Day 4: Messestadt (Munich Trade Fair)


September 15, 2015

The borders have been closed. Hardly any refugees are arriving. However, I still went to the Exhibition center yesterday and stayed there from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. There were about 250 guests at the facility. I had some more conversations and made notes.

Encounter 1

Three 17-year-olds are being looked after by the Youth Welfare Office (Jugendamt). I translate. Two of them are Syrians, one from Latakia, the other from Aleppo. Both of then spent a few months in Turkey before making their way to Germany. They have left their mothers in Turkey. They want to try and bring them here too. The third one is Iraqi. He is also 17. I asked him:
– Where are you from?
– From Karbala.
– Why did you flee?
– They threatened to kill me. I have documents to prove it.
– Documents?
– Yes, I was declared to be an outlaw. You know, we have something called the Acha’ir, which are large families …
– Yes, I know what an Achira is.
– My father is an activist and in order to silence him, they sent me a girl. I fell in love with her and arranged a meeting with her. But it was a trap and her brothers persecuted me. Then, the extended family shed my blood (declared him to be an outlaw) and ordered my extended family to hand me over to their people to execute me. That’s why I fled…
The three of them met on their journey. They were sent together to the same facility. They did not have any luggage. Their biggest concern was to stay together.

Encounter 2

France has agreed to take refugees. During the day the Syrian refugees can sign up to be taken into France at an office set up specifically for the purpose. In the evening one of the helpers told me:
– The French are picking out the best ones.
– What do you mean?
– They are only taking the ones that have completed their studies and have qualifications.
– How do you know?
– Several people have told me that they were sent away because they do not have a college degree.
– Really?
– Yes, just now there was even a Syrian person who had studied medicine but had to leave his studies because of the war. They sent him away.
– That’s not is supposed to happen, they are not supposed to select the people they want. We’re talking about asylum here, not immigration.
– Well. What can you do?

Encounter 3

Two young men come up to me. They want to know how they can get to Sweden. I told them that at the moment they were in the country illegally, and that there was really no legal way to get there either, if you want to try anyway, then you need to make your own way there. They were not happy with the choices and thanked me. Before they leave, I ask:
– Where are you from?
– From Iraq, from Mosul.
– Why did you flee?
– Because of IS. Since IS has been there, everything has been made worse. Without IS, we would never have left.

Encounter 4

I am called to a group of agitated young men. They are surrounding a security guard, who is trying to find out what has happened. Apparently, one of the men has stolen three mobile phones and has admitted it. There is confusion. They ask me to translate.
Me: “What’s going on?”
Everyone is talking across each other I do not understand. Then one says to me:
– Brother, I’ll explain: this man put his cell phone on to charge and then went to the toilet. When he came back it was gone. He asked the young man sitting at the table where his cell phone was, but he had no idea. He was only there to keep an eye on his three friends’ mobile phones who were already asleep. The man who had had his phone stolen grabbed the three mobile phones, saying: “I’ll give them back when you tell me who has stolen mine.”
I ask the man who had had his phone stolen:
– So, you didn’t want to steal the phones?
– No, I only took them as a guarantee, to make him hand over mine.
He is visibly upset and says: “What am I supposed to do. All my contacts are in there. It’s my only chance to talk to my family and reassure them about where I am.” Then he turns to the other and says: “I’m sorry, brothers, I overreacted. Take your phones, I’m sorry.”
His mobile phone was turned off while it was charging, so the security guard’s suggestion to walk through the rows while calling it did not bring any luck. I said him:
– Where did you connect your mobile phone?
– Uh, I think it was over there on the post
– You think so?
– Yes, but I’m not sure
– You’re not sure? Are there several charging stations?
– Yes, there and there
– Ok then let’s go and check all of them.
In fact, we did not find the phone where the argument had started, but at the next charging post. Ahmad was sitting there, a 28-year-old young man. He said:
– Man, this is about your phone? I’ve been sitting here for an hour and asking everyone who comes by who owns this phone. I would have sat here until tomorrow morning.
The young man is so relieved that he sheds a few tears. He hides his face and at the same time can’t stop himself from grinning with embarrassment. Everyone laughed, even the security guard.
Meanwhile, it was 2:30 in the morning, almost everyone was asleep. Except Ahmad. I sat down with him and he told me his story.

