Tabletalk Europe - Interview
From The Middle East To Europe - Men's Lived Experience Of Migration
Tabletalk Europe is a format dedicated to people's stories told in their own words. By listening to their thoughts and experiences we hope to add more layers to the public debate and grasp the reality of some of the people who come to Europe to start new lives. Amid the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and Sweden, one of the most controversially discussed topics is the arrival and integration of men coming from the Middle East. I talked to three of them in order to hear their thoughts on how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves. Mahdi (32), whose name we changed, and Nedal (32) are from Syria and arrived in Europe as refugees. Ahmed (25) is Egyptian and came to Sweden to study at Lund University, where he met Mahdi. Nedal works for a medical company in Germany.
Von Asal Dardan
Tell me where you’re from and how you came to Europe.
Mahdi: I’m from Damascus where I studied English literature for my B.A. and worked as a DJ. I came to Europe in October 2014 illegally. I went from Turkey to Greece to Poland and from there to Sweden. It was the easiest route in terms of security. I stayed in Kalmar for two years and then I applied to the University in Lund, where I just finished my Master’s degree.
When you left Syria, were you going to be drafted?
Mahdi: Yeah, that is the reason why I left. I lived in Beirut from 2012 until 2014 and came to Sweden from there. Beirut was great in terms of experience, it was harsh. It was the first time I was out of my surroundings, like someone plucked me from my roots, where you have everything, your family and your friends, and you know how it works in the Middle East, you’ve got all these connections. And then you move to Beirut and you’re all alone and you face this existential fear because you don’t know anyone and nobody knows you. Also, the relationship between the Syrians and Lebanese is quite tense because of the occupation. Those dynamics affected my experience, it was tough but I learned a lot from it. It was also one of the reasons why I decided to leave. I exhausted myself during those two years in Lebanon. Seriously, it’s very expensive, it’s hard to live there, every aspect of your life needs to be managed on an everyday basis, there’s no electricity, no water and you’re paying so much money and you don’t even know what lies ahead. At the same time I saw my own country, how it was collapsing. Every month there were new horrible news, it was getting more and more complicated and at no point did I feel I could return soon. I went back to say goodbye to my family and I felt like this is not my country anymore, at least Damascus didn’t feel like my city anymore. It was a different city, so I am not going to dream about it anymore. I am just going to move on. I didn’t know I would go to Sweden, I just wanted to go to Europe. It was pure coincidence. My friend’s ex-girlfriend wanted to go to Sweden and my friend asked me to help her get there. I was like, she’s a grown woman but sure, I can go to Sweden with her. [laughs] At the end of the day it’s Europe. So we came here together. Then I checked what I could do and checked all the universities.
Ahmed: I’m from Egypt, from Alexandria. In 2010 I was sixteen and still in high school and I decided Egypt is no longer a place for me to live in. I wanted to leave by any means possible. I didn’t have a sense of community like Mahdi. I was an introvert in Egypt, I had like two friends. I always felt the odd one out, as if I didn’t belong there. That was before I started thinking about my sexuality or even before being okay with it. I just felt I hated everything and everybody and wanted to get out. So I started to check my options. An older friend told me that it had become very difficult for Middle Easterners to go to Europe and that the only way to get there was through education. So I started to look for places to study. My motivation was to get out of Egypt, Europe was just a way to achieve that, one of the options. My dad has lived in a Gulf country for ten years and as soon as he stops working there he will be asked to leave. You can’t become a citizen, so that was no option for me. I wanted to go somewhere where I would have more prospects, more stability. So I looked into Malaysia and other places and in the end I decided to go to Turkey. That made a lot of sense to me. First of all, it is only two hours flight away from Egypt. Secondly, one of the things that attracted me the most is that Turkey is part of the Erasmus programme. I thought that might be a good gateway to Europe. I could do exchanges or transfer to a European university. I was lucky enough, at the time Turkey was trying to attract a lot of foreign students and so I got into university in Istanbul to do political science and international relations. Two months after being accepted I packed my bags and moved. It took a lot of planning but I didn’t really think so much about moving. I went there in September 2011 shortly after the Egyptian revolution, which convinced my parents to agree for me to leave the country. I stayed in Turkey for five years and then I applied to the university in Lund to do my Master’s degree. I received a scholarship to go there.
