Yasmine Benyoussef
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My name is Ahmad and I’m 31 years old, from Damascus, Syria. After leaving Syria, I was in Malaysia, then Singapore, then in 2020 I went to Paris.  After that, I was in Amsterdam for nine months before coming to Berlin. I have been in Berlin for two years. I have moved so much because in 2014 there was this mass migration to Europe, and because I have a phobia of the sea, I couldn’t come to Europe via rubber boats. At that time when I left Syria, Malaysia was the only country that didn’t need a visa from Syrian citizens, so I went there.

When I was in Malaysia, I was only able to stay there legally for three months until I had to obtain a visa or go to another place. I’m from a poor family, so I literally had very little money on me in Malaysia. Therefore, I had no options to obtain a visa, to study, or even get work. Therefore, I overstayed in Malaysia for longer than three months, until I found a scholarship in Singapore, and I applied to it. They helped me to get out of my situation and get a student visa to study Intercultural Theatre. Then, my studies were coming to an end which meant that my visa was going to expire and unfortunately, Southeast Asia was not one of the countries that signed the Geneva Convention, which states that the signing countries have to protect refugees. This meant that there were no rights for refugees in Singapore, so I asked a lawyer as I was graduating, and he said that I had to get out of there because there’s no protection for refugees. They simply gathered the refugees in a kind of detention center in an island in Micronesia, somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Then, as I was about to finish my study, I got a visa to work in a theatre company in France.

I arrived in Paris in December 2019. Back then in 2019, I wasn’t planning to be a refugee, because I got admitted to a master’s degree in Brazil, and it was fully funded. The program would start in March 2020, so I had to stay in France with this theatre company until March then go to Brazil. However, then Corona came, so they canceled the scholarships. You know, you couldn’t travel, you couldn’t do anything. Instead of seeking asylum in France, I went to Amsterdam to seek asylum because I had some friends there and thought that if I got overwhelmed from the process, I could just go to my friends. In France I didn’t know anybody, and I wasn’t sure what the asylum system was like there. I was told to call a number and this number didn’t answer.

So, I applied in Amsterdam, and I got rejected. I got Dublin, which is the distribution mechanism in the European Union when it comes to refugees, so they had to transfer me back to France, and I said yes, okay, send me back to France. However, then they decided to kick all the refugees out from the camp, everyone who had Dublin. They just gathered our stuff in a plastic bag, and then just took it out of the room. When you would come back to your room, your stuff was not there, and they told us to go apply again. I asked the lawyer about this, and he said that if they were going let all of these people who have Dublin in the camps, after a six-month period they would have to accept them according to the law, so that’s why they did it. While you have Dublin, you are sorted under law, so if they kicked your out and you then ran away from the transfer, you would have a penalty.

I chose to go against the law, and I hid for 18 months in Germany. I had people here, so it made it easier. Also, it’s easier to find work here even if you don’t have papers. I went to Berlin immediately because I had things that were planned here, a film audition, and I was accepted to the film regardless of my status. It was a coincidence that I came here, there was a film audition and I had friends here. I was privileged to know people, who also worked in my field, so I know a few connections. If we want to label the work I did, it was like illegal, which they call it “Schwarzarbeit” like black. I worked for a year in this film, and I did a bunch of things until I surpassed the rest of the eight months, then I applied here. It has been around six months since then, and I’m still in the process. I went to the reception center first. When I got in, it was easy, everyone was pointing where to go, so everything was clear. They checked my bag, and then later, of course there was a lot of waiting, but then towards the end when they were taking my fingerprints, I was a bit overwhelmed by the waiting. I didn’t know what’s going to happen. Were they going to keep me in Berlin, or not?

When I went to take my fingerprints, I felt like I was being dehumanized. There were two police officers, two male, one female, and they were having chat with each other and took my fingerprints without even recognizing that I was there, acting like I was just another person. I don’t know why that triggered me somehow. Additionally, when they were taking my fingerprints, it wasn’t working, because I think my hands were sweating, and the police officer was irritated. He grabbed my finger, and he was doing it for me. I threw his fingers, and said “don’t fucking touch me”, then I got a kind of panic attack, I was really angry. He immediately reached for his pepper spray, about to grab it, but then the female police officer was calming things down, and sat me down. She started to ask me questions regarding my mental health, and then later she decided that I had to go to therapy, and stay in Berlin. So, I guess a positive thing came out of it. After that, everything went okay.

Coming from a queer background, the only thing that bothered me was the options on the paperwork which was in Arabic. It was very offensive, when it asked to identify yourself as queer, are you gay, are you lesbian, bisexual, etc. The options in Arabic were Google translated, so it was pretty offensive. I can give you an example, like gay is “looty”, which is a slur, like a faggot in English. Even lesbian was “sohaqiya’’, which is also kind of a slur, so yeah, I didn’t feel safe in the beginning. Later on, luckily, every social team in every camp had one person who was responsible for LGBTQ+, which was good. The camp I’m in right now is not a LGBTQ focused camp, so yeah, I’m getting the usual, a lot of looks, a lot of comments, lots of shit like that, but in general, I can’t complain. I was in the initial reception camp for only four weeks, then moved to a second camp, which I am in now, it’s the camp where they study your case. Afterwards, you get an interview which they call it “Mahkamma” as in court in Arabic. There, they will decide whether you’re going to stay here or not, so I’m still waiting for this one.

