While most asylum seekers in Europe are hoping to get to Germany or Scandinavian countries, some refugees see a future in Romania. Lavinia Pitu reports from Bucharest.
"I love it here, this is my country now," says Fatima, carefully tailoring a piece of fabric for a new project she’s been assigned by her boss. The 47-year-old Syrian has been living in Bucharest, Romania, for the past four years. She was given refugee status and currently works at Trade Media, a company for print and marketing displays. She now speaks Romanian almost fluently and is not interested in moving to Germany, where a few of her relatives are searching for the European dream. "I do not earn much money and my son is working on the black market. But I have found peace here and the people are nice to me," she affirms proudly, though nostalgia for his lost life in Syria is evident in her face.
Fatima is among the few refugees who have opted to remain in the south-eastern European country. Most of the approximately 1,500 asylum seekers who enter Romania annually are heading west to Germany, Austria or Scandinavia. Or at least they hope to do so.
Dreaming of Deutschland
"Who wouldn’t want to go to Germany?" asks Mazen Rifai, a Syrian journalist who has lived in Romania for 20 years. We meet Rifai in a park of his choice in East Bucharest. "You can see for yourself how beautiful the nature is around here," he says looking at a lake mirroring the autumn trees, "but I myself would also like to live in Germany. The economy is different there. The state respects people; there’s a different medical system. But I also know Syrians who lived in Germany for a while and then returned to Romania because they didn’t like it. They felt like robots who only lived for work," he adds.
Nevertheless, Rifai says that Romania is not used to receiving migrants and that the 4,180 refugee quota per year represents a challenge for the EU member state. But the Syrian community in Romania, which is currently about 20,000 people, most of whom studied in the country during the communist regime - is helping newcomers to adjust to a different culture. The majority of the asylum seekers in Romania already have friends or relatives there, which makes it easier for them to find accommodation, jobs and learn the language.
Razvan Samoila, head of the NGO ARCA, an organization committed to helping refugees with the integration process, confirms that there are mostly two categories of migrants who enter Romania. There are those who have family or friends there and thus decide to stay, and those whose aim is to travel to Western Europe.
"If their initial target is to go to Germany, we can’t stop them. We’ve tried to offer them incentives to stay, but it was impossible," Samoila says. ARCA mainly has contacts with the first category: People who choose a future in Romania. The NGO helps refugees with legal work, finding jobs, and the recognition of academic diplomas. It also offers language courses. But the most important aspect, in Samoila’s opinion, is teaching the migrants how to understand Romanian customs. "It’s very important to get to know European values in order to be able to integrate."
Best Arab pastries in the country
Rifai is taking us to "Riviera," an Arabic restaurant owned by Azzam Kassas, a prominent figure in the Syrian community in Romania. As soon as you open the door, you are transported to the Middle East. Dozens of shisha pipes are carefully arranged on shelves, aromatic charcoal fires have been lit for customers, and the scent of tea and coffee fills the room. The only element out of place is the song "Despacito" playing on the radio, although nobody appears to be bothered by the Western music.
"I live here with my whole family and own this restaurant, a shop, a kebab place, several businesses," says Kassas, welcoming us with a cup of cardamom tea. "I’ve employed eight refugees. It’s really easy, there isn’t much bureaucracy. Once they’ve been given refugee status, they get a work permit and have almost all the rights that Romanian nationals have. As an employer, I only have to give notice to the Immigration Office within 15 days."
Kassas insists we visit his other restaurant and shop. It’s only 500 meters down the road and we must taste "fatayer jebneh," Arabic pastry - "the best in the whole country." The pies are baked by Mustafa, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, whom Kassas has employed. "I don’t care where they come from, as long as do a good job. And if they do, then I pay a good salary," the businessman says.
We meet Mustafa in the restaurant kitchen in front of a huge fire oven, where he’s about to bake a few trays of pies filled with cheese, spinach and olives. Some customers have ordered pies to take away. So he’s in a hurry to finish them, but he promises that the next batch will be for us. He seems pleased with his salary and, like Fatima, with life in Romania altogether. "I lived in Sweden for a few months but I couldn’t get used to it, so I came back. I don’t think I could live in any other place now. In Romania, if you have a profession, you can make yourself a good life," Mustafa tells us in almost perfect Romanian.
'The war in Syria will never end'
Back at Trade Media, Felix Adrian Lazar, Fatima’s boss, shares the same opinion. He was looking for a tailor to help produce commercial banners. "I didn’t think that hiring Fatima was something out of the ordinary. We hire people according to the employees’ skills and she is doing a good job."
Lazar couldn’t find a Romanian to fill the position, so he called the refugee centre in Bucharest. "I was told that the work contract would be identical to that of a Romanian citizen, so everything went smoothly. She fitted the job description and we hired her."
Fatima hears part of the conversation and smiles proudly. She has just finished one of the banners and shows it to the manager and other employees. Everybody applauds. "I’m happy here," she says. "My boss even took me to the doctor when I needed new glasses."
She’s trying to choke back her tears. "The war in Syria will never end. I have nothing left there. This is my new country."