LEBANON — A nervous few hours in a Tripoli in Northern Lebanon is mercifully behind us. The second city after Beirut, it is a place with many ISIS supporters. Sitting like lemons outside the Port Gates for eight hours in a small cafe — drinking coffee right next to a main road — is very much not where you want to be.
As Elias said: "Alex, you are worth a lot of money to them. Can you believe? I mean, so much money."
"Yes," I say to Elias. "I can believe."
"The Islamic State," he replies, distaste fully coating those words around his mouth like gritty pebbles.
In the end, phone calls were made and the Lebanese Army allowed us to wait inside the port near the ferry.
Over the hours they come, car after car, on transit visas from Syria through Lebanon and thus allowed straight into the ferry dock. Elias and his mates from the Alawite Coast of Syria — the part perhaps least touched by war as yet.
But Elias is touched.
"Bashar al-Assad," he spits in utter disgust. "He lives off our flesh, he survives off our flesh, he is there in Damascus because we sacrifice our flesh and blood."
Bashar and friends from Homs have different tales. I say I have been into the Old City.
"You are crazy," laughs Bashar, looking at me steadily as if to gauge my mental health. His home city in central Damascus has seen remorseless fighting over several years in the old centre city.
So too the families arriving on the dockside from Aleppo. But there is a camaraderie here; we are all in this together. Well, up to a point.
At last, we are allowed to lug our baggage up the gangplanks to our small passenger ferry. Little Mohammed has just run to the dockside as I watch the sun go down. He is seven and from Aleppo. We first said hello and high-fives all of an hour ago.
"I love you Alex Mister. Bye bye."
It's hard not to get drawn into this world endless waiting, trusting in strangers, money changing hands and more waiting as they slowly journey toward the EU, hope and a new life.
The young men, mostly students, say Germany is the goal. Except for Ahmad who confides that he has a different plan.
"I researched online," he says. "Now I think Luxembourg is the future for me, Alex. No Syrians in Luxembourg. Everybody go Germany but too many Syrians and Luxembourg economy is very strong."
Like most of the men here, he's educated, studying engineering. He has a brother in Germany as Elias has one in England, who is also an engineer.
They tell me they all thought I was the captain and we laugh, they are eager to talk — eyes burning with a mixture of hope, trepidation and the pain at leaving families without knowing when or if they will see them ever again.
The journey has been long, even this legit stage of it. Ahmad left Aleppo yesterday and stayed overnight at Tartus where the Russians have their naval base in the coast.
You need cash for the journey. Soldiers at checkpoints will try to rip you off. So will the Lebanese Army.
"They are fuckers, just fuckers," says Elias. So will the drivers rip you off as well, even though a deal has been struck, a price agreed.
But for around $250 for the road trip and ferry over to Turkey, the gates of the EU are in reach: legally, relatively safely and quickly.
Greece is next, which is where the legal route runs out of course. Thus far, though, it is legit and relatively straightforward. Passport, transit-visa through Lebanon and you are on your way, aboard the Med Star but in 1964, in our case, but ship after ship goes each day — one-way tickets for Syrians by the thousand.
The Med Star should carry 450 passengers and leave at 16:00 hours. That was five hours ago.
In fact, she will leave at midnight to 3 a.m. perhaps, once they have enough people from the buses coming down from Syria, 20 miles north or so from here. Built to take 450 people, they will allow on about 600 tonight (or early tomorrow morning).
There you have it: the perfectly legal daily route to the EU's back door. Few wish to seek work in Turkey they say.
It is about a 10-hour crossing through the night, but every day, this engine of despairing people puts several thousand into Turkey and thence the EU.
They know all about the German clampdown. They know all about the German fence, but they know this, too:
"There is nothing for me in Aleppo," says Ahmad. "Nothing in Syria at all. There is no work and if I stay they will make me fight. The university in Aleppo is open but after you study in Syria what then? Tell me. There is nothing."
I cannot tell him different. I merely nod.
Elias chats with his mates and we offer food, but they insist they have had enough on their journey, perhaps out of politeness.
And the venerable Med Star gradually fills up with the Syrian middle class. I sit here, watching the educated class, the can-do class, rupturing out of a broken country before my very eyes.
Alex Thomson is Chief Correspondent at Channel 4 News. In more than 25 years, he's covered over 20 wars; led major investigations and continues to front the program from around the world. An award-winning journalist, he has written two books about the 1991 Gulf War and a travelogue about cycling across India.
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