About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of Refugee Ohjay hiding his identity with written messages


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My dreams was… to help people who are vulnerable,” says Ohjay (pseud, 41) who arrived in Germany in 2011. He became a refugee because he “clashed with the system… I left out because of my safety.” His journey to Europe was “very tough for me because I lost some of my friends.” Life in the country was difficult for years after his arrival. At first, he lived on the streets until, “I met a good German that took me home, that took me to their place… they were so friendly… they give me hope.” But what he really wanted was work. “Almost ten years of my life… I can’t work. I can’t move forward.” The experience caused “pain and depression in me.” He felt “useless.” He didn’t give up though: “No matter how bad my situation is, I try to look at the positive side. That give me strength and hope.” Eventually he received a work permit. “Sometimes I’m grateful for the problem,” he says, recalling the past. “The problem really shaped me to who I am today.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So I would directly jump into the questions. Uh, what kind of housing do you live in?
A present present presently? I have a family, so I’m living with my family.
With my family.

Before I was living with a guest for many years. Yeah. Like a German friend for many years. Yeah. Duh, before then, I live when I came newly, I live in the Winternotprogramm (Winter emergency program for people experiencing homelessness) at Stellingen Arena, you know, for the Obdachlose (people experiencing homelessness), in um, I forgot the name. So long time, so I really live there with the Obdachlose because when I came I don’t know anybody, I was just on the street, so I started asking people, where do I get to a free hotel, free place to live? And somebody said, there is a place called Pik As, Pik As (place for people experiencing homelessness to sleep overnight). So they took me there. So I live in Pik As for some time before I met a good German that took me home, that took me to their place.

And how was the condition?
The only condition was good because they were so friendly, even though my condition was not good personally. Like, I can’t work, I can’t do anything. But they give, but they give me hope. Give me, like, supports, you know, like that. I lived there for so many years like that. Yeah.

And how did you spend your time in general when you were not working?
You know, when when I’m not working. I was like before I met the German people I walk around the streets of Hamburg, try to use my kind of Italian document, refugee document. I have to. I don’t have any idea about the system here. I just believe I can just get a job easily. But when I came, it was something very different from what I thought. So I just move around, go from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar ask if you have a job. And they said, no, it’s not to get a job. Yeah. You have to go through some kind of procedure, you know, to get a job apply to Arbeit Agentur (work agency) so I don’t even know what is Arbeit Agentur. I was like, what is this? So it was very tough for me. So I started like picking bottles, recycling, you know, trying to get money because there was no need. There was no no mix of anything. So that was I started my life here, you know. So in the in the process, the first people I met here were they Obdachlose (people experiencing homelessness) were my very first friend that I met that I have here in this country. And so unfortunate I still see some of them in the same condition even after many years, you know. Yeah.

And what are some of the things that bring you joy in life?
Uh what to some of the things that brought me joy? Oh, that’s very good question. The thing is hope. And because I have good health and I still believe that I can make it no matter my present situation now, because if I look at many people here, even the Germans, some of them are really struggling, you know. So looking at myself as a migrant, you know, and, you know, being healthy and have like some good people around me, that is hope. You know, that is hope. And and mostly, where I came from, you know. Comparing my condition on back home and here, you know, it’s a lot of big difference. So I just believe I’m going I’ll get there some day no matter of how long it’s going to take. Yeah.

And how has life been since you arrived in Europe?
Since it has been very difficult because so many things were like painting, we are like a stick. I could not move forward because I can’t work. I don’t have a bank account for many years. I can’t even think forward. I can’t even like, I can’t really do something, you know, like a normal human being. Like if I go to the supermarket, I see people pay with their phone, with their card. I used to think, when will I have a bank account. When will I pay with phone like this? When will I  experience these. You know, I was like thinking like me is really taking too long. So I in fact, I have a plan, but I, I don’t know how to achieve it without not working, without not having this residence here. You know, I was like, what is this? You know, what are the way forward? I used to ask myself this question many times for many years. So life from the beginning was very tough. I still for almost seven, over seven years before I could allow to work, like to live in normal life like a normal person who can decide for himself. You know, it was really tough, really, really tough. I know you can’t imagine it. You know, it was really tough. I do all kind of look for all kind of job like they call it black job. Like if somebody want to do Umzug (move in/move out types of jobs), I always volunteer. I ask people, like cleaning job. If I if I’m lucky, I get if I’m not, I don’t get, you know. So that’s how I’ve been living for many years and more so I have a career that I would love to build, you know. But the trust wasn’t in there and the opportunities here. They are looking for people in that profession but because I don’t have the residence permit, I couldn’t do anything with it. So it was very tough. You know, like you see yourself that you are very useful here. But because of your situation, you can’t move forward. You know, it’s very painful, you know, very, very painful. It’s not like somebody who doesn’t have like like a profession.  You know, I have a profession. And my profession is highly needed here. But because I don’t have that document that I’m useless. They don’t care about me. They don’t want to know where I came from. And as long as I don’t have that permits, they don’t care. You know, it’s very tough, you know, very, very tough, you know.

