About Refugees, By Refugees
I am ElSayed Mahmoud and what I’m doing is part of the One Thousand Dreams project. Our goal is to publish refugee stories, around the world. You have seen on the website, I need you to talk in a higher tone.
Fine. I will try.
Good, if you want to start by introducing yourself, a general short introduction.
My name is Adnan Salman. I was born in Syria, 1993. I am currently living in the Netherlands and am seeking asylum here.
Why do you seek asylum in the Netherlands?
Because I did not find another way to live in Europe, and I have to live in Europe because Syria is unstable, there is a war and moreover I have compulsory military service. I also worked with people who are politically well known for their opposition. I can never go back to Syria, even if, for example, there is an amnesty on the issue of the conscription. I still have the problem of opposing the Assad regime online on social media and by working with those people who are against the regime. In addition to the war and the poor living conditions in Syria. All these factors made me decide to seek asylum.
And how long have you been in this asylum process?
It has been almost ten months.
What was the journey you went through that made you decide to apply for asylum?
First of all, I came to Europe legally, I got my visa to Hungary through a scholarship and studied in Hungary for two years, but I was not comfortable in Hungary for many reasons. First, the Hungarian society rejects the presence of foreigners in general. The government rejects the presence of foreigners in general. In addition to the financial situation, I suffered from that, I mean, the scholarship was not enough, the accumulation of these things made me decide that I have to live somewhere better than Hungary. I started saving money, applied to Italy in Venice and tried to have a new life in Italy.
Do you mean studying or working?
Studying at my own expense, I mean it was not a scholarship. I took a regular visa for Italy. I went there hoping to finish my studies in Italy and stayed there and worked normally. I mean, I never thought that I would apply for asylum.
Why did you never think about applying for asylum?
I was afraid that the asylum process would be very complicated and very difficult so I tried to stay away from the whole process. I thought that as a refugee I would be able to live a normal life as an employee or a student in Europe. Then I discovered that the system leads to repulsion, no matter how much you try, it makes you a refugee and nothing more, whether you like it or not, as Syrians or any other nationality. When I arrived in Italy, I applied to get my residence permit but I did not get it until eight months. Their excuse was so silly, I had a house contract but the owner of the house did not register it in the municipality. Although it was not my fault, I had to face the consequences. After eight months of living and studying in Italy at my own expense, I had to pay for many things only for them to tell me that I cannot get my residence permit and if I want to stay I should start a new application with new conditions and a new house contract… etc. I did not have the financial capacity. So I went to the Netherlands. I applied for asylum because it was the only solution left for me to stay Europe.
What do you mean by “the system leads to repulsion”, that the system rejects you?
The system forces you to apply for asylum because, for example, it is so difficult to take a work residency in Europe if you are not a European citizen. I mean there are many requirements, first you have to leave Europe and apply for the residence outside then go back to Europe after. And if you do not want to leave, the conditions are gonna be more complicated. In general, I mean, even the municipalities in Italy, for example, visiting the municipality to get my residence as a regular student. They treated me awfully. Although I was not a refugee, I was a student there at my own expense, I expected a better treatment but that did not happen. Felt that everything was telling me to get asylum. It seems to be the easiest way to feel more stable and repose.
In your opinion, is it really the easiest way since you are doing it now?
In my case yes, especially from my experience, I mean, I am talking about my personal experience. I tried for three years to live without considering asylum but at the end I was forced to get one. Even my friends and people I know, they also tried for years but eventually they had to get asylum while we try not to seek asylum. So yes, I think for people who seek stability and want to start a new life, asylum is the best and safest way, because work is unpredictable, you do not know when it might stop.
Where do you live currently?
In northern Netherlands.
In which type of housing?
In a camp, they do not call it a camp here but it really is a camp. It’s a center for receiving refugees. The center consists of separate apartments with four bedrooms in each and there’s two people in each bedroom.
Yes, each apartment has a kitchen, a bathroom, four bedrooms and a small living room.
So eight people share the same kitchen and the bathroom.
Are you happy in this apartment?
No, I am not because there is no privacy. Sharing a room with another person is uncomfortable, especially for someone like me. Perhaps some people don’t mind that, but personally it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Why especially for someone like you?
