Interview with two activists from Syria, living in Europe. "I decided to become active, because I went through the same experience." (K.) "...when people join hands they can create a strong connection and a common understanding that in turn will allow them to break through all boundaries." (O.)
Both of you are active in accompanying refugees, when they cross the border by boat. Can you describe how you started these activities? And what exactly you do?
K: I decided to become active, because I went through the same experience. I met refugees, smugglers and others involved. We took risks and faced danger at sea, but luckily we reached safety. When I finally managed to get
to Germany, I had a lot of free time while I was waiting for my residence permit. And listening to news and hearing about people dying at sea, I felt I should help. I saw a lot of news on Facebook about innocent people
trying to cross from the same spot I crossed from and dying at sea. So five friends and I started thinking about how we can help people cross. Of course those friends had gone through the same experience like me. We decided to make a WhatsApp and a Facebook group to directly support the people while crossing. The group started to get bigger and bigger. People started sharing the Facebook group and our WhatsApp contacts, while we regularly searched for other migrant groups on Facebook. When we see people announcing their trip, we exchange contacts with them and offer them to stay in contact with us during their crossing. Our message is simple: We went through the same journey and would like to support you in yours. If you need help we can try to organize something and we can share our experience with you. A lot of people need this initiative, because before you cross, the future is unclear and you need advice. What happens is that when we know about a boat crossing we create a designated WhatsApp group for the boat. At the same time we send them advice on how to react in case of emergency, how to deal with people suffering from hypothermia, how to restart an engine - just any useful information to cross safely. In the beginning we did not know about other projects and especially about the Alarm Phone. We did everything ourselves. We had the telephone numbers of the Greek and Turkish coast guards. But we had financial problems, because calling the coastguards is expensive. We needed another way to inform them, and it was not possible via WhatsApp. We did not know how to solve this problem. So the day we heard about the Alarm Phone was a happy day for us. It was the day we found another way to call the coast guards and to exert immediate pressure on them. Alarm Phone's effort was astonishing to us: a 24-hour hotline that gives assistance in calling the coast guards. They directly supported our work. On the other hand, we also support their efforts: The Alarm Phone was not well known within the Syrian and Iraqi communities; we had better access and were in direct contact with those communities. We somehow completed each other. I have been involved in accompanying at least 100 boats in direct cooperation with the Alarm Phone shift teams. Day and night we manage to work together, helping people in distress at sea, while sharing each other's knowledge and experience. Maybe a lot of people would be dead, if we hadn't found and built this connection.
O.: I am a translator from Syria. I studied at Damascus University and volunteer with Alarm phone in Switzerland. I left Syria to Lebanon after I finished university exams to avoid compulsory military service. I was deported from Lebanon after Lebanese authorities found out about my job as a translator in Beirut. So I moved to Turkey with my wife. After facing difficulties finding a job in Turkey, we decided to move to Switzerland. I managed to get to Europe safely, because my wife is Swiss. I am not saying that the marriage process was easy, but it definitely was safe. Obviously this option is not available to everyone. I could just fly to Europe, while many other refugees were and still are taking difficult decisions, risking their lives, like K. did, and trying to cross borders invisibly, because they are faced with a strict EU border regime. Most of those people have a family member somewhere in Europe and all of them have the right to apply for asylum. But many are denied those basic rights; many are faced with dangerous situations, escaping one terror to face another. The lesson here is that people will do anything to reach safety and if safe routes are not provided, they will be vulnerable and subjected to many forms of exploitation. Therefore I expressed my desire to join the Alarm Phone. The Alarm Phone is an international network of volunteers from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. I wanted to use my language skills to help as many people as possible. So I met with a friend, who introduced me to the group in my city. I started training how to monitor rescue operations at sea and how to directly support people during crossing. I became part of this huge network of people, who are attending to the alarm phone 24/7. Everyone in Alarm phone is aware that communication is essential in distress situations at sea and having a common language can be helpful. I dealt with many situations with my team, some of them ended tragically, but many ended well with the boat reaching safety. You learn that a lot of those, who risk their lives at sea are aware of the chance that they might not reach their destination. But they take the risk anyway, because options are limited. One important aspect of Watch the Med Alarm Phone is that it sheds light on migration policies and human rights violations and protests against discriminatory practices that occur.
"K.", you crossed from Turkey to Lesvos by boat and then in April 2015 travelled by land from Greece via Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria to Germany. How does this experience influence your activism?
