Not long ago, Adnan Albash, 23 years old, and his brother were dodging war in Syria. In September 2014, he has escaped Damascus exacerbated by push-backs or deportations at every border and a lack of safe and legal routes into the EU. Now he is hopeful, he will return to focus on his dream of pursuing medical studies in University, in Germany. He is currently studying German and working part time in a laboratory in Munich.
Adnan Albashi accepted an interview with Neuland in order to discuss the matter of refugees in Europe while illustrating his opinion through his personal experience.
What was life in Syria like before war, until it started?
Before war, Syrian people had stable lives, nobody needed something. I am not saying Syria were a developed country, but we were all living in harmony despite the diversity of the population. Our only problem used to be political direction, which does not allow anyone to express or promote anti-regime ideas. People who had no political awareness would never experience troubles. When war began during 2011, I was a student. I had already my A-level “Abitur”. I have always wanted to follow medical studies. I used to study a lot, because admission in medicine faculties is not easy. I managed to have good grades and got the admission, and the war situation did not affect me, since Damascus was safe in the beginning. War started off in Daraa, Homs… but arrived to Damascus after a year and a half approximatively. Things were normal in my city, we used to hear about war in other regions, though we cannot help it. It is greater than our ability.
When Damascus was attained as well, Free Syrian army were fighting against Syrian opposition groups in our neighbourhood. The situation started to get difficult. My father was “arrested”, actually we still do not know if he was indeed, or he just died, we up to now have no clue what did happen. Afterwards my mom started to stop us from going outside the house. Every young man our age was supposed to fight with the army, literally, every group including Daesh wanted us to join them and fight in their side. Concerning me, and the majority of Syrian youth, I am not convinced that I should join any of the groups, simply because no one is fighting for the sake of the improvement of our country. We would not have fled, we would have joined and fought against the trouble makers. We refused to join them not out of fear, we can actually not define which side is the real enemy. The real problem consists in the fact that all the groups are massacring each other, the most damaged are the civilians, and nobody fights in view of a better Syria. And for that reason, we especially refused to join any of the groups. I have studied in university from 2011 until 2013, I remained two years in that situation and from 2013 until I have left in 2015, I basically only stayed at home. We had three houses around Damascus, they were all demolished, we had to go and live with my grandfather who lives in the heart of the city. And there again the same situation had occurred, the army wanted us to join them forcibly and so forth for the other groups. We do not want to be killed, nor do we want to kill anyone, thus we tried our best to strictly stay home. During these two years, I could not have stayed as a matter of fact without doing something. I had started to teach Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry to high school students, I love these subjects, students used to come to our place. After saving some money, I tried three times to apply for a visa to escape Syria. I communicated with the German Embassy to get a regular student visa, and I was immediately refused. Although loads of people asked for it, nobody got one from there. European consulates were inundated with immigration requests and issuing very few visas. When my brother went to ask for my father within the government, he got arrested, just because he went there and asked. He stayed in jail during 5 months. We collected around 5000 dollars to get him out. I had between 8000 and 9000 euros, and decided along with my brother to take the escape route finally.
Did you choose to come to Germany?
Well, in the beginning it was not about choosing, it was mainly about surviving. We were fed up with being imprisoned at home, horrified with the idea that we may die in any minute, even worse get arrested. For instance, I went to accompany my girlfriend back to her home, half an hour later, the building was destroyed and the whole family passed out at the same time. What I mean is, many people say “Yeah! You can stay in Syria as long as you are not fighting, you will be fine”. Well, that is not true, as I mentioned before, all the groups want youth to join them in. In the meanwhile, if you stay home all the time, besides the fact that, that is no life… one cannot be safe in his own house. Currently, no region in Syria is safe, all the groups are attacking each other, and we civilians are the victims.
My grandfather used to be a physician, he studied in Germany. I have always dreamt to become a doctor and follow medical studies in University of Damascus. And maybe, pursue my studies abroad, but I have never imagined it would be that way. First, my brother had decided to follow the way and to go to Sweden, because all of his friends went there. I told him, that Germany is better, as for the language, universities… and weather.
Would you give us an insight into your trek until you arrived to Germany?
