About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of Refugee Adel


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Photo and interview by:




Nooshin Sanjabi

My dream was to start a family alongside my family and in my home country.” Says Adel (30) a refugee living in Germany. Leaving Iraq, and his parents, meant he would never fulfil that dream. But he felt he had no choice. Iraq, as an atheist, “was a prison for me, not a life.” His lack of belief led to difficulties with “the people who can’t accept that I don’t want to fast, I don’t want to pray, that I criticize religion.” Expressing his opinion meant “trouble,” he says. “I was abducted because of my views and that’s how you see there’s no room for you anymore in this society.” The kidnapping was the “trigger” that set him on the path to Europe. “That’s enough,” he said to himself. “I’m leaving this country and going somewhere else where I can just live freely.” Germans, he says “don’t understand how terribly important it is for people to be free, because most here are born free.” Adel enjoys his freedom. “I have the opportunity to live freely here now, and I’m using the opportunity.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So when I arrived in Germany, first I lived in a refugee home. Two years ago. Then I moved to a shared flat and stayed there for three years. And after that–now I have my own place. For over a month now. And I feel at home in the apartment now. I feel like I’ve really arrived in Germany now. 

How was it before that? 
Before that was really good too, I have to say. It was nearly perfect. I mean, I lived with my family. I had my own lab, a medical lab. I had a good life. Until I couldn’t carry on anymore because of my views. Because I wasn’t a believer. Because I want to be free. And I no longer fit in to society. And here, I realized, since I only have one life, I have to live my life right by being free. Not by doing what other people want. And yeah, it wasn’t very easy to leave everything behind, but it was worth it. I mean for the freedom I now have in Germany, it was worth it. I  feel more like a free individual. And that makes it all worth it to me. Worth more than anything. Yeah, that’s exactly it. And now I’m really happy as a free human being.

Freedom, right. Religious freedom, that is. I can be what I want. Nobody forces me to be something I don’t want. And for me that’s just great. Just to be the way I want to be.

Can you explain to me exactly what your difficulties were in Iraq? 
The difficulties were with the people who can’t accept that I don’t want to fast, I don’t want to pray, that I criticize religion. And I had a lot of problems with people because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Life was so difficult that I always had to pretend to be somebody else. I think that’s the hardest thing of all for people–when you can’t be what you want. And that’s where the trouble was– I just couldn’t fit in there anymore. It was a prison for me, not a life, even though I had everything. But now, I have to say, everything is different. 

How did it feel not to fit in, not to belong? 
It was very sad. I lived, ate, spoke, laughed. But deep inside me a lot was dead. I wasn’t very happy, not really happy inside. Because a lot was missing in me. I always wanted to share my thoughts with people or talk about my thoughts. And it wasn’t easy.
And I just couldn’t go on. I did it once. I got in a lot of trouble. I was abducted because of my views and that’s how you see there’s no room for you anymore in this society. Then you just have to leave because we only live once. And I don’t want to live where I don’t belong. Here I don’t feel odd now that I’m a free person. Many people can’t understand this because they haven’t experienced it, but in Iraq in a society where religion, where everything was regulated by religion, there you can understand that. But here people don’t understand how terribly important it is for people to be free, because most here are born free. And I have to say, for those who can’t understand, it’s so hard that you just can’t stand it. You just don’t feel good, ever. Like in a prison. You just want to get out. You just want out.

You told me you were sad. How did you deal with that? I mean… 
I just had to put on a front the whole time. When people talked about religion–and that was a lot– or with friends and so on, I had to play along. I had to agree. I had to be somebody else. And that was sad for me. I couldn’t be what I wanted. Although I had so many ideas, so many opinions. There were topics I wanted to discuss. I just couldn’t. It wasn’t an option. I had problems with my own family. Not huge ones. But in discussions I said a lot of things that hurt my father a bit or my mother.
That is,  it’s not like they’re extreme Muslims or anything, but between us there was always this…there was this distance between us, that’s what it was. Our thinking was really different, so it was always difficult, even with my family or with my girlfriend at that time. She had problems with her family because I don’t pray, I don’t do what proper Muslims do. So that’s why I was getting grief from all sides and at some point I couldn’t do it anymore.
At the time I just tried to say what I thought. Indirectly, of course, to cope, because I was never happy with people. I wasn’t close to people. I was lying the whole time. I really felt like an outsider. And then, I tried to pretend the whole time. That was the only option. Nothing worked. To the point where I gave my opinion. And that’s why I was kidnapped because apparently what I said people thought was really terrible. That’s when I made the decision. That was the trigger. I just said, okay, that’s enough now. Now I’m leaving this country and going somewhere else where I can just live freely. That’s all you can do. Either you speak your mind and risk your life and you die for it. And not as a hero, of course. Or you shut up and stay and do what everyone else does. Those were the only two choices. So actually being free or doing something wasn’t an option. Or else you leave. And that’s what I did. 

