Guest Speaker Interview: Tarek El
by Sarah Cotte, Clara Larsen, Mae-Line Provoost and Caroline Tintinger
Tarek El is a refugee from Syria who came to France in 2014. In this interview, he speaks about his own experience and the current situation regarding refugees in France.
Q1) What are your thoughts on the handling of the large influx of refugees in 2015 on a national scale or on the scale of the EU as a whole?
“I’ll speak about Europe in my case. Some countries know how to handle this and some don’t. I don’t know why or what the reasons for this are, but I’ll give the example of Germany: refugees go to a city where they can seek asylum, and they stay there while the city hall handles the procedure. In France, it’s different. In France, the procedures all go to Paris. Handling this in such a centralized way, like going through all the refugees’ files makes it very difficult and it takes much longer. Maybe it’s done like this as an attempt to be able to tell refugees ‘Don’t come here, it takes longer,’ and because of this many refugees don’t come here. There’s no place where you can start your first days as an asylum seeker in France. I mean, this is a particular matter, but in general, the handling of refugees would be better if they made it quicker. For example, it takes ages to get all the paperwork, which causes more delays in receiving more refugees and allowing them to work. Why do I have to stay here for one year while I wait for a work permit with nothing to do? As a young man, I have the motivation, I have the energy to invest myself, but unfortunately, they do not consider this aspect and a lot of people, lose their minds waiting. In my opinion, they just have to make it faster regarding the procedures.”
Follow-up: You mentioned that it’s different in Germany. Would you still have to wait to be allowed to work?
“Yeah, as an asylum seeker you always have to wait to work, but what is different in Germany is that there are camps. So you go to the city, you apply for asylum and then you go to the camp immediately. For example, a friend of mine in the Netherlands applied for the travel documents last week and he already got them. I said to him, ‘In France, it’s impossible to have it before four months.’ So there are different procedures refugees go through in different countries. But in general, making these things go fast is the best way to make an asylum seeker’s life easier — even for European citizens it takes a while.”
Q2) What is the attitude of people living in Syria towards other Syrians who are leaving for Europe?
“When you are in a country, in a war zone and you’ve never been out of the country, you see in the media that Europe is the best place to seek asylum. Then when you come here you find that that’s not the case, or at least it’s not what you imagined, so you tell people, ‘Don’t come here; go to other countries.’ But refugees in other countries say the same thing. Like in Germany or the Netherlands, refugees will also tell you, ‘Don’t come here; go to other countries.’ Some refugees live in their imagination until they see the truth. When they come here and realize that life is normal and there are mistakes made, by people, by society, by the government, they can fall out of this ideal. Some countries are better in some aspects and some countries are worse in certain aspects, so you can’t tell someone to stay in their country which is a war zone just because you didn’t find what you imagined here. When they are told not to come, the people in Syria think that Europeans don’t want them here, that they don’t want to share something with Syrians, which isn’t the case. It’s a matter of misunderstanding on both sides.”
Q3) Did you face a certain cultural shock when you came to Europe, and if so, what specifically caused this shock? Did you find it difficult to integrate into France and adapt to Western culture?
“When I left Syria to seek refuge in Turkey I didn’t particularly face a cultural shock and this also applies to when I first arrived in France. If I were to compare the experiences I underwent in both countries, I would say that I had a bigger cultural shock in Turkey compared to France. However, the cultural shock I faced in both countries was very minimal or almost non-existent, it felt very normal. I personally think that factors such as my age, social media, and the languages I spoke helped me integrate more smoothly into new cultures. Language is something that is really important when you go to another country, especially English. So if you happen to speak the language of the country you are in then it makes it easier to adapt. Language helps you communicate with locals and prevents you from feeling like you are a stranger in that country. Something which I also realised is that it is much easier to integrate into a new country when you already know everybody that is there. When I first arrived in Turkey, I didn’t look for places in which I could study, instead, I reached out to my cousins and brothers and it felt much more like a vacation in the country. Furthermore, when I arrived in France it reminded me a lot of Syria. In other words, many things in Syria are like they are in France, due to Syria’s colonisation by the French in the past. For example, the driving license system, as well as the educational system in Syria, are the same as in France so this enabled me to feel a little bit French when I arrived in France. It’s also important to consider that other refugees may have had a lot of trauma and psychological problems from their countries at war which could hinder their integration in other countries. Overall, I would say that I personally did not face major cultural shocks when I arrived in Europe.”
Q4) What is your opinion on the focus (or lack thereof) that is given to refugees in the current political debate in France?
“I think that refugees are welcomed by the French society but maybe not by the current politicians. I don’t personally follow the French media but when I sometimes scroll through Facebook I often find posts and videos which are about how political figures in France attack refugees. I’ve never seen a video on social platforms or in the French media which actually talks about the refugees themselves. I know there are some French media that try to report on how refugees are doing but I don’t find them spreading many of the bad videos you can come across on other social platforms. I think they need to concentrate on a more positive outlook of the refugee community rather than focusing on the negative. We have to think about “How to deal with a difficult situation while spreading the good message” which is currently not the case in the French media.”
Q5) Follow up: Do you think that refugees themselves are given many opportunities to speak? Is it always the French media talking about what refugees do or do refugees ever get to talk about their experiences?
“If a refugee wants to talk, I think he can find a way to do it. The least a refugee can do if he or she wants to express themselves is by posting on a social media platform. Some refugees also make friends when integrating into a country, and these friends can be a great way to spread awareness of our experiences as refugees along with being great support systems. A couple of years ago I did a TED talk. After four years in France, I was extremely happy to be able to talk about my experience as a refugee. It was the first time I spoke about my story and my life. Speaking about it felt like a relief and this is where I thought my asylum and refugee story ended. This enabled me to reach out for the next level in my life which was graduating from my masters, finding a job, and creating a family.”
Q6) What are your plans for the next few years?
“Coming to France has taught me not to think too far ahead into the future because when I was in Syria I never thought I would be here one day. It has always been a dream for me to live in a European country and all of a sudden I arrived in France. I never planned to come to France but it happened. I don’t look that far into the future. Once I achieve something like finding a stable job, I am going to think of the next level or step which I need to do to build a stable family for example. I try to take things day by day rather than thinking too much about the future but this does not mean that I do not have hope for what’s to come. I still remember the day when I was at the shore in Greece with only a backpack. For the last five years that I’ve been here, every time I think of that day, I think about how much I’ve accomplished since then. Today I’ve completed my masters, I have my wife, my own apartment, I am happy and I am surrounded by friends. So I think “How could you imagine that someone who arrived as nothing on the shore has done all of that? Did I plan to do so? No, but it all happened.” When I left Syria, I saw how the dream is not something that we achieve but something that we can keep achieving a little bit every time”. A dream is not something that you achieve once and then it’s done. That’s why I would like to say that today I am in France but tomorrow I don’t know where I might be. You have to learn that you should never think too much about your future, just live each day.”