Monday, September 7, 2015

A Refugee Speaks

Thair Orfahli
Thair Orfahli, a refugee from Syria, has faced a horrific ordeal. From the heartland of conflict torn Syria, right up to finding a space in Germany as he waits for the declaration on his application for asylum, Thair has gone through a difficult series of events. In a world that often tends to see refugees either as "people in need" or as "vulnerable people", and not as friends, Thair’s story is a reminder of how valuable perceptions are in fostering peace. It is exceptionally important to break these illusive social stratifications that separate the privileged and the unfortunate. Thair’s story is a beautiful example of how when you make friends and empathise with the other, this happens immediately. Here’s his story, in his own words.

My story begins in Damascus, where I met Sara. I was 19 and had just finished high school; she was 24 and was doing a summer school on International Politics at the Arab International University organized by her university, the Free University Berlin. We had the best time ever; we were always laughing and looking for the next adventure. We have spent every day together during her program in Syria. We went to visit all historical sites in the old city and in Bosra. When I think about Palmyra I want to cry. I cannot believe the temple of Baal Shamin is now gone forever. Sara became like a sister to me and we stayed in touch over the years… I can’t believe my country has entered its 5th year of war. My dream is for the conflict to be over and be back soon in Damascus, the city of jasmine, with my family and friends.

In September 2009, I started attending law school in Beirut, Lebanon. I kept going back and forth between Beirut and Damascus like most other students and workers who came to Lebanon from Damascus. It was the easiest and most common commute ever. By July 2012, Syria began to full up with tension and fighting. Thousands of people have been killed and injured, and millions have been displaced. In this time, countless homes, hospitals and schools were either damaged or destroyed.  It was no longer safe, and I had no choice but to leave for good. I took a shared car one night to Lebanon. In three hours, I reached Beirut.

By September 2012, the situation in Lebanon worsened, and became very dangerous – there was a massive influx of refugees from Syria, and my mother encouraged me to go to Egypt so that I could complete my studies. I moved as she said, and was able to continue my studies in law. I had found a room in a shared apartment with other Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Sara was working in Egypt, and together with many other friends, we supported refugee families and communities from different countries through a solidarity organization called the Sina Network.  

In November 2014, after I had spent two years in Egypt, I graduated from the Faculty of Law of the University of Alexandria and tried to obtain authorization to work as a lawyer in Egypt. According to Egyptian law, I needed to have a permit from the Arab Lawyers’ Syndicate of my country of origin, Syria! They wanted me to travel back to Damascus, in the midst of war, just for a piece of paper! In addition to that, sadly, my passport was stolen and that made things very difficult for me. The Syrian Embassy refused to issue me another one. They said that they would only give me a travel document that would allow me to travel back to Syria in order to serve in the Syrian Army and put my life in danger. Without any hope of getting a job and at the serious risk of being detained or sent back to Syria, I had no other choice but to flee once again. This time, I had to go to Europe.

On May 18 2015, in great despair like several other refugees, I paid a smuggler US$2,000 for the very expensive crossing from Alexandria to Sicily, Southern Italy. The news spoke about these boats sinking without any survivors and all my friends were telling me not to go, but I knew within that I simply had to try to reach the other shore of the Mediterranean Sea so that I had a chance to build a new life. Maybe I was making the wrong choice… I said bye to everyone, I left my computer and my belongings with my dear friend Jakob and I told him that had I not arrived, he should have given everything to my family. I then took on a little food and water, and a life vest and I was ready to go.

Thair with Sarah and members from the refugee community
(c) UNOCHA / #ShareHumanity
Four days later, we were packed like sardines – about 100 of us, and we were hidden in the back of a truck to reach the dock. It was dark, hot and we were all very anxious. We had to swim a bit to reach the boat. As we got further away from Egypt and we reached international waters, more people would arrive in smaller boats coming from Libya. It was very cold at night, and we had run out of food and water. The waves were 3 meters high and our boats, which were tied together, would be pulled apart and crash back together. I’ve never been so afraid. Many of us became sick, especially the children. I remember there was one little girl from Somalia who could not stop crying. I had run out of medicine but I told her I would give her some, instead I gave her honey and I held her in my arms. After a bit she stopped crying and felt better. I will never forget her scared eyes… We were on this tiny, crammed boat for ten days... 234 of us from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Iraq. Each story is more touching than the next. The strength they were showing was unbelievable.

