Refugees Left Behind: Millions of Syrians Flee, Few Reach Europe

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By Ammar Cheikh Omar and Yuka Tachibana

REYHANLI, Turkey — The cellphone message brought welcome news to Sahar and her four children.

“We’re safe. Sahar, take care of our children. We miss you!” the voice said.

Syrian refugee Sahar and sons Omar, 9, and five-year-old Ali and daughter Marian, 6, look at phone messages.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

Sahar’s husband Ahmed and 10-year-old son Mohammed had made it across the Mediterranean and arrived safely on the Greek island of Lesbos. The Syrian father and son are among the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who are trying to reach mainland Europe, sparking a continent-wide crisis.

A clutch of messages and photos followed — a picture of Mohammed wading in the surf in Lesbos, a selfie of Ahmed, 35, aboard a ferry to Athens. Sahar, 27, and her four children still in Turkey — nine-year-old Omar, Ali, 5, Marian, 6, and three-year-old Khaled — wait anxiously for any updates.

“When the news of the Syrians heading to Europe is on TV, my children and I watch closely just in case we might spot my husband and our son,” Sahar said.

Sahar's family fled Syria two years ago after their village in the countryside of Hama came under attack from President Bashar Assad's warplanes.

"Jets were circling right over our heads and my youngest was screaming and crying in fear — we left the following day," Sahar said. Their house is now occupied by troops loyal to Assad, she added.

So there is no going back for Sahar and her family. But at least there is hope that Ahmed will reach Germany, gain asylum and bring the rest of the family to him to resettle. This family is among the lucky few — the vast majority of the over 4 million Syrians who have fled the country are nowhere near Europe and see no way out of their desperate circumstances.

Sahar says the influx of Syrian refugees has left few work opportunities in Turkey.

"God is helping the others more than me, we are trying everything but nothing is in our hands"

The home Hoda, 31, shares with her husband, four children and elderly father has no windows or running water. The carcass of a wild dog lying at the end of the road fills the air with a rancid smell.

“We talk a lot about going to Europe ... a lot of things will change if we can make it there,” she said. “My children will be safer. Their lives will be different, there will be sanitation.”

But there is no way out for them. Mohammed, her husband who drove a taxi in the city of Azaz before the fighting forced them to flee, has hardly worked for weeks. In exchange for the rent for their dilapidated home, Hoda toils on a farm from early morning to late afternoon. There is no one to take the kids to school and the family doesn’t have enough money for them to take a bus.

“If it was down to us we really want [to go to Europe],” she said. “Even when my husband had regular work the money he earned was spent on the kids — food, water, milk and diapers for my baby girl."

Hoda said she felt jealous of those who were able to travel to Europe.

Hoda, 31, fled Azaz, Syria, with her family. She now lives in Turkey.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

“God is helping the others more than me, we are trying everything but nothing is in our hands,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sahar’s family live a sort of half-life in a tiny, stifling and windowless garage: constantly waiting for the cellphone or television to bring some sort of update on Ahmed and Mohammed.

“We are sitting and waiting. I don’t how know what will happen to us. I don’t know,” she said.

“We have to wait for eight months before we can see each other again,” she added, and began to cry.

Aziz Akyavas and F. Brinley Bruton contributed.