I guess you don’t really stick out much in Turkey. So how was it to be there for you?
Ahmed: People were very, very welcoming at first but there has been a change in attitude. When I first went to Istanbul there weren’t that many Egyptians and people were very interested and friendly. Once the Syrian refugees started coming in I turned into the Arab. I distinctly felt people were starting to treat Arabs differently. There was a point when we were treated almost like Western foreigners, with the same excitement and curiosity. Now we are just all considered refugees who are crowding the country and destroying everything. That’s the view they have of all Arabs. It has become harder to find a place to live now and I just get treated differently. I had an operation recently. When I went to the hospital I felt like they were suspicious of me. They asked me hostile questions like why I was doing the operation in Turkey. I mean, it was sort of an emergency, it’s not like I planned for my appendix to burst. [laughs]
You are also from Syria, Nedal. How did you come to Germany?
Nedal: I left Syria in August 2010. I studied law in Syria and was almost finished, which meant I would have to do military service. The situation in Syria was getting crazy and they started drafting people who were studying. So they came to my apartment and were looking for me. I was so lucky, I was out when they came. My brother called me and said I shouldn’t come back. I lived with a friend for two weeks and then I went to Tunisia. I was about to lose my job anyway. I was working as an advisor at a medical company parallel to my studies. I liked doing it because I knew that if I left Syria I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my law degree.
And how was it in Tunisia?
Nedal: At first I opened a clothes boutique with a partner. Then I started looking for something within my profession and got a job in a medical company. I was paying taxes, you know, but I didn’t have a residence permit. I was waiting for four years but nothing happened. It wasn’t a proper life, I couldn’t plan my future. I didn’t know what was happening. So I decided to go to Europe. I said to myself that if I have to be a refugee anyway, why be one under these bad conditions in Tunisia? I moved to Istanbul and spent three months there and learned Turkish and looked for a job. That was extremely hard. The nationalist thinking in Turkey is far more intense than in Europe. So again, I asked myself, if I have to be a refugee, [laughs] why start again in Turkey and not somewhere else where I have more options? So I tried to walk to Greece, I was with my younger brother and two friends. It was a really tough situation. We managed to reach Greece but we got caught by the police. They kept us in a van for eight hours. They brought us sandwiches and water and cigarettes without any wrapping so we couldn’t prove we were in Greece. So we knew they would send us back to Turkey. At some point they drove us somewhere and threw us out of the van. We were wet, it was minus five degrees and we weren’t dressed properly. We spent the night in the woods. After that the Turkish military held us for a day and we went back to Istanbul. I cursed Europe and said I would never try to get there again. I changed my mind after a month. [laughs] But I decided to go without my brother. I went on a boat. I was on the sea from Turkey to Sicily for fourteen days. It was a twenty metre boat and 250 people, women, children, families. It was such a horrible situation. We saw only water for fourteen days and we felt death in every single moment. There was strong wind and man, oh man.
Who were the people on the boat? Who organised everything?
Nedal: They were mostly Syrian. The organisers were a big mafia, some Turkish some Syrian. They were paying money to the Greek police, you know.
Before you went on the boat, did you know about these trips? Did you know that people die?
Nedal: I knew. I read up on everything and counted all the accidents, I made a mathematical calculation and came to the conclusion that 99 percent of these trips survived. I decided that I could take the risk. But after having done the trip, now I would never do it again. It was so, so, so bad.
Do you want to tell me what was so bad?
Nedal: Everything. Every single thing. From the smell to the sleeping situation. The weather. Whenever something happened, like the wind blew harder, it’s always the kids you hear first. There were babies. And you hear the mothers screaming. It starts raining. And you think, if something happens, who can help? You can’t even help yourself, you know. And you have those thoughts every single moment. All you see is the sea, water and nothing but water. I keep thinking about it. I keep my old phone I had on that trip. I still have the safety vest. I bought it in Istanbul and after my trip I found out that it would not have saved me. I would have drowned instantly. I keep it to remind myself of the risk I took to come here. The situation during the war in Syria was very bad and Tunisia was also bad. I wanted something else.