And what has been good about being here?
What has been good about being here is, you know, for me, I used to always think about the positive side of every situation. No matter how bad my situation is, I try to look at the positive side. That give me strength and hope to move forward, you know? So the thing is, I just look for opportunity, like to learn the language, because you can only learn the language. You can go to the right school if you are in this system, maybe if you are apply for asylum or you have the documents. So I look for a free school. I look for all this kind of opportunity to upgrade myself, to help myself. That is some of the things that I pick and also to move with some activism, good German supporter of refugees and migrants. And, you know, I do for all those places. And I fix myself in, you know, started advocating for people with the same, you know, background struggles, problems like that. So that is what kept me really, you know, moving on. Also, when I look at the future, I see myself like I would be useful, you understand, to the system. I mean to the system, to the people if I’m allowed to work and stay. Yeah.

Can you describe how living here has made you feel?
Living here so far, I’ve really you know, it’s a very difficult question anyway. It is, it has really brought many of my plans down. You know, I almost like 10 years, almost 10 years of my life was I can’t give accounts. I can’t work. I can’t move forward. It was really tough, you know. I’m just trying to recover now. You know, I’m just trying to honestly, I’m trying to recover now because I could imagine when I first time I came some years ago, there was nothing like, there was nothing like free German course there was so many Syrian refugee came you know, we started having so many opportunities for refugee migrants. So I quickly look into it. I started, you know, upgrading myself. So, I mean, those guys that came nearly, we like allow to work, you know, they give them documents and people that came before them, we are like shit, you know? So it is it is kind of like depression. I mean, you know, like we are not recognized or nobody really cares about where we came from. So I was having these kind of pain and depression in me, you know, for a very long time, that’s when will I get out of this, you know? It was really tough, really, really tough. I’m just trying all my best to, you know, to keep myself alive and to keep my story so maybe one day to inspire somebody with the same kind of story. So not to give up. You know, it was really tough. I know so many people that we came after three or four years they went to another place or they went back home because they couldn’t take it. You know, it was very tough for everybody around me. But my joy is when I see some of my colleagues that we came like almost 10 years ago now, like seven years ago. They are doing well. Though some died, you know, here, though some died, they couldn’t make it, and when I see some now they’re now, they now have family, too. They are living fine. That is joy and happiness for me that finally I can see one, two, three, four, five people I knew, we came together with nothing. We are happy now with family and friends and working. You know, that is a joy for me. Yeah.

And how has feeling been being away from your family?
Feeling being away, well, you know, it was really tough. You know, like you you can’t really call them, tell them that you are moving forward. Every time when they called they want to know how you are doing and you are always complaining of I’m not allowed to work. I’m just here. You know, it was really bad. At the time some families, our friends do understand, but some don’t understand, you know. Like some family that think you supposed to be doing like three or four years you supposed to be working now. Why you say complaining of the same problem for the past years? You know, it was really difficult for me to explain to the family, you know, like it’s still the same situation, no change, you know. So I, I don’t really talk to them again for many years because I I don’t know what to say. You know, they can’t help me over there. So what is the need of me telling them my situation? So I just took away take myself away from talking to them. So I forgot them for many years because it’s so painful, you know, telling them the same situation every day. I don’t know what to say, you know, so it was very painful. And I really miss them. I, I really lost contact with so many loved ones because I can’t meet up with many things. Yeah.

