Becoming a refugee: Essays by Syrians living in Germany


This past Saturday at the Vatican, Pope Francis sat to address a group of several hundred children. He held an orange life jacket in his lap. What he planned to talk about was obvious. There are few people these days who can see that classic orange vest and think of anything but desperate refugees pouring across the Aegean or Mediterranean Sea, fleeing war and poverty.

The refugees “are not a danger,” he told the crowd. “They are in danger.” The pope was referring to growing anxiety in much of Europe about an influx of refugees and migrants from places like Eritrea, the Gambia, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even countries as far as Myanmar.

Facing this anti-immigrant backlash, European leaders signed a deal with Turkey in March to control the flow of refugees to Greece, which is where many of them would begin their journey across the Balkans to western Europe. Last year more than a million people made that trek. As of March 20, the route was practically closed. Under the deal, Greece can send newly arrived refugees back to Turkey. In return, the European Union will help finance Turkish refugee camps.

Thousands of lifejackets left by refugees are piled up on the Greek island of Lesbos on Nov. 9, 2015.Reuters

That’s not the end of the problem, of course. Hundreds of thousands of people are still fleeing their homes for reasons far outside of their control. They will just have to find another way to seek safety — and they already are. Tens of thousands of refugees, helped by smugglers, are making the very dangerous boat journey from Libya to Italy. Last week more than 700 people drowned attempting the trip. Some 13,000 others were rescued, plucked out of the sea by multinational teams of emergency workers.

More from Longreads on Conflict: 'The daily hustle of a Syrian refugee' by Paul Wood

A lot has been written about refugees in the last two years. But rarely do we hear from the refugees themselves in more than just soundbites. So we commissioned essays from five young Syrians who all made the difficult decision to leave their homes — who made the menacing journey out of the country, to Turkey, to Greece and across southern Europe.

Here are their stories, in their own words.


By Ahmad Shihabi, 28.

I am Palestinian Syrian. That means I am a refugee twice over.

My family first became refugees in 1948. They left Palestine to escape the violence and upheaval that took place during the creation of Israel. We call it the Nakba. Like many other Palestinians at the time, my family fled to Syria. They eventually settled in Yarmouk, an unofficial refugee camp south of Damascus.

That’s where I was born, in 1987. Yarmouk is like a city. It has schools and hospitals and other services all within about a one-mile area. It’s populated by both Palestinians and Syrians.

I finished my high school education in the camp’s school. While I was studying, when I was 16, I started my first job in my uncle’s publishing house as a typist. I worked there for six years. Then I moved to work in the journalism field with one of the Palestinian magazines that was based in the camp. I was an editor. I tried to collect some money to be able to reach university and complete my studies as a journalist. But it was too expensive. And once the Syrian crisis began, it was nearly impossible for me to even get to the university from where I lived in Yarmouk. My dreams were on hold.

Residents of the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus wait for food aid from the United Nations on Jan. 31, 2014. (Reuters)

The Syrian revolution started in March 2011. The pro-democracy protests eventually spread to Damascus, close to the Yarmouk camp. We as Palestinians supported the Syrian people. But at the same time, we didn’t like taking a public position against the Syrian regime. The government considers us guests, even though many of us have lived in Yarmouk our whole lives. So getting involved in the conflict could be dangerous for us. If we decided to take action, the whole camp would be under fire. So instead we worked to make our area a safe place for the Syrian people who were fleeing regime attacks on neighboring towns and cities.

We started bringing people into our homes, schools and hospitals. We gave them food, medicine and everything they needed. We received more than 200,000 people. We were refugees taking in refugees. And we succeeded for one year in keeping our area safe. Mostly. During this time, this first year of the conflict, we had some rockets and bombs fall on Yarmouk. Two of them struck near our house. At the beginning of 2012, my brothers and I decided to send my parents and little sisters to our relatives in Lebanon. It was the last time I saw them. After that the Lebanese government closed its borders to Palestinians.

"It was a scene that reminded all of us of the photos we had seen of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948."

I call my family every day. I miss them every moment. They supported me in all of my choices in this life. I could never have imagined that we’d be separated like this. I last saw my sisters when they were 6 and 12 years old. They never got to complete their education. My father and brothers are working to secure a decent life for all of them in Lebanon. But it is hard. They don’t have a residency permit or work permits because they are Palestinians. Maybe someday I can visit them again.