Were you angry as well? 
Of course, I mean it wasn’t easy for me. I was totally furious. I left my family, my friends, my girlfriend, my job behind. Everything. I left everything at once. And for me that was, it was so much, I mean, I had a life. I had a good life. I had my own lab. Everything was fine.
But you just can’t live there. And here, in Europe, you know, it’s human rights. People talk about that and act as well. They give people human rights. We only talk about them. But don’t do anything.
My anger landed me in a good place, and you know, as mad and sad as I was, when I saw the difference, the difference between Iraq and Germany, and I saw how people live here and the rights they have, I was really sad and really angry at the same time. Why didn’t we have that? And that really motivated me to integrate into this society here, to learn the language and simply work and live the way people here live. Because my anger really motivated me to be a part of society, to be a part of German society.  Because I didn’t fit there I would fit in here, and that’s how we came to found a secular refugee aid group. That way if we can just help one person, or whatever, that’s enough for me. That’s what comes out of the rage, because you need  motivation to achieve something and that really motivated me. 
When I was in Iraq, my dream was to buy a big house together with my dad where I would have my own floor for myself, marry my girlfriend there, and live happily with my family and all those nice things. And because together, first my family was very important to me, and my friends, my job, my girlfriend. I had a lot of dreams. I started my Master’s degree before I fled too. I wanted to continue my education, of course. I wanted to get my doctoral degree. There was so much I wanted to do. I had goals. But suddenly everything was too bleak. When that happens there’s nothing you can do. 
If you open your eyes to the world and say, “Oh, I’m not Muslim, I’m an atheist or I’m secular or I’m a humanist”, whatever, those are just labels. But the most important thing is how you think: “This is what I want to be.” And you have to be what you want. If you can’t do that, then suddenly everything is hopeless. Then you can’t achieve anything. Here in Germany all that thinking changed. Now I don’t feel everything is hopeless. I have goals now, and I have new dreams.
My dream was to start a family alongside my family and in my home country. 
The troubles I’ve had in Germany were mostly because of the people, the way they live, because of the freedom. Every time I see how people live here…
So my challenges or the difficulties I have had here in Germany were the language, the bureaucracy, above all–you always have to wait, wait for years actually, that was really terrible for me I have to say. That was the worst. But the problems I had inside were experiencing freedom here and always comparing that to Iraq. That was very hard for me internally. Then there was really a huge difference between the countries,  although we live on one planet. But you think, “No, it’s just black and white” and that really disturbed me. 

How did you feel? 
In  time I got used to it. I told myself I have the opportunity to live freely here now, and I’m using the opportunity. I’m a part of society, I work, I pay taxes–I’m proud of that–and I get my freedom. I do anything I want. No one says, don’t do this or don’t do that or whatever, as long as it’s legal, of course, but I’m very content.
My daily routine. Well, I work in a medical laboratory as a medical lab assistant and I feel quite at ease in the lab where I work and my routine is normal. I work, then I do something with my friends, sometimes I go to the pub and have a beer with my friends–that’s what I enjoy, by the way. Once, a few years ago, I had some friends and that was the first day of Ramadan. And we were in a pub and had a beer together that evening and what was awesome was that nobody looked at us funny. We didn’t even dare drink water outside in Iraq during Ramadan–not even water. I drank beer in Germany and nobody gave me a strange look. You can fast, but leave me in peace. I don’t have to fast. I don’t have to join in. I want to enjoy my beer. And yeah, that’s my daily routine. It’s quite normal, I feel very comfortable and free and happy– everything, really.

Very nice. (Question inaudible)
No idea–really completely happy? My family can give me that. Unfortunately, I can’t have that anymore, so my work makes me happy. I feel very important in this society because I can help people in a direct way. What else? Listening to Linkin Park.

Music by Linkin Park.

How do you feel about being far away from your family? 
Not nice. Then a lot is missing, you feel a lot is missing. Then part of you is gone. Of course I grew up there. And that’s inside me, of course. I love, I love my country. But back when people were different, when life was different. When everything was not as bad as it is now. It was a bit bad too, but not as bad as it is now. But tough, yes. It is very tough. Because it’s like that all over the Middle East, the families are very close.

How do you deal with the difficulty? 
Sometimes I also have to paint a smile on my face and go out. It’s not easy of course but if you look at the positive side, there are so many positive sides. I just try to consider my best interest, for example, when I see that I’m free now I can just say damn it, I’m here, I can drink my beer and enjoy it, no worries. That’s what makes me happy, and I always try to stay on track. 

What is your dream now? 
To do my doctoral thesis.

Can you say it like that? “My dream is…”
Ok. My dream now is I want to continue my Master’s degree in Berlin. That’s the plan. And after that my doctoral thesis. 

What to say to people who don’t have that much to do with the refugees, I mean they have nothing to do with them? We are also people who have had a life, had dreams. And we’re not as bad as you hear in the media.
We are human beings too, just like you, and we have dreams and we only live once in this world. Everyone only lives once, and it’s not my fault that I was born in Iraq. It’s not my fault I can’t believe what other people in Iraq can believe. And in this world there is enough for everyone, for everyone to be happy. So what I really hope is for people to accept us not as a second-class citizen… (Interviewer: second-class humans) …second-class citizens, but rather as people, they see us exactly as they see other Europeans. That is, not because we have a different skin color, or if our last name is Abdallah that means we are terrorists. No, we are people too who just want to live. Just a very few of us that did a lot of shit, but that doesn’t mean we’re all bad. Yeah, I mean…
Yeah, COVID-19 is really critical. That was my life. I invested more than 10,000 euros in stocks. I bought stock and lost. All the money is gone. Yeah, so I lost my money. So financially. But now the stock has gone back up again. After the vaccine. Other than that, yes, of course, there is less contact with people. Seeing the ugly masks on people’s faces. That was really…I don’t like that. Just being forced to do something, I didn’t like that, I have to say. This forcing, this verb is really dangerous. That’s why we came here to Germany, because we don’t want to be forced to do things. But unfortunately, of course it’s about  responsibility to other people, I understand that. But still, it’s a little hard to accept.
I follow the rules, but I’m not very happy about it.

Okay. Anything else you want to talk about or say? 
No, that’s all.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.