Because I am a private person, way more than others. Perhaps other people have lower privacy standards but for me, I am a person who loves privacy and calmness. I like having my own personal space and take time for myself without having to talk to someone or pay attention and listen to anyone. Privacy is something that we do not have in the camp so I have to deal with it. There’s another issue, the camp is far from the city. I mean, the nearest supermarket is a 25 minutes walk distance, then walk 25 minutes back to the camp so the total is about an hour walk, and even the bus stop is too far, so going in and outside the camp requires effort.
And how does that make you feel? I mean having to walk for an hour just to buy a simple thing.
The thing is, I don’t always have the mood or energy to walk for an hour in order to buy something. Currently, I buy many things at once to avoid that. Another thing is, other camps have a library for example. I have been living in this camp for almost nine months. The previous month, they turned a small room into a reading room but it’s not considered a library. It’s not even close to the libraries in the other camps I had seen. This is the third camp in which I live. That’s one problem of many. If I think about it more I can point out more problems but generally I do not feel comfortable living here.
At the camp you mean?
Yes. I do not feel comfortable living in the camp. But I know that this camp is better than many others. It’s better than the camp I was in before, there were eight people in one room.
How long did you stay there?
One month, I mean, it was considered a processing camp, they do the first interview there then after that they send you into another camp.
So you’ve been moving between camps for like ten months or eleven months and you still have no idea when will the final decision be made. How do you feel about the whole process?
I live on my nerves, because we have a system in the camp, every day after 12 a.m., there’s a website that we check to see whether we got any mail for the second day or not.
In a website?
Yes a website associated with the COA, (meaning Centraal Orgaan opvang asielzoekers, in English: the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) organization that manages those camps. They have a website where you can see if you have received any mail. I check it every day after 12 a.m. because my future is unknown so perhaps I would get any answer or have an interview set for the day after. So there isn’t any time frame or order, for example, there are many people who came after me but got their residence and interviews first. So there is no specific order, there are many people who came after me and got their residence first whereas many others who came before me are still waiting, so there’s this constant waiting and uncertainty.
What helps you tolerate and cope with all that? I mean that you’re always on your nerves, constantly waiting, uncertain about your future, how do you deal with all that?
The best way to deal with it is that I imagine receiving a positive answer and plan upon that. For example, I am right now planning where and what to study in the future. I am looking for jobs and searching about places and comparing between cities.
In the Netherlands and people.
Yes, in the Netherlands. Learning more about the Dutch cities and which is better, that’s the practical side of dealing with it. As a coping mechanism, I love planning to travel although I cannot do that now, but I love planning so I imagine myself being able to travel and I think about the places and the budget. So I imagine getting positive outcome and imagine what I would do after.
Why can’t you travel?
Because I don’t have a passport, I gave away mine with the asylum papers. They take the passport and I don’t have a residence that allows me to travel.
Is this part of the conditions or limitations of the process of applying for asylum?
Yes, it’s prohibited to leave the Netherlands.
And how does that make you feel?
I mean, there is restriction of freedom. I mean, perhaps I would love to attend some events in Germany, in Belgium. I have friends who are willing to welcome me at their homes to take a rest from living in the camp but I can’t go, it’s prohibited.
Because they aren’t in the Netherlands.
Yes. And even if they were in the Netherlands, there are restrictions also. Every week we should be in the camp for at least one day to register by the fingerprint system. So that forces me to always be here, even if I have a friend in Amsterdam or Rotterdam who are able to welcome me into their homes, it would not be financially possible for me. It would be financially difficult to constantly travel on trains and so on.
You mean it’s not financially possible to go back because of the fingerprint.
No, I mean traveling back and forth every week, the cheapest train costs at least 50 euros for a round trip.
What’s the issue of the fingerprint?
The fingerprint that is the registration, which means that you go to show the camp staff that you are present, give them the cam sheet and ID so that they register your name on the system to prove that you were present in the camp for the week. If you’re absent for two weeks they deduct money from you and if you’re absent for three weeks your process gets terminated and you’ll have to start all over again.
In the third week?
