In this grappling interview, Refutales founder Sajida Altaya shares her experiences as a refugee in Europe with her co-founders Dorien Dierckx and Cornelius Roemer. Part I of this three part series deals with her journey to Germany and the first months there.
Part I: Arrival
Why did you leave Syria?
“My family and I didn’t feel secure there anymore. In the summer of 2014, the town I grew up in, about an hour drive south of Damascus, turned into a place of fighting between the government’s forces and rebels. As a result, we moved to Damascus itself in the hope that things were quieter there.
But even there, the situation was dangerous so after a month we decided to flee to Europe like many others. It just wasn’t possible to carry on with regular life anymore. My sister decided to stay with her husband in Damascus, however we took her 9-year-old daugther with us, in the hope that my sister could follow later. She and her daughter are now separated for more than two years.
Our first destination was Turkey. We originally wanted to go straight on to Europe but for many reasons it didn’t work out. So at first, we got stranded in Turkey where we stayed for 10 months.”
How did you end up in Germany, and what followed after you arrived?
“After a week-long journey from Turkey by foot and train, we arrived in Austria. We were asked by Austrian officials where we wanted to go. When we responded Germany, my sister (not the one who stayed in Damascus, red.) and I were put in a coach with other refugees that went to a reception camp in Eisenhuettenstadt, in the East of Germany.
We stayed there for 22 days. It was very crowded there. Hundreds of people lived there and every day there were more arriving. We were given a room with two other girls. That was great. We were especially happy that we were together. Before we could settle in, we underwent a medical check. My sister appeared to have fever so she was sent to a hospital for a couple of nights. Luckily, it wasn’t far from the camp so I could visit her often.
The authorities gave us a kind of identity pass which allowed us to leave and enter the camp freely, and acted as vouchers to receive three meals a day. We received pocket money and clothes, though we had to queue for them for hours. Given that we had brought insufficient clothes we got warmer ones straight away. Despite being winter, we had to wait outside. That was quite tough since we weren’t used to the temperatures. When we finally received sweaters we were completely frozen.”
You got pocket money. What did you do with it?
“We spent it mostly on shisha ingredients! (laughs) From time to time, we also bought extra clothes.
Per person we received 35 euros per week. That gave us a certain freedom. Next to our camp was a big shopping centre. We mostly did ‘window shopping’ there, which was quite fun. After a few days we had enough from the food in the camp and were glad we could occasionally get a bit of variety from McDonald’s! (laughs)”
Could you and your sister stay together?
“Yes, it didn’t matter who I hung out with. We were always worried though that we might get separated. Given that we arrived in the same place on the same day the chance was small, but nonetheless, we weren’t chilled about it. Nobody could guarantee us that we would be sent to the same camp.
Basically, we didn’t really know what would happen with us next. The uncertainty was difficult for us. The only thing we could do was wait.
Every day, the camp authorities hung up announcements [about] who was to move on to the next type of camp - a more permanent one in contrast to the reception camp we were still in. We checked the lists every day. After 22 days, we could finally move on. The new camp was more or less the same, except that it was much cleaner. (laughs) There were also fewer people and we each got our own room. That was a real improvement.”
What was your typical day in the new camp like?
“It was pretty OK. I mostly hung out with other Syrians. We gathered to drink tea, smoke shisha and play cards. In the beginning, we talked a lot with each other but quite soon we ran out of topics. All in all, our lives were quite monotonous.
There was no canteen anymore, but we got enough money to buy our own food. We also had a kitchen in which we prepared our food. It felt more like a real home. Unfortunately, we weren’t legally allowed to work. Some people worked on the black market however. (laughs)
From time to time we got visits by NGOs or local volunteers. They wanted to help us acclimatise and get to know Germany a bit. They told us about their lives and took us to a number of nice places. I appreciated that a lot! It was a great way to take my first steps in my new home.
In the second camp, we got German language lessons, but they didn’t really interest me. I went there mostly to kill time. Today, however, I really see their value. It provided me with the basic knowledge. I hope that I will soon speak better German.”
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