And do you feel belonging here?
Often, I don’t really feel belonging because so many restrictions, so many….The thing is no matter how I try to to work or to put in my effort, I still feel like, yes, I have a limited time here, so I’m working with that limited time. That is what kept me going. I just work with that when my time comes, I go back to where I came from. So no matter how how long I work here or how long I stay here, I’ve seen this system. I don’t really feel that I belong here. Yeah. So I’m trying to get the best out of myself and train myself more in the area of work or whatever new career experience then go back and, you know, continue my future dream or go. Yeah.

How does discrimination impact you?
Of course, it is a very tough questions. You know, it has been like that for a long time. Is so painful that, you know, people just see you and conclude this is who you are. You don’t know anything. You don’t have anything to offer. And it’s so painful to have people like that around you. You know, like people don’t know you from Adam. You know, they just they don’t just like you because you are a black man or because you are a foreigner or because you don’t, you don’t really, you know, come from here, you know, it’s so bad. It’s a very bad experience, you know? Yeah, was from the very first time we came, we tried to speak out where we came from. We tried to speak out our demands or what we want. And we were not giving the you know, the ear. We were not giving the opportunity. You know, it’s so painful. You know, if you are in that shoe. You know, most of the time I used to tell during my public speaking that they might not understand how we are feeling because they are not in our shoe. So no matter how hard we try to explain my situation to a German or maybe an European person, not until they go through what I passed through before they would understand what I’m really talking about. So it only take the good one, you know, the good one with good hearts, that we really understand our pain and struggle here. We so we are being discriminated every day, every day, every day here. I see it every time. I see so painful that even seeing it among the young ones. It’s so painful. When you see discrimination, if you see it among the old people, is a little bit like, OK, there are old people, you know, maybe because the way they are brought or because of your past stuff like that, as opposed to normal. But seeing it among young people, the young, the second or third or the fourth generation, it’s so painful. That is very, very bad. Yeah.

And how have you been able able to overcome, survive, this past years of discrimination, of not being able to work, of not being able to do nothing? Have you somehow developed that kind of strategy or ability to cope with it?
Yes, because of my kind of background, I know that everybody that passed through what I passed through have some kind of psychological problems. So I was able to meet some kind of kind of people for some support on how to deal with your past and deal with your emotions. Like some of my friends that we came together, some some of them, like I know to now that they are mentally not too fine. The thing is, when you stay in a particular situation for one year, two years, three years is a traumatically, you are psychologically deformed. We are struggling with it particularly. You are not allowed to work is a problem like you are just in a particular position, you know, is a very psychological problem. So I was able to deal with mine by speaking out, telling people you can make it, telling myself that I can make it involving myself in programs, in sports, in anything that keeps the mind going. I don’t let my past push me down. I don’t let the present situation push me down and just see that I am useful. I am working. I can do more to people. I can do more to myself so that is what really kept me, you know, going all these years, you know. Because I know some of my colleagues, even after they finally got the documents, they just got crazy. Everybody was surprised. I know two people just went crazy for no reason. Now he stays many years and now he got the permit to work but he’s crazy. He’s now useless. He’s useless to himself, to his family, to the system. To everything around him. You can imagine that. So what I’m saying is this, that I used to advise people that if you have some kind of experience with difficulty, like in like war that drove you out of your country or these speak it out meet an expert or specialist. Don’t think nothing is wrong with you. Something is wrong. You might be presently OK now, but in future it will come back. So I used to tell people that I speak mine out. So I look at the Internet, how to deal with it, so to move on. So that was why I involved myself in so many things and I speak it out, you know. So sometimes I would just say that and we asked myself, how long am I going to be like this? So if I’m having all this negative talk, these worrisome thoughts, I just do something that would make me to overcome it. So that would so this is just some of my strategy, how I’m able to overcome all these problems.

Do you think that you always have those skills or strategies?
Do you, do I think that I always have?

You always had it?
No I develop it. I don’t always have it because I’m a human. You know, they come. It’s like every other person you sometime you are happy, sometime you are sad. So I know when I’m sad what to do while I’m sad, I’m allowed to sad something I can use to make myself cry very well. So then everything would be out. You know, sometimes when I’m happy, I’m very happy. I would try to be happy, which will last so many days, you know, for nothing. I would just be happy, you know, like that, you know. So I develop them. I don’t just have them. Sometimes I’m very sad, especially when I want to do something, but because I don’t have the permits, you know, so I just look for a way, you know, to be happy. Yeah.