It wasn’t long until the safety we tried to create in Yarmouk fell apart completely. On Dec. 17, 2012, everything changed. The camp was directly shelled by Syrian military planes. Then opposition fighters entered the camp, declaring that the area was now under their control. It was no longer safe for us civilians. Yarmouk had become a front line in the Syrian conflict.

Palestinians, carrying possessions on their heads, flee their homes five months after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Some 700,000 Palestinians left their homes altogether. Many of them went to Syria. (Reuters)

The next day we watched as what seemed like a million people left their homes, carrying what they could, and walked out of Yarmouk. It was a scene that reminded all of us of the photos we had seen of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. After three days on the road, many of us couldn’t find a safe place to sleep. So we went home. I returned to Yarmouk with about 50,000 other people. We stayed under partial siege for six months. We went out every day to find food and other basic supplies, crossing both regime and opposition checkpoints inside and outside the Yarmouk camp. It was terrifying. We walked beneath the eyes of snipers and were at their mercy. We couldn’t see them clearly but we felt their presence and witnessed their actions many times. They could finish our life whenever they wanted. But it was either risk getting killed by a gun or risk dying of hunger.

Finally, in June 2013, I left my house and the camp completely. I went to Damascus, where my girlfriend and I rented a flat. The flat was in the neighborhood of Qudsia, which was under opposition control. But they had a truce so it was safer. It was still hard to live though. We worked at the same magazine. Both of us got $175 per month. Our flat’s rent alone was $200.

After struggling to get by there for about a year, a friend of mine came to me and asked if I wanted to leave the country. I told him that it was impossible for me because I was Palestinian. I wouldn’t be allowed into either Lebanon or Jordan. As Palestinian refugees in Syria, we don’t have formal papers and so are not recognized by other countries. This makes it difficult to move around. He then suggested Turkey. But Turkey was far and you’d have to cross through a lot of dangerous parts of the country. I asked him how we’d do it. “Illegally,” he told me. “I have a smuggler. He will take us to the Turkish border.”

"I had never experienced things like this, terrorists and military operations, weapons in the streets. Before, the children had gone to school. Syrians are simple people, not extremists. They accepted each other without consideration of race or religion or even nationality. Now I can see that Syria is truly destroyed."

It was very hard to decide if I wanted to leave this country without coming back again. I was born here. I studied here. I worked here. Even if it’s dangerous, it is my country. I like this country. My first steps in this life were on this land. And, most important for me, Syria — especially the Yarmouk camp — is my strongest connection to Palestine.

I told my girlfriend about the idea. At first she didn’t accept it because the Syrian north was under the control of ISIS and it seemed impossible to pass through checkpoints without being caught. That’s what we had heard on the news. I told her there was a smuggler and I got assurances that everything would be under control.

“If you want to go, I will be with you,” she said. It scared me to risk her life as well as mine. She is a Christian and if she was discovered by ISIS they might kill us. We agonized over the decision for two months. Finally, we decided that we would leave Syria illegally. The smuggler told us that we’d leave on the first of September. He said my girlfriend had to wear a hijab and that we also had to hide our phones and memory cards. All we could take with us was some clothes.

The smuggler gave us a plan for the journey. We would drive from Damascus to Manbij, which is halfway between Aleppo and Raqqa. Raqqa is where ISIS is based. From Manbij, we would walk over the border and into Turkey.

The street Ahmad Shihabi left in Yarmouk, Syria. The area had been damaged by airstrikes and fighting between the regime and rebels. (Ahmad Shihabi)

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2014, we left. We did not know if we would ever see home again. We drove for more than 13 hours with seven other friends and more than 50 people who lived in Manbij and were going home. They didn’t know anything about who we were or where we were going. The smuggler was the driver. We passed 47 regime checkpoints. Everything was under the control of the smuggler. He took our ID cards and our money. We paid more than $50 per person so the smuggler could bribe his way through the checkpoints. I think the other people knew that we were trying to leave the country. They could tell we were Palestinians. And no Palestinians live in Manbij. But they didn’t say anything.

