Syrian refugees are being reduced to objects of the news, to statistics, to 'things'. But can an integration program that has lost its human dimension be successful? And can we call such program democratic?
In the early February 2016 I traveled to Eastern Germany to visit a civic network centre Stassfurt Initiativ e.V., which has democratic and participatory principles at its core. Centre was founded by a social entrepreneur Anette Pekrul in 2014. Refugees are not only on the receiving side - they are encouraged to self-organize. Syrians helping in the centre offer assistance with the translations, trauma workshops for children, guitar lessons or free 'shop' with clothes, dishes etc. At the moment the centre supports about 70 refugees.
The whole initiative wouldn't be possible without a hard work of Anette. But what makes this place different from others is that she has created a space for three young Syrians to take the responsibility for running the centre's activities: for Alaa (34), Lubna (25) and her husband Moe (32), who arrived in Germany in September 2015.
I shadowed them in the centre and recorded this interview with them, reflecting on their life in Syria, journey to Germany, their work in Stassfurt and their views on the refugee situation. I hope this interview will help us to build bridges between communities, to bring us closer to each other. As Moe says, we do not know what they've been through. So let's be kind.
1) How was your life back in Syria?
Moe: We are married with Lubna since July 2012. We’ve met Alaa by the end of 2014. During the war, there were not many places we could go to in Damascus, only about three or four coffee houses were open and in one of these, we’ve met Alaa and we became friends.
Alaa: Before the war I was happy because I had my own business and flat, which was really hard for the young people in Syria. And it took me a lot of effort and time to achieve all this. I've lost almost everything in a few seconds, during the bombing. Both my flat and my business were destroyed. So I had no choice. I could either give up or start a new life and I chose to start over.
Moe: For me it was hard before the war. I lived in the UAE and I came back to Syria 2 or 3 years before the war, so I haven’t managed to accomplish anything really. I didn’t study, I’m not an academic, so getting around wasn’t easy. It got worse during the war, so I was also left with only one choice – to leave.
Lubna: Before the war I have studied psychology. In my city it’s not acceptable for an 18 years old girl to live on her own, but I was lucky as I've moved to the capital. When the war started, we couldn’t find any house to rent and any job, so sometimes we only had enough money to buy a food. We were staying either with a family or friends. During the war I’ve lost my brother. Losing him made a crack in the whole family.
2) How did you get to Germany?
Alaa: I left Damascus in February 2015, after we’ve all decided that there is no future for us in Syria. I was called up for the army, but this is not my war. The army checks IDs of all men over 18 in all check points and if you get caught, they force you to join the army. Luckily, I've got through. I first went to Turkey – it was the first time I’ve left the country. It was a very difficult decision as I am the one responsible for my family, my parents are old and sick. During the first four months I was living with other Syrian people, but we haven’t got along but none else around spoke English or Arabic.
Lubna: We’ve left on 15th May 2015. When we’ve arrived, we joined Alaa and it all became easier. We’ve stayed for four months, during which we've managed to gather some money to continue.
Turkey is very expensive, we’ve been working 12 hours a day for a very small salary, we’ve lived in a tiny house, packed with other people. For a month we’ve been living basically only on onion and tomatoes, sometimes we went without food for two or three days. During this time, Alaa really made the best use of his experience in the finance management and helped us to survive.
We’ve also made a bit of money by writing for an Arabic magazine supported by a British organization. We’ve got help from our friends all around the world and saved enough money to pay a smuggler. We made a deal, that we will pay for two and one of us will be driving a boat, as there was no driver – so Alaa had to drive.
Moe: The whole trip was full of accidents. Alaa broke his shoulder AND his glasses and he had to drive like this for 9 hours. We’ve lost all our belongings in the sea. In Serbia we’ve got separated and Alaa and Lubna got to Germany through Hungary and Austria. For 5 days I haven’t heard from them and I crossed to Austria through Croatia and Slovenia.
We’ve arrived to Passau, they took our fingerprints and we continued to Stuttgart, Frankfurt and then to reception camp in Halberstadt. There we asked for asylum and we were transferred to waiting camp in Bernburg. From there we’ve got our first flat in Neundorf, next to Stassfurt. In this flat we will stay until we are given a status of accepted refugees.
3) How did you learn about the Stassfurt Initiativ?
Moe: On our first day, we went to the supermarket to buy some food in Stassfurt, which is about 2km away from Neundorf. Anette already knew about us and was looking for us and as she couldn’t find us at home, she figured that we will be in the nearest supermarket. She met us there, asking if we are the new refugees and if we speak English. Most of the new refugees learn about the Stassfurt Initiativ from each other but because we are the first and the last refugees in Neundorf, there was no one to tell us.
4) How and why have you become engaged in the project?