First, I would like to point out that all the neighbouring countries to Syria, do not receive Syrian refugees anymore. It is forbidden to get in or out of the borders. Only Turkey could open her doors for us. If one manages to go through the borders, they do not send you back. From Damascus (South of Syria), until the border, there is a very long distance, one can never just drive his car through all of this distance, neither can he take a bus. Through this way there are almost seven regions, every region has at least five different political groups. So that I could pass through each in peace, I had to pay them money to do not get captured. This became like a job for some, everyone who chooses to take this road, has to give money to a “monitor” who will be charged to make you arrive alive to your destination. Exactly like “mafia”, we found out the first person in that network, he got us into a bus where 30 to 40 people were willing to escape. Once arrived to the second region the driver let us go, the second member of this network, after reclaiming an amount of money that actually means “just let me continue my route in peace and do not bother me”, a driver takes us to the next region and so on.
At any moment, a conflict would have occurred and we could have died even before getting out of Syria. Yet, we thought, let us at least try something and not wait for death to come. We wanted only one thing - which is to live. Dying on the road remains better than not trying at all. I was lucky that I got through that before Daesh took over. (Anm. D. Redaktion: (ausgesprochen Da-esch). Steht für IS: Mit dieser Abkürzung vermeidet man es, den Namen zu verwenden, den die Terrororganisation sich selbst gegeben hat) It was still in the east before a year and a half ago; we paid almost 1000 euros before arriving to Turkey in three days, in very miserable conditions. Once in Turkey, we already started to feel safer, there were no detention, no killing, no war. Nonetheless, we are not allowed to rent a flat, or have a regular job either. We were able to only go to camps, eat, drink and sleep, we could not accept that, we wanted a better life. We started then to move from East Turkey to the seaside toward the west, following Greece. We had stayed 25 days in Turkey, five days to rest and since an increasingly popular route involved a boat trip to Greece, we had spent 20 days trying to get to Greece through a new dealer, who is Syrian. We have tried several types of boats, usually it was a little boat of eight to nine meter long where 40 people or more are drawn to take the way to one of the Greek islands, and hopefully arrive there. During the first try, our attempt had failed, we remained in water for four hours, nobody knew to save us, until the sun raised up. One of the people who were with us in the boat, contacted his father who lives in Turkey, he was waiting for his response to know whether he had arrived or not. The man had a phone that can resist water, he hopefully called his father but he couldn’t send the location because the network was almost inexistent, his father went immediately to Turkish police. They looked for us for four hours, and Thank God we were saved, some people go during night and mostly drown after the boats capsize.
We then remained in the Turkish coast, my brother did not want to try to go through sea, he was scared after that. Our plan B was to try walking instead, there were a river to cross but still not like risking one’s life in sea. It was very difficult, the Greek government did not want to let us enter through that point, in this region, whenever they caught a group of refugees, they brought us to the police office, they started taking all of our money and all goods, if you contest you get beaten by border police officers, you cannot speak loud, they did not want any conflicts from the Turkish side. Their faces were not shown, so that we could not recognize them. Once we were about 40 to 50 persons, they deported us all to Turkey. Despite the fact, that it is forbidden according to the European law; asylum seekers can be registered, and fingerprinted, in the first E.U. state they entered - that is against the law. They just grouped us and drew us into wooden boats, our heads down - no possible way to look left or right and our hands were tied up with a rope - we were still waiting for our money and goods back… Thank God, we haven’t taken much money with us, we had left it in Turkey. Other people had important amounts of money since this journey requires it, unfortunately for them, it was all not given back. We were at the coast, when they gave the first person a scissor and left us there. I would describe the situation as being animals trying to survive, everyone cut the rope and run away, once in the Turkish coast again unable to locate ourselves. The situation was horrible, I can speak for hours and still not reflect it exactly. I had lived this experience twice, every time it costed me at least 500 euros. It was unsuccessful again. We then decided to retry the experience of sailing boat into a Greek island, we can die but at least we would not be suffering violent abuse and extortion at the hands of the authorities one more time. After five more trials, we managed finally to arrive to Greece. I had already spent 4000 euros of my money. All immigrants think, that once in Europe - one had crossed the most dangerous part of the journey - since we mainly passed the sea, where we could have drowned. Yet, the real danger of our journey started the moment across the Balkans. When we had to cross the sea, we were in the hands of God and the sea’s, in the way from Greece to Germany, we dealt with a lot of smugglers and criminal groups, these networks became like a mafia, there were also people, who were on the way just to wait for refugees and rub them, because they know that everyone has got money to be able to continue the way, since we did not have other options but keeping it with us.