Yes, if you’re absent for three weeks, even if not continuously.
So because of this fingerprint even if you go at your friend’s house or anything you’ll have to get back. How does this sense of restriction make you feel?
It is so annoying, especially that I don’t feel comfortable in the camp. Living in the camp has been affecting me mentally, there’s much mental pressure, although I have others options (places) to go to and leave the camp, for example, I would stay with a friend, I have people who are willing to welcome me into their homes but the system in the camp, which is this weekly footprint, forces me to stay here because I can’t pay 200 euros for transportation per month for going back and forth on train.
And you told me that you are eight people living in an apartment, and you’re two people in one room for the past ten months, for example, how do you work? How do you talk to your parents? Since all of these are supposed to be online.
If I have an online call or meeting, I can’t take it in the room, well technically I can but I don’t feel comfortable doing that because sometimes I talk about personal things with friends and family or if it’s regarding work then it’s also personal. So I do not feel comfortable doing those things while someone else is in the room. Another thing is that sometimes my roommate is annoying, or maybe he would be annoyed by the sounds so I have to be quiet, so it goes both ways I mean, it annoys me and him as well, thus I can’t do anything in the room. I have to work silently and if I want to talk then I have to get out of the room because there’s no other way.
How’s your relationship with Syria now?
Syria as a country?
Yes, as a country, and many memories that you want to forget.
My relationship with Syria is complicated. I mean, I certainly love Syria, it’s my homeland after all, there’s nostalgia and many memories. But the more time passes while living outside Syria, the more I want Syria to get out of my life.
You want it to get out of your life?
Yes, I want Syria to get out of my life because it’s associated with heartache and pain. I keep thinking of what’s happening in Syria and it’s haunting me. Whenever I go I see it, and hear about it. I feel that Syria is holding me somehow, as if it’s a chain around my neck tying me up. I am slowly trying to stay away from all that so that when I get a positive answer from the Netherlands about my residence, I’ll be mentally prepared to start a new life in a new country, leave Syria behind and think of my new life, wellbeing and work more.
What did you mean when you said that Syria is like a chain around your neck?
Because even though I’m here, I am still focused on Syria and my work is about Syria.
What do you work?
I work as a research assistant with a researcher of Syria. He always asks me to be up to date with everything about it so I have to always follow the news and even outside my job as well, I look up the news because I feel curious. I feel that this whole thing is taking too much of my time. I mean, following the news, analyzing and thinking about it, it takes much time, I want to think about my own situation more and my hobbies more, for example, recently when I started working as a research assistant about Syria. My second job, which is graphic design and arts, has declined because I don’t have much time, there isn’t much space in my mind to come up with ideas and think of my personal job and not Syria. I hope this is something that will end soon. Honestly, I have lost hope that Syria will get better. Things have gotten out of hand. The matter has become much larger than our will and when this happens I think it’s better to pay attention to your personal situation.
What are the challenges that you face in your current life in the Netherlands regarding residence, your work, living in the camp and so on?
There are many challenges, but what comes to my mind now is the issue of instability. In my opinion, it’s a great challenge. For example, I do not know to which Dutch city I’m gonna go. It’s frustrating.
What is the rule of the municipality?
After you take the residence in the Netherlands.
After getting a decision?
Yes, a positive one, and get the refugee status to be deployed in different cities but it’s not up to you, it’s according to their choice. You can influence the decision if you have a good reason but in general they chose randomly. Due to this issue I have no idea where I’m gonna be which is frustrating. For example, I’m not able to seriously think about getting into a particular university, a specific major or working in a particular company. This sense of instability is one of the things that concerns me the most.
As you are talking about instability as one of the biggest challenges in your life, where do you get the strength to cope with that?
Honestly, my strength is decreasing. I mean, if the situation remains like this for two or three months more, I don’t know what would my mental state be like. The more time passes the less motivated I am, my hope is getting weaker each day because of the constant waiting, my main concern is just waiting. I don’t have much.
How would you describe this waiting? Or what does waiting represent to you? How does it make you feel?
Waiting in this context makes me feel that I am nothing and nobody. I am waiting for something very basic, a card that says who I am.
