Saed, which is not his real name, is only 25 but in some ways he looks much older. He left Syria in 2015 because he could no longer live under Assad’s regime and wanted to find a place where he could be free and state his own opinions without fear. When he arrived in Dresden he ended up homeless for a few nights, but today he shares a house with Germans and has just begun studying once again at university. In addition he leads tours of the city for school pupils with the organization Querstadtein.
Saed’s big eyes are full of emotion as he speaks to a group of Czech school children from the town of Litomerice. He flits between innocent enthusiasm and deep sadness throughout his tour. Landmarks in Dresden are used to recall his experiences in his homeland Syria and what led him to make the journey to Germany.
“I was just 17 when the revolution began in 2011,” Saed tells the group. “It should have been a great time in my life, but instead, I saw only war and people dead on the streets in front of me. All I wished for was freedom.” Saed conjures up the continual fear that he felt during that time, when normal gestures, like looking at your phone on the street could bring about punishments, arrests, even shootings by the police and army manning road blocks all over the country.
‘The police were the enemy’
The group is standing outside the police headquarters in Dresden, an imposing building in Dresden’s Altstadt or old town.
“What do you think when you see a policeman or woman?” Saed asks the group. Hands shoot up as they offer their experiences, some negative, mostly positive. “In Syria, the police were the enemy. They were the worst. They always supported the regime.” Saed explains to the group that since 1970 a father and then son, the Al Assads have ruled Syria. “If you tried to state your opinion and demonstrate on the street you would be arrested. Sometimes you might face torture in jail. Some people were killed in jail.”
Saed recalls the beginning of the revolution when he and his schoolmates were still hopeful. “We were calling for freedom,” he says simply, smiling at the memory. “We danced in the street.” The pupils from the private “Lingua Universal” primary school look confused. “Why did you dance?” they ask. “We were having fun and we felt free for a brief moment,” answers Saed. Then his tone changes. “Unfortunately the police came down hard on us. They would come through the demonstrations and just shoot people. They didn’t protect us, they just shot us with Kalashnikovs or pistols.” Some of his schoolmates were arrested, says Saed. “Two of them died in prison after being tortured.” The Czech schoolchildren go quiet and listen more intently.Looking to expand
Ivana Pezlarova is helping with the translations for this tour. She is also the project manager for Querstadtein, the community organization in Dresden. It was she that worked hard to bring the idea from Berlin to Dresden “because it was really needed in this city,” she explains. The idea behind Querstadtein is to provide a meeting point for mainstream society with people on its margins, be they homeless people or migrants. In Dresden, says Pezlarova, they developed eight tours although at the moment they offer four different tourguides. Each tour aims to give participants information about a tour guide’s home country, the reason for their flight and what happened to them on their journey towards Germany. “We try and get people thinking about the themes of migration and asylum,” explains Pezlarova.
She says that the feedback they receive is usually positive. The tours give plenty of space to ask questions and really understand what effect these big themes might have on an individual. The organization aims at groups of school children and young people between 14 and 27. They get a lot of NGOs and schools booking and they are hoping to expand their clientele into local companies and wider society in the future.
The Czech school children listening today seem to have absorbed Saed’s information very well. Vojta and Ondrej say after the tour that they have very positive feelings about refugees. They think carefully about the reasons that might make them flee their country. “War, poverty and lack of food,” they offer. They think that German politicians might be doing more for refugees than politicians in their own country and they agree that there are not so many people from Syria available to talk to in the Czech Republic.
‘I couldn’t see an end to the war’
Saed has been careful to remove the goriest details from his tour, so as not to upset the children unduly. It is important though for the tour that he describes some of the things he witnessed so that the people listening can understand what the situation for him and many others in Syria was like. Without dwelling on upsetting details, Saed sadly recalls the time when a helicopter shot people taking part in a demonstration and at least 50 people were killed in front of him.
