18 March 2014
Today I did what I came here for. Once again I set off to make my way through the jungle of controls at Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint. Everything went smoothly, and I took the conventional bus route to Pastrogor’s refugee camp. When I arrived I called Hawar, the guy I met yesterday when I unsuccessfully attempted to get inside the camp. His wife picked up the phone and told me that Hawar would be outside in fifteen minutes. During my short wait I met another young Syrian refugee and had a short conversation. He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed really friendly and happy to meet me. Hawar arrived pretty quickly though, still sweaty from doing some exercise. I explained the procedure of the interview, and asked him to sign the consent form. These forms are rubbish. I understand the purpose behind them, but the ethical review committees do not realise that these standardised forms can give the impression that an interviewee’s story may thus be reduced to standardised data. Hawar was kind enough to go along with the procedure though, being apparently used to paperwork. Off we went on a walk. The refugee camp was about a kilometre outside the village of Pastrogor. The landscape was beautiful, and a car only drove by every other minute.
Hawar was Kurdish and grew up in Aleppo. In August 2012 the situation in Syria’s second city became so bad that he and his wife decided to leave the country, just two weeks after they got married. Hawar was in the fourth year of his degree in economics, and he was just about to finish when the situation in Aleppo became unbearable, forcing him to leave everything behind. Hawar and his wife, her parents and her brother paid smugglers to take them to an unpatrolled part of the border, and walked across to Turkey. In the first Turkish village they reached, a car picked them up, and they travelled to Istanbul. Hawar got a job in an Internet café and made a bit of money, but eventually he lost that job, and the family decided to go to Europe. Finding someone to take them out of Turkey was easy. Istanbul is a market for war-profiteers. Without war, smugglers would be out of business very quickly, but as it is, the city is full of them. As a Syrian refugee, you don’t have to find smugglers – they find you. Going to Bulgaria is pretty cheap compared to other European destinations: Bulgaria, €300 per person; Greece, €3,000; Germany, €8,000; Denmark and Sweden, €10,000. Every country has its price. Greece is in the Schengen area, but many cannot afford to pay the smugglers. Furthermore, the trip may be deadly, as you have to take a small boat across the Mediterranean. For Hawar and his family, Bulgaria was the only viable option. Once again, they left everything in Istanbul behind and were taken to the border. They walked across. There is a fence, but it’s small enough to climb over.
Hawar described detention in Kapitan Andreevo as the worst experience of his life. He was separated from his wife and her family, and his locked cell door terrified him. Nevertheless, his stay in detention lasted only for a couple of days, and the family was eventually reunited and transferred to another refugee facility. Finally, they got into a camp in Harmanli. It turned out that Hawar’s wife was pregnant, and that her parents had the opportunity to go to Germany. Hawar tried hard to get him and his pregnant wife into what he heard was the best Bulgarian refugee facility: Pastrogor. Once again he had to pay, but things worked out, and they were transferred. A week ago his wife gave birth to twin boys, Boran and Ivan.
Hawar knew all about the European asylum system. He told me that everyone knows about Dublin, and he knew that Dublin-transfers to Greece were suspended. What he didn’t understand is why people are still sent back to Bulgaria. He said that Germany should send a delegation to Bulgaria, and that he cannot believe that they will find what is going on here acceptable.
I told him about the ideas to replace Dublin with a quota-system, to which he had this to say: it doesn’t matter which country you stay in as long as it’s safe and as long as you can make a living. He said that Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Everyone he met was friendly and kind, and people do want to help refugees. If he could get a job and have enough money for an apartment and enough to eat for him and his family, he would stay in Bulgaria. The soil in Germany is no better than the soil in Bulgaria.
I thought that these were profound words. The final question I asked him was whether he thinks he made the right decision by leaving Syria. One really needs to consider what he and his wife went through, yet they still stand behind their choice. Syria is not safe, and he wants his children to grow up in peace and security.
|Courtyard of Edirne's amazing Selimiye mosque|
I have to say that I was deeply moved by our conversation. I hitchhiked back to my hotel with two different cars. At the border I briefly chatted with the drivers of the ‘Projekt Syrien’ ambulances I mentioned yesterday. They were German Muslims who drove to Syria to donate the vans to local doctors. When I arrived back in Edirne I sat in the awesome Selimiye mosque for a while just to put what I’d heard into order. I hate the fact that I have had to record and transcribe this interview, turning it into ‘data’ for analysis, but I hope that this work will give refugees a voice. Hawar said that although he was in Bulgaria, he hadn’t seen Europe yet. I hope that the Europe he referred to really exists. I am extremely grateful to Hawar for sharing his story with me. I could tell that it was no easy task for him.
Tomorrow I’m going to Orestiada in Greece.