While we drove, passing through checkpoints, we saw the massive scale of destruction across the country. We drove through many places, including Homs and Hama. I was shocked by the devastation. Why? Is this just for power? Or the price of freedom? Anyone can say what they want but we have one result: Our country is destroyed. After we passed all the regime’s checkpoints, the driver warned us that we had entered ISIS territory. After about a mile, we arrived at another checkpoint. Everyone was nervous. ISIS doesn’t allow women to sit near men, so all the women backed up and sat down at the end of the bus. I saw one soldier who looked very young. His gun was taller than him. He just checked the men’s ID cards and then told us we could go.

"Every step I took it seemed like I was losing one of my memories of this country. Every step I took I felt I was failing my friends, my family, my home at Yarmouk."

We were very lucky that nothing more happened. And we were relieved because we didn’t expect any more checkpoints. But I was also shocked. How can they let a child hold a gun and give him the power to kill people? I had never experienced things like this, terrorists and military operations, weapons in the streets. Before, the children had gone to school. Syrians are simple people, not extremists. They accepted each other without consideration of race or religion or even nationality. Now I can see that Syria is truly destroyed.

We arrived at Manbij at 8 p.m. the same day. The smuggler took us to another smuggler. He told him that we were going to Turkey. We followed this new smuggler to his car. He drove us to the Turkish border. He told us, don’t be afraid. All we have to do is walk a mile, through the darkness. He told us that we couldn’t use any small light, no phone, nothing — or the Turkish police would see us. They were watching.

So we walked. We walked for one hour. Every step I took it seemed like I was losing one of my memories of this country. Every step I took I felt I was failing my friends, my family, my home at Yarmouk. Then I heard someone whisper, “It’s Turkey.”

Ahmad received his residency visa, which will allow him to stay in Germany for at least 3 years, a couple weeks ago. He is now living in Greiz, a small town of about 20,000 people in eastern Germany, not far from the Czech Republic. He plans to move to Berlin.


By Yilmaz Ibrahim Basha, 24.

In 2013, I was captured and imprisoned by ISIS.

"I was a journalist. I had been trying to make a film in Raqqa. They took my camera. They took my laptop. And they took all my film. They nearly took my life."

I was held in a prison cell in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, for a month. The first cell was a tiny closet, 3 feet wide and only a foot deep. I stood in there with three other guys for 12 hours. It was dark, like a grave. I could hardly breathe. In the early morning they took us to a bigger cell to pray and I stayed there for two more days. Most of the prisoners were Free Syrian Army fighters, journalists and activists. They questioned me twice during those two days. They thought I was a paid spy for America and Turkey. Eventually they led me out of the cell, blindfolded and handcuffed. Some of them said they would take me to Mosul in Iraq to their military court. Others said they would kill us in the center of Raqqa, which was a famous place for public executions. All that turned out to be lies just to terrify us. They put us in a minibus and drove for about two hours. I thought we were really going to Iraq. Then they stopped in the desert; I could just see through the band over my eyes. Some prisoners started praying because they thought we would be executed. They made us hold each other’s hands. They took us down inside a basement. They put us in a small room and took our blindfolds off. We were five people. They brought a small dish of rice and three pieces of bread for us all. They beat me with a cable.

I was a journalist. I had been trying to make a film in Raqqa. They took my camera. They took my laptop. And they took all my film. They nearly took my life.

After a month, they finally released me. It was thanks to some members of local clans in Raqqa that I knew before. They negotiated for my release. I was so happy to be free again. But I was not really free. Syria was no longer a safe place for me. Fighters from ISIS could come for me again any time. And when I called my family to tell them I was released, my father told me I shouldn’t go back to my home in Ras al-Ein, which is in northwest Syria, near the Turkish border. He said the situation there was too dangerous for me. I was wanted by the regime and other parties for my work as a journalist. So I made some calls to friends. I determined that Turkey was the safest place for me to go. 

At that time, in July 2013, it was still possible to safely cross the border with Turkey. I decided to go to Istanbul because it was a big city and I thought that finding a job there might be easier for me. But the French Embassy in Ankara had asked to meet me, so I went there first. They wanted to ask me about the French journalists who had been kidnapped by ISIS. They thought I might have some information about them. They also asked me about ISIS in general, and about my experience in Raqqa.

