Insights of a young Syrian woman in Europe—Part II: Adapting

In Part I of our interview series with Sajida, we talked about her arrival in Germany. Now the story continues. Part II of this three part series deals with the asylum procedure, safety and culture shocks and her trying to adapt to the new situation.

PART II: Adapting

What was the asylum procedure like?

“When we arrived in Germany, we filled out basic paperwork to apply for asylum. Over the following months, we were asked to provide more information about who we were, where we came from and why we wanted asylum. As we could prove that we had come from Syria, we didn’t need to fill out further papers. Others, who didn’t have the appropriate prove of identity had to go into more depth.

We got one message: wait. Given that I spoke English well already, I had relatively few communication barriers. That is not the case for all refugees. Most refugees speak only Arabic, Urdu, Farsi or other Middle Eastern languages. That doesn’t simplify the asylum procedure for them! I volunteered to translate documents into Arabic to help my fellow refugees. Soon, translation work occupied most of my day.

Five months after arriving in Germany and having appeared in courts several times, we were officially granted asylum---finally!”

You translated official documents. Can you tell us more about that?

“As the camp was small, word about my English skills got around fast. Very soon, I was asked to do all kinds of translations. Often, I worked on this together with our social worker (Germans employed by the camp authorities, ed.). She translated from German to English and I then to Arabic. That way, I got to know a lot about lots of people – basically the entire camp. (laughs)  

There was a procedure to get hold of an official interpreter provided by the authorities, but too often it took too long. When quick action was required, it was me who was engaged---for free, of course. That wasn’t always easy. I found medical emergencies particularly difficult. When someone got unwell, I was sometimes called to the hospital at 3am in the morning to act as interpreter between doctor and patient.”

You seem to have found your way. Did you have a culture shock at first?

“I was fine. (laughs) The first Germans I really met were actually the camp’s security guards. They were everywhere: in the sleeping complex, the canteen, you name it! I talked a lot to them. Soon, we could tell who of them was nice and who wasn’t. We made a game of that – that was fun. As time went by, I even made friends with some of them.

Regarding differences in culture, I was surprised by the swiftness with which Westerners enter romantic relationships. In Syria, people first get to know each other extensively. They also certainly don’t get physical immediately.

The biggest clash of culture was not with Germans but with certain other groups of migrants. Not everyone is equally respectful. As long as I gave them the necessary space, we could however peacefully live together. Since I don’t want to stigmatise anyone, I prefer not to name particular groups of people. Some frictions have grown historically. Probably, I’m not entirely objective either. It is nonetheless important to me to stress that the idea that ‘all refugees have the same culture’ is entirely wrong. Even within Syria there are big differences. I’m often able to guess correctly whether someone is from Aleppo or Damascus based on a number of traits. (laughs)”

It seems that not everyone in the camp was equally respectful. Can you give us a couple of examples?

“Some people regularly got into trouble with the guards. Either because they fought among themselves, or because they challenged the guards. Many of them did this primarily because they were bored, which of course isn’t an excuse. Some had just no patience. To get anything ranging from clothes to food, one had to queue for hours, but not everyone could manage that. Thus, the guards had to intervene regularly to restore order.

In the second camp, everything was much calmer. However, there was still always something going on. (Laughs). Sometimes, it happened that a couple was arguing with each other loudly or that people called the police for no reason. There were sporadic fights, mostly when men were under the influence of alcohol. I believe that some of them turned to drinking as a result of all they had gone through, but the majority of those who were drinking here had already drunk in their countries of origin. Others were maybe tempted by the freedom in the West. I don’t know.”

Did you ever feel unsafe?

“No, we lived well together. Men and women were never separated, not even in the dormitories. I never had any problems with that. That doesn’t mean that I allowed everything. In the evening, I always closed my door. I also stayed away from people who liked to make trouble. Nothing special, I think. Everywhere something can happen: whether you are in a refugee camp or not.

I have pretty good memories of my stay. Everything went mostly harmoniously. Still, the police came for me once. On my birthday, I didn’t behave appropriately. (laughs embarrassed). It was very innocent, but still…”

So, the police came for you! Are you no model citizen?

“I certainly wouldn't call myself a model citizen (laughs). Like many young people, I sometimes act rashly. Now that you ask about it, the memories come back very vividly! (laughs embarrassedly).

It was my birthday and there was nothing to do in the camp. It was really boring there! I had the idea to go out and make a campfire. To sit together around a fire is super fun! Behind our camp was a meadow with a little fireplace. I invited my friends to go there. It was nice. I have to smile now that I think back. We made tea and chatted around a crackling fire. As the evening progressed, we sang some songs. My friends all had brought presents. Who doesn't love that!

However, the meadow turned out to be private property. Now that I think about it, I could have maybe known that (laughs embarrassedly). It was no-one's garden or something, but there was a wooden cottage next to it. There was also a fence. It was freely accessible, but still... we didn't think about it and just assumed that it was a public park.

It turned out that someone called the police. When they arrived, I was so ashamed that I wanted to sink into the ground. After all, it was all my idea! My friends were afraid that this would have a negative impact on their asylum procedure. I, myself, wasn't particularly worried about that. We hadn't caused any trouble. The only thing we had done was drinking tea. The police made fortunately no fuss about it. They asked for our personal details, and I explained that it was my fault: I had invited everyone for my birthday.

We got away with a warning.”

Do you want to know more about Sajida's life in Europe? Part III of the interview covers her views on the assaults in Cologne and what happened once she was granted asylum.

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