I was born in Homs, Syria to a small family—it was only me and my two sisters. I completed all of my schooling there and I graduated from high school. At this point, the war had started in Syria and destroyed almost everything in my hometown. I moved to Hama, a nearby city, to attend a private university, while the rest of my family stayed in Homs. When I was younger, I had wanted to be an actor, but it was difficult to be accepted to the theater schools in Syria because the admissions process could be very corrupt during the war. So, I decided to study architecture instead of theater, because I enjoy making something out of nothing and being able to see my creation in front of me. I’ve always wanted to create something that is more avant-garde, something out of the box.
After I graduated from university in 2017, I tried to find a job in Syria because I actually liked where I lived before. However, it was too difficult to find work or even to do any kind of training in architecture because everything was destroyed during the war. So, I began looking for a scholarship to study in Europe, even though it’s very difficult to obtain a study visa as a Syrian.
Coming to Germany
After many applications and exams, I was able to procure a visa that would allow me to study architecture in Budapest. I first arrived in Hungary in 2019 and began my studies. At first, I was homesick and missed my family because it’s very hard to start out in another culture. After six months, though, I fell in love with Budapest because I had friends at the international school and it was not expensive. You can make a lot of money there and enjoy a warm swimming pool or Turkish bath. Unfortunately, the pandemic began only one year after I arrived in Budapest. I lost my restaurant job, so I couldn’t afford to stay there anymore. I had a friend here in Germany who I studied with at university, so I called him to ask if I could stay with him for a bit while I looked for work. He agreed and told me I could stay at his place for two months. I was excited to travel to Berlin because I had heard good things about it, but when I left Budapest, I had a bad feeling. When the train doors opened at the Hauptbahnhof, I thought, Oh my gosh, this is not Berlin. I went to my friend’s place, but after only one week he told me I would need to find somewhere else to stay. I stayed with another friend for one more week, but I felt like no one had time for me and I didn’t want to lose another friend by staying with them. Since everything was closed because of the pandemic and I couldn’t find work here, I decided to apply for asylum.
Applying for Asylum
On July 14th, 2020, I went to an organization in Berlin where people can start their asylum process. The people working there didn’t ask why I was applying for asylum, only for my passport and details. Then they told me that I would need to stay in a certain building and complete various health tests and vaccinations while I waited to hear which camp I would be assigned to. Some people were told to stay in Berlin, others in Munich. I was not as lucky, because I was told to go to Eisenhüttenstadt, which is a town close to the Polish border. I collected my luggage from my friend’s apartment, ate lunch, and took a shower. I boarded the train at 7:00 PM and arrived at Eisenhüttenstadt at 9:00 PM. The last bus from the train station to camp was at 8:45. It was dark, and there was nobody around. I tried to find an Uber or taxi, but there was nothing around me. I thought, Oh my gosh. What should I do? After 45 minutes, I saw a taxi. I whistled to him and he came over, but he didn’t speak English. I tried to translate on my phone, but the connection was too bad in this area. He said, “Camp! Camp!”, and I said, “Yes, camp!” So, I was able to take the taxi to the camp, but this area is very expensive, so I had to pay a lot for the taxi.
Living in Refugee Camps
Finally, I arrived at the camp in Eisenhüttenstadt and rang the doorbell. I told them, “This is my file from the government. I want to apply for asylum.” The woman at the camp said, “Okay, but the security is not here, so you have to wait until morning. We will put you in a room for the night. Wait here a little bit.” After 30 minutes, she started to ask me something about my application. I told her that I was too tired to answer questions because all I wanted was to take a shower and sleep. So, she put me in a room alone and I finally slept. When I woke up, I wanted to eat something, but I didn’t have any food with me. So, I tried to go to the supermarket, but the woman told me I was supposed to be in quarantine and was not allowed to leave my room. I had to wait for my meal in the room, but it was a horrible meal. After three days, I took a Corona test and was able to move into the main building.
There, I started my asylum process by getting an ID for asylum seekers that allowed me to travel around Brandenburg and Berlin, only. After that, I had to wait in my room until the government sent me letters about the date of my asylum interview. I stayed in Eisenhüttenstadt for six weeks, had my interview and got transferred to Wünsdorf.
I had to wait in Wünsdorf until the government had a decision for my case. This decision could be that they rejected me and I would have to leave Germany in 15 days. The first week in Wünsdorf, nothing happened. Wünsdorf was cleaner than Eisenhüttenstadt, but it was very difficult to fill up the days. I told the manager that I can speak English and help her with translations. I worked with her, but it wasn’t really work. I was only paid 1 Euro per hour, but I couldn’t do anything else during this time. I couldn’t leave the camp for more than 48 hours or else I would go back to quarantine, and I didn’t want to stay there without doing anything. So, I started to work with the other translators and the security guards in the cafeteria. I helped to organize the line or serve food for people who needed help, like children or old people. I was like a volunteer with a small salary.