After spending 10 days at sea, on May 28, 2015, the Italian Coast Guard rescued our boat. They saved us. We could not believe it! We had NO passport, NO money, NO clothes, nothing! But we were alive! In 2015 alone, over 300,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach safety in Europe. 2,500 people of them died trying crossing this sea. If it costs 300 US dollars for a flight to Europe from North Africa, why are refugees being forced to board very unsafe boats and risk their lives for 2000 dollars?  

I was overjoyed when I reached. I had messages from my loved ones and it made me feel so grateful to life. We were very well-received in Sicily, but it was not our final destination. Pretty soon, we were pushed to Northern Italy – it was dangerous, of course, but we knew that we could make it. On May 30, 2015, I was welcomed by wonderful Italian volunteers at the Milano Central Station, joining thousands of refugees sleeping in the train station and other overcrowded facilities.  I could only stay for five nights at the Refugees’ Centre in the city and after that, I nowhere to go. And so, on June 4, Sara’s family welcome me at the train station of their town Modena, where I spent a few weeks with wonderful people that became like my second family.  

It soon came to light that Italy was suffering a severe economic crisis. So, Northern Europe, with its higher employment rates and strong social systems became my final destination, and the one of many others. It was hard to say goodbye to Italy and all my new friends, but I had to move on. Britain was my first choice, because my mother is a British Overseas Citizen, but reaching England from France is extremely dangerous. Each night, to cross to the UK, many people attempt to rush over barricades blocking the entrance to the Eurotunnel, through which cars, trucks and the Eurostar Bullet Train travel. They try to either walk through it or board trucks and freight trains, risking being struck by them. Therefore, my friends suggested Germany instead. Soon enough, I was on the road again.  

June 20, 2015 marked the International Day of the Refugees. Ironically enough, I embarked on what
Thair, playing cards with other
refugees on their boat
would be the final leg of my long journey by crossing the Austrian and then, the German border. Since the authorities were controlling everyone on trains and buses that cross these borders, I had to travel by car to avoid being caught and sent back to Italy. The trip was long and dangerous trip but in the night I finally arrived in Munich. Sara and Jakob were waiting for me there. That was the best and most joyful moment of my journey. I could not believe my eyes. Together we started to discuss how my future in Germany would look. I approached Berlin, and I applied for political asylum. I was very grateful to Germany. But, for me, the UK still remains my home away from home.. My grandfather was British, my mother is a British Overseas Citizen. She had not seen me in 4 long years and her biggest hope is to be reunited with me in the UK! However, at the moment, there are no legal avenues for reaching the UK..

I am now in the city of Bielefeld where I am waiting a court hearing on his asylum petition. Insh’allah it will happen! Though I have a law degree, I do not speak German (I am learning, though!). I am still without money or a passport. I must navigate an immigration system that is complicated. My fellow refugees and I are placed in a mass housing space that is far outside the main cities, and that makes it really hard for us to integrate in the German society… but I remain positive!

I couldn’t have made it through this journey without my friends, especially Sara and Jakob. They would never say to me, "What can I give you?" or “What do you need?” Instead, they would say to me, “Let’s do this, let’s go there together!” I really believe that in life, only two things define you: your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything. If everyone in the world could extend such a helping hand across borders, colours, nationalities and religions, just to one more refugee, we can find ourselves in a much happier place.

Thair Orfahli is the symbol of resilience. At this point in the world, there are many conflicts around – and there is a burgeoning number of refugees even as you read this. As a global community of humans, we need to empathise with them and understand the fact that they had no choice but to flee because just overnight, their houses were bombed and they were caught in the middle of war, violence and persecution. It's not their fault that such things happened to them. Even when they find safety in our countries and apply for asylum, they’re still faced with the question of how to live with dignity and purpose, like the rest of us! As long as refugees are seen, treated and considered a burden, they will always be the unfortunate targets of racism, discrimination and horrific violence. Even as policy remains where it is, a massive force of volunteers, such as those at the France-UK Border in Calais and at the Italian-French border in Ventimiglia help migrants find safe, empty buildings to live in, while also those that visit detainees in immigration prisons and form support groups in Italy and Greece to help new arrivals. Solidarity exists every day – but it is time to build on it and create a sustainable future. We need to grow to become citizens of the world – and redefine our ideas of legal and illegal.  

Follow Up:
Thair’s Story was made into a video by the UNOCHA for the campaign #ShareHumanity

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