A homeless Syrian man in Istanbul, Turkey. For many Syrian refugees, finding a job in Turkey is near impossible. (Reuters)

When I finally arrived in Istanbul I went to a hostel first with some friends and tried very hard to find a job. But it was all in vain. The little money I had saved was becoming less and less every day. Without work it is difficult anywhere. In Turkey, searching for a proper job is like looking for a needle in a pile of straw. They ask you to work no less than 15 hours a day with a salary that will not be enough to cover even rent. I started to become hopeless and desperate. Language was the first problem since I didn't speak any Turkish. Being Syrian was another problem because they didn't like us. Employers discriminated against us. I met people who were forced to do hard labor for little money. They lived like robots. I didn’t want that.

But as they say, when a door closes another one opens. There was a conference in Istanbul to discuss the situation in Syria. That was September 2013. I was invited to it because I was an activist and a former prisoner. At the conference I met Ahmad Tuma, who is the head of the exiled Syrian interim government. He knew I had worked before in the media and asked me to work with them as a photographer and cameraman. I was excited to become part of a project that might shed light on Syria's conflict and the terrible existence of so many Syrian refugees. I wanted the whole world to see these facts, to understand the devastation of what was happening.

So I moved to Gazientap, which is close to the Syrian border. That’s where the new headquarters of the Syrian interim government would be. A few months later my family called. It was bad news. They had been forced from their homes by the Kurds in Syria because they were my family and I had been working for the opposition government. The Kurds told them that I had to surrender myself or they would take my father instead. So my family decided to make a run for Turkey.

"I tried to look for a job again. But working in Istanbul is like slavery. You work long hours for little money. And sometimes they cheat and don't pay."

Incredibly, they made it. It was my father, my sister and my aunt, who has been like a mother to us after my mother died of breast cancer in 2010. I went and met them in Urfa, which is in southeastern Turkey. When I was a prisoner I thought I would never see them again. I was so happy. But I was also sad. They lost everything because of me. They comforted me saying all was OK. They told me they were proud and willing to give everything for my safety. It was a moment full of joyful tears. But I still felt guilty about what happened.

From that time on I became responsible for my whole family at my young age of 22. I searched for a new flat so they could live with me. I found a small flat for 1,000 Turkish lira ($340) per month, which was a big amount for a small place. But I had no choice. Many people in Turkey won’t rent to Syrians. 

I started working with foreign journalists as a freelancer, translator and story finder. I worked with the Daily Telegraph and the BBC and many others. I liked that; it was an amazing experience to do what I really liked. My excitement for working with the government began to fade away pretty quickly. They weren’t sincere in their concerns about refugees, or even Syria, I thought. So I left them in December 2014 and decided to go back to Istanbul.

Eventually my cousin called me from Syria. He proposed the idea of going to Europe. But it was winter and I didn't want to leave my fiancé alone at that time. She had just come to Turkey from Iraq, so we postponed leaving until summer. I met my fiancé online. We got to know each other for about six months while she was in Erbil, Iraq. When she moved to Turkey we met for the first time and our relationship became strong. We were married last August.

I went to Istanbul this time with promises from Syrian friends living there to help me find a flat and a job. My family moved to live in a shared house with my uncle near the Syrian border. But nothing was easy. One night while I slept, I was robbed. Our money and our mobile phones were stolen. The people I thought were friends were only using me. When they needed my money they were friends. But when they got their own jobs, they turned their backs to me. I tried to look for a job again. But working in Istanbul is like slavery. You work long hours for little money. And sometimes they cheat and don't pay.

I tried working again with foreign journalists. I traveled between Istanbul and the Syrian border, researching stories about refugees and former members of ISIS. Finally, spring came. And with it new ideas of starting a new life in Europe. I wanted to achieve my dreams of studying photography. Pursuing my dreams in Syria was too dangerous, and in Turkey it was impossible because I wasn’t a resident. Europe seemed like the only place I could go after them.

