Like other Egyptians, during my bachelor studies I dreamed of travelling to Germany to satisfy my ambitions. I saw it as the promised paradise and its citizens as organised beehives. My dream went unfulfilled, and 15 years would go by until I would be able to travel to Germany. I only met Germans during encounters in tourist places in Cairo, until finally I received an opportunity to visit the land I had dreamed of. From the moment I touched its soil, I drew comparisons between the dream I had as a young man and the reality I saw of Arab immigrants.
In my short visit, I met many non-Germans and listened to many stories. I soon found this paradise to be a machine that turns everyone into a gear to fit its capabilities so as to maintain its stability and continuity. I found some of those gears reeling from alienation and nostalgia for the past, falling between the desire to return home and a sense of guilt that the migration dream was not what they expected. This may have been what Hany Azer, a famous Egyptian engineer who has been living in Germany for decades and a member of the Egyptian president’s Advisory Council, was trying to say when he told journalists in a meeting that Germany is a country where nobody succeeds but smart, skilled, and competitive people.
The visit was enough to knock out my young dream as I looked through different eyes at those who were forced to become part of that giant German machine, but failed at becoming irreplaceable gears, in the same way that their dreams would fail. Those who drop out of the system become negligible beings among this civilisation and order governing German life.
This is why I ask whether Syrian refugees will ever be able to integrate into the German community, overcome the fears of Islamophobia, or paint a different picture of the Arab world? Or would they segregate themselves into a parallel Arab community? Will they be able to join the labour market and engage in the German streets, or will they be controlled by the dream of returning to their homelands?
In this series, Daily News Egypt puts a human face on refugees, from across all ages and origins, and details their struggles, dreams, and grief.
Syrians share pains and dreams, replacing war with scorching racism
Three young Syrians living in Potsdam, 35km away from Berlin, had not met each other in their home country, but shared the bitterness of exile and the dream of successfully integrating into German society.
Adham Hamada, 24, was the first Syrian expatriate in the German suburb. He currently works as a volunteer to help refugees and is studying to be a social worker. Hamada is originally from the Midan neighbourhood in Damascus, which is, or previously was, globally known for its restaurants and desserts.
Adham’s life is a tragic story full of dramatic shifts. He used to be a soldier in the Syrian army affiliated to President Bashar Al-Assad, until he was captured by the opposition forces during a battle in Deir Al-Zour. He was later released—a milestone that would change his life forever.
However, the dramatic changes in Adham’s life began before the war. His father was a member of the Syrian parliament until 2008 and a member of the ruling Ba’ath party. When he was forced to leave the party, he decided to open a car dealership.
These shifts turned Adham’s life upside down. He said that the soldiers, who were released by Al-Assad’s opposition, could not resurface again, because the Syrian regime was afraid they may have been recruited as spies. Adham refused to attack the Syrians, so he decided to run away and use his brother’s passport to travel abroad. He pointed out that he had a friend, who was recently arrested because he had a phone with a camera—a gadget that was strictly prohibited in the region.
Adham refused to speak about certain issues, perhaps out of fear for his family back in Syria or for security reasons. He did not clarify the reason behind his father’s dismissal from the Ba’ath party and the parliament, but from what he narrated, it seemed that the incident negatively affected his family. His parents got divorced and his father was forced to travel to Sweden.
Before Adham joined the Syrian army, he owned a house, intended to get engaged, and establish restaurants in his neighbourhood after completing his military service. However, the wind goes against the will of the ships. He and his mother escaped to Germany, where his mother’s brother lives. Adham’s brother also left for Germany four months ago and has finally received his papers. His father stayed in Sweden, but the government rejected his asylum, and has not been able to contact him for three years.
