Interview with an anonymous Syrian refugee


He kindly shared his story with us, but asked us not to reveal his name.

You told us that you were one of the early ones to come to Germany - almost a year before the European migrant crisis. When was it that you decided to leave Syria?

It wasn’t actually my own decision, it was my family’s decision - it was difficult for me to stay there from their perspective. I am the only son in the family and the eldest; it’s me and 3 sisters. And for them it wasn’t an option – I was going to be in jail or get killed or something. For my father, my safety was his priority and one day he decided I cant stay anymore – he gave me a ticket and said I don’t want to see your face here anymore until it’s over. So it wasn’t actually my decision, I wanted to stay. I left for Egypt alone.

Can you describe your journey from Egypt to Germany?

I lived in Egypt for 13 months. Before I decided to leave I was trying to settle down and find a proper job and try to begin my future and have the feeling that I can start life. But it was difficult because of the financial situation in Egypt and also because of the political situation was changing all the time. And in the last 6 months I was in Egypt, I was there illegally – I couldn’t renew my visa. So I was in danger of being at any checkpoint and they just send me back to Syria. And at this point people were already talking about fleeing to Europe it was a hot topic for all Syrians there, whenever you would go to a coffee place where the Syrians would gather, you could hear everyone talking about the same thing, like “my friend is on the way to Sweden, lets go to Sweden”. And then I decided with my friends that’s its over, we have to do something; we have to start something serious. So we decided to leave.

And you managed to save up for the boat trip in that time?

I couldn’t mange all the money by myself, I had some savings, but I had to borrow money from one of my cousins. So, we went to Alexandria, where they keep people until the perfect conditions to get on the boat, we stayed in Alexandria for about 4 days, but some had been there for a month, so it depends.

How many people were on the boat?

About 150 people.

Earlier you said that there was a lot of nervousness on the boat so you all tried to make each other laugh.

Yes, whenever there’s the idea that you are in the middle of the sea and there’s nothing around you but the sea and the sky, I think once you have panic it’s difficult to calm down again. So you just need to chill and enjoy the sea.

Before you left Syria was there any optimism amongst your friends and family - a social mind-set that things might just blow over soon?

For the older generation they already new things would get worse, but for my generation we were excited and were thinking that it would end soon and Assad would leave and there would be elections. And of course you have the pro-Assad people thinking that they will always kill everyone who says no to Assad.

“Even the Christians there also think the same, most of them support him, in the beginning they were neutral, but then Assad and his media managed to get them on his side.”

I was lucky enough to visit Syria - months before Assad deemed it fair game to mutilate an outspoken teenager - and one thing that surprised me was how many Assad portraits were in public buildings and in peoples houses. He was everywhere. Was the support for Assad regional or generational, did you have friends or family that were sympathetic to his government?

From my family there was no one - there was only one cousin. From my friends yes, there were many of my friends that were and still are pro-Assad, but the majority of my friends were against Assad and all of them now are out of Syria. And of course these friends [in support of Assad] are from the minorities [the Alawites, like Assad] and think that he is the only guy who can guarantee their safety. Even the Christians there also think the same, most of them support him, in the beginning they were neutral, but then Assad and his media managed to get them on his side. Alawites in other countries too were also pro-Assad.

So in some sense this was tribalism?

Exactly, yes. And of course he managed to also take the venture capital to his side as well, like businessmen and people that have a lot of money. There’s always this combination between authority and money, it’s always like this.

When you eventually arrived in Berlin how long would you say it was until you felt at ease and at home in Berlin?

It took for me about a year. Before, I was in a refugee shelter and it didn’t feel like home, there were times when I was questioning myself about being here and if it was the right decision to come here.

Why were you having doubts?

Because we were living completely isolated, at the time it felt like this was not the right thing – I didn’t come to live here in a Syrian community only, of course I wanted to be with my Syrian friends but it’s not how I’d imagined it. I was thinking that it was going to stay like this forever, because at that time there were not many initiatives approaching the refugee camps.

What were the authorities telling you at the time?

They don’t tell you anything, they just give you papers. They don’t care what you do as long as you go to the language school. At the beginning, for the first 3 months, we weren’t allowed to go outside of Berlin, but then we were allowed to go where ever we wanted, like in Germany and EU countries.

Have you faced any challenges adapting to life in Berlin?

For me there was no problem adapting, I still have a problem with the language, but other than that, no.

Are you aware of any common problems concerning integration with those in similar situations as you, do you know of those that have experienced difficulties reconciling the culture divide? What’s the main culture shock?

The biggest culture shock I think is drinking in the streets, smoking weed maybe as well, being open minded to different nationalities, different people, like, for example being open minded towards gay people. This was something that was not in Syria, it existed, but was hidden. And here it’s normal to see two men or two women kissing or holding hands, so I think for many people that was a real shock.

Do you hope to return to Syria when it is safer and more stable, or would you prefer it, if possible, for your family to move to Berlin?

I would like to bring my family here, yes. I would go back to Syria but the political situation doesn’t seem like it’s going to change as I’d like it to.

How do you mean?

When the Assad regime is gone and the structure of the army and security forces has gone and then there’s a new structure where there’s more freedom of speech and people can live their life without being afraid of anything. This is not the way it is now.

Did you ever feel the urge to leave Syria, before the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the ensuing war in your country?

Yes of course.

Why did you feel that way?

Why? Because in Syria if you don’t have money to start your own project or you don’t know someone in the authorities who can get you a good job in the government so its…

…so the main reason was economic?

Yes, it’s not all about earning money, but having a good life. For example if I were to go to Saudi Arabia, obviously its not to go to university its just to make some money maybe buy a house in Syria and come back one day after 2 or 3 years. But there was an idea that I could go to Germany to do a masters degree before and I came to Germany in 2010 as an exchange student. At the time [of the refugee crisis] people were keen to go to Sweden but I wanted to return to Germany.