The Greeks showed us a great deal of solidarity

Maher left Syria with his family, crossed the sea on a boat and, after landing successfully in Greece, made it to Germany. While learning the language and preparing for a job, he dreams about returning home to a peaceful Syria.

Photo: Xenie Majznerová

What was the situation in Syria and what were the reasons that made you leave Syria?

The situation in Syria was very good and we were living a very happy life. Then came the problems. You probably know it and the whole world knows it. I personally still do not know why the problems came, because we were living a happy life, me and the whole Syrian nation.

The problems started in certain areas, and then shifted to others. We had only heard about it from the media, then suddenly there were problems even in the area I was living in. I had to leave there with my wife and son just to protect my family, so we moved elsewhere.

We lived together with my wife’s parents under one roof. But then the problems appeared there as well, and a projectile hit the room where my son was sleeping. He was injured in the leg, unable to walk, and he started to suffer from an impediment in his speech. So I came to the conclusion that we had no other option than to leave the country.

My son was having panic attacks that happened every time he heard the sound of a plane or shelling. And when he wanted something, he had to put enormous effort into saying just one word. So my family started strongly encouraging me to leave. Even my mother begged me, for my own sake, to hit the road for a month or two, and then come back. So we moved from to Syria to Lebanon.

I worked in Lebanon and stayed there for eight months. I took over the treatment of my son during this period. Thank God he recovered and was able to walk and speak again.

In Lebanon, there was a big inflation crisis going on. Even my monthly salary was not sufficient to cover the rent and living costs. I was broke one day, indebted the next – to sum it up, it was very difficult in Lebanon. I even had to live in an apartment with my father-in-law.

After some time, I had the idea to leave Lebanon. I left for Turkey and met with some people who wanted to leave for Germany as well. I was thinking a lot in Lebanon about whether I should go alone or with my wife and son. I asked a lot of people, and they told me that the journey was very difficult and would be risky if I went with my family. Everything I knew about the circumstances on the road came from hearsay; it was all, of course, dark and unknown for me.

Finally I made a very difficult decision: to go by myself, without my family. I set off for Turkey and then for Germany, me and my friend.

Where did you experience fear at its strongest, and where did you feel most welcomed and assisted?

My most difficult decision was to leave behind my wife and son, although it was in the interest of their safety. But at the same time, I was also afraid when I imagined my son drowning in the sea right in front of my eyes. The transportation vehicle furnished for us to cross the sea was a rubber boat and the man who got us onto the boat was – forgive me for saying this – a heartless man. He promised that we would embark on a boat with only 30 to 35 people. But when we set off on the boat there were 58 people, more than twice that number. But we were about to set out to sea and the night was all around us and the traffickers (the Turks) kept on saying that the police might appear any minute and that we had to get in immediately, so we had to embark. My mind was mostly preoccupied with the sea.

And did people help you any time in European territory?

After entering Turkey, I went to Izmir where I found a lot of people who wanted to get to Europe. The journey was organized by a trafficker (via a translator speaking Arabic) whom I of course did not know. When I set out to sea for the first time, our boat sank, so I started to think about whether to go back to Lebanon. But my wife persuaded me not to give up, raising my hopes that the second attempt would be successful. After a lot of consideration, I tried it again and I was caught by a Turkish patrol. Those were people who were catching the refugees and returned them back to Turkey. They returned us to the Turkish mainland and dumped us in the woods. It took us twelve hours before we managed to find a way out of the woods with the help of GPS, although there was hardly any internet access available.

Then I made my third attempt and the trafficker provided us with a boat not eight and a half meters, but only two and a half meters long. And imagine this: they told us to take off our shoes because the boat had no wooden deck and the boat could have been damaged. So I refused and arranged to depart the next morning when families were designated to set off on the journey, and on a boat eight and a half meters long. More or less fifty people traveled on the boat.

