EDUCULT Talks: with Ahmad and Mohammed
Ahmad and Mohammed, two brothers from Syria, arrived in Austria some months ago after a tedious and partly dangerous escape. After two months in the “initial reception center” (Erstaufnahmestelle) in Traiskirchen they moved to a private apartment in Vienna provided by a new Austrian friend. Currently they support newcomers at the Vienna West station (Westbahnhof) as interpreters from and to Arabic. Last Saturday they performed part of Jelinek’s “Die Schutzbefohlenen” together with other refugees in the Arena Wien. The theatrical production by the Die Schweigende Mehrheit (The silent majority), an artist collective, got thundering applause from the audience.
They told EDUCULT about their home country Syria before the war started, how their view on life changed during the last years and what Austrians could learn from Syrian culture.
EDUCULT: Dear Ahmad and Mohammed, where do you come from?
Ahmad: I was born in the Emirates and there I lived until the age of 18. Then I went to a university in Syria because it was free for Syrian people. There I studied Finance for four years and I needed one more course to graduate, the final test, but then the war started in the city Halab or Aleppo. So the police was looking for me, because I helped people in Halab who came from an Anatolian city. The police wrote in the reports, that I was working with bad people against the government and that I had a gun and so on. And you had to sign the report, if you don’t sign it, they will probably kill you.
I was lucky to escape to Turkey, but I stayed there for only two months. I applied for a scholarship in Cyprus on the Turkish side. There is a university and I studied there finance for one year and a half, but this was a scholarship from Turkish government, because I didn’t have a passport. It was expired. So the government made it easy for me to travel to Cyprus and to study there for one year and a half.
After my graduation I came back to Turkey and tried to find a job, but the situation there was bad. If you look for a job, you have to learn Turkish and you can’t work in the field of your studies. If you want to work in a restaurant you need to know the Turkish language, and the course was too expensive for us.
Mohammed: After I graduated Accounting, I worked in our factory. Our father had a factory, he was making shoes and bags for women and I was managing the company. But now there is no factory anymore. It is all destroyed. Then the problem was that I should have gone to the army. If they caught me, they would take me to the army, but my family and I don’t like to go there. I stayed at home, so that the police could not catch me. At that time the Daesh, the Islamic State, was in my area. If they caught me, I would have to go to them. So I went to Turkey for one month to my brother Ahmad and I also tried to find a job there. This was difficult. Even if you find a job there, you will get a salary which only covers food. It will not be enough for the rent, even for a small room, because living is expensive there. So together we decided to go to Europe.
EDUCULT: What is the situation in your country right now?
Ahmad: To get an idea about my city, it is now under the control of IS. They will take any young person from 14 years and older to camps for two months and prepare them to fight. Also the schools and universities are not allowed to open, because science is not wisdom for them. You should only read the Koran. But in my opinion, they are wrong. The first word in my religion, in the Koran, says: read and the meaning is to learn. But they closed the schools and IS is not the Islam, they only say that they are Muslims. If you are Muslim, we can live together but they are not Muslims. So all people had to leave.
Mohammed: There are so many things they are against. If the beard is too short or when you make your hairstyle different.
Ahmad: We didn’t go to military service, but we would have to. But you fight people and kill people, but they are not the criminals, it can be your family. This is what happens. IS and the government military don’t fight against each other, they only fight the people. The government now is trying to advertise in Syria, that the war is about religion. This is a stupid idea.
EDUCULT: Many Austrians are wondering why so many people from Syria choose the long, risky way to Europe. The United Arab Emirates are closer, geographically.
Ahmad: In Turkey I tried to apply for a visa to go back to the Emirates, but it was very difficult. There is no chance for Syrians. I feel very sad about it. When I now see someone from the Arab Gulf in Vienna, I want to ask him, if he doesn’t feel ashamed, because here people don’t have the same language, culture and religion, but people open the border and say “Welcome Refugees”. What about you? You don’t say anything. Yesterday the King of Saudi Arabia was very happy because he will receive five Syrian refugees, five children without family. I would like to tell him to come here and to see how a small family receive more people than him. He is the King of a rich country and only receives five persons, five children. Really, I want to say something about it, but there are no words for it. In the Emirates, Omar, Quatar – it is all the same. By the way, my father came to the Emirates in 1982, at that time it was all desert there. I was born there.
EDUCULT: But your nationality is Syrian?
Ahmad: Nobody can get this nationality easily, even if my mother is from the Emirates, I can’t get this nationality. So my father was in the Emirates in 1982. It was desert, there was nothing there. My father was a teacher and my mother too and they were teaching these students and this is how it is. The people who are coming there are only coming for work, from India, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt. If only one nationality would stop their work, everything will fall apart there. This is my idea. I want to be honest, it is all about money but the King has no money to think. You can’t talk about Human Rights in the Arab Gulf, there are no Human Rights. Maybe the reason why Europe and the USA don’t talk about this is because there are political relations between them and the Arab Gulf and it is all about economics and oil.
