Life is a struggle for Mideast refugees in Europe
Hamburg, Germany - On a cold January night, Bassel, a 28-year-old chef from Damascus, set out on a perilous trip to Europe, taking a boat from Turkey. It took him a month to reach his destination in Hamburg, Germany.
Once at the major northern German port city, he was admitted to a camp for refugees, sharing a tent with ten people, Iraqis and Syrians. In September, he was allowed to work, so he took a job working at a falafel stand outside the encampment.
“I survived the dangerous trip and was so eager to come here, thinking that Germany is paradise,” Bassel said while preparing a falafel sandwich, a traditional Middle Eastern food made from ground chickpeas and fava beans.
“Life is not easy in Europe,” he said “I’m now literally fighting to make a living and start a new life.
“I can’t go back. Syria is not safe. Besides, I have nothing to go back to. My house was destroyed in a missile attack and I have nothing left at all.”
Bassel is one of tens of thousands of Arabs who fled violence and civil wars in the volatile Middle East, taking the dangerous trip through rough seas and walking in the cold and dark forests of Europe to fulfil a dream of a better life abroad but only to discover that reality is not rosy.
In October 2015, more than 180,000 refugees reached Germany, of whom nearly 89,000 were Syrian, according to German government figures. In the same month, 1,777 people were sent to other European countries due to the Dublin regulations, an EU law that specifies that refugees must apply for asylum in the country they first enter.
“This is hell on Earth,” lamented Ahmed, a 23-year-old Iraqi college student, who was in his senior year, majoring in sciences when he fled the southern port city of Basra to neighbouring Jordan in September 2012.
The Sunni Muslim said he fled his native city shortly after he received a death threat from Shia militias, who had kidnapped his father and killed his younger brother in September 2012. His father has disappeared, Ahmed said.
In October 2014, Ahmed flew to Turkey, where he was smuggled into Europe and arrived in Hamburg in early December 2014. Since then, he has been confined to a tented refugee encampment near Hamburg airport but he holds a special permit that gives him access to the city.
“There’s no privacy in the dormitory because there are 40 others sharing it. We don’t get enough food because the meals are rationed. My monthly salary from the government is 143 euros ($152), which is barely enough to cover my personal expenses,” the soft-spoken Iraqi told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview from Jordan.
“Besides, there are no jobs and life is unstable. I saw several refugees who applied for asylum being rejected and told they will be sent back home,” added Ahmed, who used his Facebook page to discourage other Arab refugees from leaving home.
“Back home, it’s unsafe and one would not know when he would be killed in an explosion. But here, life has no taste, no meaning at all. How could it be good if I share a bed in a tent that has 40 or 50 other people around me? We share the toilets, food and everything. I want to go out, work and get my own apartment,” he said.
He said the desperation of refugees in the camp was evident. “In October, they found a Syrian man dead. He committed suicide by hanging himself in the toilet,” he said.
Ahmed said other refugees in the encampment come mostly from Iraq and Syria. But there are others, mainly from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Somalia, Afghanistan, Serbia and Albania.
He said he spends his days looking for a job but many shops turn him down because his German language skills are weak. “I speak a little, just to get by, but not to work,” he said. “I’m learning, but it will take a long time because it is a difficult language.”
Both Ahmed and Bassel insisted they not have their surnames published, fearing it may hurt their asylum status.
Both emphasised they love their new home but predicted that it may take them long to adapt because of the language barrier and the cultural shock they endured coming to a foreign country with different customs, traditions and values.
“Everything is so organised and clean here. People are nice and welcoming to the refugees but I don’t feel I belong,” said Bassel.
Ahmed said he liked the Germans he mingled with but “life here is totally different. People mind their own business and nobody looks in your face, even if you lie dead in the street.
“That makes me feel very lonely”.