Mahdi and Ahmed, how was it to arrive in Sweden for the two of you?
Mahdi: When I arrived in Sweden I stayed in a camp for six months. It was an experience in itself. We were isolated, the camp was in the middle of nowhere, like in a forest. It was tough because you don’t know what’s next. You wake up, you go to breakfast, then you go back to your room and do nothing. You just wait until lunch and then you do nothing until dinner and so on. Then I met my ex-girlfriend who is Syrian, and we moved into a flat in Kalmar.
Ahmed: When I came to Sweden it wasn’t like I expected at all. I had expected people to be far more liberal and open-minded. I thought there would be a wider agreement on human rights, on sexuality, these things. Also, in Turkey, when people knew English, they would always try to include me in conversations and speak English. Here in Sweden when everyone is Swedish they would just speak with each other and not worry about me understanding. They speak very good English so I don’t know why. Swedes are quite non-confrontational. They have all sorts of ideas but they don’t share them. When I talked about being gay I could see that they had lots of questions about being a Middle Eastern Muslim and being gay. So I would open up the conversation and pull the questions out of them. Because, I mean I could feel their pain. [laughs] Once they started they wouldn’t stop asking. I didn’t expect Sweden to be like that. I had expected it to be bolder when expressing your mind, because that’s what I had expected democracies to be like. But people were really hush, hush. In Turkey it was quite clear cut and divided, you were either liberal or religious. Here I didn’t know where to place myself. I was neither liberal nor religious, I was neither gay nor straight. I came to Turkey to transition. When I went to Sweden I finally came to terms with the fact that I am not a religious person, which I told my family. I came out to most of my friends and my sister. So I decided it is a new start and a place I don’t have to hide any longer.
And how was the experience of coming out as gay?
Ahmed: There was an oblivion to my situation in Sweden. At first I dated a Swedish guy and he didn’t even understand why I was struggling with being gay. That made it impossible for me to continue the relationship. I noticed that I was levitating towards Middle Easterners who went through the same struggles. When I was in Turkey I felt that I didn’t necessarily want to be with other Arabs in order not to be complicit and join this group of Arabs who just sit together and don’t interact with anyone else. Eventually I had to because there wasn’t anybody else, Turks didn’t interact that much. In Sweden I felt like I only wanted to meet Arabs, I mean liberal people who thought like me. I felt like I couldn’t be Middle Eastern nor Swedish, so I found this community of people who were more like me. And I have encountered homophobia among Swedish young people, students and it’s something I had never expected. Just as they expect us to be extremists, we expect of them to be understanding and open-minded.
How was your perception of Sweden and Swedish people, Mahdi?
Mahdi: I liked it because we were welcomed. I didn’t have an awareness of community or a sense of the differences between the societies yet. I came here before the influx of immigrants, so everyone was smiling and really nice and I thought, wow, this is the place. Like, I can study here and people are nice. I came from an overpopulated city, which is Damascus, and then I moved to an even more overpopulated city, which is Beirut, and then you have this sense of strong communities. In Syria I rarely had the time to sit by myself and think and have my privacy. People are always around and you’re talking to people all the time. While, when you come to Sweden and you want to make friends, it turns out that it is totally different here. People don’t see each other every day. No, they think of their houses as places, which are very tidy and very organised, where you spend a lot of time by yourself and with your family. In Damascus there were hardly two days where I was alone with my family or without visiting someone. I got used to it and I started appreciating this sense of individualism to a certain degree. Like when you start achieving things by yourself. When I moved to Lund I was trying to invite people to my place, I said, let’s do something, let’s hang out. Some people might join but it’s different. In Damascus and Beirut it took far less effort. It’s not that I regret being in Sweden but it’s not quite as you expect.
How did you deal with the lack of social contacts?