I was able to get a single room in Wünsdorf because I had volunteered for the Red Cross in Eisenhüttenstadt as a translator, as well. I told the manager when I left that I wanted to be in my own room if possible, and she called when I arrived at Wünsdorf to get me a single room. One day the man responsible for organizing activities in the camp said, “Yaqout, I want to go for a picnic or we can go to a museum in Berlin. Do you want to go with me?” I told him that I would like to go, and we made a group to go to the museum. When I got back to my room, I opened the window and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I turned over in my sleep and was shocked to discover someone had broken into my room through the window, stolen my money, and was on my bed. I started screaming and he ran away. I tried to follow him, but he was very fast. I immediately told security, but no one called the police. I wasn’t allowed to call the police on my own, because I had to wait for the social worker. So, the next day I talked with the social worker. He told me that he would see me in my room in 30 minutes but no one came. I talked with him again, and he told me that we can only tell the police by email and I would have to wait for the appointment with the police. But I only knew the person from the back, and I didn’t know his face because it was too dark. After that, nothing happened and my money was gone. It was a horrible time. My depression got worse and I started having nightmares, so I began to visit the psychologist in the camp.
Every week, I told myself, Okay, you are strong. You can handle this. You only need time, and everything will be okay. But Wünsdorf was a very dangerous place. There were lots of different people in this place and a lot of drugs, alcohol, and fighting. We were all living inside the storm, and all we could do was try to save ourselves and survive the storm. Every week, I said, Okay, next week, I will transfer. Next week I will transfer. But because it was during Corona, I stayed there for four months.
At the beginning of December, I finally left Wünsdorf to transfer to Wandlitz. Wandlitz is a beautiful area, but the dorm was very old. The toilet was broken and the room was dirty. It was hard to find something in the room that worked. I even tried to pick out a hotel for that night, but it was too expensive and it was already late at night. The next day, I cleaned everything with my two roommates, but it was still very dirty. I started looking for a WG room or apartment the first day I got to Wandlitz.
In March, I received a letter from the BAMF that said they accepted me, but not for asylum. They would cover me, but only for one year at a time, and I would have to renew my residence every year. I had to pay for a lawyer to appeal my case, and I am still waiting for the decision now because the process in Germany takes a long time.
In May, a listing for a room in a village five minutes from Wandlitz popped up online. By this time, I had already applied to many other apartments. This room looked good, but I figured he would not give it to me. Still, I sent the application to him and closed my phone. After 15 minutes, I had a message. He asked me for my passport and certificate, why I didn’t speak German, what I wanted to do in the future, etc. After I responded, he told me to give him time to think. This was probably because he knew I was coming from a refugee camp, and he knew it was a dangerous community. Not everyone in the camps was dangerous, but if there was one bad person, it could leave a bad impression of the camp that affected everyone living there. After one month of waiting, I asked him to let me know if he wanted to give me the room, because I had to give my camp a 14-day notice. After 10 days, he sent me the contract by email.
I am living in this apartment now. The room is very beautiful, and he is a good man. But the small village only has a retirement home and a hospital, so it is very rare to find other young people. At first, I told myself it was fine because it was still an improvement from the dorm in Wandlitz. But in Wandlitz we at least had a train station. In this village, we only have a bus station, and the last bus stops at 8:30. So my life stops at 8:30. By 5, there aren’t any people in the street. When I first arrived in Niella, I told myself that it was fine because it was only a temporary living arrangement. Even so, at the beginning of my time there, my depression worsened.
Besides, it was difficult to find anyone to help, and I had to research everything by myself. Even when I asked other people, they didn’t know or they didn’t want to help. So I had my cell phone, I had my laptop, and I had my English. I started to do research and looked for a German school. I bought my bed, mattress, desk, everything. I started to look for any kind of work. This was very difficult because all the companies in Berlin or Brandenburg told me my requirements were perfect, but I had to speak German, and the language school that I found didn’t start until October.
During the stressful months that I spent moving between camps, I had gained a lot of weight. Once I moved to Niella, I tried to lose weight by exercising, but I visited a clinic and was told that I would need a gastric sleeve operation. The clinic told me I could do this operation in the next six months because my health insurance would cover everything. I told the doctor I wanted to do the operation the following week because my German school started soon. I was very motivated to lose weight because the extra weight was bad for me. I couldn’t exercise, play sports, or do anything I love. After two days in the hospital after the operation, I told the doctor I didn’t think it was necessary to stay longer and that I wanted to go home in order to rest before my school started. The first day back at the apartment was okay, but the second day was harder. I struggled to make any meals because I was so tired, and no one could help me. I started to eat a little bit of food, but I could only eat soup.
