Gaziantep / AFP
Borders are slamming shut and European leaders are desperately trying to stem the flow of migrants to their shoresâ€”but near the Turkey-Syrian border, Mohammed Bilal is still dreaming of Real Madrid.
The 23-year-old from Syriaâ€™s war-torn Aleppo province was a promising footballer in his homeland and he still hopes to make it big, despite the European Unionâ€™s efforts to stop the influx of migrants.
Now weighing cheese and olives in a deli in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, Bilal put his footballing career on hold when he fled Syria and had to find a job to help feed his family.
Like many of his countrymen, he still plans to make it to Europe, in the hope of playing football again and one day achieving his dream of pulling on the famous shirt of Spanish giants Real Madrid.
â€œLike a ladder, I want to start with a small team first and then a bigger one,â€ he said.
Facing the continentâ€™s worst migration crisis since World War II, European Union leaders will meet later this week to try to approve a plan with Turkey to curb the flow of people fleeing war or seeking a better life.
Nearly 150,000 people have made the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece already this year, according to the UN, but the passage is dangerousâ€”hundreds have died in the attempt. But Bilal is undeterred.
â€œI know itâ€™s going to be tough. But God willing, if it happens, it will be a miracle,â€ he said.
EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to hammer out the details of a deal under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey for every Syrian readmitted by Ankara from Greek islands. The plan aims to reduce the incentive for people to risk their lives crossing the Aegean in flimsy boats.
â€œOur target is not to reduce numbers but to make them zero. We do not want any more deaths in the Aegean,â€ a Turkish official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many Syrians in Gaziantep, unaware of the EU-Turkey deal, are planning to head to Europe.
Assad, 22, said that after five years of scraping a living selling bread on the streets, his sights are set on making the journey with his family.
â€œItâ€™s hard to find jobs here. To us, Europe is better. Itâ€™s time to build a life,â€ he said.
Turkey says it has spent $10 billion hosting Syrians who have fled their countryâ€™s five-year civil war after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an open-border policy.
They now number around 2.7 million, with the large majority scattered in towns and cities throughout the country and only around 260,000 living in refugee camps, mostly in the southeast.
Some in Europe are starting to take a tougher line on the influxâ€”countries along the â€œBalkan routeâ€ from Greece to wealthier northern Europe last week barred entry to transiting migrants.
And voters in Germany handed a stinging rebuke to Chancellor Angela Merkel for her liberal refugee policy this week, turning to the right-wing anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party.
Even in Turkey, Syrians have found their presence has become a growing source of tension with local residents, and many now group together in neighbourhoods for protection.
And in Gaziantep, not all of the Syrians are keen to go on to a Europe that has been offering at best an ambivalent welcome.
Akil, who was a butcher back in Aleppo, now works at a spice shop in the city centre since he came nine months agoâ€”and has little sympathy for Syrians risking their lives to reach Europe.
â€œMay God mend their ways,â€ he said. â€œI condemn those who abandon their people and country to seek shelter in Europe, among infidels.â€
â€œIf you are going to die, die in your homeland, not in the sea. Itâ€™s not worth it to die in the shores,â€ he said.