The West African country of Mali has become a new transit hub for hundreds of refugees fleeing Syria. From there, they will continue their desperate journey to Europe.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been some stir about the several dozen Syrian families who arrived in Ber and Khalil, cities in northern Mali controlled by the Coordination of the Azawad Movements, a Tuareg separatist group. These families have travelled to West Africa in a roundabout attempt to reach Europe along the route used by sub-Saharan African migrants.

They crossed into Mali after flying into the city of Nouakchott in neighbouring Mauritania, which doesn’t require visas from Syrians. They hope to cross into Algeria, then Europe.

Other Syrian families are also travelling through the Malian capital, Bamako, on their way to Europe. Some refugees are staying with locals, while others are being housed in a stadium.

“I don’t want to put my children’s lives in danger by traveling by sea”

Abou Ahmed, 47, is from the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

I arrived in Bamako a week ago with my wife and children. We travelled for more than a week to get here. It was a difficult journey. First, we travelled by road to Istanbul, then flew via Tunis to Bamako.

Many Syrians try to reach Europe by taking a boat from Turkey. But I decided to take a plane and travel in this roundabout way because I don’t want to put my children’s lives in danger by travelling by sea.

“We’ve been welcomed here and we have a good place to stay”

I decided to travel to Mali because, unlike Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, Syrians don’t have to have a visa to enter the country.

For now, we are staying with a Syrian friend of mine. He works in the agricultural sector in a suburb of Bamako. We’re staying in an apartment in the Faladié Sema neighbourhood.

We’ve been welcomed here and we have a good place to stay. Thanks to the kindness of my friend, we have plenty of food to eat. Despite all that, I haven’t enrolled my children in school because I want to continue our journey to Europe soon. People here are welcoming, but there is a high poverty rate and diseases like malaria and typhoid fever.

There is an established network to get undocumented immigrants from Bamako to Algeria. For about 500 euros per person, a smuggler will drive you to Tamanrasset, a city in southern Algeria. We’re told that Algerian authorities don’t usually bother Syrian refugees, even if they know they are crossing the border illegally. In Tamanrasset, there are organisations that help refugees. There, you can then get another smuggler to take you to Tlemcen, a city in northern Algeria that is right on the border with Morocco. Once I make it to Morocco, I’ll try to reach European soil by travelling to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla. I want to go to Europe because I want the best for my children.