How the stories of two Syrian refugees can help us hope and dream for a better world
In the gloom of darkness and rocked side by side by the unmerciful Mediterranean waves Kadour Khatiib, an 18 year old Syrian refugee, managed to flee the war and was now crammed in a boat with more than 80 other people. The “seat”, floor space, which was assigned to him by one of the smugglers, was on the bottom floor of the ship next to the only toilet that everyone had to use. The door was constantly open; the stench of human excrement and vomit was unbearable; and yet, Kadour knew that he had to bear it for 18 more hours. Without nowhere to go or move, all he was able to do for the rest of the journey was pray. He prayed for everyone’s soul in that boat, he was certain that it would capsize at any given moment, it had happened to him before. After all, this was his fourth attempt into reaching Europe by sea.
Europe is witnessing one of the biggest immigration waves ever. The media plays a crucial role in this most pressing humanitrian crisis of our times. It was our mission to bring a face to the media instead of presenting impersonal numbers. Innocent people looking for a better future get put into a negative stereotype due to the fear and uncertainties that the media creates. We want to antagonize this stereotype and show that the exception proves the rule.
“Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.”
“Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to imporve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.”
“Yes, there is a difference, and it does matter. The two terms have distinct and different meanings, and confusing them leads to problems for both populations.”
-UNHCR, Adrian Edwards, Geneva (Aug/27/2015)
We had the honor of speaking with two Syrian refugees along with an educator who has had a profound impact with one of them at the Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg Global Seminar. It has come to our attention that many of our assumptions were quickly contradicted after listening to their stories.
The way we can make a difference is becoming aware of whats going on throughout the world and working with it first hand.
“I didn’t know about the Syrian crisis, I didn’t know about the war, it was so far away from me that I didn’t pay any attention to it… It struck me out of the blue…’’
The first time that Franziska Lipp saw 19 year old Kadour Khatiib it wasn’t through her eyes, but instead, her heart. She could feel that something was off from the moment she entered the classroom. There was this unspoken tension in the room, the source of it came directly from him.
“ He was different from everyone else, you could notice it in his eyes, everybody was relaxed except for him.”
Franziska approached him and was immediately impressed by Kadour´s German speaking level after only nine months in Austria.
As soon as Kadour got into Austria he laid the task upon himself of learning the language of what he hoped to call his new home. He had invested his time constantly studying, through the Internet, learning new phrases and words in order to expand his vocabulary. Franziska only knew a small part of his circumstance and was already overwhelmed with empathy about his situation.
Before Kadour came to Austria he had serious health problems, suffering from very bad headaches and was constantly ill. While in Syria, he had hit his nose and after visiting the doctors they just covered it with a bandaid. The bone was broken, blocking his air channel making it hard to breathe for a very long time. Franziska organized vists to doctors and specialists to help figure out what the solution would be.
“Health insurance was a big issue because we found out that he didnt have it.”
If he had to go through all the paperwork by himself he wouldn’t have managed to get the insurance. Fransizka was able to guide him and they managed to obtain it, allowing him to receive child allowance from the state, which gives him 200 euros a month.
Life back in Syria
Kadour is a 20 year old boy who has traveled claiming asylum in Austria and is a Syrian refugee. When he was 18 years old, he decided that he would leave Syria in order to create a better life for himself. Once one turns 18 in Syria, it is not only optional to join the military, but one can be forced to join. In Kadour’s case, he did not want to live a life of war and had a strong desire to expand his studies.
Life back in Syria, Kadour focussed mostly on going to school, coming home to study and sometimes would accompany his father at work. His teenage years were not based around socializing, he strived to be educated and wanted to make something of himself.
“After the war started, it turned to be a horrible life. I couldn’t go to university and there was not enough jobs that I could work or get money and live a good life.”
Kadour came by himself with a friend and their journey lasted about a year all together.
- Started in Turkey: had to pay some money because leaving was illegal considering he didn’t have papers or a passport.
- Stayed in Turkey for 15 days.
What he brought were : The Koran, pieces of bread, tuna, and things from his mother.