You mean the residence.
Yes, the residence on which my name and my approval to study and work are written. It’s all what I’ve been waiting for and in my opinion it’s a very basic thing, I mean to have a recognized identity in a country. So until I get that, I feel that I am currently nobody. I feel like I am hanging between the past, where I came from, and the future where I’m going. So right now, I am nothing.
I understand when you said that you’re hanging between the past and future but what do you mean when you said that you’re nothing? Can you express more.
I told you because without the residence, you’re tied up, you can’t do anything. And sometimes you can’t even dream. I mean, for example, I would like to study at the University of Amsterdam. I might have high hopes about this dream and plan it but then I might be sent into another city. This whole issue of not having an identity in this context – I mean, who am I now, who am I gonna be in the future – I do not have an answer to that now.
Let’s talk about dreams. Currently in this context of which we’re talking about, what are your hopes and dreams? For example, studying at the University of Amsterdam, maybe you dream of witnessing change in Syria, any big or simple dream?
Practically talking, or let’s call it “small scale hope and dreams”. First of all, I dream of having a house, a house for me, or having the ability to own a house in which I live freely. Walls where I can hang whatever posters I want, decorating the rooms as I like. I dream of having space that I call my home so that if I travel, if I went to another city in or outside the Netherlands, I would have a place I look forward to going back to, which is my home. And it can really be a house and it can be a city or even a country if we talk about bigger scale dreams. My dream is to keep working in Art and Design and take it to another level. I would love to work with teams of creative people, or be part of a design studio. I would love to be part of any creative foundation, which is doing something nice and developing it, a foundation with a good work environment and ideas… etc. If we talk about bigger dreams, I dream of traveling to many countries. My biggest dream is to travel the whole world. Honestly, I love traveling very much, and I dream of being able to travel to all the countries around the world. I also dream of being part of a musical band and performing in different cities and different countries.
Are there any dreams for the near future in your mind?
There are dreams for Syria. By the way, I mean, last year. I was working with a Syrian architect from Damascus. We were working on a project to rebuild Hama (my city), of course not the whole city because a large part of it was destroyed during the 1982 massacre. Almost three quarters of the old city of Hama was destroyed. My parents were from the center of Hama and they grew up there. Due to the destruction, my mother’s family left the center and lived in the outskirts of the city and so did my father’s family, because the center of Hama was completely destroyed. Last year when I worked with that architect, the goal was to have an architect with a young man from Damascus to rebuild or make a plan to rebuild part of Old Hama that was destroyed. The work started as technical architecture then ended as an investigation work because we discovered that there are many layers under Hama in addition to the destroyed buildings. I mean, there were the rights of many people, there were laws legislated in order to exploit Hama and those who exploit buildings in new properties. Old properties of many people had been replaced with new ones. We made an investigation and reached very important results. One of my dreams is to continue in this project and see this part of Hama.
You mean rebuilding Hama?
Rebuilding this part of Hama. It is impossible to rebuild the whole city. Many things were built above these destroyed buildings and neighborhoods, but specifically this part, which is a very important part of Old Hama. This is what I would love to see one day.
We started talking about your dreams about Syria. As you are talking here, do you only think of Hama or the whole Syria?
Of course I dream that Syria would be a better country. I dream to see this regime finally fall, and we would be lucky and to get a better system in general, a better institutional government where there is justice, democracy and human rights. I dream of being able to say that I am proud to be a Syrian. Currently, I do not feel proud of being a Syrian. When someone asks me where I’m from, I hope I wasn’t asked that question because I feel ashamed to say that I am a Syrian, because Syria has reached the rock bottom unfortunately. I dream of saying that I am Syrian with great pride one day when Syria becomes a country that respects human rights and citizens. I would feel proud to belong there.
You said that you went to Saudi Arabia and Jordan some time ago before you came here.
Yes I did.
What do you think your dreams were?