K: It will take too much time to tell you about the whole journey from Macedonia to Germany. Maybe we can postpone the detailed story to another occasion. But there is one event that is, to me, very important to tell; an event I will never forget. After we had arrived on the island of Lesvos, we continued our way to Thessaloniki. We met someone, who promised us a lot of beautiful things, telling us how we can cross the border easily by car. At the time (April 2015) Macedonia's borders were very strictly controlled. The price for someone to help you cross was therefore really high. The smugglers accompanied us to Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border and told us to wait in the jungle for the "taxis" to come and pick us up. When we got there, there were however, to our surprise, no cars or taxis. Instead we had to walk to the train tracks, where they then put us into closed containers. They closed us in at midnight and we stayed there until after 11am. We nearly suffocated; there were more than 200 people inside one container and not enough oxygen. The train was supposed to go to Macedonia, but for whatever reason the train did not continue the trip. At 11am we managed to call the police ourselves and they came to open the container. We were still in Idomeni; we had not moved at all. We were then detained at a Greek police station, but even this did not stop us. When we were released, we tried again but this time by foot. We walked to Macedonia, from there to Serbia and then to Hungary. I met a lot of thieves, a lot of Mafia and a lot of bad people. But the experience to nearly suffocate in the train, this near-death experience, it really shook me from within. I will never forget it.
The last year was a special period in the history of migration. How was the last year for you "O."?
O: The last year was definitely a special year for migration, especially because the humanitarian corridor was opened. Everyone knows it was heavily monitored and controlled by the authorities; nevertheless it was a safe route for many people. During this period, the corridor created a space for hundreds of thousands of people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions to interact with each other, help each other and get to know each other. Some had never helped anyone before and some were never engaged in politics; but when they witnessed the migration situation, they got involved and offered assistance.
The idea came up to create a multilingual online platform for a "collective memory on migrants' struggles". What do you think about this proposal?
O.: I think the experiences from 2015, but also from before and afterwards, should be communicated and publicised more in order to show what was good and what was bad. I believe that a multilingual platform will help us share and better understand our happiness and our sorrows. Through such a space, a lot of people could realize that we are all humans and have the same pain and same joys. We could emphasize that everyone deserves safety for themselves and their children. So I really hope that such a platform could become a sub-culture space of cooperation, and that it can, in the future, allow activists to connect with refugees as well as enable refugee activists, like K., to connect amongst each other.
What are your main demands? What are your hopes for the future?
K: First of all, the war in Syria must stop. Secondly, we need a humanitarian corridor, a safe route. Turkey is not the solution. Turkey was and is exploiting the crisis in Syria; they are trying to get more money and using Syrian refugees to negotiate with Europe. They are not helping those in need as they are supposed to. Currently Greece is also using the refugees to strengthen their own negotiation position, with more than 40.000 people stuck there without a safe possibility to reach their family and loved ones in other European countries. No one would accept to live in the conditions we have seen in Greece in the camps, no one can survive there for long. What I really hope for is for the international community to take a closer look at Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, especially at human right violations and the inhumane treatment of refugees. What I hope from the people of those countries is that they understand that we are born the same. We come from war and terror to face a different kind of terror by ultra-nationalists and mafia-gangs. They take our money - of course most of it is borrowed - and steal our mobiles and small belongings. Fascism is on the rise. We should expose it and put pressure to change the status quo. Syrians don't want war. We left our homes because we are looking for peace.
In regards to my future in Germany, I am now learning German; and like any other newcomer I am still not so sure about my plans, but what I should do is a "Ausbildung". I am lucky, because I am with nice people, activists like you, where I am a friend not a refugee.
O: I believe in open borders and safe routes for all people who are in need. When the Iraq War and Lebanon War broke out, many young people in Syria volunteered to help refugees. Now we are asking and hoping for people to help us. At the same time countries should stop politicising and playing unethical games with people's lives and suffering. That is exactly what Turkey and many European countries are doing: they are politicizing the refugee crisis and not providing the people with their basic needs, while fuelling nationalism. This is the reason that so many people in Europe are now voting for the extreme right. We should be learning from the civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan, even from WW2. It is time for us to realise that nationalism leads to armed conflict, which leaves people suffering. The experience of the Balkan Route proved that when people join hands they can create a strong connection and a common understanding that in turn will allow them to break through all boundaries. It is also evidence that friendships are possible beyond nationalities. By working together we can overcome what separates us. My wish for the future is that we can all live in peace. We can always agree to disagree.
K. (22) comes from Syria and now lives in Germany. In the summer of 2015 he created a Facebook group with a handful of Syrian refugees. They assist refugees crossing the Mediterranean by boat, providing them with useful information before they depart and staying in contact with them through Whatsapp groups during the entire trip until they arrive safely. If necessary they provide instructions on how to restart an engine in case it stops or overheats, help alert coast guards and pressure responsible authorities to accelerate the rescue.
O. (29) also comes from Syria and lives in Switzerland now. He has been active in the Alarm Phone since autumn 2015 (:: alarmphone.org). Watch The Med Alarm Phone was established in October 2014 by activists and civil society actors in Europe and Northern Africa. The project set up a self-organized hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. The Alarm Phone documents and mobilises in realtime. This allows the activists to exert pressure to rescue as well as bring attention to and oppose push-backs and other forms of human rights violations at sea.
The Interview was made by friends from the Network Welcome to Europe and publihsed first in the No border Thesaloniki 2016 Newspaper #2 (:: here as pdf).