Credit: Yana Zalesskaya. All rights reserved.I live in Germany now. I have a bicycle, an address and everything, and some wonderful neighbours. We talk in English and they teach me German words. On my first day here, my uncle, a German citizen, said to me, “look after this society, it will look after you in return”. He also said, “there is justice, you will take what it is rightfully yours, despite all the bureaucratic crap”.
He said these things while we were walking downtown in the city of Oldenburg for the first time, shopping for clothes, a few hours after I arrived. Right after I said to him, “I feel that this might be a dream and I will wake up any time now and everything will be gone”. He patted me on the back, smiled and said: “It’s not, you’re here”.
Even now, thinking about it, it takes me back to how suddenly it all came to be. One single decision to leave, leaving everything behind but faith in Allah and the love of family. I took my backpack, kissed my parents’ hands and left Cairo where I was temporarily staying, once and for all. Only Allah and some friends know what happened after that.
In the last three years, since the war in Syria started, more than 31,000 Syrian immigrants entered Europe according to Frontex; enduring hardship and facing death, in search of a better life after giving up on our so-called ‘Arab World’. I think you can’t ask, “why Europe?” It’s an illogical question to a Syrian these days; or almost any other immigrant for that matter. There is everything you might want in Europe and you are taken care of, thanks to the asylum-seeking policy. It’s that simple.
For us, Europe is like this gorgeous girl, who is way out of your league. As an outsider, you don’t get close because you know you’ll be rejected. Suddenly a twist and that girl is yours. For the most part, she likes you for who you are and doesn’t mind where you come from. For the most part.
Being Syrian, doors are open for you in Europe and Europe is the only place where being Syrian actually helps. Your Syrian ID is the most valuable thing you have. You simply can’t be rejected. I interacted with way too many people on my journey, Syrians on their way to a better life. People on their own, families with babies barely a few months old… That’s the way you learn how things work, how you comprehend human trading – in every sense of the term – at the start point (Arab countries) and also the humanity that enfolds you at the finish line (European countries).
Almost everyone at some point, on the way, says, “It is not worth it”. God only knows the things they go through. I was one of those people, although now I know it’s worth it after you arrive. I remember so clearly when an Italian policeman told me, in broken English, “You are Syrian, you are free to go wherever you want”.
A phrase like that stays with you. It felt like the only thing worth hearing, it was what I needed despite my everlasting conflict with the word ‘need’. Life became substantive and imaginary at the same time, in the same flow and at the expense of the despair I thought would never leave. Indeed it left me at that moment. The word ‘free’ can be magical. I’m not special, it’s magical for everyone.
Trying to recall my journey and writing about it, is taking an incredible amount of time and effort. I start writing and then thirty minutes later I find myself having written a couple of lines and lost deep in my thoughts. I remember all the people I met, all the things I did, the pictures I took and were taken of me – yes, at some point it’s like tourism – what I ate, what I was wearing. Literally everything. It’s so strange to just share it. To shape feelings into words to describe this journey. Deep down you know you will never be able to do it justice.
“I took my backpack, kissed my parents’ hands and left Cairo”
I met people that had an impact on my life to this day, that will stay with me. Some stuck around through the journey. Inside them, I recognized a similarity between us, in the struggle and the desire to belong.
Some just passed through, but with impact. From the moment I met them I saw in them understanding, first and foremost. Until the very last moment, when the train was taking off, they didn’t leave me and my friends. Greta, an Italian friend who did everything she could to help me and my friends continue our journey and reach our destination, was crying the moment the train was leaving Milan. Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo are humanitarians, two fighters for the Syrian cause and also my friends, who are now held captive in Syria after they went out in Allepo to help in any way they could, despite our efforts to talk them out of it…
It has been months now. I’ve been told that the Italian Government is doing its best and is hopeful, but nothing has happened concerning their release yet. They once told me that they feel that Syria is their home; “Syria is no home for anyone anymore” was my reply. It was such a cruel thing to say. I don’t regret it but I do wish I could take it back.
You meet people for the very first time and you stay with them for a little while. You feel so close to them, like you’ve known them from a long time ago. They help you unconditionally. You try and drink it all in, everything, the experience of it all. Then you leave, in the knowledge you will never forget.