Yilmaz lands in Greece after leaving Turkey by boat. (Yilmaz Ibrahim Basha)

My cousin came from Syria and we carefully planned the trip for about a month. We studied the routes and made all the necessary arrangements. With a big group, we headed to Izmir, a town in Turkey that is on the Aegean Sea. From there we would board a boat, face new dangers and challenges, and hopefully start a new life. Maybe I’d be able to bring old dreams to life once again. It was difficult to leave my fiancé, but we had no other choice — I didn't want her to go through the illegal process to get to Europe. I thought that if I go first and get residence in Europe, then she could meet me after.

But after four months apart, it was taking too long. So she decided she would make the trip as well.

Yilmaz got his 3-year residency visa several months ago. He now lives in Berlin, where he is studying art and photography at a local university. His wife is Zozan Khaled Musa, who writes about her journey across Europe to meet him below.


By Rena Khalid Moussa, 29.

Staying in Turkey was not possible anymore. The idea of Europe controlled my mind. In Turkey, even if you have a university degree, finding a good job is like a fantasy. 

I started my journey in Istanbul. The first stop was Izmir on the Aegean Sea. I called my neighbors from Syria, who I knew were living in Izmir, to ask if I could stay a few days until the smuggler called to say it was time to leave. After two days with them, the person I was relying on to arrange things with the smuggler called me to go to the meeting point. I was only a few steps out of the house when he called again to say that the trip had been canceled that night — the weather had changed. So I went back to my friends’ home.

The next day he called me again. He said we would do it today. So I packed my bag and took my life jacket, which cost a lot of money. There was traffic so I was a half-an-hour late to meet him. The smuggler was mad at me. He said that my bag was too heavy and that I couldn’t take it. I told him I have important things in my bag. I said I was a woman, and a woman needs to have many things, not like men.

"The idea of a safe trip and good weather was just a lie that we used to comfort ourselves. I knew that all of them were liars, getting rich in the trade of humans."

We got into a taxi to go to the meeting point with the others. On the way I gave him 1,200 euros ($1,300). That was the price for crossing the sea to Greece, where I’d be able to begin making my way into Europe. Before we arrived at the coast, he got a call from the other smugglers. They told him to go back because the trip was canceled again. We had to pay for the taxi. Another 200 Turkish lira ($70). I was not really surprised. I expected anything from an illegal trip. I took my money and decided to find another smuggler to deal with. The idea of a safe trip and good weather was just a lie that we used to comfort ourselves. I knew that all of them were liars, getting rich in the trade of humans.

After two more days, I finally found a boat. I went to a small mosque and from there they took us to an abandoned house. We all gathered in one place. Then they put us all in a big truck, like a flock of sheep. We arrived at 9 p.m. to an empty place. Only the sound of water and wind could be heard. We were not allowed to talk or turn on flashlights. So we put on our life jackets in the darkness. They asked the men to help fill the inflatable boat with air. It took them about two hours. When they finished, they told us to go down to the beach in small groups without noise. After that they brought the raft to the beach and rearranged us until we could all fit inside. I don't know exactly how many people we were because it was night. But I think that with the children, we were about 60.

An overcrowded inflatable boat with Syrian refugees drifts in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece on Aug. 11, 2015. (Reuters)

The men sat on the edge of the boat and women at the bottom. I was sitting next to the engine, the lowest part, nearest to the water. We thought that the trip was only one or two hours, maybe even less. But what we didn't know was that our souls were just a game for these people. We were not even in the sea. That's what I finally realized, although it was deadly dark. It was some kind of narrow river or channel. The engine was started by the driver, which is usually one of the refugees. They would drive the boat in exchange for free passage. But this time it was one of the smuggler's men. Two of them came with us until we arrived at the point where we thought the river emptied into the sea.

I took my phone and turned on the GPS. I was shocked to find out that the channel was so long. The location was still far from the sea. It took us more than two hours in that river alone. The engine got stuck many times in the weeds. It stopped each time. When we arrived at the sea, another boat was waiting to take the Turkish driver and replace him with an Algerian refugee. When the new driver took the grip, the boat sped round and round, creating waves. All the people on the raft began to panic. We shouted that we wanted to go back. But no one listened. Finally, the Algerian got control of the boat and we began to calm down. But now we were in the sea and the waves were so high that sometimes I felt like the boat was going on the top of a mountain and coming down. There was no light but the moon. The stars were shining in the sky.

