A Dance of Interpretation, Part II: The Refugee Life

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

Last week I wrote about my first experience working with refugees at the Red Cross in Burg bei Magdeburg, Germany. This week I will be sharing some stories of the lives of Syrians who left their homes to find refuge in Germany.

I met a Syrian man in his late 30s who had been fired a couple months previously from his upper management position in a successful Dubai based oil company—because being Syrian made him “too dangerous” to work there. In light of the war and terrorist attacks performed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, many UAE companies were finding any reasons they could to fire Syrians. He had worked for them faithfully for 10 years. However, according to him, his nationality alone made him a suspected terrorist. He had to leave Dubai, and he returned to his home only to find that his neighborhood had been decimated by fighting. He then had to make the weeks-long 2,300-mile trip by bus and train from Syria to Burg bei Magdeburg. He was one of the lucky one s who was able to escape the war.

A German road sign indicating that you have the right of way at an intersection. Picture courtesy of Bussgeldkatalog-mpu

This same “lucky” man got hit by a BMW while he rode his bicycle home one afternoon and suffered a broken arm. I specifically remember interpreting between him and one of the workers about what the street sign looked like at that intersection. If the horizontal line was thicker, indicating that the car had the right of way at that intersection, he would be liable to pay for the (very minor) damages to the car’s paint and license plate; if the vertical line was thicker, it would be the driver’s fault for not yielding.

One of the most interesting people I met was a Kurdish man from Northern Iraq. He was in his 60s and spoke fluent Kurdish, German, and two dialects of Arabic (however, he overestimated how good his English was). As I mentioned last week, he had been invited to the White House in the 1990s to meet with President Clinton in a diplomatic and advisory role during part of the decades-long Iraqi-Kurdish conflict. He and his two sons had already lived in town for several years, and their German very good.  His sons volunteered regularly as interpreters when they weren’t studying for university entrance exams or working at a pizza and kebab joint one town over.  Their names were Ahmad and Zardasht, and they were genuinely nice and authentic people.  Zardasht, whose name I learned is the Kurdish word for “prophet,” was studying to get into university to eventually become a full-time employee at the Red Cross. He wanted to be able to help refugees in an ever greater capacity than volunteering had allowed him to, and had a place in his heart for those who had been forced to leave their homes like he had.

A German advertisement for midwife services. Courtesy of dm

While the vast majority of refugees were friendly and thankful for the help they received from the Red Cross, there were a couple who were not satisfied with what they had been given for free. I was told that Mr. B, whose real name will remain anonymous, was a former multimillionaire in Syria. When war started brewing, he, his wife, and his three kids had to leave on short notice and were unable to take many of their valuables with them. He irked one of my superiors because he demanded that the German government provide his wife with a midwife. He was used to having many servants back in Syria, and the prospect of taking care of his children was foreign to him. He complained that he needed help with his pregnant wife and three children, to which to worker replied, “The fact that you chose to have three kids is not MY fault!” Appearance was so important to him, and I could tell he didn’t want anyone to think less of him now that he was “poor.” He wore the same expensive pants, watch, shirt, and suit jacket every day. There are many ways for refugees to get adequate clothing, but I believe he was too proud to wear anything else.

One of the saddest stories was told to me by a friend I had made in my German language courses.  He was a refugee from Damascus who had to leave many family members behind in Syria. Damascus, which was once one of the “Pearls of the Middle East,” was listed recently by an affiliate of The Economist as the worst city in the world to live in.  He told me how battle lines had been drawn through major roads in and outside of the city, and aid trucks were being stopped and commandeered by both soldiers on both sides. As territory was won and lost, many citizens became trapped by the fighting.

Destruction in Allepo. Courtesy of PetaPixel

Because the food trucks were being stopped, or just weren’t sent at all, his parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews and siblings had gone through what limited supplies. Meats had run out, the few date and fig trees that weren’t destroyed by explosives had been stripped bare weeks before, and almost all cooking supplies had been used. The adults in my friend’s family had decided to make sacrifices for the children, and they saved the last of the food they had for the little ones. He told me that for a couple weeks his parents, grandparents, and siblings had been reduced to eating grass. I was speechless.

The war in Syria is ongoing, and cities like Al-Raqqah are currently major battlegrounds. Thankfully, countries like Germany have been willing to accept refugees and give them a safe place to live. Next week I will be talking about the German people’s responses to the Syrians arrival.

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