Adham first escaped to Egypt, as his grandmother was Egyptian. However, the authorities refused to let his mother enter the country, so he was forced to move on to Turkey, before heading to Europe. He accompanied his mother on her journey to Germany, where her brother lives. First, he traveled to Ankara, and after three months, he paid a trafficker in Istanbul’s Aksaray EUR 5,200 to help them get to Greece. He collected the money by reaching into the savings of his mother and receiving some financial support from his aunt, who lives in Canada.
He said that they stayed in Athens for a while, and in an attempt to lessen the burden on his mother, he tried to move them to Germany by catching an aeroplane. After trying to get on an aeroplane five times to no avail, he decided to take the expensive means by traveling on a ship. He traveled 20 days ahead of his mother. Adham stayed under some goods in a container of a car, which was shipped to Italy. The journey took 32 hours, and he did not have any Syrian papers with him because the regime had stripped him of all of them. He wanted to return his brother’s passport, because his brother would be tortured by the regime if he was discovered.
Adham spent 20 days in Italy with some Islamic groups, until his uncle came from Germany and took him and his mother to Berlin. In Germany, they were psychologically exhausted. Adham spent 10 days with his uncle, until he sought asylum from the government and asked to find him a place nearby. However, they sent him to a centre that was 13 hours away from his uncle.
The room in the centre was in good shape, but the surrounding area was known for extreme racism. They witnessed a failed attempt at murder, after a person tried to drive over them with his car. Other refugees have been exposed to more difficult situations. One of them was killed, the asylum centre was frequently attacked, and a veiled girl was attacked by a German citizen.
These problems did not bring Adham down, as he considered the asylum a new challenge and a better opportunity than the war. He learned the German language from some colleagues in a school after four months, and became fluent after he dealt with the people there. He now works as a volunteer, but he returned to school to obtain certification. In November, he will start his education to become a male nurse at a hospital.
The young Syrian man had not forgotten about the suffering of his people. He did not stop at just helping refugees in Germany, but he now communicates with Syrians in other countries. He said that their common pain and the loss of their country have united them.
Adham added that Syrians in France complain of racism, while in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden they are treated well. “In Germany, people sometimes do not respond to you if you speak to them in English, even if they understand and speak it,” Adham explained.
Germany provides assistance to Syrian youth; however, Syrians prefer to work and be independent. “Only a few Syrians do not want to work. I would like to say to my friends in Syria to come if they can because we deserve the peace and safety which we had enjoyed before,” he added.
The family of Abdullah Mardini, a Syrian living with Adham, works in the field of textiles. Abdullah is famous among Syrian refugees, as he uploaded a video on YouTube titled “Syrian oppression”. The video was viewed by millions who sympathised with him after he was verbally attacked by an Algerian woman.
Abdullah did not intend to flee to Germany as he wanted to settle with his family in Algeria, but his passport and visa expired, forcing him to leave Algeria.
Abdullah said he went to Morocco, then to Spain, where people treated him very poorly. He then headed to Lebach in Germany and stayed for four days, before moving to an area in western Germany and sleeping on the ground for two days. After that, he took the bus and went to a camp before going to Potsdam.
Abdullah’s four brothers and mother are in Algeria, although they did not obtain their residencies. He says that his brothers have served in the army so their passports can be renewed, adding that he did not join the army before his departure from Syria, which is why he cannot renew his passport.
He said that life in Germany is good. He can forget about all his problems, because he feels like a human being. He chose to go to Germany because it is an industrial country, and it is possible to do something productive there, so he encouraged his family to join him there.
The video he published on social media was the result of psychological pressure he felt while dealing with Arab people, which for him was overall not a good experience. He believes that people in Syria are oppressed, knowing that his friends and relatives still live there. He added that Syria before the revolution was in a better state and that Syria was famous for its industry, trade, and tourism sectors.
The video shows an Algerian woman who wanted to return a piece of clothing she had bought three months earlier from Abdullah’s shop. After Abdullah refused to take back the garment, she told him: “You, Syrian, should return to your country.” The video also shows Abdullah getting humiliated at a barber shop.