Once in the island, we stayed almost two days there, during which we received a document from authorities that said we had to leave in the next six months, otherwise we will be in trouble. In a week we were not there anymore, regarding their behaviour and the way we were treated, I would never have stayed. We then took a ship toward Athens, where stayed two days as well, until we met the new smuggler, who took us to Macedonia. That person clearly explained the way to us and we arrived without any problems to our destination: the Greek-Macedonian border. Afterwards we had to walk to cross the border for about ten hours - except that it is not a normal way - we walked through mountains in the cold, sometimes even through railroad, it was quite difficult and painful. A lot of people died in this road, it is hard for the train to stop, and they are somehow in their mind, it is quite complicated to concentrate being extremely tired. Once in Macedonia, we had to go to a forest camp, I literally freaked out, it was snowing and I could not imagine myself remaining there without a shelter. We were surprised to see that thousands of people were already there, we were supposed to take a rest for six to seven hours and continue the journey then. The smuggler came back after a couple of days, to tell us we can leave, and after taking his money –of course- he took 100 person with him. The plan was: he will show us the safe road through the first villages and later in trucks or vans, another person will drive us from the South of Macedonia to the North, not far from the Serbian border. The smuggler used to take many people at once, because he knew that they won’t all arrive, only 45 at most did it till the end. We had to run after him like a herd for days, I do not have a clue what kind of drug he took, but he ran non-stop, without sleeping for hours, for that reason most of refugees just gave up in the way. My brother and I were not among the ones he picked first, we had only a bottle of water, few dates, our passports, clothes on us and of course money and mobiles to localize ourselves.
We left most of our stuff on the way. After two days the Macedonian authorities came to take us. They took a part of the group “to take us to the Serbian border” and the other ones were taken back to Greece. We went through unlawful ill-treatments by Macedonian border police, we were kicked and beaten by the police and thrown to the border. We tried the same experience five times but we failed, we finally agreed to just stop a car randomly, give money to the driver and ask him to drive us to our destination. We gave the driver each 1000 euros, we understood later that it is somehow his job to take people through that pattern. In Macedonia, it became a job to “help” refugees, dealers knew we are ready to pay anything they ask for, and people take profit from that. Before the departure, police came again and took us, this time we were with a Macedonian citizen, they did not proceed like the previous times. According to law, he was guilty and we were witnesses, they took us to the capital city Skopje to the court. It was 25 days of waiting, as long as I may explain and tell you about the conditions and how we lived it, it would never be enough. My brother started to fed up with trying and wanted to stay wherever there is no war, or just come back to Turkey. They ended up putting us in a closed camp, we translated it later and understood it is a “Reception Centre for Foreigners“ without any legal safeguards or any opportunity to claim asylum, they took our mobiles, goods and money. Thousands of people were there waiting for months or weeks, nobody knows what’s their situation, when one asks the police, they said we are “witnesses”. We stayed there for three months, nobody asked to testify or for our identity, our job was to stay there, we received for everyday a piece of bread and tinned sardines; for more options and for necessary stuff, we had to pay extra money, it became a business too, refugees and migrants there became also vulnerable to financial exploitation. During this time, we were not allowed to ask when are we going out, otherwise we were just beaten so hard that one would never dare asking again, they just came to check us out and count to see if someone had escaped. We were lucky to get out of there after three month only, some people who accompanied us survived there for like six additional months. We again did not get back our goods, nor our mobiles and money, the police said “they did not manage to find them”, we were grateful we got out of there, and just hit the road... They took us to an open camp this time as “refugees in Macedonia”, I would never have lived in Skopje after what I suffered during my stay in there, the camp is a building simply, no beds no windows! Nothing, during January. Almost no one was there, because whoever arrives, will find the new smugglers waiting for him to take him to Serbia. They had asked us for 500 euros each, after two hours we had already decided to leave, it was on several steps: walking, taking trains, cars… until we arrived to the Serbian border, we spent the night there and then continued the other day following the new dealer, after about eight hours of walking he had suggested two things: to continue by our own or some cars will come and take us. We did not wanted to experience the car arrest again and be witnesses, we just didn’t wanted to risk it. We reached the next village, police was everywhere we couldn’t get in, we came back to the forest for six to seven hours in cold, I would never forget that period of the journey, every time it gets colder I immediately remember those feelings. We were given numbers we could call –of dealers- we agreed with them how much and sent them our location, after another six hours we were taken by cars to the smuggler’s house, he let us clean ourselves and gave us new clothes from his wardrobe, so as to try to continue our road as “normal citizens” by bus toward Belgrade because once there, the police never returns you back. During all these months, I cannot describe the stress and the fear I lived with, to be caught and have to start all over again through that path, it was horrible after what we previously had lived in Syria.
