#5YearsWeFled: Giving Up Our Dignity for the Future

This series is from interviews with the lawyer Ayman Jalwan. It highlights the difficult choice that Syrians face—dying in the war zone that Syria had become, or flee the land he loved. Last year, he and his wife said goodbye to their families and joined the wave of citizens leaving the country. First they had to make it to Turkey. Then they needed to cross the cold Mediterranean to Greece. After that, they would have to deal with human traffickers in Eastern Europe to reach one of the few nations willing to welcome them: Germany. In this blogs series, Ayman Jalwan explains the decision to leave, the trials he and his wife encountered along the way, and the consequences of their decision.

When I arrived here in Germany, I had an official interview. It’s like an investigation about why you are there, and it’s a standard part of the in-processing for refugees. You have to do the interview at court. In the interview they asked me, “Why are you coming to Germany?” There are many typical answers people give, like: we want to have a good life, we want a better standard of living. But when I was asked, I said, “I want to come to Germany so I can sleep at night and I know I’m safe.” Just that. I don’t want anything else. Of course I want to learn the German language and find a job. But above all else, I want to feel I am safe. That is something that is important to every Syrian person. Because you cannot imagine what we saw in Syria. The war—it was not easy, believe me.

All the time you feel you are under threat from the authorities, the system, the intelligence forces, the police, from missiles, car bombs, and no one cares—you are just the “victims of the war.” What can we do? “I’m sorry for you,” people say to your family. Just that: You hear this sentence over and over again. All of your life is summed up in just this one sentence: “I’m sorry for your loss.” No one pays any money to bury you in the ground. Imagine, all your time is taken up with dealing with the problems of no water, no electricity, no food, everything is very expensive—what is this life? For me? For young people? Normally people our age would be thinking about how to improve themselves, not just about how to find water, food, or to keep from being captured by the police. Where is the future in this life?

So imagine: when we arrive in Greece, I say to my wife, now we can feel safe. The most difficult part of our trip is over. Now it’s easy. Just lots of walking, then traveling on ships, trains, buses, that’s it. There are no dangers in this. But we would discover that was not really the case.

After we arrived, in Greece, we went to the police and they said it would be another two hours’ journey to the refugee center. I was sorry for the many refugees who could not speak English. My command of the language is not perfect, but it is useful to know other languages, especially French or English. So thank God, at this point I started to use my English, and thank God, it’s helpful for me. So I act as the translator for the group of people my wife and I are with, and we head off to the refugee center.

We arrived there about 6 a.m., so we had to sleep on the street for two hours before anything was open. Imagine: this is the first time I have ever slept on the street. For some people on this journey, it has become usual and it is not a problem, they just do it—I see that. Many people say, no problem, I can sleep there, it’s easy. There is no danger. But for us, it’s the first time: This is me and my wife! How can we be sleeping on the street? Oh my God, I would never in my life imagine that we would be reduced to this. I thank God that it’s only for two hours.

But I cannot sleep; my wife, she sleeps on my shoulder. I stay awake and keep watch for the rest of the time. My group is sleeping. It’s their right, they are tired! But I cannot—I’m too worried. Our group of 30 from the boat has broken up, and now we are about 10 people. After a while, the markets in Mytilene start to open. I ask one of the business owners there if we can use his bathroom to change clothes. My wife’s clothes are very wet. He says yes. He’s a very good man.

In Turkey, when we were just about to make the crossing to Greece, the man from Izmir had refused to allow all of our bags on the boat. He said it was very dangerous, because everything was very heavy. He said he would allow one bag for every group of five people. This was their math: There are 30 people in this boat, he said. I can’t let each of them take three to four bags. But we knew he was right. He threw the other bags into the sea. So we don’t have any clothes with us. We buy the minimum of what we need in the market there in Mytilene. I change in the street behind a tree.

After that, we go to the refugee center and stand in line for about three and a half hours so they can take our pictures and get our signatures—it’s like registering with the authorities. Then they give us papers. These papers allow us to take the ferry to go to Athens. These boats are very big, and are run by regular companies. But because many refugees are exhausted at this point, some of them prefer to stay in hotels in Mytilene to rest for a night before pushing on. But I tell my wife, we don’t know what’s going to happen next, so let’s just keep moving. So we go to the ferries at two in the afternoon to buy tickets. The trip to Athens will take 12 hours.

Ayman Jalwan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a Syrian lawyer now living in Germany as a refugee. Interviews conducted by Claudine Weber-Hof.

Read part 1 of the series.
Read part 2 of the series.
Read part 3 of the series.
Read part 4 of the series.
Read part 5 of the series.
Read part 6 of the series.

Read part 7 of the series.
Read part 8 of the series.

Image: Photo: Migrants sleep as they wait to be registered outside the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos, August 12, 2015. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to take control of the "total chaos" on Mediterranean islands, where thousands of migrants have landed. About 124,000 have arrived this year by sea, many via Turkey, according to Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis