Kareem doesn’t fit the image of a Syrian refugee often seen in the media. Clean cut, dressed in well-fitting business casual with a young professional’s composure, he sits calmly in a Hamburg café and listens to Adele on his smartphone.
It’s hard to imagine that just this past August, he and his older brother Ghaith — like so many other young Syrian men — fled the country to escape conscription into Bashar al-Assad’s army.
Kareem, 23, is an Economics major from Hama. Ghaith, 26, majored in Civil Engineering. The laws in Syria currently require all males between 18 and 40 to join the army, provided they aren’t in university.
Students know, regardless of their education and qualifications, that they risk being drafted into the government’s war with ISIS as soon as they graduate.
The only other option? Drop everything and head to the West. While there are plenty of families lined up in Hamburg’s central train station, plenty more are lone college-aged males.
Life in Syria
Kareem began university when the civil war broke out in 2011. In 2012, the Assad government bombed a section of the campus in Aleppo, making it too dangerous to attend class for nearly a year. Soldiers would also occasionally wait along highways to conscript military-aged commuters, regardless of whether they’ve graduated.
“It’s very dangerous because of Assad’s group,” Kareem says. “If they catch you, maybe they fight you, maybe they kill you… anything. You don’t know.”
When asked why, he laughs and replies, “They just do it.”
“If they catch you, maybe they fight you, maybe they kill you… anything. You don’t know.”
Kareem stresses that many Syrian refugees are from middle and upper class backgrounds due to the high cost of reaching Europe. The Syrian pound has fallen significantly in value, so families often have to cough up their life savings to send even one or two family members to Europe — usually they send sons at risk of conscription.
After graduating in February, Kareem worked for four months in a Hama clothing store, saving about 15,000 Syrian pounds (or $90 CAD). Kareem’s mother resorted to selling all her jewellery.
“Other people don’t have any money, so they sell their home,” says Kareem, whose uncle recently had to do just that.
Journey to the West
On August 6, the brothers took a bus to Lebanon, where they boarded a crowded boat ride to Turkey. They laid low for nearly a week in Bodrum, confined to a two-bed hotel room with five others.
After the all-clear, they took a train through Greece, got off in Macedonia and bussed to Belgrade, Serbia.
They knew that if they were caught, identified and fingerprinted they would not be able to enter Germany.
Then came the riskiest part of the journey: making it to Budapest. Hungary famously sealed off its borders earlier this year, so Kareem and his brother were forced to walk the 360 kilometre journey by night along fields and country roads.
They knew that if they were caught, identified and fingerprinted they would not be able to enter Germany and would most likely be deported home to the front lines.
Luckily, the brothers reached Budapest, spending the night in a forest before taking a secret taxi ride to Munich. From there it was a simple train ride to Hamburg.
In all, the journey cost $4,000 CAD and lasted 22 days.
Life in Germany
At the time of the interview, Kareem was living in a repurposed supermarket with hundreds of other refugees. As of November, he and Ghaith are in a better shelter in the Wilhelmsburg quarter of Hamburg.
According to Kareem, necessities like food, clothing and WiFi are in good supply for the moment.
What’s harder for aid organizations to provide (apart from privacy) is a sense of purpose. Many asylum-seekers have little to do but worry about their families back home.
Some German citizens, however, are offering to teach the refugees the local language. Sylvain, Kareem’s tutor and a French-born wind engineer, knows being fluent is a huge advantage for finding work in Germany, and believes it’s best to integrate this stream of educated talent into the economy.
While Kareem and other refugees are experiencing serious culture shock, Sylvain is confident they’ll adapt in time.
Kareem and his brother were forced to walk the 360 kilometre journey by night.
“Germany [is] like a dream for Syrian guys,” says Kareem, who has registered for masters’ classes this spring and plans to work a service job until graduation. “We don’t stay here just to receive money or to drink or to spend time. We go to here for dreams, [to make a] future.”
Kareem and Ghaith also have motivation beyond starting a new life. The rest of their family is still stuck between the Assad government and a rampaging extremist group. What’s more, their younger brother Mohammad just turned 18 — the minimum draft age for the Syrian Army.
Kareem has three goals in mind: learn the language, receive asylum and earn enough money to evacuate the rest of his family.
Complicating matters are the recent Paris attacks. Germany so far has been exceptionally open to refugees, offering aid and granting asylum to nearly all who cross the border. It remains to be seen how the Paris incident will affect this policy.
For now, all Kareem can do is sit in a café, listen to Adele and learn German.