We arrived to the capital without any problems, and again the police was a “mafia”, except that this time it was not inhuman and degrading conditions to act as witnesses for the Macedonian prosecution in criminal proceedings against smugglers but it was all about taking the maximum of our budget. We went to the police office, they gave us documents, that say we have to leave Serbian territory. We couldn’t ask for asylum in Serbia, it was a holiday, we couldn’t go to any camps and of course not in a hotel since our identity was not valid. We stayed three days in the forest, until someone told us about this hotel that doesn’t require “valid” documents, but he wanted the triple of the price, no problem as long as we could rest, the other day we agreed with the new smuggler to take us to Hungary. Well, now it was very risky for him, the crime took another dimension, since Hungary is EU, it may have cost him many years of prison, so the price had to match proportionally with it. Police accepted bribes from the driver when caught doing his “job” and one was able to continue, once in EU, it was our right to apply for asylum. We didn’t agree with the price, it was extremely expensive. We asked him to take us to the border only, for 200 euros. Once we started to get closer to our destination he asked us to jump from the car while driving, so that he doesn’t get arrested by traffic police, we had to walk only for half an hour. Once in Hungary, going to the police there was out of question, we did not wanted to live and apply for asylum in this country. We then called the next dealer to take us to Budapest, we walked until we couldn’t anymore, we took then a bus going to the capital, it was clear that we are refugees. One or two stops later, the police came and took us to a camp, the situation there was difficult, I didn’t imagine myself staying there after what I have been through in Macedonia. So many people were sleeping in a tiny overcrowded room, the conditions were unhealthy in brief. I gave my identity documents to my brother, the police did not have a proof of who I am, I got stamped but I gave them a fake name, and so did my brother. They gave us a bus ticket and asked us to go to the camp, we haven’t. We booked a ticket to Budapest, people there were mostly not friendly and not nice at all, for instance when taking a cab, we didn’t know where to go. We gave the driver the address and for three minutes of ride he asked us for 100 euros at least. Once in the train station, we took a train ticket to Vienna, and again we paid more than we should for it, the price we paid was different from what the ticket said. We met someone who told us that this train is not completely safe, he advised us to take a high-speed-train ticket and take a room to sleep, we also preferred this option and we took new tickets to Munich directly. We left Hungary without controls, when we were in Austria in Linz, a lady came to ask us: “Pass bitte?!” Apparently there were many refugees in that train, about a hundred. They let us in the main station of Linz, we were standing with three police officers, I whispered to my brother: “Let’s run away!” I mean Austria or Germany, it is the same language and asylum seeking can be a solution regarding the situation in our country, but the thing is that we gave our fingerprints to Hungarian authorities the same day, we were afraid to have to come back there. The police came after us, “Stop! Stop!” They didn’t run a lot after us, otherwise all the others would have done the same. We went to the city, no dealer worked from Linz, we met some Egyptians living there who hosted us for a little while, after looking for a while we met someone who accepted driving us to Munich for 1000 euros, 500 before and 500 after we arrive. What broke my heart was the drivers, who do this job are Syrians, who followed the same paths like us before, I do not understand! We slept in the car finally, until we arrived to Germany…
What was your first impression once in Germany, tell us how did you arrive to Munich?
I felt secure, I felt protection and safety, I was fearless of death. Everyone can say that, but I really mean it, I hadn’t slept for three days in a row almost then, when we crossed the border I slept immediately; we were supposed to take a ticket to Hamburg or to Berlin. The police was coming after the car we were in, they tried to stop the driver, he was afraid. He asked us to leave and went, the police came after him. In every country the police stopped us, except in Germany, we went in person to see them. We arrived first to Ostbahnhof station in Munich, a Saturday at 3.00 am, at that time everyone was going to or coming from a party. We had 50 Euros left, the ticket to Hamburg costed 130 Euros, we went to see the first police officer in the station, I told him “Ich bin neu hier, Ich bin aus Syrien”, he laughed and said “Kein Problem!” he thought I am drunk and that I am making jokes with him, after a while I brought up my passport and showed it to him, I then spoke to him in English and he took me seriously. We went to the police office, I honestly think that policemen here are angels, compared to Syrian ones. In ten minutes, all the questions and documents were done and they took us to the registration centre to know where we will go after, they sent us immediately to a town called Deggendorf. We stayed there for four days, we had a medical check-up, we rested and we were taken to a village later.