Italy was (and still is) quite poor, but beautiful. Actually, incredibly beautiful, romantic, vast and old. A lady of origins and style. You can feel the struggle and its sweet taste. Between mountains and at the end of the sea, as I like to call it; on the shores and beyond; unlike all that follows. There, a group of people are given new life. It’s the absolute truth. I feel, with unshakeable belief, that like hundreds of thousands of Syrians before me, Italy is the place I was re-born – despite the way we got there.
“…since the war in Syria started, more than 31,000 Syrian immigrants entered Europe”
If you heard the stories about the death trips from Egypt and Libya and the on foot border-crossings in Hungary and Serbia… If you could witness people’s faces and expressions when they talk about their experiences, if you could touch their reality a little bit, the reality of the Syrians… You might consequently know what the Italians are for most of them – the Italian marines in particular.
While I’ll never be able to do them justice, I don’t just want to go on saying how great and noble they are either. Maybe it’s best to just say what really happens out there: They pick you up, literally, with their own hands, save you, give you shelter. They feed and treat you in the best way possible. They give you the honour of the first step to Europe, and that’s in their own country. They try to persuade you to stay in Italy; they tell you how beautiful it is and also how poor it is, and of course, that the choice is yours in the end. When you say no, they show you the way to go, to wherever you want. That is the point when you take matters into your own hands. You choose a country and try to figure out how to get there.
After all the plans and dreams flew far away and left me hollow in Syria, there I was, in Cosenza, walking towards a life, more alive than ever. It was a feeling that rounded on all the loss of the past few days, days that induced such feeling of powerlessness, thoughts like “I might survive all of this but it’s very unlikely”. Powerlessness that until this day keeps me awake at night.
Entranced by everything around me, what my uncle said sank into my head. It’s true, but I still have some difficulty accepting that it’s true. You see, where I come from, literally everything is possible; show some money and you can put a tiara over your head. But Germany is order, the land of opportunity. A destination sitting in the second place right after the US, for immigrants from all over the world. I chose Germany, although for most people it is the German asylum policy that’s attractive.
The country that was once called “The Land of Poets and Thinkers” struggles to defeat the racism that it’s wrongfully associated with, as if all the other countries in the world are shielded by a dome of goodness. My answer is always the same: Never generalize. I think the stereotype has stuck, everybody says Germans are cold and racist. It’s word for word what people have said to me. But I humbly ask to be the witness to testify that it’s all just untrue. I can’t stress that enough.
“Your Syrian ID is the most valuable thing you have.”
The German government does literally everything – within reason – it can for us, the Syrians who chose to come here. You are taken care of in every way and in every aspect. Firstly you apply for asylum, they give you a place to stay with other refugees, they give you papers; the process begins, it does take time and that is the downside of living in Germany. All legal transactions are complicated and take time, you have no idea, everybody struggles with that.
After some time you conduct your first interview and get temporary residency, which allows you to move only in the district that you apply in. Then comes the long wait for transfer, which determines in which city or town you are going to stay until you are given the official three years residency. That official residency is what everybody talks about until they have it. Once you have it, you are set: you can study, work, travel and move to another city if you want to. After the official residency you’re entitled to look for a place on a certain budget, a place with a mailbox and an address, a place to call your own once again.
“The horrific things we went through from the start in Syria until we reached Europe… Never try to explain it to people because nobody would actually know”
I want to say, because it worries me, to myself and to everyone who dreamed of Europe and of life there, and who had the chance to escape from terrible events… The horrific things we went through from the start in Syria until we reached Europe… Never try to explain it to people because nobody would actually know; it will only make you stronger, maybe indestructible even, and most of all more understanding towards things.
I live in Germany now. I have a bicycle, an address and everything. I have made it. I arrived. A new beginning for what seemed to be going downwards, towards an ending. I am quite well here, with so much to be thankful for. You never forget, but you choose not to remember. I know that a lot of Syrians who share my situation might disagree with a lot of what I said here. If my experience in Europe is somewhat good, it doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone. I know that, but I still have a lot to be thankful for.
Originally published on Precarious Europe