Building bridges with a story

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Khaled Khudr speaks to employees of the clarat organisation

In an age of distractions, watching a big group of people pay attention for longer than a few minutes is a bit like seeing a unicorn. It’s not often you see one person captivate an entire room for ten minutes, let alone two hours.

This was one of the many things I kept thinking while listening to Khaled Khudr tell his story to employees of clarat refugees, a social organisation here in Berlin. Clarat helps refugees from Syria and other parts of the world to navigate the different support services available to newcomers in Germany, but many on its dedicated staff had not yet had much of an opportunity to interact with actual refugees. This is one of the paradoxes of the refugee situation here in Germany. There are approximately 30,000 Syrian refugees in Berlin — three times as many as have entered the entire United States in the last two years. Yet it’s easy to live your life without ever interacting with the very real people behind what the news media call a “crisis” and behind what has become such a source of controversy politically.

Since coming to Berlin in 2015, Khaled has done his part and more to bridge this divide, offering over 60 Arabic language and Syrian cultural workshops as part of TeachSurfing and other volunteer opportunities. I’ve been working with the TeachSurfing team since last autumn and met Khaled on several occasions, but last Tuesday at clarat was my first opportunity to see him in action.

The whole point of the language and cultural workshops are to demystify a major part of what people find “foreign” about refugee newcomers in Germany. When Europeans see that Arabic is just another language and Syria is not a great big desert but rather a vibrant, diverse, and largely modern country with all kinds of people and places, some of the barriers that prevent us from getting to a place of greater empathy and understanding start to break. This is how integration happens — one story, one interaction at a time.

The power of a story

Khaled’s typical presentation, which he adapted for the meeting at clarat, includes a slideshow of images from Syria. How many westerners know that it snows there? Or that Damascus, still here after 11,000 years, is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world? Khaled’s pictures includes images of the devastation in parts of Syria, but they also show a country of pristine beaches, mountain landscapes, and modern cities where people run marathons, enter start-up competitions, and do all of the things we think of as being “normal” in our part of the world. These are all pictures that were taken in Syria not before the war, but within the last year.

So why are there so many Syrians leaving? This was the special part of Khaled’s presentation for the clarat organisation — a personal account of his story, and an effort to give some perspective to the issue as a whole. To be sure, a massive number of the newcomers applying for asylum in Europe and North America are from Aleppo and other parts of Syria torn apart by six years of violence and civil war. But Damascus, as Khaled pointed out, has remained relatively calm. Why did he leave?

For many young Syrian men, the decision is less about avoiding becoming a victim of war, and more about not becoming a perpetrator. Military service is compulsory for Syrian males, and once one has completed university they are at risk of being called up to the military or labelled a member of the opposition if they refuse. Furthermore, just as there are people fleeing the impacts of war in Syria, there are many fleeing the government itself. If you or your family know anyone who has been in any way connected to the resistance, you’ve got a giant target on your back. Many of the young people leaving Syria to avoid the military don’t want to fight on the side of a government that has committed documented atrocities against its own people. For Khaled, the decision was simple: “I don’t want to be a part of a war when I don’t know my enemy.”

This also helps to explain where there is such a large proportion of young men among the Syrian refugee population in Europe. If your government demanded that you join a war against your own people that you didn’t agree with, what would you do? Beyond this, there is the danger of the journey itself. Many families chose initially to send only family member, and among those that did, many sent their sons.

An epic journey

Just as there is an acknowledgement of the refugee issue generally in the West but a lack of actual interaction between locals and newcomers, there is also an incomplete appreciation for the full scope of what it took for those same newcomers to get here in the first place. People are aware, via news reports, of the dangerous crossing between Turkey and Greece, and are perhaps also aware (albeit to a lesser degree) of the general migratory route through Southeastern Europe.

But we don’t hear the details. We don’t hear about the gangs, and the constant fear of having your phone, money, or belongings stolen. We don’t hear about the DIY navigation through the woods via Google Maps, or the sharing and communication of essential information via Facebook and other social media. We don’t hear the stories of sleeping for days in the forest, or the amounts of money paid to smugglers and other middle men to ensure safe passage in particularly challenging areas.