EDUCULT: A few years ago Syria was a rich land and had high educational standards.
Ahmad: Yes, but the government didn’t support the citizens. We only depended on the trading. There were many factories but the government was the oil bosses. We don’t know anything about the oil and so. This is for the government and this family. But it was a good situation. Before the war Syrians were not poor people. Everyone had a home and food and you could buy anything you needed. This was the minimum in Syria. And so some people who come to Europe want to have a life like in Syria and want this comfort, for example someone went to a restaurant every day and to the park and now everything changed. Because we are young people, maybe we can live with a different culture, but for old people it is difficult.
EDUCULT: What are your goals, your plans at the moment?
Ahmad: Of course it is impossible to go back to Syria now. There won’t be peace in the next ten years. I will only go back when there is peace and no war. The schools, hospitals, university and all electricity are all destroyed. When I arrived here I first wanted to go to Germany. There were bad days when I was in Traiskirchen but some friend told me that Traiskirchen is not Austria. You can’t transfer the idea from Traiskirchen to Austria. At the moment I feel comfortable, because the people support me, but I don’t know what will happen in the future. But for now it is comfortable.
I met a Syrian in Traiskirchen who told me, that he stayed there for three months and now he decided to go back to Syria and doesn’t want to stay here anymore. Some Austrian people maybe think that refugees from Syria or Iraq are coming to Austria because of the economic situation in Syria. But this is a wrong idea. There are too many people in Traiskirchen who have certificates, they have a master degree or PhD. I know one Syrian girl, who is an artist. She is making sculptures. She told me after only 20 days she moved to Vienna and got a private home. She moved to Vienna and started to make sculptures. She is happy now.
EDUCULT: She immediately started to work on sculptures?
Ahmad: Yes, yesterday I talked to her. Also there are people making Arabic music. They are playing an instrument called “oud”. It is like a guitar, but it is Arabic. I know a person, his teacher was the most famous oud-player. His name is Naseer Shamma. He is famous in the Arabic world and a lot of people outside the Arabic world know him. When you have a special work like being an artist, musician, etc. then you can start working immediately. There are many people who have certification and have an idea about what to do. But it is difficult there are too many status of acceptance. We first have to learn the language.
EDUCULT: Would you like to stay in Austria?
Mohammed: I hope, I can go back to my country one day, because I love my country. But we should live here and learn the language and want to take part in the Austrian society. If I have the chance to work, I would love to. I don’t like to stay at home. We should live and do something for our future. I am still young and I can do anything. I want to marry and have children. I want to offer a life to my children. I don’t want to come back and my children have nothing.
Ahmad: We get some financial support as a refugee, but we need to work and want to be independent from the government.
Mohammed: When I was young, my father taught me, that I have to work. But I can’t stay at home and wait for the money all day long, I need to do something.
Ahmad: My target is to study a Master. When I complete this master, it will be easy afterwards. Then I won’t need any approval of my accomplished studies. But it will have to wait for one year or one and a half, because I want to study German first. If you study in German it is different than just like talking with people. But when you have a target in your life then you are eager to do everything for it.
EDUCULT: Is there anything from your Syrian way of life Austrians could learn from you?
Ahmad: The social relations between Syrian people. I don’t know how it is here in Austria, but I heard about Europe that you meet your brother maybe once a week. But we call and talk to our brothers or visit them every day. When we have time for it, we visit our relatives all the time. The social relations between people are power. When I walk in the streets I always greet the people I know and in this point we are different. We feel and greet the people of our family when we are in the streets. Arabic families are always big families so there is a kind of box where you put money in, if someone is sick or want to marry then we collect money for this person. Maybe it is the same like insurance, but here the insurance is your family.
EDUCULT: Did you change your attitude towards life since the war in Syria and with your experiences during your escape?
Ahmad: Of course. The first question is why I am still alive. When you have the chance to live in a safe place, you shouldn’t waste your time. Before the wars I was proud that I come from an Arabic country, but now I am not proud of it. I only say that I am Syrian. I know it was a good chance to leave and to live in safety and I don’t want to lose more time, because I lost four years of my life, when I didn’t do anything. I graduated when I was 22 and now I am 26.
Mohammed: Everyone who is still alive is very lucky, because everyone who stayed in Syria is near death. Even when you come alive to another Arabic country you are not safe. We see bad people who may kill you in Beirut and I can’t sleep when I think about it. You feel tired about it. I am in a safe place but I feel bad when I see the people in my country. You lose yourself. We should come back to life.
Ahmad: Also my parents and my younger sister, we are thinking of them all the time. You should read the news about your city all the time but every day there are bad news. When you look around you hear that all the people lost their brothers or parents. But I am lucky, because I am still with my family. They are still alive.