When I was very young, I wanted to be an artist and I walked along this path, and there was support. I mean, there was support from my parents, but then when I grew up and entered high school and had to think seriously about my future, an idea was planted in my mind that doing art does not provide you with a decent life. I had to find a different path other than art and stop dreaming about it because it’s nothing but a hobby, which is a very wrong concept. I discovered later that we should follow things we love whether it’s a hobby or not. Anyways, in a period of my life, I wanted to study computer science and programming but the circumstances did not allow me to do so. I used to dream of studying and working with computers for a period other than my dream of art, but this dream did not work out. Dreams have changed over the years, I mean. I used to dream of being part of a musical band and it’s still my dream now but not as strong as it was before. For a while, I used to dream of living fully on my own work, for example, to sell my own artworks for a living so I don’t have to work for someone. Dreams change with time.
Think about your trip now, for example, 11 months as a refugee and three years before deciding to get asylum. What’s the strength that keeps you going and have high hopes in this very difficult situation.
The feeling that I have more potential. I always have this thing in my mind. I think I have great potential. If I’m able to be in the right place at the right time, I can invest in this potential. I always look forward to finding myself. I have hopes to find a place where I can make use of my abilities properly. This thing gives me strength and hope that tomorrow will be better. I haven’t lost my hope yet.
You mean you get strength by having high hopes about what’s coming for you? You mean the best is yet to come?
Yes, some might consider it pride but I think of it as a healthy type of pride. I think it’s a good thing to be confident about your abilities and know what you can offer. In my opinion, that is a good thing. Even if eventually I fail, I would love to try and that is what keeps me going.
What do you mean you want to try?
I mean, in the past years, I have always felt that there is injustice in living conditions, in the place where I’m staying, in my nationality and so on.
What else do you mean with the “so on”?
There’s injustice in my life, for example I did not come from a financially stable family, I came from a working class family. I went through very difficult circumstances. I lost my father at a very young age. I had to leave Syria and move among many countries at a young age. I have always felt that I was not in a fair situation that allowed me to offer the world something. I would love to try. I always wonder, if I got an opportunity to be in an ideal situation to some extent, what would I be able to make? It is this curiosity that motivates me to work and prove myself.
Do you think that there was a situation that ever allowed you to try your potential whether it was successful or not?
Yes, there was an opportunity that I got for myself, in the beginning of Covid, when many people had to leave the job and others switched to working from home and so on. During this pandemic I decided to push myself to do something and see the outcome. I sent an email to the SE at that time. I put myself in a situation that’s way bigger than my abilities, but I was curious about it because working had become online. If there’s a chance for me to work online so let me see and try – why not? So I sent the email and got a very positive response; they liked my CV and my work samples. They were very happy to have me as a part of their team; the job gave me experience and benefited me financially very much.
What was your job there?
Also research assistance and communications, my work was creative direction of the project and program and how it’s going. I felt that I was actually doing at that time, that I am working in a good place. I worked in the Central European University at Budapest. I felt that I was in an environment that gave me enough space to express myself. It was a good experience. When things work out in such circumstances, I get curious to see how far I can go.
Do you think that the whole refugee process is part of how you said that you want to try things?
Exactly. I tried other methods but none of them worked out so I thought, let me put myself in this situation and if it succeeds I’ll get plenty of opportunities and get my rights, so it was like a challenge for myself. I tried and failed so why not try asylum, and if it succeeds, it can be an opportunity to a new life, a new birth.
As we’re talking about dreams, do you have something to add more? Something you wish would happen?
There are many things I wish would happen to me. I hope I feel that the country in which I’m staying, the Netherlands, is really my home. I wish to have friends and feel like I belong. I have such dreams, I mean the wish to be part of a community, to find people whom I would teach and learn from. I dream of being able to be myself, and being successful in who I am without having to make sacrifices such as working in jobs I don’t like.
Would you like to add something? Is there something we did not talk about?
Yes there is actually, the issue of change, after those very difficult circumstances I went through before asylum and after. The thing is, I always want to be a better person. I fully realize that I have made lots of mistakes and wronged myself and many people, but I have this desire. I always want to be a better person and I wish that people can see that.
That you want to be better.
Absolutely. To be a better person.
What do you mean by change, you want to change yourself for the better?
Yes, I mean, I am aware that I have made some mistakes in some situations. I am aware of how I’m trying to become a better person, but I also want other people to see that because in my opinion it is important.