Danial Alfahel is a 28-year-old Syrian refugee who fled Damascus in 2015. After a long journey, he wound up in Germany, although he was originally aiming to get to the Netherlands. Four years later he is making a new life for himself in Dresden, plays music in a band, works and takes people on tours of Dresden to talk about the city he has grown to love and the reasons that brought him here.
“Welcome to Dresden,” says Danial Alfahel smiling at the beginning of his tour. He is standing up on a balcony above the path winding its way along the river Elbe. His pony-tail neatly pulled back, glasses on, and microphone at his mouth, Danial quietly but firmly commands the attention of a group of students from Chemnitz who have come to join his tour through the organization Querstadtein.
Querstadtein is a community organization which specializes in offering tours of Berlin and Dresden to provide people with an alternative view of those cities. The tour guides are refugees, asylum seekers and homeless people who bring their personal views of the cities in which they live to the people attending. Danial is one of the tour guides in Dresden.
“I have lived through a lot in the past few years and I want to share with you a bit about that journey. How did I get here? Why did I come here? What am I doing here? And most importantly, please feel free to ask me any questions because I can’t recount every single detail on this tour, there is just too much,” says Danial.Avoiding war
The tour starts with a game. On a map of Syria, people are asked to point to various Syrian cities. Two boys in the group with Arab origins know a bit more, but most of the students are not sure where any of the major Syrian towns from Damascus to Aleppo to Homs actually are. After a few minutes, Danial takes back the maps and explains bits about his memories of these towns, what they used to look like before the war and what some of them look like now. Sadness is present in his voice as he recalls happier days before the war, spending time with his family in the mountains, walking and playing instruments in Church bands.
“These are sad stories unfortunately, but that is what happens when there is war,” says Danial, hanging his head slightly. Later he admits that he knew that he would do anything to avoid going to war.
When the war in Syria had already broken out, Danial was partially protected by his studies at the University in Damascus, working towards a degree in interior design. One year away from finishing, with most of his marks already in the bag and lots of successful projects, his university was bombed out. Danial lost everything, all the work he had put into his degree and any certificates and credits he had already acquired. Most importantly, he lost the protection of being a student and was facing conscription for the army.“I would do anything to avoid the war. Not because I was afraid of dying, well not just,” he corrects himself. “Mostly I knew that if I was forced to kill anyone, I couldn’t live with the mental stress of that. I didn’t want to have to shoot anyone at all. That would be worse than death for me.” And so he was forced to flee.
The group is standing under a statue of an archer, shooting his arrow over towards the Altstadt. “Do you know why we are standing under this archer?” Danial asks the group after introducing himself and his country. “This statue represents the state of things here in Dresden in the Middle Ages. Back then, whenever Dresden was in danger, anyone who could was expected to bear arms and fight to defend the city,” explains Danial. “In a way that is my story too. Anyone who wasn’t studying was forced to go to the army and fight in the war. I didn’t want that, it was not an option for me. I thought about what I could do instead. One of the things that I thought about was injuring my own body. Perhaps injuring my eye, or an arm or my leg or cutting off my shooting finger. That was one way of getting out of the war.”
Danial realized that he didn’t want to do that, so in the end, he was faced with leaving his own country. He asks the students to imagine what it must be like to leave their own country and what kinds of reasons would make them want to flee. First of all, he found a legal way. His cousin had set up a firm in Lebanon and he crossed the border there with a visa to work for six months. “Unfortunately, after six months the authorities said that I would have to work for a Lebanese company or leave the country. I couldn’t go back and so I was forced to think again.”
Through another family contact, Danial found a company to offer him a contract in the Netherlands, but his visa application was rejected. Danial decided to travel to Europe nonetheless. The contract was still on offer, but he was lacking the required papers. His hope was to enter the Netherlands without the papers and get the papers after arrival.
Before leaving the river Elebe with the group, Danial points out some of the sights across the river in the Dresden Altstadt (Old Town). “There is the Synagogue and there is the Town Hall. Over there is the Frauenkirche and in front of that is the University of Arts and Culture.” However, Danial explains that he prefers staying on this side of the river, because he feels more at home here due to the multi-cultural atmosphere in the new part of town, the Neustadt.
The group moves to stand beneath the branches of a large tree. The wind flutters through the leaves and Danial asks the group to “shut your eyes and imagine how you might feel alone in a forest” with no GPS, for fear of sending a signal of where they might be to the authorities, trying to find your way over the next border and a little further away from war. “I have never been so scared in all my life,” admits Danial. “I didn’t know what kind of animals might be out there, or what awaited us. […]They said it would take about four hours to cross the border but in the end, it took us over six.”
