Dear Angela Merkel,
It isn’t easy for me to tell you my story. Each of these sentences takes a great effort. I am not well, I have panic attacks and doctors have prescribed tablets for my nervous stomach. Nevertheless, I want to report to you what has been happening to me these last months. Even if it makes my despair all the greater. Because I am being reminded of everything.
Reminded that my wife and my four sons are stuck in my hometown of Aleppo. That bombs are falling there and it is getting worse every day. And that I have to return to the war to see my family again.
It is paradoxical. I came to Germany because of my children, to be able to offer them a future. Now I am going back again because of them.
I am a Syrian father, my youngest son is three, the oldest eleven. I traveled through Turkey, Greece and half of Europe to reach Germany. I know full well how many refugees have entered this country in the last months. I only have to look around in my camp in Hamburg. I live in the warehouse of a former DIY store that is divided with fences and tarps into sections. On our parcel of floor space, I have been housed with three families. Sixteen people live on 40 square meters (430.6 square feet.) It is completely overcrowded.
I have been in Germany since November, and in these three months, I haven’t had the feeling that the situation has improved. On the contrary, it gets worse day by day.
Coming here was the biggest mistake of my life. In a couple of days, I will set off to head back to Aleppo.
The first city I saw in Germany was Frankfurt am Main -- a wonderfully beautiful place. The people were friendly and smartly dressed and well-fed. The skyline impressed me. And all the new cars! From Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. Shining as if they had just been driven off the showroom floor. I called up my wife and said: "This is paradise. I’ll get you to join me as fast as possible. We can build a future for ourselves here.’’
But only two days later, I was told I had to move. No idea why. I came to Braunschweig, in a city who’s name I can’t pronounce. The people there were no longer as friendly; it was cold and crowded in the camp. But still better than in Hamburg. To be honest, where I live now is almost unbearable.
The worse thing about the camp is that we are treated like children. We are not even allowed to decide how to hang up bed sheets in our plot of floor space to have our own little private area. We are not allowed to have visitors; we are not allowed to cook for ourselves. We are grown men! Many of the women are never able to take off their headscarves because they have no privacy. And the days are always the same: Get up, eat breakfast, charge the cell phones for three hours, lunch, sleep, charge the cell phones for three hours, dinner, charge the cell phones for three hours, sleep. We are wasting our time while our families are in mortal danger back home.
Sooner filth and chaos, but in exchange dignity
I sit on my bunk bed, children are screaming, it smells of sweat and food, and I talk with my wife. Five, six hours a day. She tells me of her worries, of life in Aleppo. Our children continue to go to school but my wife often has to pick them up early because shots can be heard in the area of the school. She tells me what there is to eat, where bombs have fallen in the neighborhood, who has been injured, who has died. The stories are getting worse with each day, So far, the district has been largely spared by the bombing. Because it is controlled by Assad. That’s our good fortune, even though I despise that man. But now the front is moving closer. Two weeks ago, a fighter plane hit a house in our neighborhood: 20 dead. Yesterday, rebel soldiers bombarded the government’s army 300 meters (984 ft) from our house. A local resident was caught by it. My wife says the front line is now within sight.
I can no longer manage to explain to my sons why I am not with them. Please come back Daddy, they say. And I ask myself what I am actually doing here.
I am not the only one who feels this way. Many say they would rather live with their families in one of the mass camps in Jordan or Turkey. Sooner filth and chaos, but in exchange dignity and being able to make your own decisions.
I know what I owe Germany. And I love the Germans! What an open and warm-hearted people. They have helped me when I asked directions; they have given me clothes and food to eat. But I have the feeling that the politicians want to get rid of us. They should say so if they no longer want us here. We Syrians are not people who want to force ourselves on anyone.
I have always admired two politicians -- Erdoğan, the Turkish president and you, dear Mrs. Merkel. You were a hero in Syria, even before you opened the borders to refugees. A fight could start in a café in Aleppo over a bad word about you. I trusted you. I prayed for you. And I am sitting here in Germany and have the feeling of having been deceived.
But the conditions in the camp are not the main problem.
Do you know the feeling of having a connection to people or a thing without knowing them? One of my sons is a fan of Spanish soccer club FC Barcelona. He is six years old and has seen only a couple of games in his whole life, but feels a closeness to the club.