Now that you are somehow over this difficult part….

Could you have imagined that you would be able to survive it?
Now that I have I know that kind of life now- yes. Because I was like because the truth is, I know no matter the problem, I used to have this kind of thing in me that no problem without a solution. There must be a way. No matter sees I’m alive and breathing, there must be a way that I will succeed. So I used to look at that way. Even though it is tiny, I try to concentrate myself on it. So I believe and and it happened. You know, I don’t know how to put it if I’m sad. I will just think about it then my lawyer call me to say they have given me my permits. Automatically I’m happy, you know, so that is what makes me happy now. Any time I’m having a problem now, I just think this call from my lawyer, because that day I can’t express or I can’t tell you how happy I am. I will shouting and I lost my voice. I can’t even call. I can’t even call any friends. I don’t mentioned their names. So I was like, so any time I remember that particular day, that’s bring me new strength, you know, joy and happiness. But before then, I used to try to develop a way with quotes from people who are much more problem than I have, and yet they survive, you know. So I look at their stories, I look at  their strengths, and I try to develop mine from there also. Yeah.

Before going to questions about before arriving to Europe, how has COVID-19 corona affected your life and your mental situation?
Corona is a very big topic. You know, on the way this is the way things are going now is very bad from my own point of view. You know, I don’t know if the method that they are using now is going to solve the problem because I have the opportunity now to work even in the in the in the mix of the problem. What I used to think about the people who lost everything or lost relationship, marriage, work, you know, in this because of this lockdown. And yet we still have the problem. And yet the vaccine has been produced in this country and yet people are not getting it like normal the way they’re supposed to get it. So it has really destroyed so many things, you know. My my way of, like, way of life. You know, you can’t you can’t do so many things. Friends have now turned to strangers. Your friends are no longer your friends again, because you can’t just go to them easily. You can’t meet them again. You can’t do what you used to do, life as not being you know, you are looking for something that you can just get with just five minutes walk. Now, you can’t get it for weeks, days. You know, it has really affected me personally, you know. So I know much about people with big companies. Their condition, their situation is much worse than than than my own. You know, people that lost so many restaurants closed down, businesses closed down. You know, I used to think about those people, too, you know, and also some people like many refugees to that they are struggling with maybe a little job now, they lost everything and they are not getting any support now. So I used to think about those people too, you know, kind of, what are the way forward, you know, for these people, for this system- how best the government can make life easy for people in this, you know, pandemic. You know, so I used to think about it all the time that, you know, if other people can overcome, you can overcome it with a particular method, why can’t the government look at these countries and try to implement the method in this place and let people continue their life? You know, then I was asking some questions recently about for me, for my work. I said the government does not have the power to say is an obligation for everybody to take vaccine, but they do have the power to put everybody on lockdown, to put to close all businesses. Does that really make sense? You know, now people are dying. Then and I told my friend, I said the people that will died after the pandemic would be still much more than the people who died now. My reason I will say that is I know many people are dead already psychologically. Imagine people that have like three or four businesses and they are closed. All these businesses were being like established like many years ago. Now they are zero. They are already dead. What they are do they are just living. You can imagine when they would be able to meet up again. Some people can struggle for the remaining part of their life and they are not able to get to where they have before. So they already dead. So we have many people like that, you can see. So I think the government should look into this and try to, you know, create something more better for the lives of people in the future. Yep.

And now a last couple of questions before arriving to Europe.

Why did you leave your country?
I left my country because right from the time in school, I used to be among the student union government. And we were having some big problem in my school because I went to the I did Ausbildung (Education programme) in the et care. So we’re demonstrating, really demonstrating. You know, it was really brutal. And I have a clashed with the system. So that was why I left out because of my safety. I have to go. So that was why I left. Yeah.

And how did that make you feel at the time?
At the time where when I left, I was thinking maybe I would be safe? Where I am going then from there  I can, you know, develop myself easily. But my plan wasn’t the way I was thinking. I didn’t get it. So it was really tough.

Yeah. And how was your journey to Europe?
My journey to Europe. I came through the desert. You know, through Libya, Mediterranean Sea, stuff like that. It was tough. It’s a very long story. Yeah.