Abdullah’s video was viewed 12 million times on Facebook. It resulted in Abdullah’s neighbours changing their behaviour, and the barber even apologised to him.
Abdul Hamid Zamzum, who lives with Adham and Abdullah, is a young man known for his kind heart. He was an automotive mechanic in Syria before leaving the country in 2013 to travel to Lebanon and work at a restaurant for a year and a half. Abdul Hamid then moved to Turkey, where he stayed for three months before migrating to Europe. He chose Germany because “it is the only country that does not abuse us”. It was hard to live in Lebanon and Turkey, especially in Lebanon, he explained.
Abdul Hamid moved from Turkey to Greece, where he and his companions were detained on an island for 21 days. They gave him expulsion papers within six months. He recounted: “We went to Macedonia by bus, and we walked for three hours until we reached the borders of Serbia. We then walked through forests until we reached a bus station, from which we continued to Belgrade and waited in a park where people gather to go to Hungary. We walked to the border of Hungary where the police detained us after walking for 15 hours.”
Abdul Hamid said that they had a GPS device to find their destination. When they reached Budapest, traffickers took them to Austria for EUR 500. In Austria, they rode a train to Munich, and again, police stopped them and took them to a camp in Passau from where they booked a train to Munich. The weather was extremely cold and they did not own any heavy clothing, as they were traveling light. The next day, they reached Munich and parted involuntarily because they got lost among the trains. The police arrested him again in Munich.
He said: “I did not know the rules, I was confused, and I could not even communicate in Arabic. They sent me to a camp and I could not sleep for two nights. I requested asylum and they gave me papers to fill out, then I handed over my passport. They sent me to another camp, and I stayed there for 15 days before I was transferred to Eisenhuettenstadt. I went there and they put me in a big tent and told me in English that I will either stay in the tent, or have to leave. The next day, some Syrian youth came to the camp. They took our requests and told us to go to court after three months. They then sent us to a Red Cross camp, and then to Potsdam.”
Abdul Hamid left his father (a teacher), his mother (a housewife), five brothers, four sisters, and his wife in Syria. His wife is trying to catch up with him, after he left her there just one year after getting married until he finds a suitable arrangement for them. He said that he will arrange his life in Germany and will not go back to Syria. Although he cannot forget his country, he will never live afflicted again.
Mahmoud: an oppressed gay Syrian loses hope in Europe
For Mahmoud, the Syrian revolution was more than just a political rebellion against the oppression of the Syrian regime. In this upheaval, the young journalist, who spent 14 years in Saudi Arabia, saw the opportunity to declare his sexual orientation and to launch an aggressive campaign to defend the rights of fellow gay people. He, however, would soon realise that he had opened the gates of hell on himself. He was no longer able to stay in his hometown and soon had to flee to Turkey. Shortly after, he travelled to Germany on quite an unusual route for asylum seekers: using a visa that he obtained to attend a conference.
Mahmoud’s rebellion began very early. Even though his parents, both teachers, are conservative in their religious values, Mahmoud refused their traditions, left the house, and set off to begin his life as an agnostic, in Saudi Arabia.
His life as a refugee would be no different from his life as an outcast in his society. Mahmoud believes Germany is not doing anyone any favours by taking in refugees and asylum seekers. “Like all countries that manufacture weapons, Germany is partially to blame for the ongoing wars and fighting in the region,” he said. Hence, he said that it is Germany’s duty, along with the rest of Europe, to, at least, pay the economic price and embrace those who seek asylum there.
Mahmoud was born and raised in Al-Salamiyah district in Hama; a district that is, as he puts it, religiously mixed. There, he worked as a journalist and blogger about gay rights. This put him face-to-face with the Syrian regime. He explained that under Syrian law homosexuals can be punished with a three-year prison sentenced. This law, he notes, was not in full practice and brought into force arbitrarily. When Mahmoud applied for a job in Syrian television, he was denied security clearance, with the reason being that he opposed the regime.
