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We Arrived and They Put Us in Prison: In Conversation with a Syrian Refugee

Image © Zain Hazzouri
This post was originally published on Berlin Logs. You can find it here

When I arrived at a bar for drinks a few Fridays ago, one of my friends introduced me to Zain and Waael, two guys about our age – Syrian refugees who were staying with our friends. We chatted, played pool, and eventually got into talking about what was pretty hard to avoid: the crisis in Syria and the way it has affected their lives. Waael emphasized that he wanted to get his story out there, to be heard. Over coffee a couple of days later,  Waael gave his personal account, which, to me, is a story of the human will to keep going.

The War
Waael Alafandy is from Aleppo City. He is 21 years old. Before the war, he was a bioengineering student and an English teacher, Waael remarks, “each year I do better, I go up.”

With the onset of the civil war, however, his family’s savings began to dwindle. Sometimes having to work more than 12 hours a day to help his family, his grades began to suffer. “College was fading away from my life, it was disappearing each year.”

“Anywhere, anytime,” the air strikes could occur. “Each time you say I’ll have patience… but at some point you run out of choices… Everything has changed, every small detail.” Living like this is full of fear and uncertainty. “You have patience, but it just becomes worse and worse—that’s why people leave.”

Breaking Point
What ultimately led him to make the decision to leave was when he was walking, “…this bomb was very close to me…when it bombed, I flew. It was like the movies. There was an old guy in front of me…and if there was nobody in front of me, I would have died. His body was in pieces in front of me, his blood… and that time I felt that I’m gonna die. You know, in Syria you don’t fear death. Death is the easiest thing because you won’t have the problems of all the things you have to deal with. You just die and rest. I will tell you, anyone still in Syria doesn’t fear death, but that time when I flew and saw his blood everywhere it just changed everything.”

The Journey
For one segment of the journey he went by boat from Turkey to an island in Greece. “From the first time you saw it, the boat was damaged. It was like a death trap. At the time, we were 15 people with bags and the boat was 9m. The smuggler screwed us, and put us on a route for an island that was 50km [away]. We didn’t want to go in the boat. There were families; there were kids. And the smuggler took out a gun and he shot it in the air and said, ‘Everyone [get] on the boat! No one stays.’ And he would really shoot people if they don’t go. In the middle of the sea, the engine stopped. In the middle of nowhere, the sea was terrifying.” Waael and another passenger fixed the waterlogged engine. “When we arrived to the coast, the boat was filling with water, if we didn’t fix it in time we would have drowned. And even if we have lifejackets, you can’t stay in the sea! You can’t just swim 20km in the sea. It’s not as simple as everyone thinks.”

“Another adventure,” as Waael puts it, began when he arrived in Greece. “We saw the Greek police and we thought that they would help us. We arrived and they put us in prison.” Waael stayed in the overcrowded prison for eight days with little food, no running water or electricity, and no idea when he might get released.

“[I] finished one part of this game […] They gave us papers, and we are going to finish this walk now, everything will be amazing. We will arrive [in] Germany!” Next Waael needed to walk through Macedonia and Serbia. “It was one of the hardest parts of my life. I can never forget. When we used to sleep in the woods, it was the worst thing because it was so cold and you could feel your heart shaking from the cold. We used to tell each other, please piss on me so I can be warm. It sounds funny, but it was reality.”

All along the way Waael describes having been treated like a criminal. “If you don’t pay them [the police] money, they will take you to prison or take you back [to Greece], and you have to start all over again. He was caught several times, “they hit you and even tazed me, chasing [us] with police dogs.” By the time he reached Belgrade, after nine days of walking through Macedonia and eating only Redbull and Snickers— bought from gas stations with money given to them by citizens on the way, Waael collapsed from exhaustion and had to spend several days in hospital.

The Will To Keep Going
To keep going, he relied on thoughts of his family: that they were praying for him and counting on him. “Every day I walk, I just think of my family and hope and the new life I will have in Germany, and I just kept going. We used to walk for 14 hours a day. It never ends. I still have a small phobia of the railway. You just keep going. You just can’t stop. This is what I signed up for. When I have charge on my mobile I just put music and be in another world. Just walk and walk. Close your eyes and just walk. Each day people would turn back, [but] Anyone can do it if you have the will. If you quit, you have to go back to the war.”

 “A Paradise Without People Is Not A Paradise”

Upon arriving in Germany, Waael spent a short time in a refugee camp in Ruthen, a small village full of people from North Africa and the Middle East. “Everywhere I go I don’t find Syrian people. It’s all over the news, but there are few,” compared to other nationalities he’s encountered. From here, he was transferred to Langenburg, in a three-bedroom house with eight people. Waael hopes to move to Berlin once he gets papers. “It’s better – so much – from other cities. You find diversity. You don’t feel strange; you feel more [at] home than any other place.”

“The journey cost me about 3000€, and that was all I had. We thought that once you arrived in Germany it would be magical. You arrived; you were in heaven, paradise! You would have money and everything. You won’t need anything else. And when I arrived in Germany, I was at zero. I had nothing. It’s really hard when you don’t have anything, and you want to live a normal life. I just hope I learn the language, that everyone will accept me for who I am and where I come from.”

“I think my choice was correct to come to Germany of all the other countries… Mrs. Merkel helps the refugees a lot. She’s always defending us. It’s very awesome. You won’t find that in any other European country. It’s good to feel that we have a mother. Every Syrian calls her our mama. She believes in us.”

“German people…they have this thought about Syrians or refugees that they’re going to be bad, that they’re uneducated people from the desert.” Therefore, he says, “I miss my friends. We have a saying in Arabic that a paradise without people is not a paradise.”

On Syrian Identity
Asked whether he would ever return to Syria, Waael paused thoughtfully, “Syria is a sad story for every Syrian now… We have become lost people. We don’t have a nationality anymore. You can’t say I am proud to be from Syria because Syria is over. There is a lot of disagreement among Syrians, some want to go back and rebuild. Everyone has an opinion. I can go back to Syria when I have something to do for Syria.”

But either way Syria, he feels, “didn’t give us anything.” Right now, “I don’t feel the need to give back to Syria.” Currently his family is still in the war zone in Aleppo, and, “really, they might die at any time. It’s a responsibility I have on my back to make a way for them, to help earn money for them to come here.”

When asked if he had any message to the German people, Waael said, “German people, do not be afraid. We are not here to take anything from you. On the contrary, we are here to live with you, to be friendly with you. We are no different. We promise you that you will see the best of us. We only want to live. …Syrians [are] struggling to prove themselves to the whole world.”

For Waael and many like him, this journey isn’t over yet.

To find out more about Waael’s experience as a refugee or to make a contribution, you can check out his fundraising page. If you’ve been wondering how you can contribute to refugee relief efforts, this is a very direct and tangible way to do it. Waael and Zain need money for basic necessities like food and clothing as cold weather approaches. 

Photo: Portrait of Waael Alafandy| © Zain Hazzouri

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