Slowly, whilst absorbing that information, the group moves on, past gold-domed museums towards the river. Here, the beauty of the Elbe, which also flows through Litomerice, the group tells him, is used to conjure up Saed’s journey across the Mediterranean towards Greece. “I couldn’t see an end to the war,” Saed says sadly, “so I decided to leave and find a country where I could be free and take part in the democracy that I was looking for.” When he left Syria, Saed explains he had never traveled before, so he really didn’t know what to expect. He had enough money to fly to Turkey and in Izmir he found a smuggler who promised him a “safe and easy” passage to Greece and the EU. This turned out to be the first of many lies. Saed explains that when he saw how many people they wanted to cram onto a small boat he wished that he hadn’t been born. “The smugglers were from the mafia, they had guns and I was scared if I said ‘no’ then I would be shot or killed. I also feared they might try and kill me anyway to sell my organs,” confesses Saed.
‘It was dark and cold and dangerous’
He got on the boat, the men around the edge and women, children and everyone’s rucksacks in the middle. “The man who was piloting the boat didn’t have a clue,” recalls Saed. “It was dark, cold and dangerous. There were big waves which washed over the boat and we were soon full of water. At this point, women, children and some men started crying. We were all bailing the water but then another wave would crash over and the boat would fill up again.” Saed recounts how the parents had given their children sleeping draughts because they couldn’t bear to hear their children crying or dying before their eyes. Saed too feared the worst. At a certain point they decided to throw their rucksacks overboard, to prevent the boat from sinking. “All my memories, my food, they were all thrown overboard. I thought, this is it, this is the end.”
Luckily for Saed, his boat made it to a military island just as the sun rose and that part of the nightmare was over. “These military personnel called the UN and they promised us they would take us to another country and help us.” Via trains, buses and coaches, Saed says he reached Austria and from there he was told he could go on to Germany.
Once in Germany, things were tough for Saed, he was moved through a few towns and places before he headed for Dresden because his father had already managed to make it there. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to sleep for Saed when he arrived in Dresden and so he spent a few nights sleeping rough in train stations and on benches. Saed’s father was battling for family reunification which took three long years. At the beginning of 2019 Saed’s mother and younger brothers also arrived. By this time though, Saed had found his feet and wanted to live in a shared house with Germans in order to improve his language skills.
As we walk to the next stop on the tour, he explains how he studied German up to C1 level in order to apply for a university course. He just started at the beginning of October and pulls out his course book full of mathematical problems to demonstrate.
Although Saed is now happy in his life, his face clouds over when he talks about people turning away from him on buses or in the city when they find out he is Syrian. “People have said to my face at work ‘you are all mafia, or criminals or rapists.’ That really hurts. I feel so upset as it is not my fault that a few of us have committed these kinds of crimes. It is really hard to feel that people think that about me and to see reports in the media that appear to support these views.”
A place of freedom
Nevertheless, Saed has mixed feelings when he sees the PEGIDA demonstrations wind their way through Dresden. Although he might not like what they stand for, he thinks that it is good that they have the right to state their opinion and demonstrate too. “I was happy and sad at the same time,” he confesses “when I saw that the German police were protecting their demonstration. It was good that they weren’t shooting at them as happened in Syria. I feel happy that is happening here and that people can be free but I feel sad that I wasn’t afforded the same freedoms to state what I think in Syria.”
Saed is still sometimes afraid that at some point in the future the German government might decide that Syria is a safe place to which to return and send him back. After years of hard work he feels that he is finally at a point where things are starting to take off for him in Germany.
“I saw Germany as a symbol of hope,” Saed says. “It was really difficult to start again from zero. I lost everything and when I got here I didn’t always get the support that I thought I might get. But I think it has made me stronger that I had to do everything alone. I was just looking for freedom. I didn’t mind really which country I ended up in, as long as I could live in freedom and peace.”
This city tour took place within a Czech-German youth exchange program and was organized as part of an initiative from the German non-governmental organization DJO (German youth in Europe) which champions issues of integration amongst others.