Moe: There is no such thing as coincidence. The first day, when we have met Anette she told us about the German class in the community centre. Then she explained about the initiative and her work and we became so excited about the project and the fact that we can participate in all this. We were happy that we've got support and at the same time we can support others. There was an automatic special bond created between us and Anette and she is our best friend here.
5) What are the programs you are offering to the refugees there?
Anette: As a civic society network we are focused on the empowerment, talent discovery and potential support, inter-generational and multicultural. The purpose is to stimulate people to become active and to help them to unfold their personalities. The offer is designed for those people interested in designing their own future. That led to several offers like handcrafting, learning and teaching. Since the end of 2014 we are also offering German classes, due to the high demand.
Lubna: In general, all three of us are working as a team. Personally, I am organizing the trauma workshop for children using my knowledge of psychology. Through painting, story-telling or simply talking we are creating closer bonds with each other. They’ve been through the war and at the same time they are the future generation of German population. I am trying to show them that they have choices. This is very different from the education in Syria, when children are strictly told what they can or cannot be doing. So I’m trying to open new opportunities for them – and it’s working.
I am also responsible for ‘Zero Euro shop’, in which refugees can freely choose clothes, dishes, etc. and I am helping Anette with administration. We’ve created ‘service hours’ when refugees can come and ask questions about the paperwork or doctor’s appointment. We are trying to help her to manage the workload but it’s still a lot, even for four people.
Moe: I focus on interpreting whenever needed. This includes the German classes, which became much easier. I also work on the integration mobile app, which will involve refugees even before they arrive to their final destination and help them with the integration process, starting from learning German via mobile to preparing the documents for registration. It will also help them to communicate with the rest of the refugee community, so they can support each other. This way they don’t become burden to their new community but they can readily engage with them.
I also lead all political discussions we organize, for example discussion about the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Alaa: I have started a guitar lessons – I am no guitar master but I have seen that refugees after experiencing the war feel a need for music. And I also wanted to offer people more options of what to do because when I was in Syria, I have almost no opportunities plus until we become registered as accepted refugees in Germany, we cannot get work. It is making me very happy to use my abilities to make a positive impact on the people here.
6) There is a plan for elections trial in the refugee community – how it will look like and why have you decided to participate?
Anette: There are elections for the new state parliament on 13th of March, so we take this opportunity and run a trial elections (on 11th March) with the refugee supporting organizations. This concept was designed by the organization called LAMSA so refugees and migrants can learn about the German voting and parliament system, democracy and citizen rights.
This trial elections require refugees to learn about the political parties, their programs and candidates so they can build their own opinion and be able to vote. We will invite the candidates, they will have some time to present their statement and answer the questions of the refugee community.
Moe: As Anette said, for us this is the major part of the integration process - to learn about the democracy, German election system, get familiar with the political parties. And although we cannot legally vote yet, the sooner we learn this, the better. Through Anette we’ve already met some local politicians and we attended some events organized by political parties, we really appreciate these opportunities.
7) Would you like to stay in Stassfurt?
Moe: Of course we would like to stay. Refugees prefer to stay surrounded by their people and stay in major cities. When they are transferred to more rural areas, they would like to get back to the big city. However we would like to stay in a place, where we have a good opportunities – and we’re doing a good progress here. The most of the projects we do here can be easily ‘copied’ to new places. If we want to make a positive change, we can make it anywhere, in the big city or a village. But since we get a support from Stassfurt initiativ and Anette, we’d like to stay here.
8) Where do you see yourselves within a year?
Moe: Within a year, we should be able to speak good German, which is the most important goal for us. We would like to further develop the projects we do here. My wish is to make a change in the core of the Syrian community here. If not for the adults, then at least for the children. People are ‘damaged’ by the war.
The bad experiences during the war and on the journey changed my thinking, so my wishes for the future are focused primarily on others, not on myself. To simplify it, I wish that the dreams of all my beloved ones will come true.
Alaa: I hope that by the end of the year I will be able to say to myself that Germany was the right choice.
Lubna: I would be happy if I could see both the children and adults to take their chances, to appreciate what they have now and to use it to build a better future.
9) What message would you like to send to other refugees?
Moe: We share the same message, because sharing is caring and we are trying to spread this message: During the war you’d be either fighter or hunter, you could kill someone for a piece of bread. When you become a refugee, you get a support from a country you come into. We should watch our behaviour and cherish our blessing and peace we are enjoying now. Don’t be greedy.
But this mindset will not 'happen' just like that, you need to fight with yourself and work on yourself.
10) And to the EU community?
Moe: Give us a chance. You cannot imagine what we’ve been through so at least give us a chance.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Moe: We’d like to send a message to the humanity: Don’t use only your eyes, use also your heart.
Look for what we have a common, our similarities, not the differences. Differences will separate us and make us weak, the similarities will unite us and make us stronger.
- with love, Veronika