Kadour tried to travel by ship four times. He attempted three times on a small boat with 40–50 people and every time the boats cantered.
- 1st time : It cantered and the Turkish police brought the refugees back — He had lost all of the things he had brought with him.
- 2nd time: It broke after 100 meters off of the beach so he was able to swim back because he had a life raft.
- 3rd time: There was a storm and they wanted to take the boat regardless of the weather conditions, he decided he didn’t want to take that risk.
- last time: He was crammed on a bigger ship than the ones before never the less conditions were deplorable.
- They were at sea for 18 hours until they reached an island in Greece where he stayed for 4 days until authorities gave them proper paperwork so they could stay in Athens for a short time.
- He then took a train to Thessaloniki and after that he started to walk.
When in Greece for 3 months he stayed in an old hotel in Athens. This hotel belonged to the men who help take Kadour and others from place to place.
Q: “How did you find the men that helped you?”
A: “They are like hunters, so when they see the refugees lost in the street with dirty clothes they would come to you. Considering there were a lot of us, they wanted to make business. So, they came to us and asked ‘where do you want to go?’ and you would tell them where you wanted to go and they would tell you ‘ok come with me I will take you there’. They are working together .. they are like a mafia.”
From the boarders of Macedonia to Serbia he walked for 10 days, until police caught and sent him back to Greece. After that he managed to make it to Serbia and stayed in Belgrade for 5 days.
While in Belgrade he met another smuggler who would take him through Hungary.
“They would stay with me for 2 days and they said they will send you with other guys, so I went with him and 2 friends — my money was in an office in Athens and I would pay about 20 euros so they would keep it there for me. They gave me a passport — it’s “mafia work”. They would then send me the money back to Belgrade and I would pay the men .”
Q: “Are these human traffickers that bring you to these places?”
Q: “How much money do you have to pay them?”
A: “The total amount that I had to paid for the whole journey was 7,000 euros but I didn’t pay it all at once. I paid them every time they took us boarder to boarder, this costed 1,500 euros, because it was a dangerous risk. So yea they take a lot of money.
“They took us to the boarders of Hungary and we stayed there for one day — hiding in a forest — during the night they sent a mini bus and took us through Hungary for about five hours to Austria. I was supposed to go to Germany but he said ‘ok we are in Vienna you can take the train directly to Germany’ — when we got out of the car we walked and asked which city it was and someone told us that it was not Vienna it was some city on the boarder of Hungary. We were shocked and I didn’t have enough money to complete my way to Germany. So I decided to stay there and the police caught and took us to Traiskirchen the refugees camp close to Vienna. I stayed there for one day. They made papers and a license for me and sent me to another place, Bruck an der Mur — a city here in Austria”
Kadour didn’t have much contact with the people in Greece besides the men that took them from border to border. The police were very friendly and kind, they treated them like normal people; this was not the case in Macedonia.
“They were horrible people the officers and soldiers at the borders, they hit and beat us. They wanted us to go back to Greece so I stayed there for 3 months because every time I tried to cross the border to Macedonia they took me back to Greece. This was a big problem for me because I couldn’t go back, all I had to do was pass through there and to get to where I was going, but they wouldn’t take me as a refugee.”
Q: Have you experienced any prejudice from people?
A: Actually I haven’t met people like that, I havent spoken to people like that before so I don’t have any experience with that.
Q: Were you welcomed into Austrian society? Do you feel comfortable?
Q: Has integration been hard for him?
A: On one hand yes, on the another no. He’s intergrated and he’s part of the class community.
Franziska explains that she overseas some divide between her Austrian born students and refugees. There was a connection through studies but seperation outside of school activities.
“I think that the other students dont treat him differently any longer. But they definitely treated him differently at the begining of the school year. They were more cautious when talking to him. They tried to support him as far as school was concerned but they didn’t care about what he was doing during his free time and this has changed completely throughout the year he has spent in our school.”
Families have made an effort in order to help him with his situation.
- A students’ father bought him a tablet since they needed one for a particular class.