I was already struggling with depression before the operation, but this situation made it much worse. I visited a psychologist every day, and he helped me a lot. I tried to find a nutrition assistant in Syria because the ones here were too expensive and not covered by health insurance. Plus, I don’t like German cuisine, so I didn’t know what to eat and felt tired all the time. When my German school started, I was tired during every class. My doctor told me to stay home until I finished my recovery time, so I wasn’t able to complete my classes.
This period of recovery was very, very difficult. If someone asked me now if I recommended this operation, I would tell them not to do it if they are alone. You need someone to support you and be able to feed you. During my first examination after the operation, I even told my doctor that I didn’t think I was strong enough to do the operation.
Now that I have recovered, I don’t regret it and I think it was a good step for me. I still have to reorganize my mind to stop eating, because every time I feel stressed, I go to the fridge. I am now working to take back control and change my lifestyle. I work out, take vitamins, and try to find other ways to destress. This has all helped me a little bit.
Life after the camps
In the search for a job, speaking German is the first requirement, and this is far from easy. When I went to the job center in Niella, the woman working there told me, “Yaqout, you have to learn German. If you learn German, I promise you will find something quickly. But first, you need to speak German.” Okay, I knew I needed to learn German, but I had a lot to do during this time. I had my operation, I was looking for an apartment, I didn’t have time right away. Now I have my apartment, my operation is done, and I have a job. Now, I have time and I need to learn German. Most of the refugees here, they don’t try to learn the language, they don’t try to get a job, they just stay at home. This is not right, this is not life.
I have tried to find schools where I can complete my studies in English, but they only have one in Stuttgart, so it is not possible—I have to learn German. I used to really want to learn English, but I don’t have this feeling here with German. This is wrong, this is not good, but I just don’t have the same desire. Maybe this is because I have had a bad time in Germany, so it makes me not want to learn the language. I’m not sure. Maybe it is just too difficult. Versicherungsnummer – this is one word, it means your health insurance number. One word! It’s not enough to memorize the name of words, you have to know the different articles for every word… it’s very very hard.
I have taken a language course here, but it was not effective because the teacher just opened up the book and read aloud. This is not how you learn a language; you need to socialize with others, to speak to people. To improve these courses, they should have gatherings at least once a week, in which we can practice having conversations. Even in English, it’s not enough to learn the grammar, you need to practice speaking. In my course, the teacher would just tell us the rules, explain the grammar, and give us exercises to do at home. This is simply not enough. They need to build courses around conversation if we are to truly learn the language.
Finding a language course is a challenge in itself. No one helps you find the courses, you have to do your own research. You need to use the internet, find courses and read their reviews, figure out the price. The job center covers the cost of the course, but you have to find it yourself. I am starting a new course in Berlin at the most popular German-language school, so I can only hope it will be more effective than my previous course.
Getting a job in Germany would change a lot for me. It would make me a different person, with a purpose. This is why I have spent every day looking for work. There is no one here who will help you find a job; you have to do this yourself. In the camp I was in, the social worker was not effective. In some other camps, the social workers are more helpful, but they will only tell you which websites to look on. They won’t find a job for you.
The internet has been the most helpful tool in finding work. Every day, I am on Linkedin, Indeed, and other German work websites, looking for opportunities. During my recovery from the gastric sleeve operation, I spent 3 hours every day on my laptop looking for work, because I really wanted to find a job. I want to learn German. It’s difficult to find a way out of my depression without work and contact with other people.
One month ago, a man wrote in the Facebook group for Arab engineering that his company was looking for an architect who spoke German. I messaged him and introduced myself but said I did not speak German. He told me, “Sorry, but you have to speak German.” Two or three months later, he put the advertisement back on Facebook, and I messaged him again. After two weeks, he contacted me, saying that the boss was okay if I did not speak German at first, but I would have to come to Stuttgart for an interview. I told him that I could do the job and the interview online, but that it would be hard for me to get to Stuttgart. After another two weeks, he responded and said I could do the work from home, but I would need to come to Stuttgart for a couple of days as a trial period. So, I traveled to Stuttgart for a 3-day trial.
When I returned to Niella, the manager emailed me with the offer of a 6-month mini-job, with the idea that I will improve my language in these months. Once my German is better, and I am able to speak with the German clients, my contract might switch to a full-time job. I accepted this offer, but I am waiting for them to send me all the details so that I can send the contract to the job center. So, I am waiting. I feel like this is an important step for me because it will be a new work experience, it will support my CV, and I will be able to improve my German. Plus, if I have work to distract me, I will have no time to feel depressed. Having work will help me to forget all my problems, to do something with my life here. With a job, I can help my family, I can help my sister in Syria. Having a job will allow me to build myself here.
