Why One Syrian Refugee Risked it All for a Motorcycle

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By James Novogrod and Ammar Cheikh Omar

SURUC, Turkey -- Ahmed Sheikh Saleh visits the refugee camp nearly every day. He's well-known to many here: the tall, lanky man with thick grey hair. The man who smokes Gitanes and asks for news from home. The man with the motorcycle.

Saleh, 45, is a refugee, too. But he doesn't live in the public park in this frontier city near the Syrian border, where families fleeing ISIS sleep in grassy patches underneath the boughs of old trees. In the morning, Saleh rides his cream-colored Honda from a farmhouse some 20 miles to the north. His bike kicks up rocks along the dirt roads, coating his pants in dust.

Like many in the park, Saleh is a Syrian Kurd who left his home country during the past month, as ISIS militants advanced on the northern Syrian city of Kobani. At the park he talks to other refugees, who share what information they've collected from friends and relatives who stayed behind in Kobani to fight. In the late afternoon Saleh climbs on his Honda and makes the ride back, reaching the farmhouse as the sun sets. His eight children watch as the bike approaches from the distance.

Saleh is among the few refugees in the area who managed to bring any property at all across the border, and as a result he has more freedom than most.

"I brought the motorcycle because we would need it here," Saleh says.

The bike will come in handy if one of Saleh's children needs medical care, or if he wants to shop for meat at the market in downtown Suruc. But Saleh, who worked as a mechanic in Kobani, has little money to spend on meat -- or anything else. Since arriving in Turkey he's worked from time to time in a local cotton field. he mostly relies on his savings, and his family doesn't spend much. His wife makes bread from scratch in the evenings, and the children pick figs from a tree.

Yet he is both lucky and brave. He moved his family from Syria after a friend on the Turkish side offered his farmhouse. They were safe, but stranded. So Saleh went back to Syria, hoping to claim his car or motorcycle. When Saleh heard that Turkish authorities were forcing refugees to abandon their cars at the border, he rode his bike straight into Turkey instead.

Saleh says Turkish border guards asked him to leave his bike behind, but he accelerated through the crossing gate, ignoring warning shots.

"It was a signal to stop, but I didn't," Saleh says. "I was at a point where I felt that I had nothing more to lose."

Ahmed Saleh pulls up to his farmhouse on his motorcycle.James Novogrod / NBC News