Mahdi: Well, in Kalmar I started realising that we Arabs were hanging out together. We didn’t have Swedish friends. One factor was that we didn’t speak Swedish. The other one was that Swedes didn’t really want to interact with us beyond the official level. So you have a reaction, you think they don’t want to know you so you stick to your people. This is how it went. I thought, well, I’m not really here to stay with my own people. I don’t have this feeling of Arab or Syrian identity, I just feel like I am a human being. But at the time I felt Syrian because people saw me as Syrian. So what are you going to do? I started an internship at Kalmar library and started to hang out with my co-worker. I hate saying we and them but I realised that they aren’t bad but that we are just different. It’s like nobody really wants to compromise and change, a lot of people do but it’s slow coming. I’m thinking about this equation that every Arab is a Muslim and every Muslim is a terrorist. Swedes don’t think like that but they are cautious and I guess some have made negative experiences with migrants. It takes a lot of time to build trust. For example, I live with twelve people in my corridor here in Lund and we have never hugged each other. I left for Berlin for six months and when I came back it was just like “hej” and I said, “come on man, give me a hug” and he was like, “Yeah, okay fine, I’ll give you a hug.” [laughs]
Do you encounter stereotypes and prejudice?
Mahdi: I don’t want to generalise but there’s this idea that when you come from Syria you are a Muslim and then you have a specific set of values. They think that everyone is strict with their interpretation of Islam, that all Syrians are the same, that all Muslims are the same. They have a sense of collectiveness as being Swedes and the Syrians have the same sense of collectiveness. These feelings were intensified by the impression that the other side didn’t care about the other. I mean, I used to think Swedes were ridiculous because they didn’t carry the burden we as Syrians have. But what did I know about Sweden before coming here? When you start to get to know each other you scratch under the surface and understand that not everyone is the same. People are surprised that I speak good English, they are surprised about my earrings. I’ll give you another example. Once my ex-girlfriend and I were invited to an older Swedish couple I had met at the SFI school, they were so nice. We were sitting there and they had Pepsi and some yoghurt on the table. She told us that she had read, and that was shocking, she read on Wikipedia, that we either drink yoghurt or Pepsi. I was really… I mean, surprised. Then the husband asked, well maybe you would like a beer or a whisky? He was really shy when he asked me. I said I would appreciate a glass of whisky. So we agreed that not everything you read on Wikipedia is right. [laughs] Frankly, I think that I was more liberal than most people in Kalmar. Like my friend at the library and me, we were arguing about sexual liberation and freedom and she was more conservative than me.
Nedal: It’s funny, most people think I’m from Greece, they see me with a new car and a good job and they are surprised when I say that I am Syrian. It’s not like we ride on camels and live in tents, we lead modern lives there too. [laughs] Then they think I’m a Muslim, Muslim people view me as a Christian and I consider myself an atheist. [laughs] I’m not such an open person but I have to be open because I have to prove to people that they can trust me. I work with four women and in the beginning I had to explain a lot about the Middle East to them. They think we do not respect women and I always get the same questions: am I allowed to drink alcohol and eat pork. Living in a small town it’s very remarkable how much distance they take when they see you. A lot of people deal with me in an angry way and I don’t know why. I always greet people at work and some people just look at you and don’t answer. There’s this view in Germany, even coming from the government, that they want refugees to adapt and be perfect. At the same time they don’t give them hope. Most people who are living here they don’t know what next year or even tomorrow will bring. I don’t care because I can’t change it. But many people don’t understand why they should learn German and start a new life when their future isn’t clear. Almost all people live in a bubble, it is made up of their culture, their religion, their nationality – there are always limitations. It’s the same with migrants and Germans, they all have their bubbles. Some people are open-minded and others are more closed. The question of nationalism affects both sides. The Germans live a more modern life and have different laws and everything is easier but they are not that different from people in Tunisia and Syria. We are all humans, the only difference is the shitty papers we have. It’s as simple as that but hardly anybody understands it.
What does your bubble look like?
Nedal: I don’t know, for sure I have one as well. But some people take the chance to change but others want to lead the same life as they did in Syria. The others want to learn and work. I learned German without thinking about it too much, I just wanted to work. So my purpose and my goal is that I don’t have a bubble.
Are you from Muslim backgrounds? How is religion practiced in your family and what role does it play in your life?
