That was it. I started to hate Turkey and everything in it. I wanted to leave.
Alaa, 33 years old from Damascus, worried about the regime's response when the protests began in Syria. He tried to calm people down, but received threats because of it.
I have always loved to travel. Before the war, me and my brother owned a travel agency. We booked hotels and transport for tourists within Syria, but also abroad. It was a wonderful time. I lived in a big house, my own kingdom of 150 square meters, and I could go wherever I wanted by car. Explore all of Syria’s regions, all its cities, all its streets.
I usually worked until late at night. Then, occasionally, I would meet up with my friends. We would order take-away food and go up the Qasioun mountain, just outside of Damascus. We would stay way past midnight.
Outside of work, we tried to be helpful citizens. Provide help for those that were in need. Support orphans, try to find homes for people without one. But I also tried to take care of myself, keep myself in good shape. I loved to swim and to go for a good run. It was a wonderful life.
When the protests broke out, I was initially against them. Not because I support Bashar al-Assad and his regime, I really want to emphasize that, but because I knew what the army was capable of. I remember the massacre in February in 1982 – when the city of Hama was surrounded by the military. That time, the casualties was in the tens of thousands.
I knew what the cost of an uprising would mean in human lives.
I had also served in the mandatory military service. I had seen and experienced the culture of loyalty that Bashar, and before him his father Hafez al-Assad, had cultivated for over 40 years. I knew what the cost of an uprising would mean in human lives. I sensed that it could even cost us the whole country.
I tried to convince people to calm down. To focus on the reforms that the regime had promised, to think of what was at stake. The marshal laws had been removed, the constitution had been changed, and other reforms had been promised. But during an uprising, you were either with the cause, or against it. There is only black and white, no scale of grey. Me and my brother started to receive threats of people loyal to the so called Free Syrian Army.
During 2012 the situation took a turn for the worse. Kidnappings became a part of daily life. People disappeared and you had to pay to get to see your loved ones again. Both sides were guilty of atrocities against civilians.
In the middle of 2012, my area in Damascus was attacked. A bomb blew up outside one of the Intelligence Agency’s buildings. The civilians living close to the building were ignored. This happened just down the street from where I lived and worked. I praise God I am still alive.
I decided to leave Syria in March 2013 and go to Turkey. Upon my arrival, I managed to find an old business partner of mine and get work at his travel agency. You shouldn't make general claims about people, but I was shocked in Turkey of how people was exploited in their time of need. Because the demand for work was so enormous, employers could make any demands they wanted. We worked double the time for less pay.
Life in Turkey was tough. I had just been robbed of my laptop, when I once again was mugged. These young guys tried to snatch my bag where I had my passport, my wallet and my phone. Perhaps foolishly, I tried to stop them, but instead I got badly beaten. With broken teeth, stitches in my face and badly bruised I called my boss to let him know what happened. To tell him I needed rest a couple of days. But instead of being understanding and helpful, he was disappointed.
That was it. I started to hate Turkey and everything in it. I wanted to leave.
I had been to Sweden when I was younger. In 1999 we had visited a relative in the Swedish region of Dalarna. We went to a festival in a small town called Borlänge and swam in the fresh water lakes. After that we travelled around. We went to Stockholm and Uppsala and other cities. I fell in love with Sweden. Its nature, its culture, its society. My brother and I decided that we would go to Sweden.
To be able to pass the border to Greece, we had to travel by foot. After about six hours of walking, we got to a river that separates Greece and Turkey. Our smuggler had a boat there to help us get across. But the Greek border police had put obstacles in the water to prevent illegal crossings.
Everywhere you go there are people that view you as a criminal.
Unfortunately, the smuggler was not the best of captains, and smashed us straight into one such obstacle. All seven of us ended up in the water. Despite strong currents we managed to get across. Everyone survived. But it was freezing, and still hours walk to safety. Somehow, we got to Thessaloniki in northern Greece.
Traveling as a refugee is horrible. Everywhere you go there are people that view you as a criminal. I am a law-abiding person. I follow rules and I'm reliable. I just couldn’t stand when people looked at me as if I was a fugitive.
Some people were sympathetic though. When we were at the Thessaloniki airport, we got in trouble with a guard. He was on his way to arrest us, but somehow I managed to convince him to hear me out. I explained our situation – that we had fled Syria for our lives sake, that we had risked our lives to get to where we were, that we had no intention to intrude, to vandalize or be in anyone’s way. We just wanted a chance to build our own future. He was very moved of our conversation. He told us that he understood our hardships, and he even apologized for being aggressive. Instead of arresting us, he offered us help. He gave us some good contacts of people that could help us.
