My name is Ghait Al Theban, I am 23 years old and come from Syria. I was born in Damascus, everyone who has seen it once thinks it is beautiful. Damascus is a paradise for me, of course. I lived and studied there, my family and friends are there. I carry my home within me wherever I am. That I am Syrian fills me with great joy. We didn’t have much, we didn’t need that either. Money, cars, wealth, these things don’t make a home. Being at home, feeling at home, that’s home. In Germany I am a stranger, in my homeland everything was familiar to me. Living as a refugee in a foreign country or as a citizen in his country are two very different things. In my country, I know everything, every street, every place. I’m a stranger here. Syria is the most beautiful country in the world for me. Here I had to learn everything anew, it was difficult for me as a Syrian to arrive in a new culture.
I lived two years in the war, I graduated from high school with great difficulty, I dreamed of studying. A year before my studies, the war began. I did not worry at the moment, tomorrow the war will end, I said to myself again and again. It’ll stop tomorrow. I concentrated on my dream and began to study political science. One day I got a letter, I had to join the military! They gave me two weeks to volunteer. In normal times I would have been exempt from military service because I was still studying. It was different during the war. Everybody was recruited. I had many thoughts, if I become a soldier, I have to carry a weapon, if I carry a weapon, I have to kill or get killed. I didn’t want one thing or the other. All I wanted was to live and build a future for myself. I had no choice but to escape.
I first fled to Jordan, where I stayed for a while. Then I fled to Turkey, where I stayed for two years to save money for fleeing to Europe. It was very difficult to escape from Turkey. We tried it three times, only at the fourth attempt we arrived in Greece. At the third attempt, the motor of the inflatable boat failed, we stood in the middle of the sea. All around us was the sea, a sight that frightened us. The Greek sea watch hung up when we called them, we were probably still on Turkish ground. Finally, the Turkish sea watch saved us and brought us back to Turkey. In Turkey, we first got into a prison. They took our blankets and held us in prison for eight hours.
After every failed attempt, we lost hope a bit more. If it doesn’t work this time, we said to each other, we give up. Even if it costs our lives. We made it, on the Greek island they registered us and we came to a camp. The condition of the camp cannot be described. We slept on the ground without blankets. Greece looked different to us. We thought the whole trip only consisted of two stops, but it consisted of more than 16 stops. In Athens we were looking for a smuggler, but they’re asking for a lot of money. We didn’t have enough money with us. My brother wanted to give me his money. I didn’t take it. There were others with us who could not afford the smugglers, we joined up and decided to flee alone, without smugglers, with the GPS of our mobile phones.
We ran for hours in a row in the first few days, that’s how motivated we were to reach our goal. We walked over mountains, it was a rough ride. Arriving at the Greek-Macedonian border, we were looking for people who could assure us that we really are in Macedonia. We just saw cops and ran away. We walked for five days without food or drink. We only had blankets with us, my brother and I slept together on one blanket, because two would have been too expensive. One of our friends couldn’t go any further, he gave up. He gave us his blanket, I’ll never forget it. We were walking on a very narrow path. There were railroad tracks on the right and a lake on the left. There was nowhere to rest. We lay down on the railroad track to rest, the arriving trains we noticed by the vibration of the ground. Every time the ground shook, we got up to avoid being hit by the train. It was too dangerous, we went on to a cave, there we slept.
Two of us knew the way, they stayed in the cave and told us to go ahead. Apparently they wanted to move on alone. We never saw them again. I call this journey, the journey of death. If I had known before that I would experience all this, I would never have left. We were all exhausted. Two others from our group went on by train, they accepted to be caught, they couldn’t, just didn’t want to go on. I gave my last pair of pants to one of them, he did it. I guess my pants brought him luck. We walked on, in the dark, holding our hands on each other’s shoulders so as not to get lost. I got stuck once when I wanted to get on a track, everyone helped me, they almost fell, but they didn’t care. We stayed together, that gave us strength.
After 12 days we arrived in a village, we saw the Serbian flag. We had crossed an entire country without a smuggler, it was a miracle! In Serbia we were very afraid of getting caught, because they would send us back if we were still outside Belgrade. We met a tractor driver, I asked him in English if the place we were is Serbia. He said: “No, no, this is not Serbia, this is Macedonia.” The boys from our group fainted, all the running and in the end we’re still not in Serbia? The Serbian border was 6km away. The tractor driver drove us. In Serbia we ate and drank something, then we went to a train stop. A man approached us, he wanted 200 Euro so he wouldn’t report us, but we didn’t pay him any money. A train came, we got in, so did the man. He reported us to the police, we were stopped after one hour and taken to a jeep. We thought they were leading us to a camp, while driving we passed highway signs. We were on our way back to Macedonia. It was only a few kilometers to Skopje. They brought us back!
All those days of exhaustion, agony, thirst, hunger, all for nothing? They took us to the Serbian-Macedonian border, forced us to take off our clothes and to give them money. They didn’t treat us like humans. They pointed to Macedonia: “There is Macedonia, go!” We left, a border guard advised me to come in the evening, he was the only one who didn’t take any money from us. We just wanted to go back, back to Turkey, back to Syria. The dream of Europe – abandoned. None of us were willing to try again. We were exhausted from the last days and everything that happened in them. We just wanted one thing, to be stopped by the police and go back.
