Most of the refugees arriving in Albania want to go on to Western Europe. But the Matwa brothers from Syria feel at home in the small Balkan country. Lindita Arapi visited them in Tirana.
Mohamed Matwa would never have thought that one day he would be living in Albania. The 29-year-old Syrian, who grew up near Damascus, dreamed of becoming a psychologist — in his home country. But when the war broke out, he had to quit university. Later, he fled to Lebanon. He would have wandered on aimlessly as a refugee if it hadn’t been for his older brother, Husam Matwa, who had set himself up as a businessman in Albania years before. In the meantime, Husam had been issued an Albanian passport. He applied for family reunification, bringing his parents and two brothers to Tirana.
These days, Mohamed works in his older brother’s newly opened restaurant. "My life has changed in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before — but I'm satisfied with the situation," says Mohamed, who has been living in Albania for about two years now. For a while, he had been thinking about moving on to Germany, where another brother lives. "But when I heard about the difficulties the refugees have there, I came to the conclusion that it was better to stay here," he says.
‘Even the weather is similar to Syria’
His only difficulty in Albania has been with the language — he has had no problem with the people. "The Albanians are friendly and helpful, like in Syria. Even the weather is similar to Syria."
Mohamed cannot say whether he will stay in Albania permanently. But one thing is certain: He doesn't want to travel further north. "I'll stay here for now, but when the war in Syria ends, I want to go back. But I already know that I will always have two homelands, Syria and Albania."
The other brother, Ali Matwa, also works in the family restaurant in Tirana. He's the janitor. Two years ago, the 33-year-old was a refugee living in Istanbul — an experience he says he does not want to repeat. He would like to say to the Syrian refugees in Germany that there are also other "good countries." "You can also live well in Albania," he says.
Looking for a wife
The three Matwa brothers seem content in Albania. So, is anything missing?
"We now need a good Albanian bride for little Mohamed," says the oldest brother, Husam Matwa, smiling mischievously.
The religious tolerance in Albania, which is predominantly Muslim, is also one of the reasons for the brothers' contentment living there. "Here Muslims and Christians live well together like they used to where we come from. Now things have changed, but here you're not looked at strangely because you are a Muslim or a Christian."
Nevertheless, the Matwa brothers’ views are not commonly shared. Albania is not a chosen destination for many refugees. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with many Albanians leaving their homeland for a better future in Western Europe. Although hundreds of refugees arrived in the Albanian border region to Greece this year, only 164 have applied for asylum in Albania. It is unlikely that this low number will be a major challenge, even for this small Balkan country.
‘Albania has brought us hope’
Alma Mele, director of the Albanian Interior Ministry’s Asylum Directorate, proudly tells us that Albania warmly welcomes all those seeking protection. Amendments to the Asylum Act have made it possible to better accommodate refugees.
"They come from different cultures and practice different religions. We respect their cultural differences, their customs and we try to take these things into account right from the moment they are admitted, as well as during the waiting period."
Alma Mele tells us that some of the refugees have puts posts on social media about their positive experiences in Albania. However, it is unclear whether this includes people who were registered as asylum seekers in the country but then moved on.
According to UNHCR director for Albania, Pablo Zapata, all the Balkan countries are considered transit countries. "The refugees continue their journey to northern Europe, where they rely on family networks for help." They usually come to Albania and Greece to connect with people smugglers to help them travel further north. “The smugglers make millions out of this,” Zapata says. Recently, a large northern Greek smuggler gang was busted. The Albanian police also reported that several such groups have been arrested in recent months in the south of the country.
Mohamed and Ali Matwa were lucky. They didn't need the help of people smugglers. Their elder brother Husam Matwa knows that their case is not typical because many refugees pay large sums of money to get to wealthy northern Europe.
"But in this country, Albania, we’ve found hope," he says. "Albania might be poor, and not as rich as Germany, but it is rich in humanity."
Author: Lindita Arapi
Translation: Chloe Lyneham
First published: November 19, 2017