We went to Athens and after almost a month we got on a plane to Paris. Paris – the city I always dreamed to visit, to go to on my honeymoon. It was painful. Painful to experience a lifelong dream, but as an intruder. As a person without permission.
From there we headed to Malmö in southern Sweden, just across the bridge from Copenhagen. We got there early in the morning. I was both surprised and glad. Surprised that we actually made it, glad that we made it. “Hej!” “Tack så mycket!” I started repeating the few phrases I still remembered from my earlier visit.
I wonder what people actually thought that early morning in February 2014, being greeted and thanked by this Syrian with a gigantic smile all over his face. They must have thought I was completely mad.
I booked a train ticket from Malmö to Stockholm. I was exhausted. But despite that, I didn’t sleep. I just stared out the window, amazed by the view. I could hardly believe it.
After some time, the excitement ceased. Why was everything taking such a long time? Didn’t the employees at the Swedish agencies understand that I just sat there, waiting, with a burning urge to be set free?
It is social hypocrisy when Swedish people always try to be “nice”. The people that are not honest can easily abuse the system.
Maybe there are newly arrived people in Sweden that just lie. People that come to Sweden and are self-serving and self-absorbed. Maybe that has led to the employees losing their empathy?
I couldn’t believe it! Why can’t you as a newly arrived person waiting for a decision of asylum, use your time for something constructive? All these hours I could have been studying.
They should have used the time for education, for learning Swedish, present us with an introduction of the Swedish society and its rules, its culture and its traditions. It would have made it so much easier to integrate once people get their decision. It would have prevented a lot of culture clashes.
Sweden needs to change this. It is social hypocrisy when Swedish people always try to be “nice”. The people that are not honest can easily abuse the system. The Swedish Migration Agency and other branches of Government should be – they must be – more direct in their communication with people. Instead of just being accepting they need to be firm, letting people know when they have wronged.
There should be harsher punishment for those not behaving accordingly. Those who break the law could, as an example, have their right to apply for citizenship delayed. Those who steal, take drugs, harass, attack or rape someone, they should be stripped of their residency permit and then deported. Those who lie about their age should be punished, there should be stricter screenings of peoples age when someone claims they are underage!
Immigrants also have responsibilities. They must respect the people that own the land of which they are guests. You are a stranger and you should behave accordingly! All of us seeking asylum here in Sweden, we have all been through hell getting here, don’t ruin things for the people that has experienced the same ordeal as yourself! If one of us misbehaves, it affects us all. It makes people suspicious. It makes things worse.
Life in Sweden is hard. Even though I’ve been here some time, I still haven’t learned Swedish properly. To be able to I need to speak with people, but Swedes are secluded, a bit introvert. So I go to my courses, I finish them, but I never get to use what I’ve learned. I send job applications, I call around, I try to speak to the manager. But I don’t get any job. It is difficult to find one.
When the Swedish Democrats got 13 percent in the election of 2014, I was shocked. I felt unsafe. Even though I don’t have any kids, I am not even married, I became worried of their future.
We believe in the peaceful, loving Islam. We cannot take responsibility for the actions of extremists, from those who call themselves Muslim.
Today I live in Heby, a small municipality outside of Uppsala. It is calm, and I am rather pleased with my apartment. There is quite good communication here. With the same ticket, I can travel around to many different cities and towns, and see new places.
At the same time, I miss Syria. I miss my home, I miss my youth, I miss my first love, I miss growing up in Damascus. My job there, my life. I miss everything in Syria. The streets, the noise, the voices of street vendors in the morning, the market, open all hours. I miss the old town of Damascus. I miss climbing mount Kasiun at night. I miss the time before the war when I didn’t care about my friends background, nor their religion. Most of all I miss my mother’s grave.
I am very worried about the future. I am worried about my integration into Swedish society. That the society doesn’t want me. God willing, I can continue my studies to become a computer engineer, or something within medical technology.
I am worried that the Swedish Democrats will get even more popular. As a Muslim, I see how islamophobia is growing in Sweden. What do people think we fled from? We escaped the oppression of these so-called Muslims. That is not something we just made up! We believe in the peaceful, loving Islam. We cannot take responsibility for the actions of extremists, from those who call themselves Muslim.
We will see if I stay here once the war is over. Maybe, God willing, I have created a life for me here. A career. Otherwise, going back might seem like the better choice. Syria is my home, my base. We’ll see.