Displacement

    Leaving One Life, Finding Another
    Exchanging Home for a Foreign Land

    The Syrian television journalist Roshak Ahmad had to leave Syria in order to pursue her career. She was lucky enough to obtain a visa, but in Germany she found herself facing quite different obstacles. Here, she writes about the search for meaning in a foreign land.

    ‘Good morning. This is the German embassy in Ankara. We would like to inquire about certain details related to your visa and make an appointment to complete certain formalities.’ With these words, intruding on one of my Istanbul mornings, the rhythm of time changed and, for the third time in less than a year, I again started to lay out a theoretical strategy for a vague future life.

    At that moment I had completely forgotten that I had asked some close friends to help look into the possibility of travelling to some European country. There was no longer any possibility of staying safe as a journalist and activist in Damascus. It was a search for some purpose, a search for a university post to replace the post I had renounced and resigned, after three academic years that had given me the greatest possible pleasure. It was a search for a media platform from which I could do my work again, untainted by obedience to the megalomania of those in power.

    At half past eight in the morning I was sitting on a red chair. In my hand I held a small piece of paper with a number as I waited in line to find a Turkish bank that would agree to open a bank account for a Syrian woman who didn’t have a tempting fortune or a registered address. I received the call from the embassy. I stared at the number, suddenly unable to read any numbers. The only thing spinning in my mind was the word ‘purpose’.

    Flustered, grateful, frightened and happy, I walked over the Galata Bridge in the Eminönü district of Istanbul. First I thought about my commitments in Turkey, as for the past few months I’d been working on a television programme aimed at Syrian children, set up in an attempt to salvage what’s left of our children’s ability to survive in their own worlds. I was also working on producing a documentary film I had filmed in Damascus. But the options for staying in Turkey were mediocre. Legally, all I had was a tourist visa, valid for three months, renewable provided I left Turkish territory and then came back in.

    Acclimatisation and production in a new society

    I was living in a flat where a friend had volunteered to put me up as soon as I arrived. I was looking for a way to enhance my role as an individual within a particular human community, insistent on finishing my university education and producing the film. These projects of mine were the purpose and the dream, but they faced many obstacles and challenges. I resorted to making a phone call to my parents in Syria. They shared my confused and contradictory feelings. ‘I’m frightened of the idea that one suitcase can hold everything I possess and what I still have left from a life almost twenty-eight years long. I’m frightened of moving to live on a continent whose people are unfamiliar and about which there is much I do not know. I’m not at the ideal age for new beginnings, but the idea of being born again under humane conditions, far from the danger of the Syrian security agencies, or of death, greatly attracts me.’

    We had a discussion about whether, in Germany, I could pursue what I had started. My mother and father were very happy at the news, because they are the kind of people who have strong trust in their daughter’s ability to continue and create chances for adaptation and production, even in a new community.

    Within a very short period, it was time to collect the visa. I travelled to Ankara and at the request of the German embassy I took with me a plane ticket from Istanbul to Berlin. I handed my passport to the receptionist. First I had to wait several hours, then go back to pick up my passport and visa.

    Saying goodbye to the past

    The streets of Ankara looked to me like the streets of Berlin: a large city where I had no family or friends. I would have to learn how to spend time there alone. I sat in a nearby cafe and for some reason my thoughts turned to the Berlin Wall, that wall I had never seen, though the idea of it struck fear in my heart. The comparison in my mind was between a wall dividing Berlin and the barriers and checkpoints in Damascus. For two years I’d been preoccupied with my contradictory predictions about the nature of society and social relations once the divisions imposed by war come to an end. I thought the Berlin community could suggest various possible outcomes, drawn from its own, lived experience.

    I retraced my steps to pick up my visa. Until that moment I hadn’t believed that I would really get the chance to go to Germany. I retrieved my passport with the visa. I examined every word written, but was interested only in my name and the word ‘visa’. Mr Abdel Raouf, the embassy official, handed me my passport and told me that a group of people would meet me at the airport and transfer me to somewhere to live. He had asked me earlier whether I had any acquaintances in Berlin who would volunteer to put me up in their flat if the process of securing my own place took a week or two. I did in fact ask a friend I had met while training as a journalist, and he welcomed the idea.