And is there an experience that was particularly difficult to you?
During my journey? Oh a very bad experience. If if I have known this, what have we experienced, I would just like even to stay home to die. You know, it’s more better. But finally, I was able to pass through all those desert experience, Mediterranean sea experience and, you know, finally got to Europe. So it was very tough for me because I lost some of my friends. I saw people dying, something I still ask myself. You know, these are some of the things that kept me going since I did not die there. I think that we have we I think that how we die because some of my friends that we met that we are together, we sleep together, eat together. They died and I survived. I believe that we make it. Yeah, I believe that my time have not come to die, so I’m going to make it. So these are some of the things that kept me going. So it was very tough, cause why some die in the desert, why some die in the Mediterranean Sea, you know. And why some die in Germany. Why some die in Europe. But I’m still alive. I’m going to see tell people my story to see give people hope and motivate people to go on no matter their condition. Yeah.

Do you think about these events often or do you think at all?
Of course, especially when every year at that particular time. I try to do some kind of remembrance. As in trying to be grateful for life and try, you know, to pray for those people who died, you know. I could imagine what their family’s passing through. It was really tough, really, really tough.

And what do you feel when you think about that?
I feel bad of course. I feel bad because those guys, you know, nobody know when they would die, and some not, but those guys, they know they would die, if they know, I think they would prefer to stay home or maybe not to embark on the journey. So any time I think about it, I’m not happy. I feel really bad because I know some too, you know, we talk to their family at home. We know we were, like, hoping everything would be fine. You know, and if it happens, you know, so is a very bad experience, I don’t. Sometimes I allow myself to think about this, sometimes not because it’s not good. Yeah.

Does the situation you faced affect you today?
Of course, the situation affects really affected me, everything about me. Sometimes I used to be say fine that I experienced this. It makes me different from every other migrant. I know everybody have a specialty. Everybody is unique in their way. But mine exposed me to so many things. I was able to meet a good people and even bad people. I was able to know some parliamentarian. I was able to go attend some kind of big um concert program in different places because of my problems, because of my background, because of I’m a foreigner. And I learned so many things about the system. I come to know so many things about the system. I come to know how the system is working. So like some people, that’s came with the same problem of running from wars or from being persecuted in their country that were welcomed and were given straights document to work and stay. They did not have my experience. They don’t, if they have a little problem, they don’t know where to go. They start calling for Beratung (consultation) for advice, like I for one, I know where to go. No matter the problem I have, I know where to go and know who to call. And, you know, I know so many places, like, for example, I came I was homeless. I know of the Obdachlose (people experiencing homelessness) houses in Hamburg because I knew if I go there, I can get a free food, free clothes, free socks, free shoes. So that is, for example, Now, when I said they wanted things about my documents stuff I happened to know with so many lawyer activists, you go here, you go here, you go here, you go here. So sometimes I’m grateful for the problem because the problem really shaped me to who I am today. So give me strength. You know, sometimes people try to make me insecure. And when I remember my problems, I tell the person that you can’t make me be-,  you can’t belittle me. I know who I am and know what I feel, what I’ve seen, and no matter what this is, this too shall pass. Nothing comes to stay permanent. If a country can’t change their name, change their system, change their their way; my problems is going to change you know one day. so these are just some of the things that really shaped me and make me to push forward to achieve that goal because I believe that I’m in the right place because this place is full of…….opportunity for everybody who knows what he’s doing to build himself. So if it’s going to take me years to get that goal, if that is only what I get to become, what I want to become, to be trained as a real specialism, I go I go back, I think. It will give me happiness because I’m still working towards it. It will give me joy no matter now they say, OK, you can’t work in this in this particular job because they don’t recognize your kind of certificate you have to undergo yet. No problem. I will take my time to do it because that is my goal. You know, when I came and I’m going to get it and go back. So the problem really shaped me.