- Another students’ parents bought him dancing lessons so he could participate with the other students.
- Others bought him clothes.
She told us that there are others who looked down on him and do not care about his situation. She came in contact with one girl in particular who didn’t understand the struggle that Kadour was having, providing for himself and not having the everyday luxuries that kids are granted.
“ It was when a really nice boy paid for him to take the dance course and a young girl said ‘well he should pay for it himself!’. She couldn’t understand why Kadour couldn’t pay for it himself, at the time, he only had 150 euros in his bank account. It was very embarrassing, I thank god that Kadour wasn’t there that day. I felt so ashamed for what was spoken.”
Others try to support Kadour and the two other refugees in his program by giving extra tution and being there for them if they need anything as far as coursework.
“This would not be possible if there were more refugees at our school. It is always a question of how many we’ve got as far as integration and support is concerned.”
Communication & Media
Q: Does social media play a big role during your journey?
A: Yes, without social media, we would be lost. It’s not too difficult to know where we were going because we had phones and GPS. The men who would take us knew the way so sometimes, we didn’t even need the GPS or phone.
Q: How did you communicate with the human traffickers ?
A: I had my phone with me and in every country I had to buy a sim card to call them. The first man in Athens gave me the number of the man in Macedonia so I can call him and every time you called he would tell you where to go and the number of another man.
Q: They would arrange meeting points via social media?
A: Yes, sometimes they would talk to these other men with programs like Whatsapp. If you didn’t have enough credit on the app or money to use this, you could find a coffee shop, use the wireless to connect with others.
Q: How often do you talk to your parents? :
A: Once a week I can talk to them when they have connection with the internet. They don’t have phones, they can not call so they have to talk through the internet. I talk to them often with Whatsapp.
Q: Do they have any plans of leaving?
A: I dont think so because it’s difficult, as I came I saw the way and how is goes so I don’t wish that they will go through that. It also costs a lot of money and I don’t think they will come because of the situation, it is difficult.
Weiz, his new home
Kadour was living in a refugee home 20 km away from school where he stayed in a two-room apartment with six others. All he had was a bed, and no personal space such as a desk to do work or other activities. The only way to get to school was by bus every day, twice a day. It was free for the first two months but eventually he found out that it wouldn’t be free anymore. This became a problem since he couldn’t afford it.
“I knew I couldn’t complain about anything that I lack in my life so I shall at least try to guide him and help him.” -Fransizka
The word of Kadour’s situation spread from the hallways of the school to the homes of friends and family of Franziska. Right before Christmas, Kadour found a host family. The Family owns a restaurant and hotel. They provide him with his own room in the hotel and food at his disposal. This host family encourages him, his studies, and recently they’re helping him get his drivers license.
“They treat him as a family member.”
Kadour tries to help out whenever he can, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his studies, Franziska mentions. She has helped him perfect the language barriers that he still faces by driving him to his German classes. It’s during these car rides that they have been able to get to know each other even better. Nevertheless, there’s still certain topics that are hard to talk about.
“Family is always a delicate subject when it comes to it, his very sensible about it; how can it not be.”
This past Christmas Fransizka organized a donation at their school, sending emails to all the teachers asking them if they’d like to donate something for him; clothes or money. Such essentials are needed in Kadour’s situation due to the little amount of money that he is given along with not having a steady job. For Christmas she had gotten him a wallet as a gift and he told her it was his first wallet ever.
“It touches your heart when you can make someone happy with tiny things that other students would not appreciate as much if you were to give it to them as a present. They take things like this for granted.”
Q: How is Kadour doing in school?
A: He has learned most of the German through the internet and his phone, he has an app that works as a dictionary this way he’s consantly expanding his vocabulary. He passed all of his classes but two: German and his Latin class that he takes with me. In November, he will retake that exam in order to get the credits to pass the course and prove he knows the material.
Q: Do you help him study?
A: Yes, of course. He needs my help or else he wouldnt be able to manage this on his own.
“There’s one thing that is difficult for me in this situation. I should treat all my students in class equally and now it has become difficut since Kadour spends significantly more time with me. To some extent he has entered my family when none of the other students have done so. So, it is difficult to keep this relationship seperate in the classroom.”