Encounter 5

Ahmad in Hungary

– Where are you from?
– I am a Palestinian from Yarmouk. Do you know Yarmouk?
– Yes, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Are you travelling alone?
– No with my whole family. There are 17 of us in all, including 4 small children and my parents.
– How was your journey?
– Exhausting! And it’s ok now? Since we reached Austria we have been treated well, but before that in Hungary and Macedonia, they gave us a terrible time.
– Was it that bad?
– Yes! They locked us up, hit us, abused us and we were almost starving.
– Were there no helpers?
– No, no helpers.
– Not even in Greece?
– Yes, there were helpers in Greece, also including lots of tourists, but the police in Greece were bad. But I meant Macedonia and Hungary. There were no helpers there. Even the people there weren’t nice to us. The people looked at us in a hostile way. Often they didn’t even want to sell us something to eat.
– You said you were locked up?
– Yes in Hungary. They rounded us up first and put us into an ordinary bus. We thought that they were going to treat us well, but the bus drove to a prison camp. There they locked us up in a cell with a few mattresses, the toilet was in the same room and the mattresses were wet and full of bed bugs
– What about the children?
– They were with us. We were detained there for five days and mistreated. They only gave us water. In the whole time they only gave us two smelly sandwiches.
– You mean two a day?
– No, two in the five days. Even the prisons of Bashar al-Assad are more humane. You might not come out of there alive, but at least you get regular meals. They abused us with pepper spray, batons and Tasers. On the fifth day they registered us and let us go.
– But why did they detain you in the first place?
– God knows, I don’t.

Ahmad in Greece

– What was it like in Greece? How did they treat you there.
– The police and state agents were very bad to us. They beat and chased us, but the people were nice. They gave us water and food. Many tourists helped us as well. In Greece, we had to walk a lot. But it was not bad. Pleasant even. On one side there was the sea, on the other side the trees. It was almost like a family outing.

Ahmad on Turkey

He lights a cigarette and continues:
– Do you know which country is the nicest one for Syrians?
– No, which one?
– It’s Turkey. The people are very nice. They love and respect us Palestinians, even if we are sometimes too loud for them.
– Then why did you not stay there?
– It is an expensive country, it is almost impossible to get work and if you don’t have enough money there, you have to either do something illegal or move on.