Nedal: No, as I said, my family is Christian but I am not religious. You know I always ask people one thing: Do you think that this Muslim guy, that he is Muslim because he believes in Islam? Do you think that you are Christian because you believe in Jesus? I don’t think so. The first one believes in Islam because he was born into a Muslim family and it’s the same for the other one who was born into a Christian family. It’s by chance, you know?
Mahdi: My family is very liberal, nobody in my family prays. My dad will think about religion from time to time but we don’t have any kind of religious rules within the family. We don’t talk about it. For example, I drink with my dad. I have two younger brothers and they are also not religious. We would have our girlfriends over and my parents were totally fine with it. They were very welcoming. Some friends would say we were more open-minded than average. My girlfriend’s parents didn’t know she would come over to my place.
Ahmed: My family is a typical Egyptian family. My father is upper-middle class and I think he used to be quite a player, he would drink and all that. My parents never told me about their youth but when we watched old movies, which were very liberal, I would ask, did you do that at the time? They would say no but I think that’s not true. When I was growing up my dad prayed, my mother didn’t. Gradually they both became more religious, especially when my dad went to Saudi Arabia. They didn’t change but my mother did her umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca), she was quite emotional. She started to wear the veil. She never told my sister to veil herself but she told us to pray. They never pressured us but I had to accompany my dad to Friday prayers.
Does your sister wear the veil?
Ahmed: No she never did. She thought about it in high school because there was this wave of veiling in Egypt at some point. There were these liberal preachers who were very trendy at the time. She felt pressured because all her friends started to wear the veil. I encouraged her not to do it if she doesn’t want to. She’s married now and has been working for four years so she’s fine, also financially. One thing is important, my sister did engineering at a national university in Egypt and my father has not supported her near as much as me. Even though they tried to balance it, they paid for her wedding and furniture, which is a tradition in Egyptian families, but if my sister had asked to go and travel and be paid a thousand dollars a year, I don’t think it would have happened.
What are your thoughts on women and feminism in Europe and Sweden?
Mahdi: Oh, I’ve had this argument many times! I have this problem with hardcore feminism where men are a target rather than partners. I discuss this a lot with my friends. I think Sweden is very developed when it comes to women’s rights. In Syria we live in a patriarchal society. When you live in a different context you start to question everything. I think it is a very good opportunity for Syrian women who arrive in Sweden to change and redefine themselves. My only take on it is that it needs to be within a dialogue between men and women. I’m honest, it was a bit challenging to think about your position as a man coming from that kind of society. At the beginning it felt like, oh no, I don’t want to go through this. It was threatening. With time I understood that this is what I want, I want equality between men and women. I enjoy the conversations and we need these conversations, especially with newcomers because we are not used to having these discussions between men and women.
But wouldn’t you say you also suffered from patriarchy?
Mahdi: To be honest, I didn’t. I lived in a society where men have the upper hand at all times. I didn’t question these dynamics before I left the country. When I moved to Sweden I was still making jokes about gays but then I realised it’s not okay to make those kinds of jokes. Now I feel offended when I hear them because I have gay and bi-sexual friends in my life now. Having a different sexual identity does not mean you’re from Mars. So I feel heterosexuals need to move and open up more to understand and be helpful.
Ahmed: Well, I am one of those hardcore feminists. [laughs]
Mahdi: I know, I know! [laughs] See how open-minded I am!
Ahmed: Well, in Egypt I was never okay with patriarchy. I hadn’t even realised I was gay. When I came to Sweden I was happy but I had higher expectations. Sweden has a lot of feminists, right? But there’s also racism. When a Swedish gay man gets subjected to something there’s a difference to when it happens to me and I was being attacked. I had this image of Sweden where everybody’s rights are defended but that’s not the case.
Nedal: You know Europeans often focus on Muslims because they want to prove to themselves that they are better. They say that women are completely free in their countries and have the same rights as men but that’s not true.
Do you guys use Tinder?
Nedal: Yeah, but it’s hard to build trust or have a real conversation. It’s about photos and how cool someone looks.
Mahdi: I recently started my journey on Tinder.