Q: Where are you living right now?
A: I am in Weiz, its a small city by Graz. I was in Vienna for one day. I wasn’t in Weiz for the whole year, I was in Bruck an der Mur which is a big city and I spent a month and a half there. I was sent to Passail another small city, like a village, after 9 months there I went to Weiz.”
Q: Why did you move to Weiz?
A: I moved there because it is closer to the school and I have to be close to the school. I am now living with a family there.
Q: Is this where you met Fransika? Is she helping you?
A: Yes in the first week I met Fransika, she is my latin teacher. Six months ago was the first time I learned the language and I have been trying very hard to get better at it because I want to go to university. She helps me a lot so we always have contact with each other.
Q: Do you feel like part of her family?
A: Yea I think so, she liked me I think, and I liked her too definitely. I am like a part of the family and I am thankful for that.
Q: How is your family?
A: They are well at the moment, its still like before the situation. There are no groups that are fighting right now but there are airstrikes that come and shoot and they would be scared. Thats the situation they’re in. I can not say they are safe, but they are still alive.
One of the friends Kadour has met in Austria is Ismael, a 29 year old refugee that comes from Syria as well. Because of the war in Syria, Ismael was forced to make the choice between leaving the country or serving in the military and fight. He decided against the war, against terrorism and chose to take the risk of fleeing into a promising but also uncertain future. In order for him to get to his aspired destination, Europe, he had to undertake a straining, dangerous and nerve-racking journey without his family.
“I knew one friend who also wanted to go to Europe. We made a plan and a route with the GPS on our phones. There are two or three boarders between Turkey and Greece. The first time I tried to cross the border the police arrested me. They stole my passport, brought me back to Turkey and put me into jail for two days. The second time they caught me again and I was brought back to Turkey. The third time it was ok. After I crossed the border to Greece I walked for 12 days to the Macedonian border”
Ismael walked in the night and slept during the day. The fear of getting caught by the police was too high.
“Even though it was freezing cold during the night, we did not dare to make a fire in case someone would see and arrest me or send me back.”
The circumstances he endured are unimaginable and dreadful.
“I just had two bags — one for food and clothes and the other one for a small tent”
After crossing the border from Macedonia to Serbia he started walking again, took a bus, paid human traffickers to journey on and then finally crossed the border to Hungary and reached Austria after a fierce and unsafe journey through several countries.
“I have friends in Austria and they said it is a good country and it’s friendly and better than other countries — people speak German so you can go to Germany or Switzerland”
Through social media he communicates with the ones left behind, friends and family members. Social networks such as Facebook and Whatsapp play a vital role for Ismael in order to keep in touch with everyone back home in Syria.
Hopes and Dreams
“I hope that I can complete the study of medicine, that is what I want.”
Q: Do you think you have come close to that dream here ?
A: “Well I can not be sure that I have come close to my dream, but I am working on it. “
Ismael is happy and grateful to be in a country where he was welcomed with open arms, warmth and love. His hopes and dreams for a better world motivated him to endure all these strains and hardships.
“I want to thank all the people in Austria because there are a lot of people that help us learn German and help us with everything”
Q: Was there one single happy moment during your journey ?
A: “ The last station where I came to Austria when I got out of the car, after 3 months of suffering from all these bad things/ bad dreams I didn’t sleep well the whole 3 months. I didn’t sleep at night I would walk during the night and sleep throughout the morning and day. So it was a moment it wasn’t like every other month. I slept at night and I saw the sun of the future. Yes, that was the best moment. “
Even though there are still people who have prejudices and are driven against foreign people entering the country there is still hope for a better world. Listening to the stories of Kadour and Ismael can shape society and contribute into a glimpse of what a better world might look like.
This story was created by a team of students at the 2016 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. It exists as part of a digital publication called MOVE which aims to educate readers on the social, political, and cultural impacts of global migration. All stories published in MOVE were created at the 2016 Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change by students and faculty from around the world.