"When the boat was going up and down the waves, people's voices were rising with prayers. For me it was ironic that most humans don't remember God unless they are in trouble."

I don't know why but I was not so afraid. Before I boarded the boat I thought that the most horrible part of the journey would be the sea, especially at night. When the boat was going up and down the waves, people's voices were rising with prayers. For me it was ironic that most humans don't remember God unless they are in trouble. Prayers became as loud as the boat was high on the waves. The men said they could see the lights of the island. It is hard to stay calm when you are in a struggle with life and death. It seemed like an endless journey. After two more hours we saw the lights of a ship. It was the Greek Coast Guard. Finally, we felt safe. It didn’t come too near that it would bring us waves that might turn us upside down. Instead it went behind us, turning its lights toward the island so that we could see it. It was now near. I don’t know how but I fell asleep for a few minutes, although no man can think of sleeping.

With the help of the coast guard, after one more hour, we arrived to the island safe. After five dangerous hours, we were happy and thankful to be alive. That was all we could think of at that moment.

Rena is living now in Minden but plans to move soon to Bielefeld, a medium-sized city in northwestern Germany. Rena had her interview with immigration a couple months ago, but is still waiting to get word of her approval for a 3-year residency visa.


By Zozan Khaled Musa, 25.

After a long dark journey in the Aegean Sea, I arrived to the small Greek island of Nera at about 3:30 on the cold morning of Oct. 3, 2015. There were many local fishermen who helped us after the boat landed. They wanted to have the boat’s engine, which was valuable to them. It was an unbelievable relief to see our feet on land again. We decided to rest in a small room near the beach. There was not enough room for all of us. So only the women and children stayed inside. I made my bag a pillow and my jacket a blanket, but it was so cold that I couldn't close my eyes.  When there was enough light, we walked to the local police station. It was about two-and-a-half miles away.

"In Nera, when my turn came to get inside the office, they wrote the number '17' on my hand. I will never forget the day that I became just a stupid number on a long inhuman list."

Many boats arrived to the island that night. Hundreds of people were standing in a line waiting their turn to be registered so they could take another boat to the main island of Kos. In Nera, when my turn came to get inside the office, they wrote the number “17” on my hand. I will never forget the day that I became just a stupid number on a long inhuman list. How shameful for humanity that so many people became nonhuman in that single helpless moment. I did all the procedures as best I could and headed to Kos, where the authorities waited for us with a paper with each one of our names on it. That paper allowed us to get on a ship going to Athens. It was a 12-hour journey. I made it to Athens the next morning and parted from my husband's friend’s family and met a Greek friend who was helping me get on a bus to the Macedonian border. It was 11 p.m.

I arrived at the border a 6 a.m. I had a small argument with a security guard at the border because he was not being fair. Some people had been waiting for a long time, but he was letting the new ones in before them. “You seem nervous. If you want, you can go back to your country and stay there,” he told me. I would not have kept silent, but a friend calmed me down. Being a refugee or a war victim doesn't mean I have to shut up when I am treated badly. I fled Syria not to have Europe's money or financial benefits. I fled because the whole world became suddenly and intentionally blind, deaf and mute toward our human mad disaster in Syria.

We paid 25 euros ($27) each to board an old trash pile they called a train. No words can describe its dirt and terrible smell. Then, when everyone was piled in, it moved as if walking on eggs. That’s what we say in Syria about slow things. But finally I was on the Serbian border. It was then that I began to wish I never had started this journey. I had the worst experience after walking a long way, about four miles, to the first town where the registration center was. I can't remember the name of the town. I was so tired. But I wish I knew it so I could tell the world how bad it was there. It was supposed to be a place for people to have some rest. But refugees were out in the streets and were allowed only to get in for a few minutes to put their details on papers and to become a number again. It was a shock to see thousands of people waiting and pushing each other, and how badly everyone was being treated by the Serbian police. It is an experience you would never want to go through unless you are truly desperate. Some people I met there said they had been sleeping in the street for days while waiting for that silly registration paper.