After the revolution, Mahmoud started writing about gay people and urging them to support the revolution and embrace change. The blog was soon turned into an online magazine that chronicles Syria. Mahmoud had previously worked with Iraqi refugees; hence, he expected Islamic State (IS) to come to Syria—which soon happened. Shortly after the invasion, Islamists threatened to kidnap him, so he left for Turkey in November 2011.
During his stay in Turkey, Mahmoud did not stay under the radar. He took part in demonstrations against the Turkish regime. “I believe Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator,” he stated.
Life was not easy for him in Turkey, yet he would have stayed. The Green Party sent Mahmoud an invitation to visit Germany, where he overstayed his visa and decided to push through for a new life.
Despite his religious education in Saudi Arabia, Mahmoud was not convinced about god. When he was only eight-years-old, he was denied playing music as it is deemed haram (sinful in Islam). “I do not want to obey a god who hates music and art,” he said.
Mahmoud comes from a religious family. His father was a volleyball coach and his mother was the founder of a school. His choice of studying medicine was fuelled by his father’s wishes, before he died in a car accident. Yet, a few years into his studies, Mahmoud was unable to continue. He shifted to studying English linguistics, and then settled on media studies.
Mahmoud’s sexuality is part of his life. He wanted to express himself outside the underground gay community in Syria. He points out that gay people are not a flock of sheep. “We are just like any other community: different personalities with variable political stances,” he said, adding that some gay people in Syria were afraid of change while others sought it. This, however, did not affect his relationship even though his partner opposed Mahmoud’s views.
Mahmoud fled to Turkey in fear of political and social oppression. “I was abated after I heard about the crimes of torture,” he said. “I did not want to be martyr.” When he arrived to Turkey, he did dubbing and editing for an advertising company.
He spent three years there before leaving to Germany. Although seeking asylum was never part of Mahmoud’s plans, he preferred moving there to staying in Turkey, despite the risks he may face. He did not want to be looked at as a refugee. He even considered going back to Turkey. “I was happy [in Turkey] where I had a life and friends,” he stressed. “But, as a refugee, you feel forced to justify yourself all the time.”
In the refugee camp, Mahmoud, like many others, was abused. He said that Germans believe aid to refugees is paid for by their taxes. “One time,” he remembers, “the translator refused to work with me when I told him I was gay and agonistic.” He said that Germans treat refugees like things and objects, putting barcodes on their hands and leaving children to die in the cold.
Mahmoud, who is now working with an organisation that helps refugees, spoke about the tragedy of their situation, saying that refugees are lifeless and awaiting German charity. Some have been living in emergency housing for six months. “I knew a transgender girl who would always cry because she had been dreaming of a place to live on her own.”
Syrian refugees still resort to Germany, though. Mahmoud justifies this by saying that some Syrians have relatives there and regardless of the drawbacks, the situation in Germany is better than all of Europe.
Mahmoud’s incident with the translator had affected him. “Translators are not just people who speak two or more languages,” he said. “Translation also comprises certain techniques and ethics that must be considered.” When he clashed with the translator, he was told he had no rights. “Other employees took his side,” he said, recalling the painful memory.
Thus, Mahmoud hates that refugees are treated like minors. “They are not punished for any wrongdoing,” he said, citing an incident when some refugees assaulted some Afghan girls. They were locked up for a few days and but then released with no charges against them. This, according to him, paints an image that Arabs come [to Europe] with “Eastern diseases”. He warned that gathering all refugees in one place will increase violence against women and children.
He continued that the refugee reception system strips asylum seekers of their dignity. Refugees are put in a room with 10 others; the procedures go so slowly that some people are incredibly reluctant to seek asylum.
Mahmoud said that this parallel society of refugees will be one of the biggest problems to impact the European community in decades, adding that positive and negative discrimination will increase refugees’ problems and affect their integration.