We were just waiting to be stopped. A car passed us, we were happy because we thought it was the police. Four people got out, they beat my brother and took all the money from a friend. It was a bunch of thugs. My friend was very sad, he had nothing more, not one cent. We walked on, we wanted to go to Greece first and then back to Turkey. In a camp in Macedonia we contacted a Sudanese man at the door. He warned us if we went in now, he said, there was no turning back. We didn’t want to go back. But the Sudanese man had contacts with a smuggler, he offered us his help. “I’ll go to the mosque first,” he said, then I’ll take you to the smuggler. We asked him what day it was because he was going to the mosque. He told us today is Eid. When I think about it, I shed tears. Our families sit together, celebrate, and we’re lost on the streets.
We took the Sudanese to the smuggler, we paid for my friend. We had to wait three days at the mountains until the escape started, that’s what they did with every group. We waited. After three days, another smuggler picked us up. He got caught, other families got away, we ran away. We called the main smuggler, he called us to his house. We waited in the house until the evening and were then picked up by a car. There was room for 20 people in the car, we were 60 people. It was narrow, stuffy, we opened the door a little to get some air. After four hours they told us we were in Belgrade. On the road we saw that it was still 40km to Belgrade. There is no honesty on the escape routes, the smugglers earn money with us.
Arrived in a restaurant, we ate and drank something. For the first time in my life, I had to pay the bill before dinner. We didn’t look like we had any money with us, they wanted to be sure. I understood it. We stayed in Belgrade for a week. Here began a new plan, new worries, new fears. In Hungary the danger of being registered was great, no refugee wanted to stay here, so our concern was even greater. We found a smuggler who was supposed to take us across the Hungarian border in two taxis. The taxi with our friends was stopped. Me, my brother and another friend made it across the border. It’s pure luck. We left the car in Hungary, we found a place to sleep where other families rested. When we got up, there was no one there.
Cops stopped us, tied our arms like we were terrorists. We were just refugees, what had we done? We were locked in jail for 24 hours. The next day they took our fingerprints and gave us a document to take us to a camp in Budapest. We went to Budapest, but not to the camp but to a hotel. After eight days we found a new smuggler, he drove us to Austria, from there we took a taxi to Germany. We gave the taxi driver all our money, our lives were at risk. If it doesn’t work now, we’ll have nothing. We drove seven hours until the taxi driver said we had arrived. I didn’t believe it. It was night, no one was on the street. A little later a policeman approached us, the taxi driver had reported us. He told us that we were in Germany illegally, I spoke English with him.
The only thing I wanted to ask was if we were really in Germany. He affirmed this. My joy was so great that I wanted to hug him best. I said he can do what he wants, I’m a refugee and I’m illegal, he can take me. I told him: “Take me with you, I am a refugee, I am illegal, take me with you.” We lost a lot on the run, friends gave up, we ran for hours, we were stopped, tied up, locked up. Twenty-nine days, nobody can feel it without experiencing it for themselves. We walked as a group and diminished day by day. We felt hope, joy, then anger again. I risked my life to be here. The price we paid to get to Germany was high, very high. On 20.10.2014 we came to a camp.
To me, the last four years feel like fourteen years. I got to know many friends here, we exchange our cultures, I can learn from them and they from me. We celebrate together, visit us, they visit me in Ramadan. They don’t eat in front of me until the sun goes down.
I live in their country, speak their language and they share my values. I have no choice but to appreciate it and to respect it unspeakably. I respect their faith and their tradition, they mine.
In Syria, too, there have never been problems due to religion, even today, since politics has interfered in people’s relationships. For me every religion is valuable, there is no right or wrong religion. My teacher visited me once with her husband, I received them both with an Arabic robe. They weren’t afraid of me, didn’t think I was a terrorist. To them I am Muslim and Ghaith. It’s important to me that we respect each other.
Soon I will start my German course in B2, I have already passed an integration course. I’m very happy. I have my apartment, my family. I live with my mother, my sister and her husband. Unfortunately my father still lives in Syria, he is wounded by the war, the journey would be very difficult for him. We really want to bring my father here, a lawyer has been trying to bring him here for two years. It’s hard. My mother had to catch up with him within the first three months she was in Germany. She didn’t know, how could she? She’s an old woman. If my father were here with me, I’d say I’m staying forever. But because he is still there, I have to go back one day, how can I live here if a part of my soul is still in Syria?
I want my story to reach people who can help me get my father here. My little dream was to come to Europe, my big dream is to bring my father to Germany. I have a few words for the AFD. There is a saying in Syria: “Not all fingers are the same”, we refugees are not all the same either. We came here to work, help society and build a new future. We fled the war, you are honored by your fate to live in Germany. We had no choice. Before you ask us to go back, please put yourself in our position, if only for a moment.
Telling my story has relieved me because my hope of being heard is huge. I wish my story would never be forgotten. I do not want pity, I wish that the through my story the path is made easier for those who still come.
Storyteller’s name: Ghaith Aldeban
Interviewer’s name: Sarah El Desoke
Country of origin: Syria