Ahmad and the roadblocks

– How did you get out of Syria?
– Ah, that was terrible. Actually, I was not allowed to leave the country. So I arranged with a Kurdish woman from Afrin that I would say that I was going to propose to a woman there. That’s how I was able to explain that I was travelling with my whole family.
– Where is Afrin?
– It is in the North, a Kurdish area. So we set off. I had 30,000 Syrian Lira with me. The first four roadblocks were controlled by the regime. Since I had my military service card with me, we could go through them easily. Then we came to an area controlled by the Al-Nusra Front. At the first roadblock, I had to get off the bus. They searched me and put my money in one pile and my papers in another. Their leader said, “How much will you pay us to let you pass?” I answered, “Oh brother…” he interrupted me, “Do not call me brother. Call me Sheikh.” I continued: “Oh Sheikh, take what is rightfully yours and leave me what I need to continue on my way. He told me “I get 10,000 Lira.” I took the remaining money. When I picked up my papers, he said to me: “And you must pay the same for the papers.” Outside, he lit a cigarette for himself and for me. Then we continued, 20,000 Lira lighter.
Ahmad lit another cigarette. He carried on.
– We passed another roadblock controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, but fortunately it was unmanned. Then we reached an area that was controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Although we were a little harassed at the roadblocks, nothing unusual happened. Then we reached Afrin: a Kurdish area.
– What were the Kurds like to you?
– The Kurds were nice and it was a relaxed part of the journey. Shortly before the Turkish border, we had to pass an area controlled by IS. There were two roadblocks ahead of us. We were stopped at the first roadblock.
– A long-haired IS fighter got me out of the bus.
– Was it a foreign IS fighter?
– No, it was a Syrian. Three quarters of Daesh (Isil) are Syrians. The foreigners are stationed at the borders. The Daesh man said “We’re going to the Amir,”, he meant the troop leader.
– It was pitch dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my eyes. We arrived at a building and a giant of a man stood up. It was the Amir. The IS fighter told him that I was a Palestinian from the Yarmouk camp. The Amir looked at me and simply said “Shoot him and get rid of him.” The IS fighter took me into a small room and ordered me to kneel down. As I knelt, I could smell fresh blood. I wondered if they had just killed someone here recently. I was very frightened. Then the man pulled out a huge hunting knife, stood behind me and patted me with the knife on the shoulder and said: “Which do you prefer? The knife or a bullet?” Can you imagine that? He asked me how I want to die, which I would prefer. I started to say my prayers. You know? The ones you say when you’re going to die, then you see your life as if it was a movie before your eyes. I saw that. But then my mother got off the bus. She walked up to the Amir and said to him: “I gathered together my family and my sons and I am not fleeing the murderous regime just so you can kill them here. Let us move on. In the name of Allah.” Then the bus driver joined them and they talked to the Amir. Behind me, the IS man charged his gun and put it to my head. Then the Amir shouted: “Bring him here!” I stood up and was allowed to get back onto the bus and we drove on towards Turkey.
Ahmad lit another cigarette and continued:
– You know? When we arrived in Turkey, I did not sleep for a week. It was not about me. If I had known that my family was safe, it would have been easier for me to accept death. But I thought that they would kill my brother after me and then I had to think about what would happen to the women. You know? They declare a woman to be a slave and do what they want with her. The thought of that was the worst thing.
– Is Daesh (IS) the only warring faction that does this to the women?
– No, soldiers of the regime do it too, they don’t even need slavery as an excuse. They rape your wife in front of you and then kill you both.
– And the Free Syrian Army?
– To be honest, I do not know. It is the case for Daesh and the regime, but I haven’t heard anything like that so far about the Free Syrian Army.

Ahmad in Yarmouk

– Why did you flee from the Yarmouk camp?
– The general situation. You were there no longer safe there. The regime’s barrel bombs. They destroy an area as big as this hall. You know? My cousin was arrested and detained by the regime. We didn’t hear anything about him for nine months. Then his mother, that’s my aunt, received an order to collect her son. She thought that she would finally see get to see him again, but at the prison they simply gave her an envelope with his papers and his car keys, but no further information about where he was. After a lot of going backwards and forwards and one million Lira in bribes they received the report. It said that he had arrived dead at hospital 22 days after his arrest with cranial trauma, cerebral hemorrhage and damaged spine, and from there they buried him in a mass grave.
In the meantime, is was 4:00 in the morning. Almost everyone was asleep. A few helpers were putting the chairs onto the tables. I looked to Ahmad, as he silently smoked his cigarette and I felt empty.
– What needs to happen for the war to come to an end?
– The regime has to fall! The best thing would be for the Arab states to establish a military power so that no one could say that it was a Western invasion and then the regime would have to be overthrown.
– What about the IS?
– The IS must be fought after that. If the Syrians can unite around a clean state.
– And the other groups? Do you think that the Free Syrian Army would lay down their arms and allow themselves to be reintegrate?
– No, not even them. I do not believe they would.
– Do you think the regime will fall anyway?
– It will fall, but Bashar will hold on for a while longer. Especially while it has the support of Iran and Russia.

Ahmad’s dreams

– Where do you actually want to go?
– To Sweden
– Why Sweden in particular?
– They grant leave to remain more quickly. I would also like Swedish citizenship. And then I will come to Germany, get married here and apply for German citizenship. I want dual citizenship.
– Why? What is the benefit of that?
– Just because. I love these two countries. Germany and Sweden.
– But why do you want citizenship of both countries?
– I know it doesn’t make sense, but it is my dream. Maybe because I have no country. I am Palestinian.

I’m tired and I say goodbye. Before I go I ask Ahmad what his profession was before everything started. He answered: “I was a master tailor.”

Translated by Roger Matthews

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