His backpack sits on his back now, just as it did in the forest. “Can you imagine what you might take if you were forced to suddenly flee?” Danial asks the group. Some of the students offer things they might take with them. “I took my passport, some food and printouts of the route that I hoped to follow," Danial said. He had researched, with the help of the internet and talking to people along the way, the best roads to follow to avoid the authorities and bandits who often prey on vulnerable migrants trying to reach the next border crossing.Finally Danial made it to Turkey and to Izmir. There he contacted a smuggler who promised him an ‘easy’ ride across the Mediterranean to Greece in a small boat with a few other passengers. It turned out to be another horrendous journey, shudders Danial, reliving the screaming and the crying of the women and children and some men on the boat around him. “There was so much screaming and arguments. I felt awful. I asked myself what happens when this boat sinks? This is so dangerous. I wasn’t scared for myself, I can swim well but I wondered what would happen to the children and the pregnant women in the boat if something were to happen.”
Luckily he made it through to Greece and gradually up the Balkan route until he was caught on the border to Germany. Danial shows the group a map of the route he followed. “The worst time of my journey was in Athens. Not because it was dangerous but because I couldn’t do anything. I kept asking myself, what are you doing here? I even started wondering whether I should go back to Syria and fight in the war. My family was there, my girlfriend was there. But after a while, they encouraged me to start researching how I could go further.” Danial kept a diary with his route and the research for the journey ahead. He shows the group all the notes he had made about where best to find help along the way and friendly people.
Finding a purpose
Failing to reach his goal of the Netherlands, Danial was “forced” to seek asylum in Germany after being caught on the border between Austria and Germany. “On the bridge between Salzburg and Germany the police caught me. The Arabic translator told me I had to seek asylum in Germany. I didn’t want to because I had a contract waiting for me in the Netherlands. I didn’t even need to learn a new language because I could already speak English.” He explains that he felt everything, his volition, was taken away from him from the moment war broke out in his country. Danial wants the students to understand that this is not the kind of thing that he would have chosen if he had not been “forced” into this situation.
Danial’s story demonstrates the importance of finding a purpose. Initially, he was sent to Munich and then after a couple of months to Saxony. “I didn’t have a clue where I was being sent. When I arrived, Dresden wasn’t at all prepared for refugees. Then we suddenly arrived 1004 of us. We were sent to a tent camp. It was awful, even if it was the middle of summer. It rained and we’d all get wet. There were 140 people in my camp. It was stressful. There was only one kitchen and you might have to wait two hours before you were able to cook as the children and the women and the older people all went before us men.”
Danial could not travel onward to the Netherlands like he had planned because he had to wait to get his passport and other documents back. This didn’t just take the promised three months but over a year and a half. Danial communicates his frustration at not being allowed to work, not being allowed to do anything, essentially being kept in limbo. He set his energy to learning German, volunteering and gradually finding people who shared his interests, cinema, music. When he finally obtained asylum, he realized he was in Germany to stay.
Things started to look up when he was able to start working and gradually building a future in the city. Danial shows the students the language school where he started his first German course. “That was so important, having something to do, learning something new."
Next up is the Dresdener State Theater. Here, every Monday the theater runs a “Montagscafe” where people from all over the world, can meet, exchange and talk. For Danial these kinds of cultural meetings were a lifeline. His musical talents range far and wide. He beatboxes for the group outside the theater but he is also a classically trained musician who plays the trumpet and reads music. He was for several years part of the Banda Internationale (International Band) and now plays in an offshoot of the same project, Kangaroo Band alongside other refugees, migrants and Germans. He also took part in a cinema project and volunteered in a kindergarten.
Ivana Pezlarova, the project co-ordinator for Querstadtein in Dresden smiles appreciatively. “Danial is always busy and engaged,” she says.
Danial has a job already and is hoping next year to start university studies again, at the University of applied sciences in Dresden which offers social work courses. He explains that, as a refugee, he was able to try out lots of different courses at different institutions around Dresden. He tried technical subjects, courses in the music institute, Deutsche Pop Dresden and in the art school, doing graphic design. When asked if he is sad that he has to start again, he shrugs and says “that’s life!” He believes everything happens for a reason and that “there is a reason I wound up here.”
‘Not just a PEGIDA city’
At his last stop, outside the Martin Luther church in Dresden, Danial reveals that although he was brought up Catholic, for many in Dresden he will remain ‘a Muslim’ and potentially a danger. Despite this though, Danial has learned that Dresden is much more than a PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) city. “It is not ‘just’ a Nazi-city, he declares. “Dresden is not just PEGIDA it is much much more than that. It is multicultural and full of different people.”
It is this multicultural side which has provided Danial with a place to start feeling comfortable. He smiles again when asked to imagine the future. “I might go to the United States, I might go to the UK, I might stay here…I could go back to Syria, who knows.” Time appears to have taught him that you can’t count on the things you thought and remaining flexible and open is the best way to be.
After the tour, Danial drinks a chocolatey-coffee in a café in the Neustadt and slightly slumps in his chair. “After I do these tours, I often go home and cry,” he says sadly. “Being forced to re-live all those ‘black’ images that I have tried to leave behind is very sad. So what I am trying to do on that tour is to present some happier images too. To show, that we, as foreigners, are trying hard to integrate here. We are trying to show that all we want to do is find a peaceful place to live. We do not want to Islamize this country, we are not all Muslim anyway,” he adds in an aside. He finishes with an ode to his adopted home. “I always say, and I will always say that there are lots of good people in this city, especially in the Neustadt!”