Syrian refugees walk through Croatia on Sept. 19, 2015. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were forced into Croatia after Hungary drove them away using a metal fence, tear gas and water canons. (Reuters)

Nothing in such a journey is rational or human. 

After the hopeless waiting, I got to know a Serbian journalist. She was a nice lady and she helped me get in faster. She even managed to help me get permission to take the bus to Croatia for a few hours so I could see a completely different place, where people behaved differently. I saw real humans with real compassion. They were amazingly respectable people. I was given some hot tea and some rest. That same day I took the train to Hungary. On that train, I finally got some sleep. 

In Hungary, I didn't see anything since I arrived at night and immediately got on the train. But I did see the new fences on its borders with Croatia, which would be closed only a week after my arrival in Germany. Another door closed in the faces of refugees. In a few hours I was in Vienna, Austria. I spent a night in a sports complex that had been turned into a place for refugees. That night I slept as if I had never slept before, although it was an open place where all people there can see you.

In the morning I went to the main train station and booked a ticket to Germany. I was so afraid that I would be caught in Passau, the town in Germany that is on the Austrian border. I wanted so badly to see my husband, who was already in Germany. On the way I didn't speak a single Arabic word so that no one would know that I was a refugee. I met some Americans on the train. They were tourists. I had a small chat with them about their trip. We also talked about the refugees. The woman was not happy with them at all. They both didn't know that I was myself a refugee until we arrived at the border. I saw the German police waiting to get on the train. I pretended to be sleeping. But I could hear what was going on. I closed my eyes for about a half an hour, a moment that felt endless. Migrants and refugees were caught and brought out of the train. As for me, maybe my ability to speak some English and the fact that I don’t wear a hijab — most of the other women were wearing it — helped me not be spotted.

After the train doors closed, I sighed in relief. I opened my eyes from my fake sleep to see from the windows hundreds of children, women and men — old and young — standing in a row with the police surrounding them. That was my first experience in Germany. I was happy that I could pass safely but it was not nice to see those helpless people out there as if they were criminals, especially those who were not wanting to stay in Germany. I put myself in their shoes. It's hurtful when you see others look at you in a certain way, assuming that you came because of poverty. That's what most people think of the word “refugee.”

Zozan is Yilmaz's wife. She is now living in a tiny town of about 5,000 people in northern Germany, close to the Netherlands. She has an interview this week with the immigration office. Then she will have to wait for approval to get her 3-year residency visa. Then she will be able to move to Berlin, where she will reunite with Yilmaz.


By Hassan Jamous, 24.

Hurray! Finally, I am in Germany. “Out of the truck,” the smuggler shouted. “We are in Munich.”

I didn’t really care where we were. I just wanted to get out of that chicken truck fast. I took a long breath and I looked around. “Are we really in Germany?” I asked myself. It was the morning. I didn’t see anyone. The other 20 Syrians who were with me in the truck started to change their clothes quickly. I didn’t really have any good clothes. All I had was dirty jeans and an ugly jacket. I didn’t know what to do. I was expecting the police to come at any time and arrest us.

But for the moment I just tried to enjoy the quiet and the clean air after a long, noisy trip. I didn’t know any of the other refugees who were with me. We only met at the smuggler’s house back in Budapest. “Wait for 15 minutes and then go away from here,” the truck’s driver told us. Then he drove away. We waited. And then I decided to look for the first police officer I could find on the road.

"I am no longer in my house. I am not sitting in my kitchen with my family, waiting for my mother to prepare a nice meal. This is my new temporary life now."

Then I noticed two guys and a little boy looking at me. They were Syrians from Damascus as well. “Where are you from?” asked the oldest one. “Damascus,” I replied. “Do you speak English?” I said I spoke a little bit. “We are going to a city called Saarbrücken. They say the people there are very nice and the procedures are faster there for refugees.” I thought, why not?

We stopped a cab and I told him in English that we wanted to go to the main bus station. “No problem,” he said. “But do you have money?” I answered with a big laugh, “Yes, we do.” It was like he knew that this was our first hour here in Germany. Maybe it was the color of our skin. In the cab, I stared out the window at this beautiful land. Can I build a future here? I wondered. Can I really call this land a second home? My thoughts were interrupted by the taxi driver’s voice. “We are here,” he said.