Living in the reception camp wasn’t so pleasant because it didn’t feel safe. Talking from a queer perspective, in the beginning, they put me in a mixed, queer and straight, building. I was fixing my hair one morning in a shared bathroom, and then a really big man came in, and he was looking at me in a disgusting way. That is the reflection of how the camp is, because there are many people who are like that, no shaming, but they came straight from those zones directly to Europe. I can feel they are not very open with this idea. I heard a lot of side talks, which were shit, like “oh these people should be killed, look at this guy looking like a girl,” you know these kinds of comments that I used to hear before, and now it feels like I went back again, so it wasn’t easy for me, because I can’t fight all day. That’s why I was a little bit privileged to have friends in Berlin, so I can just go out, take a breather, and come back. The current camp is better than the one before. People who live there are the same kind, but the living conditions are better, like room wise, food wise, social services wise, these are better. I don’t feel 100% safe, but as soon as I close my door, I’m good. I also got a special paper from my therapy that I need to stay by myself, otherwise they will keep me with other people. There are special queer camps here in Berlin, which are full, and people are sharing rooms with three or four people total. I know friends who are there, but for me staying alone in a room in a not very safe environment, is better than staying with four people in the same room.

For the first time coming to Germany, I actually didn’t have any expectations because I have already experienced working with the European system in general when I was in France and Amsterdam. When I came to Berlin, I already lost hope, because before that I had so many expectations that Europe would be a very nice environment. Based on what you get from afar regarding the asylum system, you feel like they are angels, you know, they’re just waiting for you to come here, and they will take care of you. It was the total opposite. It was a kind of legal game, like you need to play this game to be able to get your asylum, because whoever is on the other side, their goal is to not give you asylum, but to find any reason to not give you asylum. Therefore, when I came to Germany, really, I didn’t have any expectation at all.

But somehow Berlin turned out to be better because they are used to different people. So even the social workers or the people who work in the government that you have to be in contact with, weren’t that bad compared to Amsterdam, which is my biggest experience with the asylum system. Other men who are pretty much right wing, I can feel that by the way they deal with you, by the way they look at you. Here I’m not saying it’s 100% left, you know, but there are less prejudiced people in Berlin.

When it comes to my social life, I already have people who I know, and I don’t have difficulties initiating new friends. I don’t feel there’s a society here, to be honest, but rather I feel like it’s small bubbles in this city. If you work in certain fields, your friends and your acquaintances will be from that environment, so you’re technically in a bubble. I don’t feel the word society really exists here, or maybe I need some time, I don’t know, but I can feel I have preferences for sure. I don’t have many German friends, rather international ones or Germans who like to be around international people.

When it comes to the word “integration’’, I feel like it’s a slur. I don’t believe in this word at all, I hate it even. I believe in the word ‘’inclusion’’, which is to be included in society. To be integrated would mean that I have to just be like a German, rather than included. Okay, I will learn the language and respect the culture, but I also respect where I’m coming from, and the things I believe in. So yeah, to sum it up, I don’t like this word “integration.”

It’s like a coin with two sides, because the government is like, now even though I don’t have any recognition, I’m still an asylum seeker. They haven’t granted me any status yet, yet they gave me a work permission, integration permission, and the language course that I can go to, which I am about to start. However, I feel like somehow there is this fear inside of me that this is the ticket to get into the system, and for someone who was away from the system, I saw others who were in the system, and they were not happy. Being in the system means you’re always being followed with bureaucracy, with paper, with what is allowed. Every month you have something new, you cannot afford to make a mistake. So yeah, it is a coin, it is helping me, but at the same time I feel like I’m going to be sucked into this system, and my freedom will be taken away from me. I’ll be running for jobs, and doing this, and doing that. I’m a free person, I like my freedom, as many people do I believe.

Learning the language will help me for sure. It will help me access things that I’m not able to access, because in Berlin you can use English all the time and you can talk to people, but when you want to get grants, and funding, and things that are related to what you’re doing, you need the German language. About integrating into society, I am not sure, unless I speak German, but so far in Berlin, I don’t see how this language would help me with the community we talked about, because again, it’s like bubbles. I know street German and other things to get by, throw some funny words, and that’s my level now.

I mean everybody, of course, would be happy to reach a financial stability, but this is not possible, I guess. For me, what I want to achieve here, is for this place to be my base as an artist and I feel like it’s a very good area for me to express whatever I want, because there’s a freedom of speech for sure. You also have people from everywhere, including where you come from. So, what I want to achieve is to be an artist based in Berlin, but also moving around. To be more accurate, I want to have the freedom of working here for a half a year, let’s say, and then just get out the rest of the six months going around, taking, and giving workshops etc.

I don’t know, I’m really a pessimist when it comes to this, because there’s so many changes happening in the world. So, I don’t know where I’ll be in ten years. You know what I mean? Like, I don’t know where I’ll be, but what I know is that I want to work on the thing I love to do, which is theatre. So, probably, if I imagine what it will be like in ten years, yeah, I would be an established artist. I would have my own things to do, probably. I’m teaching as well. In ten years, I would also have a PhD in Theatre.

I think in this country, or in this place, if you want something, you can get it. The way to it is, like, dreadful, but you can get it towards the end. It’s not like in other place like Southeast Asia, where you have to have money for it. Here in Europe, education is relatively free and accessible.

Thanks to Genevieve Soucek for editing this interview.

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