so far. The Leros branch of the Greek maritime police, who are responsible for registering migrants and providing them with the documents they need to travel on toward mainland Greece, have no record of a child named Abdelhay Eydy arriving on the island, according to social workers from the Smile of the Child, a Greek charity that helps reunite migrant families separated along their journey. The group tells TIME it has taken up Abdelhay’s case, and will make every effort to find him and his parents.
But staying in touch with asylum seekers along their road through Europe can be difficult. Abu Kashef has neither a mobile phone nor an email address, he said, and since meeting with TIME there has been no answer at the Turkish number he provided as the only way to contact him. On Sept. 6, after reaching out to several international rights groups about Abdelhay’s case and posting his photo with a call for help on Twitter, a TIME reporter returned to the place where Abdelhay and Abu Kashef had slept the previous night. It was a covered archway outside a disused building in Leros, right near the port where they had been swimming with a group of other migrants. But all of them were already gone.
For migrants on the island, it usually takes no more than a day or two to receive their registration papers and move on toward northern Greece on ferries. So Abdelhay may already be traveling the migrant trail that leads from there through Macedonia, Serbia and back into the European Union via Hungary. Given how badly the migration crisis has overwhelmed local and national authorities along that route, it’s not surprising that police in Leros seemed to have failed to take note of Abdelhay’s arrival. The courtyard of the local police station, a whitewashed building eroded by the island’s salty air, has become a de facto refugee camp in recent days, as migrants sleep or sit in every available spot, waiting for their documents.
That afternoon on the pier, Abdelhay was at ease and glad at the chance to play in the water, and Abu Kashef seemed to treat the boy like a surrogate son. Abu Kashef says his own children are back in Turkey — two teenage boys, one of whom is deaf and mute — and he hopes to secure asylum for them in Germany as well. Unless he can find Abdelhay’s parents along the way, Abu Kashef says he will take the boy with him and continue the search once he arrives. But anyone who has information that could help reunite Abdelhay with his parents should reach out to the Smile of the Child at the contacts provided here: http://www.hamogelo.gr/1.2/home.
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