Ahmed: Life’s hard, Mahdi. [laughs]
Mahdi: Oh my god, man, I was writing my thesis and I was thinking it would be nice to have someone there but man, it didn’t work well.
Ahmed: When I lived in Malmö I would get much more responses from guys who lived in Copenhagen than in Sweden. Danish guys are more responsive than Swedish ones. It’s very rare that I meet Swedish guys compared to other nationalities. They are not interested.
How do you view the right-wing trend in Europe? For example the clashes in Chemnitz last year, what are your thoughts on that Nedal?
Nedal: I don’t have any strong views on what happened there. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I met some Nazis when I first arrived in Germany. I was living on the border to Poland in Eisenhüttenstadt, Frankfurt an der Oder. There were a lot of Nazis. One day someone held a knife up to me. They were three, it was late at the train station. They tried to attack me but I managed to defend myself. I didn’t call the police because I knew nothing would happen and they wouldn’t find them anyway. Those things are the result of nationalist thinking.
Were you happy to move away from East Germany?
Well, yes, but there are also many people who think like that here. They might not hold up a knife but if they could, they would. It’s part of the culture. It’s how people think, they are always busy with thinking about them and us. It’s like that everywhere, them and us, but I live in Germany so this is where I experience it. The parents think that way and pass it on to their children and that’s how it goes. It affects my life. I don’t feel like people see me as who I am. I am something else to them. When people learn that I am a refugee they are always surprised that I am like this and not different. I tell them, you know, refugees are normal people and I am one of them.
Can I ask you about the discussions on Middle Eastern men and the rape cases in Europe. How do you view these cases and the way they are being discussed?
Ahmed: On Facebook for example we have a rather apologetic discussion. Unfortunately we know that these things happen in our societies, so it’s not that we feel apologetic we rather feel ashamed. In Egypt we have an extremely terrible view of women. Sexual harassment is very common. When I would walk on the street with my sister I got scared because I could see the guys staring at her. If she’d get attacked I wouldn’t know how to defend her. I was very happy when she finally got a car because I know that she is more protected. Even when I would walk with my mother, who is veiled and conservative, she would get stared at.
Mahdi: I kind of disagree with Ahmed. The Middle East has different conceptions about a lot of things. Egypt seems more conservative or at least Damascus seems more liberal than Alexandria. I agree that patriarchy is the source of this and that the Middle East has a lot of problems with rape and sexual harassment. But I disagree with us having brought it here. It’s not a Middle Eastern problem. Yes, we bring some problems with us but it’s not like it’s all on us.
Ahmed: I’m not saying that we imported rape to Europe, not in the least. We all know the history of occupation in our countries. At the same time we cannot deny that our culture is ingrained with patriarchal ideas and mistreats women. There is no way around it, it needs to be confronted. However, I am very careful when I talk about these things with people who do not have a migrant background. When I talk to people from the Middle East I feel it is necessary to raise awareness on these issues. I talk differently with right-wingers.
But do you even talk to them?
Ahmed: Yes, I would and I do. There was this guy on my corridor in Lund who was extremely right-wing. He actually went to the neo-Nazi march in Gothenburg. We were close friends and had a fight every time we talked. [laughs] I think he enjoyed it. He enjoyed being controversial and an outlier. But I knew my rights. Once when he called me a very bad name I ended the conversation, I didn’t want to be called that even if it was meant as a joke. I told him I could get him in a lot of trouble if he ever said that again. At the same time I engaged with him and thought it was mostly fun. I felt that he shifted his ideas, that he at least saw that we are much further ahead of him, you know.
Who is ‘we’?
Ahmed: We Middle Easterners. That we are ahead and that we know about the problems about sexual harassment and it’s not them shining a light into our societies. No, we know about these problems and are talking about them and dealing with them. It’s dangerous when people don’t talk about sexuality. It’s essential, our lives have changed a lot.