Could you have ever imagined that he would have been able to handle the situation- your journey?
Ah, it was it would have been, of course. I don’t think so, really, what’s. By the by the by the….. Sometimes, sometimes I think that it will go I can make it. Sometimes I praise myself for not giving up, for not giving up, for being strong. And for being trying to be happy among sadness for try to look for a way. So with this, I believe that if it didn’t work here, maybe some other places, it would work. Yeah, so that is how it continues. So that is was that is some of my, you know, thinking that. The opportunities, they say come for transport is to come again, if you are really looking for it, you will see it only when you are not ready it will pass. So I was ready. You know, I was looking for a way, you know, to grab it. And when the time comes, I just hold it tight.

And before your journey did you have dreams?
Before my journey, I have dreams, of course everybody have dreams. My dreams was to be into this medical line, to be one of like a specialist, you know, stuff like that and you know to help people who are vulnerable. You know, too many things, but I am still believing that till now. Yes,I’m still believing it till now. Even though I know, it’s going to take me three years to get there, yeah I still believe in it. Yeah, of course. I have dreams. Yeah.

And through your journey, um, did you develop that strategy of yours that you were holding on like this light and, um, hopes that kept you strong, that you had it always or developed it for your journey?
Yes, I developed it through my journey because of what I’m seeing. You know, what I saw during the journey. You know, people died. People feel sick. There was no there was no help. They just died, you know, and you are alive. And, you know, you try to stay alive. You know, and getting here, you still see people still dying because of their condition. They can’t get a really good help, you know. I try to develop it every time, you know. I work on it like like, like you are doing fitness gym, you do it all the time to keep fit body. Then you relax, all your muscles, start relaxing. OK, so. Yeah, so that is what I do mentally. Yeah.

OK, Iast, like for wrap up questions can be a little bit repetitive, but it’s more like to have an overview….. before leaving your home country. What would you describe as your strengths?
My strength was just like the dreams, you know, I’m going to get there. I will be safe, then I’m going to develop myself, build myself more, and then go back. You know, I don’t really know what I would face, but that was just my strength. And my strength also came from seeing people, you know, with this same problem or even much bigger problem who advice me, who told me what to do and not to give up. And, you know, also from self development. Yeah, that was how I got my strenght also.

Have you maintained them?
Do I have what?

Do you still have them?
Of course I still have them because I am still struggling every day. I’m still trying to get my dream. I haven’t get them, you know.

Um, uh, through this difficult times, do you feel like you have grown in any way as a result of this experience?
Of course, I have grown so many ways. My ma-, the way I see life now, the way I think about life is very different. You know, I’ve really I’ve really learned so many things here, you know, so many things. In fact, let me say I am fortunate to meet some good people. You know, I don’t want to mention names, you know, that really changed the way I see things. Like the way I do things. So I have grown in this area. Like everybody need help, no matter how big you are. One day you must need help from the little people around you. So I have really changed, you know, in that area. And I have really changed that no matter how the situation is in this life, nothing is permanent, you know. So in that area, I was so psychologically have changed, mentally have changed and educational wise, I’ve also changed, you know. Yeah.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Now, my hopes and dreams for the future is for me to achieve my goals since I have the time now to work. So I work towards my goal and, you know, try to build myself the way I want- the way I see myself on that. Now, I have short term plan. I have long term plans. So what I do now, I work towards my short term plans. What did what did what do I need to achieve my short term plans? I do it. And what I need to achieve my 10 years plan. I do it once in a while, you know. So that is what I do now. Yeah.

And is there anything you would like to share and, um, to help people in Europe understand that the lives of people with immigration background?
I think is a very important question. What I would love to put is this, that in my input is this- I think it shouldn’t base on you telling your story where you came from before, you will be allowed to stay. It shouldn’t based on you living in a camp for so many years before you will be allowed to work and stay. It shouldn’t be based on your being threatened with deportation for many times going through the process of asylum before you will be allowed to stay. It should be based on humanity that we all are humans before you will be allowed to stay and work. And I think that system, that mentality need to change you know, from people here, because in the process of people trying to work their way to get permits here; many died. Many lost their goals and dreams and life. Many are not the same again at the end of the whole process. So it doesn’t really worthed sometimes, you know. So at least we should see that thing that we have in common that we are having this humanity gene in common. What makes us different is opportunity and chances, you know. So I think people should always have that in the back of their head. It shouldn’t base on you have to go through this, go through that. Go, go, and go, and go, and go. ..; before you can stay here. It doesn’t make sense; it’s really killing people, destroying families and destroying the future also.

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.