You live in Munich for about a year now, has your vision of integration changed?
As I told you, after the camp in Deggendorf we were sent to a village, which has only a few inhabitants, it was not even in the village, but outside, in a hotel, half an hour walk from the centre. How would one be able to integrate? We stayed there for two months, we were relaxing, sleeping and eating, we asked about how we can communicate with others or learn the language. Since we are not originally from Syria, I consider myself being Syrian, though as I was born there and my father as well, our case had to be taken care of in a big city. We are considered here as “staatenlos” because we are Palestinians, and Palestine is not recognized as a country. We then had interviews about how and why we came here, I mean normal routine questions refugees are asked, and after that meeting one should wait for a letter from the court to know if he got asylum. We were sent to Munich, it was difficult to find a flat, we stayed in the main camp for two months and then we switched for another one and so on, finally we were brought to this sport hall in a school with 66 other people, we were with people from other countries, we didn’t share the same language, I was not able to communicate with people there, everyone spoke its own language, I used to go out most of the time. From March until August I used to volunteer for a company, that helps refugees and migrants, that allowed me to meet people and have friends, also to learn some German. I managed to meet many German people, who made me discover more about German culture. I then started to feel I can integrate in society, I mean I had so many contacts, that once I got my resident permit here, I was able to find a rent, a job and immediately started German courses in one month only. We –refugees- are here, in a new country, that has a foreign language to us, we just need some time to adapt, and that is something I would like to make people understand: Every culture has its own traditions and specific cultural aspects. The point I am trying to make is, since I arrived to Germany, I am not trying to become German or copy Germans nor do I want to remain only Syrian. I am trying to discover and create a better me. In our society we have a lot of bad habits we were exposed to without forcibly choosing, like corruption for example, of course this would never apply here, I am even happy to live in a society with such values. In the same time, I try to keep our good values and my identity after all.
What would you answer people who see refugees as being a potential threat for the economic stability as well as cultural identity of Europe?
Unfortunately, it is not a matter of choice. Europeans, refugees and nobody can take the decision to stop people to run away from war. I mean, what would they do, when people arrive to EU? For some people, who come from Senegal or safe countries, they can make them come back, but for people coming from Syria and Iraq for instance: it is just impossible! It is unfortunately out of our will.
I would like to say something to Germans: We come from another culture in another continent and in every ethnic group there are good people and bad people. I am just asking to support us a bit in the beginning especially, we might make mistakes, because we still are not adapted to laws here, we will learn from you, we will learn your language and get used to your culture. If we make big mistakes, apply law that punishes us, that makes us learn too. I ask them to remember history, Europe had suffered for long because of bad politicians, many people had to leave their countries, many people from Greece were refugees in Syria at the time, they were more than welcome. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should give us asylum back as a result, it is just humanity applying and helping those in need. In the meanwhile, I understand people, being “afraid” of Islam and Muslim people. Because they think about some extremist groups, who represent a minority, they are terrorists, killers and criminals, they also see how some men behave with their wives… Yes we do have people, who act horribly, but it has nothing to do with our culture, not all people operate likewise. My other message would go to refugees here: please, we should respect people, who received us in their home country and respect their law, we should all appreciate the fact that they help us, especially volunteers. It was their choice to bring up their help in a heart-warming way. People here love being organized and tidy from the simple daily life things till the big things that matter. I mean, if you just go to the barbershop you need an appointment here, that is absolutely not common for me. I think, we should respect those things, that are new to us and try to learn them. Let’s give the best image of who we really are!
One last question, what do you want to make true in Germany?
The first thing would be to realize my dream, that was held in abeyance. I still want to become a doctor, more than ever, and to teach in university as well, I just love teaching. And of course I would like to have my family one day… Now I have to finish learning German, and apply for medical school, it became a duty to return the favour for the country that received me with the assistance and help from people, to become the best version of myself. I also hope that Syria will return to peace like years ago.
Ein Neuland-Interview mit Adnan Albash aus Syrien. Vom Arabischen ins Englische übersetzt von Sanae Mahtal um so nah, wie möglich an der Originalversion zu bleiben, wurde dieser Text nicht erneut ins Deutsche übersetzt.