(CNN)Imad arrived in the Sicilian port of Messina on an overcast spring afternoon in 2015. He and his family of seven had fled their home in Damascus at the beginning of the uprising in 2011.
They huddled together on the dock, taking in their new surroundings, confused and a bit afraid. Imad, an Arabic teacher, was worried about how he would support his family in this strange new world.”I went to Libya to get away from the war,” he told me. “And then war broke out in Libya, my brother’s car workshop in Benghazi was robbed. We lost everything.”
Imad paid human traffickers almost $2,000 for passage on a rickety fishing vessel that barely made it into international waters off the coast of Libya before its motor broke down and they were picked up by a rescue ship.
His plan was to take his family to join relatives in Germany.
Imad arrived in Europe shortly before the stream of refugees from Syria to Europe became a flood in the summer and fall of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees made their way to the heart of Europe.
It was a moment when the repercussions of Syria’s war extended beyond the country’s borders, hardening public opinion on migration and leading to a tectonic shift in politics.
There are plenty of reminders, in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, of the centuries-long clash of civilizations, echoes of which are growing louder today.
The scenes of tens of thousands of refugees streaming across Europe, crashing through borders, whipped up deep, dark memories from the distant past, of Arab armies poised at the Pyrenees, of Ottoman armies besieging Vienna. Ancient history it is, but in Europe the historical memory is profound.
I spoke with dozens of Syrians in 2015 while covering the refugee crisis in central Europe. I was at the Serbian-Hungarian border when hundreds of young men, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere chanted “open the door” while trying to push down the border gate to get into Hungary, and the European Union. It soon turned violent, and the refugees threw sticks, rocks and bottles, while Hungarian police responded with tear gas and water cannons. Most of the migrants were hoping to get to what they saw as the promised land, Germany.
In the Croatian village of Tovarnik, a young man from Damascus named Samih said, “We never imagined this trip would be so hard. We thought after all we’ve already suffered they would welcome us differently than this.”
Some welcomed the refugees with open arms, but many more did not. The sudden shock to the European body politic of more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015 pushed sentiment far to the right in Europe, and the reverberations were felt as far away as the United States.
In Italy, crippled by an anemic economy and perennial political paralysis, people worry about jobs and crime. They can vote for parties pushing for the creation of Fortress Europe. But that won’t stop a war in Syria that has left almost half a million dead and millions more homeless, and it won’t stop those like Imad and Samih from seeking a better life.