One of the biggest challenges about living in Germany has been the social life. People here don’t make time for each other; they rarely visit each other at their apartments. On the weekdays, they just go to work, and maybe on the weekends, they meet at a restaurant or bar. The Hungarian people were more social, and Middle Eastern people even more so. Here in Germany, it seems like everyone just fends for themselves. I am a very emotional and social person, so this has been extremely hard for me. Other refugees at least have their families with them, but I came here alone, so I have no one.
Especially now that I am living in Niella, a small village with mainly elderly residents, I feel very lonely. I have one neighbor who is quite young, maybe 35 or 40 years old, who lives with his wife. I have tried to invite them over for some coffee, but they always say they are busy with work. The only interactions I seem to have with the people in my community are simple greetings when we pass each other. Most neighbors will only speak German with me at first, but as I smile at them and say hello, they slowly begin to address me in English. One of my neighbors only spoke German to me, until I offered to carry a heavy package up the stairs for her. After this, she thanked me in English and has spoken English with me ever since.
Some refugees have said to me that they feel unwelcome in Germany, that the Germans do not like them. Honestly, I haven’t had this experience, but I think this is because of how I am. When I approach people with a smile and greet them, they will respond the same way. If I were to be cold to them, they would naturally react the same way.
I did have one bad experience, with a bus driver in Eisenhüttenstadt. I had already been on the bus twice before, and both times I had bought my ticket from the driver in English. When I tried to ask for a ticket in English for the third time, though, he abruptly said to me, “No, we only speak German here, we don’t speak English, okay?” To this I responded, “But you understand what I am saying in English? Give me my ticket, please.” This shocked him. From that moment forward, when he saw me waiting at the bus stop, he never stopped the bus for me and I had to walk 45 minutes to get back to the camp instead. In this neighborhood, it is often said that the German people don’t like the refugees. Despite this one experience, I don’t feel unwelcome in Germany. Many other refugees complain about the people here, but I haven’t seen much rudeness myself.
When others complain about the Germans being unfriendly, I think to myself, Tell me what you do, to make the Germans like you? Are you learning German? Are you trying to find a job? This is Germany; this is their land, not ours. We are living together, but this is Deutschland, so we have to adapt to their lifestyle—it shouldn’t be up to the Germans to accommodate our lifestyle. I made my decision to come here, so now I have to learn to live like the German people. If Germans were to come to Syria, they would have to learn to live like the Syrians. This is life. When I speak German, this is when I feel like I am a part of the German community. I just have to get used to the German way of living, of socializing. I have to be German.
I don’t like to think about the future anymore. I used to, but my experiences in Germany have made me stop wanting to think far ahead. I can only live in the present, and plan for the next month or so. If I find myself in Germany five years from now, then so be it; I don’t have another choice. When I studied in Syria, I was so passionate. I wanted to get my degree and open a private office, I wanted to prove myself in Syria. The future and my dreams were always on my mind. Now in Germany, I have lost that passion and it’s very hard for me.
Living in Germany has changed me. It is hard for me to find the right English words to explain how Germany has changed me, but the Arabic word I am thinking of translates to “cruel.” My experiences in Germany have made me cruel. I no longer expect help from people, even when I have helped them before. Especially from my friends, I have learned not to expect support.
Regardless of whether or not they help me, I have not lost my passion for helping others. Recently, when an old acquaintance from Budapest asked me for advice about applying for asylum, I told them everything. I told them every step of the process, and how to prepare themselves for it. I want to make sure that other refugees hear the truth about what life is like here, because I don’t want them to have the same experience that I did.
In Syria, the people think that Germany is paradise, that life here is perfect. I was once one of those people. I didn’t read about the German culture before coming here, I just thought it was paradise. But it’s not—it is a normal place. Life is hard here. Homesickness will persist no matter which country you are in, and no country is perfect. In the USA, for instance, people can find work quickly because there aren’t as many rules as in Germany. In Germany, though, we have health insurance. Every country has advantages and disadvantages, and we just have to feel satisfied with where we are. I am trying to feel this satisfaction. I have only been in Germany for a year and a half. I have not lived here long enough to decide if life here is good or not. I can only hope that in the future, life will be more beautiful.
If people want to succeed here, they have to prepare themselves to be strong. First, they need to know what to expect. Getting more refugees to be honest about their experiences, like I am now, is the key. There are aspects of my life that I am not ready to talk about yet, sensitive issues. I want to be open about these issues in the future, but I need time. I want to guide other people to be open about their experiences, and maybe I will one day be able to as well.