Nedal: The view Europeans have of Muslims is far too racist. When you look at people you cannot just make them out to be a colour. You turn them into a thing and reduce them. They expect us to mix into the culture but I mean, when you’re not open how do you expect me to mix with you? I’m not talking about all German people. I have German friends who are very nice and open and I love them with all my heart. But when I talk about Islam, I always include Christianity because I don’t want anybody to think the problem lies with Muslims. The problem is the system that allows people to think this way. Let me ask you something, are there any European Muslims who went to Syria and exploded themselves?
Yes, I believe there are.
Nedal: See, there are many. So why are there so many German and English people who are ready to kill themselves for these stupid ideas? Because of this system called religion.
What are the conversations you feel we need to have in Europe?
Ahmed: Firstly, we have to realise there are problems and there’s no shame in saying it. We have to engage people in conversations, especially women. We do not have to bring men to sensitivity conferences and explain to them that it’s bad to harass women. Rather, we have to talk to the women themselves. There also needs to be a conversation within the communities.
Mahdi: I couldn’t agree more. I also think dialogue is the key on many levels. We need to talk about sexuality. When people talk they understand. It’s patriarchy rather than religion. Most of my surrounding is quite liberal but still. I’ll give you an example. I know this activist, he has lots of followers on YouTube and Twitter and he’s quite well known. He was treating his wife horribly and always bragging about the revolution and how it was about liberating women. And he is very anti-religious. So there are these liberal men but they have a sense of manhood, which is problematic. This is a type of manhood which is dictating and not liberal and inclusive. There is this article I just read, I, the ‘abnormal’. I find it fascinating and I try to confront people on these issues. When I hang out with some friends, they are really cool and nice. However, when I sit down with one of them he will tell me that he would never allow his child to be gay. And I don’t understand this, especially now when we aren’t in Syria anymore. I am very vocal about my thoughts. You can’t bullshit about values and liberties and then when it comes closer to home change your mind. This idea that “I like them but I don’t want them in my inner circle” is wrong.
Nedal: I know that for European people we are all the same but we are not. Muslim societies are very big and diverse, you know. There are many open-minded people and very conservative people and lots in-between.
Mahdi, how do you feel about living in Sweden now?
Mahdi: I still think it was a good decision to stay. I got a degree and I want to do something I like, find a career and I feel I am on the right track. I know the Swedish government wasn’t so nice to Ahmed, because they didn’t extend his visa but they were very flexible in my case. I appreciate this.
Does this mean, you had to leave Sweden before you were finished with studying, Ahmed? Is this why you are in Turkey?
Ahmed: Yes, they didn’t renew my residence permit because of misunderstandings about my financial statement. They could see that I was managing for over a year but when it comes to gatekeeping it is really tough. They try to make it hard for you, even as a student who is doing everything by the book. It was absurd. Now I am going to Brussels for an internship and I might try and apply for an asylum this time. For me any European passport would work. I am very limited. I don’t want to go back to Egypt, they have been arresting gays in the past years. But applying for asylum means you have to go through the toughest years in your life. You cannot work, you cannot leave the country. I think this is intentional in order to deter people. It’s depressing and has mental repercussions.
Nedal, are you happy about being in Germany?
Nedal: Yes, for sure. Germany was on my list even before the war in Syria because of my career and profession. But I had this idea that everything is better here, that it would be easier to live here. However, I noticed that it’s exactly the same. [laughs] The stronger the capitalist system, the more people live like machines. This system is not flexible and the people living within it fear change. This fear causes all the problems. I am not proud at all because of my nationality, I didn’t do anything for it. I want to be proud of something I do. So I have started my life here and I don’t want to leave everything and start all over again somewhere else. It wasn’t an easy decision to come here and I don’t want to throw it all away. I want to be eighty and look back at my life and not regret where I am and what I did. Until now I do not feel like I have a stable life here. I want some peace but I don’t feel like I have it yet.
How do you feel when you hear the news about drowned refugees and people sitting in camps for months and years?
Nedal: The European governments don't seem to want to solve the problems, they just think about the opinions of their own people. They focus on the interior without thinking about the fact that their foreign policies cause these problems. I stopped following the news a long time ago. I mean, how am I supposed to feel? Sad? Angry? I was on a boat and now I am not. I passed that point and don't know whether I can feel anything now.