“I was sold in Libya” – the story of a Syrian refugee building a new life in Denmark.
Syria’s ongoing conflict has left the country and its people scattered and shattered, with over 11 million refugees all over Europe and the Middle East. No longer able to dream of going back, they all have to face the reality that most of them are to stay in their new found homes. This creates challenges and gaps. How do refugees fully integrate into a new society and still stay connected to their Syrian identity? How do they lose the title ‘refugee’ and still feel like a united Syrian people? Active Voices gathers Syrians to tackle this problem exactly. One of them is Tarek.
Tarek is from Hama, Syria, but grew up in Damascus. Over 3 years ago he had to leave. He left his mother behind, setting out on a journey to Denmark he could never have imagined. “I actually didn’t want to leave”, he says, explaining that his mother told him he had to go. “You’re either part of the conflict or you escape. So I went”, he goes on.
“First I traveled to Turkey, then through Algeria to Libya. When we were about to cross the border of Libya in the middle of the night, we were with a group of 79 refugees. All of a sudden, we were under fire. Border control was firing warning shots, luckily no one got hit. Within an hour in Libya, we were kidnapped by a competing gang of smugglers, who bought us from the other gang. Then they forced us to pay, again. They took my phone, wallet and all personal items. I was left with nothing, but I was alive”, he says. After finally having reached the sea to cross to Italy, there were no boats for days.
“When we finally got on a boat, it was sinking. Those with a phone called organizations in Italy to ask for help. We poured out water that was coming in for as long as we could. And then finally, there was a helicopter and help from the coast guard. We would finally reach Europe.”
After finding asylum in Denmark, other struggles arise. “The beginnings are usually the hardest. Getting to know the country and its people”, Tarek says. He managed to make friends quickly, but he still didn’t always feel welcome. “When we saw the first heap of stereotyping and hostility against refugees and people with darker skin, we decided to act. We united as a group called ‘Villep One’ and we came together on Christmas to distribute roses and brochures, telling people; we are just like you.”
After the success of this first event, many followed in different municipalities around the country. He says: “Because of the success of it, I was invited to political discussions and demonstrations. One of these demonstrations actually changed my life. It was the ‘Welcome Refugees’ demonstration, where I had the opportunity to give a speech. There was a woman in the audience who heard me, and came to talk to me. We fell in love. She’s now my wife. I am so thankful for that day, and for the fact that I have found love in a new setting, a new home.”
One year ago, he was invited to an Active Voices workshop in Hobro, organized by Alert and its partners and funded by the European Commission. After he attended, he immediately started conducting focus groups and interviewing immigration officials in Denmark, to try and improve the integration of Syrians in their new host community and their connection back home with Syria.
“The Active Voices project is very important. We need to take a step forward. We need to take action. Many things are bothering us, especially the emerging gap, that is not only between the European host community and Syrians. But there is also a gap between me and my family in Syria. And with my father in Lebanon. The gap is widening, and someone must do something about it. This is what the Active Voices project sets out to do.”
This year, he was invited again to Amsterdam with other Active Voices Syrian activists from all over Europe. They got together and focused on the results of a community based research that they had done on the gaps between Syrian refugees and the host communities, and the gaps between Syrians living as refugees in each of these countries. They began to map out the concrete steps for working on social action projects to improve relationships and understanding with European host communities and other Syrians. The next steps are to bring the same youth to Lebanon at the end of February to build bridges with the other participants from the MENA region, and to develop their advocacy initiatives and messaging. Aswat Feela is providing one of the few platforms that physically brings together such a diverse range of people around common issues.
In a time where your sense of identity is connected to your nationality, how do you keep a sense of connectedness, a sense of identity, whilst integrating into a new nationality? In a time where being connected to yourself, your identity and your people is more important than ever, how do you adapt and stay connected at the same time?
Physical context changes people, and people adapt and take things from other nationalities. Identity is always fluid, but we can all still be connected. Tarek thinks it’s about uniting in differences. Uniting in differences between nationalities and within them.
“My wish is that someday, we’ll be awareness builders. That we’ll help build tolerance, teach people to accept each other’s differences and to make people aware that differences are in fact healthy and necessary for any society.”