It was similar with me and Germany. I am an electrical engineer; I like technology and I like precision. For me, this country always stood for perfect organization, for efficiency. That’s certainly also what everyone says if you ask them. The Germans are punctual and keep to their word. In Germany, I always heard that a handshake is as good as a contract.
That was the reason my wife and I decided on Germany when it became life-threatening in Aleppo. It was clear to us that we would never let our children travel in an inflatable raft across the ocean. Enough children have already drowned in the Mediterranean. So we decided that I would take half our savings, about €2,000 ($2,196), and work my way there alone. And my wife would stay with the rest of the money and the children in Aleppo until I could file an application to have the rest of my family join me. We figured it would take about a half a year after my arrival, perhaps nine months.
Can it be that family fathers are deliberately discriminated?
And now here I sit and Germany has proven to be a trap for me, a deep hole of bureaucracy in which I am stuck. It is a matter of the life of my children. I have a panicky fear it will soon be too late.
My asylum process hasn’t even begun yet and it is quite possible that I will even have to wait until the end of June for my first hearing. It could easily be a year and a half before I can have my family join me.
Can it be that family fathers are deliberately discriminated against so as not to get all the dependents coming into the country as well? It seems to me to be like in soccer -- the politicians are playing for time, "Let’s see how long the guys can hold out."
Chaos reigns in the German immigration authority offices. When I arrived at the registration office in Hamburg, I had the feeling I had entered a war zone. People were lying around on the floor; some had thrown up in some corners. It stunk. I called my wife and showed her it all on the cell phone so she would believe me. That was the first time we talked about it perhaps being better if I went back.
A month ago, I then actually decided to return home. I was lying on my bed and reading the news on my smartphone. I saw on Deutsche Welle’s Arabic page that your government now doesn’t want to allow us Syrians to send for our families. That finished me once and for all. I wasn’t even able to cry anymore.
When Bassam, my best friend here, returned to the camp, I immediately told him about it. Bassam is also a Syrian and came to Germany with his two sons. His wife and daughter are still living in the countryside outside of Damascus; they are constantly on the run. It was immediately clear to the both of us what the info about family reunion means. We have to go back. We are responsible for our families. Our wives and children are all that we have. If they die, our lives are worthless. Bassam is more fortunate than I am, his family is already close to the Turkish border. My family can’t manage to get out of Aleppo without me.
Bassam always says Allah decides when death will come. But when it comes, we should be with our families.
But before I go, I want to ask you for one more thing, Mrs. Merkel. Be honest with us Syrians! There are thousands still wanting to come to Germany. I tell my relatives in Aleppo at every opportunity, don’t come! But no one listens to me. So you tell them, Mrs. Merkel, so that more people won’t put their lives at risk.
We then asked the camp management how we can get back to Syria or at least to Turkey. They sent us to a social worker, a good-hearted woman, but unfortunately she couldn’t help us. There is no help for people like us. Albanians, Kosovars and even Iraqis are given money if they return to their countries. Not Syrians. It’s too dangerous, they say. If we want to go, we have to try on our own.
The nice social worker went through the motions of applying for a visa for me for Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. But none was successful.
So I’ll have to take the same way back that I came. This time in reverse order -- through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Greece to Turkey. Then across the border and through the war zone.
I know it sounds like lunacy and I am also crazy with fear. But I have no other choice.
I calculated that I need about a €1,000 if I am very frugal. I still am entitled to pocket money that the German state pays out to refugees. The rest I’ll borrow from relatives from Syria who have been in Germany already some time. As soon as I have the money, I’ll be off. My bag is already packed.
I’ll try to travel as much as possible by bus to avoid controls. I have to walk across the borders. I’m familiar with that already from the way here. Get out before reaching them and make your way through the bushes.
To be honest, I don’t know what is awaiting me in Aleppo. The situation changes too quickly. I’ll be returning with empty hands, if I survive the journey. The only thing I’ll be bringing are injuries that fortunately my sons won’t see -- humiliations.
My greatest worry is that the rubber rafts only travel in one direction, to Europe. I have no idea how I’ll get across the ocean.
But I must try
Your Arif Abbas (name changed)
Translated by David Anderson