Pt 3/3: A British-Syrian’s experience of a refugee’s journey
One day in December I heard my cousin had received a student visa to Germany. He was going to fly out from Lebanon and start studying at a language school in a town called Freiburg close to the German-French border. My family were thrilled, and speaking to my cousin I could hear a note of hope and excitement in his voice that had been absent for so long. I organized to go out and see him the first weekend in January after he had settled in.
My cousin picked me up at a local bus station on a Friday morning. My best childhood friend, a grown man now, was standing in front of me with a massive grin. We embraced and excitedly sat down at a cafe. Talking for hours, we reminisced about some of the wonderful times we’d spent together as children: the games we played on our sisters, the daring cigarettes we’d passed around and the time I had my hand broken by an older child in an internet café for playing our customary game of counterstrike.
The conversations continued throughout the day. He started to tell me about his ambitions now that he was in a part of the world where opportunity existed. He wanted to go to the local university to continue his studies in pharmacy. He had developed a keen interest in the field during three years of study in Syria. He described the process of creating a new drug and taking it to market as if he were talking about raising a child.
He took me to the impressive university library which we admired for a few moments. I persuaded him to come inside with me and check it out. We started to walk around the different levels surrounded by remarkable bookshelves and thoughtful-looking students. It was clear from his expression that he longed to be one of them, to be part of an institution like this, pursuing the career of his choice and bettering himself in the process. He assured me that one day he wouldn’t just be visiting this library but studying in it.
Later I met a friend of his who had travelled to Germany with him from Syria. Over a drink they began to tell me everything that had happened to them since they arrived in Germany. I had been so excited to see my cousin that I had gotten entirely wrapped up in reminiscing and forgotten that over the last five years he had been living through a civil war.
My cousin and his friend had arrived in Frankfurt with very little other than their own optimism and the expectations of their family back home. Once they got into Freiburg they found that a room would set them back most of their monthly allowance. The first few nights they managed to find a hostel but after several days of looking for cheaper accommodation to no avail, the money started to run out. My cousin told me that at this point they had no option but to stop eating so they could pay for the bed. I couldn’t believe that the cheerful friend I had heard on the phone a few weeks ago was the same person that was considering sleeping outside of a church with all his worldly possessions. I was almost angry that he hadn’t called me and tell me the truth so that I could have provided some assistance. I wished he knew that he wasn’t alone in Europe. But after five years apart he didn’t feel comfortable asking us for help.
Luckily, my cousin’s friend knew someone who had sought asylum in Germany the year before, and was now based in an area not too far from Freiburg. This person put them in contact with a kind German woman – not a social worker but just a sympathetic Christian who wanted to help. She saved my cousin and his friend. She found them some social housing at a reasonable price, showed them how to open a bank account, showed them how to get around on public transport and how to register at the language school. She single-handedly gave these young and determined Syrian boys a foundation in a suddenly much larger world.
The social housing was in an isolated village in the black forest, and as I walked through the large complex I noticed that the residents were almost entirely refugees. I began to ponder how a small village like this in England would fair if they suddenly played host to hundreds of new people that looked different and spoke a different language. I like to think that the majority of people in Britain would be welcoming, although our compassion and liberal views are yet to be truly tested as Germany’s have been. In the flat we got settled in for a classic Syrian evening of drinking mette and talking. The flat was very small; two bedrooms and a toilet, one with bunk beds, one with two single beds and a communal table in the middle. The refugees next door came in and joined us as we proceeded to fix all the world’s problems: racism, sexism, war, hypocrisy and corruption, our conversation continuing late into the evening.
I spent the next two days with my cousin and the other refugees. Anyone noticing us assumed that I too was one of them, and treated me as such. This didn’t bother me as I am assured enough in myself to not be concerned with what strangers think. However, it dawned on me that whilst on public transport or in bars that people would move away to sit away from us and avoid eye contact. My cousin explained to me that ever since the reports from the week before, that on New Year's Eve more than 1,000 women were sexually assaulted at Cologne's central train station by what were alleged to be men of North African or Arab descent, attitudes had changed. My cousin and his friend, confident guys, would avert their eyes when a woman walked past or would try to disassociate themselves from locals in social situations. They explained that this was because they were embarrassed. They didn’t want to frighten or worry any of the locals who were sharing their land with them. They knew that the German people would be aware of what happened in Cologne; that they would have noticed that the people who committed the appalling crimes looked like us, spoke like us and came from the same area as us. Therefore some of the local people might be forgiven for assuming that because we looked like those people, we would behave like them too. My confidence started to dwindle and I began to feel much less comfortable speaking Arabic in public. When a pretty woman sat next to me at a bar, I couldn’t promptly introduce myself as I usually would’ve done, and instead found myself shying away.
None of this seemed to dampen my cousin’s view of Germany though. Despite the hardships he had been through he was elated to be part of this new bigger community. Believe it or not he was looking forward to the day that he would begin paying tax and contributing to society. He said that although some people may sneer at him most would smile and say ‘guten morgen’. His life was now coming together. He was attending language school every day, was able to make his budget stretch through the month and was looking for work at weekends to start saving.
The primary reason for his satisfaction was that he was no longer in Syria. Germany provided opportunity, the people on the whole were kind, generous and meant him no harm. Syria provided no opportunity and had enough marauding savages to turn it into a hell-hole. He told me about the friends he had lost and the dangerous time he had to spend in Damascus whilst trying to get his degree. He told me of the time he had to leave his flat to attend an exam at the university only to have a rocket explode just a few feet from his car. It was hard to believe that this stable, confident young man had only weeks ago come from a terrifying war zone. I had to accept that Syria was no longer the place I had once loved, but it still has some of the same decent people in it, and I am proud to call them family.
Coming back to the UK I was reminded of how great a part of the world I lived in, how lucky I was to be part of such a just, open and diverse society. I didn’t return with a sunken heart and bleak outlook of the world. I returned exhilarated, realising that all struggles have an end. I was reminded of the intrinsic decency of mankind and the fortitude of determined, good-willed people. Although my Syrian home has been destroyed, the culture that had resided in it hasn’t. Realising this has allowed me to re-affirm my identity as a British-Syrian that I had forgotten all those years ago.
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