I managed to get to Greece under these circumstances. As soon as we reached Greek territorial waters, the Greek military patrol caught up to us and approached our boat. They threw us ropes and took us onto their ship. They showed great solidarity with us, because we were exhausted and scared and children were with us as well. All the men were helping the children. Every time I saw a child or a woman, I imagined my wife and my son, sailing across the sea without me. Me and all the other men were thus helping them.

The Greek patrol took us to the Greek coast and we felt a great relief because they helped us a lot. After landing in Greece we were approached by the local authorities, who took us all to one place and took all our documents from us to check whether we were truly Syrians. They gave us permits so we were able to go legally to another country.

What do you do to integrate into German society?

The most important thing for me, my wife and my son, and for everyone who wants to settle in Germany is to learn the local language. The language is the key; it opens up all the doors and difficulties in general. So I recommend that everyone learn the language.

When I first entered Germany, I was alone. Eventually my wife, my son and my father-in-law’s family all came. But I felt great pressure at the beginning of my stay, and I thought that my wife and son would stay with me for five or six months. I noticed that there were people staying there for a year, or a year and a half, and still not getting the permit to stay. And after receiving the permit there is still another phase at the embassies in Turkey or Lebanon. So the initial period was rather difficult for me. When I knew that my family would travel to join me, I started to feel a sense of relief and security. I decided to begin learning the local language with my wife. We have been learning it from the first moments after we reunited. We learned it separately for a while, and we recently enrolled in schools and we have been learning the language there.

Can you describe your language studies?

I have been studying the language for four months. The study consists of four phases: A1, A2 and B1. Those who want to get the B1 certificate must speak German rather well. They do not ask the impossible from us in order to learn it, knowing that their language is difficult and we are newcomers, and that unlike English or French this language was not part of the educational program in our country. So I believe that if we try, we will be able to reach the B1 level. The state provides support and when someone wants to reach the next highest level (B2), they let him or her do it. Those who reach the highest levels, C1 and C2, are able to get a rather prestigious certificate and can study at a university or do any job they like.

What about your interactions and relations with the German people?

When I reunited with my wife for the first time, I was in the western part of the country near Bremen. Then she came here to Dresden and we met in a small town called Meissen. A lot of festivities for asylum seekers took place there, and there were Germans who organized funny games for the children and people who gave us simple lessons in the German language. Me and my wife were among the first who enrolled in these courses. There were about 800 people. We enrolled in a language course in the camp. We met a group of people and have stayed in contact with them.

How do you see your future in Germany and your prospects for the next five years?

We are learning the language now. When we finish that, we will enroll in a work preparatory course called Ausbildung. It prepares people for entering the workforce. It is a professional school of three years, after which you get a certificate. I assume it is acknowledged not only in Germany, but throughout Europe. When I am finished with the language course, I will join the Ausbildung course and I will work until destiny decides to improve the situation in my country.

What did you do in Syria?

I was a salesman. I studied to be an industrial electrician, then I worked as a salesman selling various brands of coffee. I even managed to obtain the stuff to make the coffee by myself. I had a depot and was selling various brands of coffee to my customers.

What does happiness mean for you?

What will bring happiness to me? When my country is liberated from evil and everything in the world is all right. That means happiness for me. Happiness for me is also when my wife and son and the rest of my family back home in Syria are well. That is the pinnacle of happiness for me – my whole family as well as my homeland doing well.

Do you feel at home here? Do you think that you will go back to Syria someday?

I cannot speak about the future. I am not a clairvoyant. As far as my personal feelings are concerned, it is not possible for anyone to feel at home in a foreign country. It’s as if he was staying in a five-star hotel, although his home apartment was only a modest place. But I feel okay here, I do not deny it, and a lot of people offer me assistance, both the government and the individuals.

Blogs and interviews are produced as part of the project “Refugee stories”, to which volunteers contribute in their free time. The core of the project is built upon the We Can organization, cooperating with the organization Umweltzentrum Dresden. The project is supported by the Czech-German Fund for the Future in 2016.