We took the first bus headed to Saarbrücken. It was a six-hour ride. I spent most of it sleeping like a baby. I was desperately hungry and tired. There was a camp for refugees in Saarbrücken. I saw a lot of nationalities at the camp, not just Syrians. There were a lot of lines and a lot of noise. They gave me some food and sent us to a room. I ate very fast and slept.

A television screenshot Hassan took of his home street in Syria. Hassan lived in a suburb of Damascus called Darayya, the site of intense fighting between the Syrian regime and rebel forces. (Hassan Jamous)

The first full day at Saarbrücken was very hard on me. I had to wait in lines for food and papers. But I had to just deal with it. I am no longer in my house. I am not sitting in my kitchen with my family, waiting for my mother to prepare a nice meal. This is my new temporary life now. After about a week they transferred me to another camp. I didn’t know why. I asked the administrator and she said kindly that this is normal here in Germany. You will be transferred to another camp in Treir, she told me. She had a very beautiful smile.

They gave us train tickets and a map. During the trip I was looking at the German people’s faces in the train and wondering, “Is it really OK to be here?” I didn’t feel comfortable. Everything was new and I felt weak. The Treir camp was smaller and it contained about a fifth of the refugees that the other camp had. There were no places to sleep. We spent the first night in the hallway. Then we were transferred again. This camp just didn’t have enough space. I was so tired of traveling. I just wanted to be in one place. Everyone treated us nicely. There were big smiles everywhere. They do really have a difficult job. I thought the people would hate us here.

I always had to wait a long time to get on a bus, or to get food, or to get into the shower. You can’t make any real friendships in the camps. You don’t know who will go or who will stay. You just wait to get transferred to a house if you’re lucky.

By my 28th day in Germany, I was used to being in the camps. I had developed strategies to get food. People tried to forget and move on. They played sports to amuse themselves. I thought the children were really happy. They were playing all the time, running and fighting. It was a scene that is hard to see in Syria anymore. I was sleeping in a tent with 200 other people in it. The most difficult part was sleeping. There was always someone doing something loudly — a kid crying or a drunk laughing. It wasn’t a perfect life but we could be patient. At least it was safe.

Hassan stands in front of a whiteboard during German language classes in his new hometown.Hassan Jamous
Finally, they transferred me to a house in a small town called Stadecken-Elsheim. I didn’t really care about the place name, I just wanted to be out of the camp. Already I was thinking about a nice room and maybe cooking myself a good meal. Those were my dreams for the moment. On the day of the transfer, I woke up at 6 a.m. happy for the first time in months. They told us goodbye at the camp in a very nice way. The bus came and I said goodbye in my mind to the camp, hoping I wouldn’t have to come back here again.

They drove those of us who were moving to Stadecken-Elsheim to the municipal office first where we registered our names. The employees were very nice and smiling again. They said in English that six people would live in the house until we got our 3-year residence visas. That was OK, five is better than 200. They drove us to the house. I didn’t see anyone in the streets but I had the feeling that everyone knew we were coming. Day after day my trust became stronger. I helped my roommates when they wanted to go to the doctors and dentists. At first I was really shy about speaking with the Germans. But wherever I went I saw smiles.

"It occurs to me that everyone here is smiling at us, but we are not smiling. It seems like we forgot how. It seems that in the end I didn’t need food or money or even a safe country. All I needed was a good honest smile."

One day, a volunteer came to us to help us with everything. She’s teaching us German and we call her Migy. I call her my German mother in my heart. I owe her a lot of things. It occurs to me that everyone here is smiling at us, but we are not smiling. It seems like we forgot how. It seems that in the end I didn’t need food or money or even a safe country. All I needed was a good honest smile.

After 10 months of waiting, I received my residence visa. I am allowed now to stay for three years to work and study. I still have to work on my language skills.

It’s a long road for the future. I don’t feel weak anymore, although I feel in pain each time I hear the news. We did create some problems in Europe. I feel pain when I see new political parties take advantage and get stronger because of us. On the TV we are big in numbers. They are saying that most of us are not educated enough. Or that we are radicals. It’s a price we have to accept for the things that happened in Syria.

But I am a human with big dreams. I will work hard to prove them wrong.

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