    Outside, close to the entrance to the embassy, there were seats for people who were waiting. I no longer had anything to wait for, but I allowed myself to sit down for a while. I looked at the word ‘visa’ again, and a succession of images started to stream through my head, telling the story of everything I had been through: my father, my mother, my brothers, my relatives, even those who are not very close, my childhood, my school, university, my work, my house, the neighbours, the taxi drivers, the revolution, the dead, the detainees. It’s a sequence that summarises my whole memory, as if I’m saying goodbye to all this past, as if I’m moving on to a different and very distant world. It makes me feel almost seasick. I have to pack up the suitcase of memory and prepare psychologically to leave. It’s an experience I know nothing about, other than what I have read in literature.

    Leaving in silence

    Just one hour before I was due to leave, I started to pack my clothes. I hadn’t told my friends in Turkey about this. I didn’t want anyone to organise a farewell party for me and I didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone. I couldn’t tell them I was going to escape life as a refugee and build for myself a new community where I could live in safety. I knew that most of those to whom I would say goodbye would wish the same for themselves and their families, but didn’t have the means. So I decided to leave in silence.

    At Atatürk airport I made a last phone call to my mother and father. Although they were in Syria, Syrians in Turkey consider themselves still inside the country. My mother says, ‘You’re my lioness and you deserve to live in a country that respects individual rights and freedoms. I’m happy for your sake. All I wanted was to hug you and kiss you before you leave.’ Her sad, warm voice stayed in my head until I arrived at Tegel airport in Berlin.

    There was no one waiting for me, despite what the embassy had told me. My friend with the spare room had had to travel abroad before I arrived. But luckily one of the young Syrians I had met through Facebook had come to the airport to greet me on arrival, as if he had foreseen that no one from the embassy or the foreign ministry would come to meet me.

    Out of work

    The young man put me up in his little flat and got in touch with one of the organisations dealing with the new influx of Syrians. He took me to government offices to start the necessary procedures, since I had no idea about German bureaucracy or these procedures, which came as quite a surprise.

    But the biggest surprise was the job centre. On the one hand, I had no concept that any state in our world could provide a living allowance to Syrian citizens from the moment they arrive – an allowance that was really enough for a good standard of living, without prior guarantees or discrimination on any basis. On the other hand, I had already worked out my own plans for ways in which I could earn some money and become self-reliant.

    From the moment I entered German territory I was deemed to be an unemployed person receiving assistance from the state, which was disturbing for me. And when I told them about my projects, their answer was that the film industry was not seen as a source of income. ‘You can find spare time at the weekends to work on your project, but during the week for the first six months you have a commitment to study German so that you can look for a real job,’ I was told.

    My Syrian friend hosted me for two weeks in his flat. During that time I got in touch with the embassy to brief them on what had happened. Within two days I received a phone call from them, and Mr Abdel Raouf apologised, assuring me that it was all because of a mistake over timing by the authorities in Berlin and that they would get in touch within a week.

    After that I didn’t receive any answer or response, but through the organisation I later obtained a room in one of the refugee reception centres until I could find a flat or a room in a shared house that I could rent.

    In two weeks’ time, my two-year residence permit expires. I haven’t been able to finish the film and the children’s programme stopped broadcasting more than a year ago, on instructions from the management of the television station. But I have realised that people can bring down walls of division and the security barriers between them at the level of personal relationships, when the regimes that are based on imposing them collapse.

    Many of the friends I didn’t say goodbye to have since arrived here by sea, and I have acquired a new community of friends from various countries in the world. I have completed all the stages of studying German and I have successfully clung to my mother’s version – that I am a lioness.
    Roshak Ahmad, born in Qamishli in 1986, is a Syrian journalist and documentary filmmaker who now lives in Berlin. Since 2011 she has been reporting under a pseudonym for various Syrian opposition media outlets, as well as for international media such as DW (Deutsche Welle), about the people’s uprising in Syria.

    Translated by Jonathan Wright

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016

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