Every story, of course, is different — and Khaled himself shared only the broad details of his with the group at clarat. But I don’t think it’s too bold to suggest that any one of the following portions of Khaled’s trip would be unimaginable for most westerners accustomed to traveling in much more comfortable circumstances:

  • Paying €1800 to be taken on a boat from Turkey to Greece, then spending 14 hours in the cabin of a yacht full of refugees, posing as a tourist boat for the journey;
  • Walking from Greece to Macedonia, and sleeping in the woods at the border;
  • Cutting a virgin trail in a group through the woods at the Macedonia-Serbia border, and running across one-by-one;
  • Not sleeping for five days during the above legs of the trip;
  • Paying €1500 to be taken from Belgrade to Vienna, and being stranded at the Hungarian border instead;
  • Getting a leg infection in a Hungarian detention cell;
  • Finally successfully paying a car to drive from Budapest to Mecklenburg, in northern Germany;
  • Having his last €1500 taken by the authorities upon arrival at a refugee camp outside of Berlin, then spending 20 days with no phone, money, or access to the outside world while waiting to have his case registered. The money was never returned.

It was at this point in Khaled’s presentation, about 90 minutes after he had initially started talking, that I looked around the room for the first time. There was silence. Everyone in the room stared at Khaled in full attention as he spoke, hanging on every word.

If any of the above happened to an American exchange student or 20-something adventurer touring through Europe, it would be instant travel blog material — an “epic” story of resilience and survival to take home and share as proof of one’s worldliness and sense of adventure. Yet over a million people from a different part of the world have made a similar journey since 2015, and we don’t really talk about or appreciate it. As Khaled nonchalantly shares the details of his crazy trip, for most of us in the room it is the first time hearing this kind of story about any of Europe’s newcomers.

From the present to the future

One year-and-a-half later Khaled is living in his second refugee camp, on the outskirts of Berlin in Spandau. He shares a 13 square meter room with a roommate, which makes him one of the lucky ones, relatively speaking, since many people in the refugee camps share a room with up to five other people. Despite a hectic living situation, Khaled spends more time volunteering in a week than many people do in an entire year, using his background in biology and biochemistry to help teach children in the refugee camps. Khaled has also found volunteer work taking kids from local schools in Spandau on tours of the Bundestag, in addition to his efforts leading workshops for TeachSurfing, while helping to train other refugees who want to be TeachSurfers. He is also a novelist and enjoys playing flamenco guitar.

He’s still looking for his own apartment, since a lot of landlords don’t want to rent to refugees, and he’s still also looking for paid work opportunities. Yet while Khaled’s life in Berlin is not nearly as comfortable as it was once was in Damascus before the war broke out, this has not deterred him from remaining active in the community.

Perhaps if those of us in the West were more familiar with this side of the refugee story, perhaps if we could imagine ourselves in any of the same situations, we might feel differently about our obligation toward the newcomers in our societies. Perhaps then the idea of people fleeing war, their own government, or both, in order to make a dangerous journey over thousands of miles of land and sea, with nothing but their own belongings and a vague hope that the world’s richest countries might have a place for them… perhaps then this idea wouldn’t be so controversial.

We can’t change what the media chooses to cover, but we can make an effort to boost the opportunity for newcomers and locals to interact, and get to know each other as people. And while the employees at clarat, who dedicate their entire days working to help refugees, were surely a friendly audience, part of what we do at TeachSurfing is to bring many different members of the community together with this purpose in mind. TeachSurfing is dedicated to the idea that everyone has something they can teach, and we have embraced the opportunity to help refugees share their language, skills, and culture with people here in Germany. Our events are a place where locals can learn more about the newcomers in our communities, and learn from what these talented people have to offer.

It’s one of the many reasons I am proud to have joined this organisation, and why I am inspired by the work that Khaled and everyone else on our team is doing to help expand our efforts. The workshop at clarat was a proud day for TeachSurfing, and we look forward to many more, as we continue to build bridges through teaching and learning, both from our base in Berlin and in communities around the world.

Members of the TeachSurfing team with Khaled and our host from clarat refugees