Living in Exile in Germany
“You have to get out there and actively support democratic values”

Many people forced to flee to Germany are politically, socially or artistically active there. One of them is Thabet Azzawi, a musician from Syria.
Many people forced to flee to Germany are politically, socially or artistically active there. One of them is Thabet Azzawi, a musician from Syria. | Photo (detail): © Robert Michael

In Germany, antagonism towards refugees seems to be on the rise and the far-right is exploiting the issue of migration to further their agenda. But what is it like for those directly affected? What is it is really like to live in exile in Germany?

By Petra Schönhöfer

According to the Central Register of Foreigners (AZR), around 1.1 million people had been granted permission to live in Germany for “urgent humanitarian or personal reasons” by the end of 2018. According to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, Germany ranked five on the list of countries that had taken in the most refugees worldwide - after Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda and Sudan. Many people forced to flee to Germany are politically, socially or artistically active there.

Thabet Azzawi: The musician against the far right

Thabet Azzawi Photo (detail): © Just.Looking.Around
Thabet Azzawi studies medicine in Dresden where he had lived since 2015. He uses music to fight for democracy and battle the rise of right-wing populism in Germany. 
Thabet Azzawi was born the son of an opthalmologist in Deir ez-Zor in Syria where he fell in love with the oud, an Oriental short-necked lute. Azzawi survived two civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where he provided emergency medical assistance. His four-year flight took him to Dresden via Lebanon, Djibouti and Turkey. Together with an international group of musicians called Banda Internationale, the 29-year-old plays at Pediga marches to counteract racism and nationalism. “To me, Banda Internationale represents the values I believe in. These include democracy, human rights, tolerance and openness. Banda shows Dresden’s good side and takes a stand to support these values and oppose the far right. It is not just a band that plays world music; it is a long-term project to promote peace and coexistence in Germany and in Saxony in particular. That is what we really need in this state,” Azzawi says. He cannot understand why so few people there seem to value the advancements of democracy. “I can define myself best through my music. It is the most important thing in my life, it is my medicine”, the future Doctor Azzawi says. Performances with the Dresden Philharmonic, professors at the Dresden College of Music and Performing Arts, and some music greats like Sting are all part of his life today. He also holds workshops at the College of Music. “You have to be committed to supporting democratic values, especially if you want to call Germany home.”

Goran Buldioski: The protector of human rights

Goran Buldioski Photo (detail): © Gordon Welters/laif/Redux for the Open Society Foundations
Goran Buldioski has lived in Germany since 2018. He heads the Berlin office of the Open Society Foundation that supports human rights projects worldwide. 
Even non-governmental organisations and defenders of human rights who work under a European flag are subject to defamation and threats, like Goran Buldioski. Born in Macedonia, Goran lived in Hungary until 2018 where he worked for the Open Society Foundation’s European programme supporting human-rights projects around the world from their offices in Budapest. Then Vikor Orbán’s right-wing national government turned hostile towards the foundation, or more accurately towards its founder George Soros. Orbán accused Hungarian philanthropist and investor Soros of orchestrating migration to Europe, and vilification by the Hungarian government forced the Budapest office to close. With around 100 co-workers and their families, Goran Buldioski moved to the German capital where he heads up the Berlin office. “In Budapest, my colleagues sometimes felt very threatened. It has been very different in Berlin. What defines an open society is that there is no one, single concept of identity. No single person can claim to have the only right answer. We feel so at home here, like fish in water,” the political scientist explained in an interview with Deutschlandradio. In future, the Berlin team will have control over the around 100 million dollars that the Open Society Foundation awards throughout Europe every year –in Hungary as well, where the Foundation supports a number of civil-society organizations. 

Angelina Jolong: The advisor

Angelina Jolong Photo (detail): © Katy Otto
Angelina Jolong has lived in Berlin since 2013, where she would like to open a consulting agency for renewable energy.  
Angelina Jolong has an ambitious vision: “I want to help usher in an energy revolution in Africa and the Near East,” she says with easy confidence. “In my homeland, in South Sudan, I saw how many people died in hospitals and how operations could not be carried out because there was no electricity. But there was a river right next to the hospital. And the sun is in the sky, the wind blows everywhere: the natural resources for generating energy are all there.” Angelina would like to stay in Germany with her husband and four children, as she is very afraid of the violence resulting from the ethnic conflicts in South Sudan. She has earned a master’s in business and energy law here, and would like to pay back into the system for all help she has received along the way. With support from the “Start-Up Your Future” project that sets up start-up sponsorships for refugees interesting in founding a business, the 42-year-old is planning to strike out on her own in Berlin. She wants to open a consulting agency for renewable energy. “I want to develop online tutorials in multiple languages and offer a range of services to help people learn about renewable energies. I would also like to offer my advising services and organize meetings.” 

Parwiz Rahimi: The photographer

Parwiz Rahimi Photo (detail): © Tuba Inal
Parwiz Rahimi has lived in Frankfurt since 2016, where he works as a freelance photographer and journalist, volunteers for the German Red Cross.
“To me, photography is love,” Parwiz Rahimi says in an interview with Deutschlandradio. “It my way of expressing my feelings.” 34-year-old Parwiz’s homeland Afghanistan is still very close to his heart. And while his photographs of fellow Afghanis, such as in his exhibition Peace in Afghanistan…?,seem peaceful at first glance, a closer look also reveals the story of a traumatized society. Parwiz worked in Herat as a moderator and marketed radio stations, and donated his time to non-governmental organizations like Women and Children Welfare, then attended university in India. His satirical writing made him a target of Afghan government and the Taliban. Fearing for his life, he left Afghanistan to make Frankfurt am Main his new home. He enrolled in Darmstadt University for a master’s degree in international media cultural work in October 2018. Parwiz also works for the German Red Cross where he helps fellow refugees and teaches photography: “I want give them something meaningful to do in their spare time, and to open their eyes to the city they live in.” Something as simple as the smartphone is a way to make great art. “When I go to bed at night and think about my day, it occurs to me that I really helped people. And that makes me feel good.”