BY MARIA MARTINEZ
Samer woke early each morning to go to work, like most people. But each day, Samer feared that he might be killed on his way to his job at the Arab bank in the rebel-held section of Damascus. Each day, Samer was stopped at six government checkpoints. At each stop, the fear of death hung low over his head. It was a long journey to work.
In July 2015, his parents told him to leave Damascus.
“We prefer you to be away than to be dead or in jail,” they said.
Samer knew that his life was at risk. He had participated in anti-government demonstrations and helped CNN journalists to report from Damascus. Many of his friends who had also supported the revolution had been arrested. In jail, they were tortured. Some of them were released on the condition that they speak about the consequences of going against the government. Others were never seen again.
Thousands of migrants have fled to Germany, and other European countries, looking for safety. But this is not always what they find. Last year, refugees in Germany suffered more than 3,500 attacks, according to a report published by the Ministry of Interior. Extreme right groups have portrayed the refugees as terror threats, but Samer said they are like him, just human beings looking for a chance to have a better life.
Samer and his friends just wanted “democracy and freedom, as in many other countries.” One day, an officer at the checkpoint on Samer’s way to work told him that he would regret this desire for democracy. “To be honest, we did,” says Samer.“The country is destroyed and now we have ISIS.” However, he does not regret having challenged the government.
Samer set out for Germany and after a long, dangerous and convoluted journey over land and sea, he made it there in November 2015. Their life is still filled with challenges but he feels safe. According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, 11.5 percent Syria’s population has been killed or injured since the war began in March 2011. More than 470,000 have been killed and 1.9 million injured in the bloodshed.
Samer’s hope for revolution is all gone, and thousands of young people like him were forced to leave. The government forces those who remain to choose two options: ISIS or Assad, Samer said.
“They make your life a nightmare until you have no option but to leave.”
His decision to flee came after a friend inquired about Samer with an acquaintance who was an officer in the secret police. The officer said Samer was under threat because he had assisted American journalists. Samer had to pay $600 to a government official to be able to leave the country without questions. He is one of more than 4 million Syrians who has left Syria since 2011. In all, 45 percent of the population, roughly 6.36 million have been displaced internally and more than 4 million are abroad. Samer was not the first in his family to leave Syria. One of his brothers and one sister left for Egypt. “They have children and they were listening to the shootings every day. It was terrible for them.”
For children, a conflict zone is so stressful that it has the potential to significantly impact their brain development, according to reports published by UNICEF. The rest of the family, his parents, two brothers and one sister, are still in Damascus. They could not leave the city in the past three years because the army had seized control of the borders.
“They are always afraid to be taken to jail or to be forced to join the army,” Samer says.
After Samer escaped Syria, his life did not immediately become easier. He had a goal of seeking asylum in Germany, and to get there he first had to go to Lebanon, and then to Turkey. He then crossed from Turkey to Greece in a boat, paying smugglers one thousand euros. According to NGOs working in the area, in just 45 minutes the smugglers earn between 50,000 and 60,000 euros.
During the crossing, the engine of the boat caught fire and he nearly died in the middle of the sea, with other 50 migrants desperate to leave their countries. Samer played this incident down. “It is normal, it happens all the time.” The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 2,300 people have died this year trying to reach Europe by sea.
However, different European NGOs, as the German Brot für die Welt, “Bread for the World”, encourage the European Union to keep this route open. “If they close it, the EU avoids the horrible pictures of sailing boats, but people continue under threat for their lives, dignity, and rights when they have to stay in their country,” says Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, president of the organization.
After this dangerous trip, he still had to walk one entire day without stop until he got to a Grecian refugee camp, where he stayed for four days. He then journeyed to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Serbia, from Macedonia to Austria, until he finally reached Germany. Nobody tells refugees where to go.“I wanted to come to Germany because I know there are many opportunities here.”
Since 2012, Germany has been the primary destination country for asylum seekers in Europe, according to data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency. In 2015, the year that Samer applied for asylum, Germany received 442,000 asylum applications. After his harrowing journey, Samer has been living in the northern city of Gelsenkirchen for one year and four months. He is teaching English to German people because Samer studied English Literature at school in Syria. A study of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) conducted on refugees found that 70 percent of the refugees had at least a secondary education, with 30 percent having a university degree.
Samer has been trying hard to find a job since he arrived in Germany, but having a university degree is not helping him. Johanna Kobelt, a 24-year-old woman from Bochum, is one of Samer’s dearest friends, says that it is very tough for him to completely start over.
“In Syria, he had built himself a life, had a good job at a bank and so on. However, in Germany, he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have a job and depends on help by others.”
Only 8 percent of refugees find a job after a year, and after 5 years only half of them have a job, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. These figures help perpetuate a negative narrative around refugees, painting them as a social burden for the country. However, this is not Samer’s case. He wants a job more than anything else and he does not want Germany to simply give him money.“I really appreciate this help, but I do not want people to feel sorry for me,” he says.
Language is one of Samer’s main limitations into entering the labor market. A Columbia University study shows that the lack of language skills is the largest contributing factor to Syrians not being able to find jobs in Germany. Samer is learning German at an integration course offered by the German government. He is learning grammar and vocabulary, but these components are not enough to learn the language. “You have to spend much time speaking with German people to really learn.”
Samer likes Germany and especially the people.
“Nobody ever gave me a look of hate or gave me the impression that I am not welcome,” he says.
Johanna and Samer met through a common friend, Jan, who is a co-founder of a large initiative supporting refugees in Gelsenkirchen, “AnGEkommen”. “We went out a few times together in a group or met at somebody’s place to cook. Once Samer showed us how to prepare Mtabal, which is one of the most delicious dishes ever” says Johanna.
Now Samer is doing an internship in a non-profit that works to improve the working conditions of migrants. He takes it as an opportunity to learn. “It just shows how a crisis such as in Syria completely disrupts people’s lives,” says Johanna, “Normally he would be thinking about starting a family at this point in life, but now he has so much other stuff to figure out first”.
Samer’s journey to work was interrupted each day by gunfire and a checkpoint. Now his path to find a job is littered with other kinds of obstacles. As in Damascus, it’s a long journey to work.