Against the backdrop of the Dutch EU Council presidency, OneWorld.nl has sent Reinier Vriend on a mission to identify the everyday European values and concerns. In the interview series #ThisIsMyEurope he speaks with colourful individuals in and of the continent, trying to find out what ‘Europe’ means to us. This week he talks to Yosef, a Syrian refugee who lives in a small town in Bavarian Germany.

“I will tell you what Europe means for a lot of Arab refugees. For them, Europe means ‘paradise’. They think that when they will come here, all their troubles will vanish. But it is not like that. Adjusting is very hard.”

Brothers

Yosef (28) works as an interpreter in a small Bavarian town. Last year he fled from Syria. As we meet over a beer in Amsterdam, Yosef is flanked by his brothers Muhammad (34) and Kaled (39), each of them living in Europe. The three men look alike, but during the conversation each of them reveals their differing view of the continent they live on.

When arriving to a European country, like Germany or France or Sweden, refugees are expected to do everything like a native

The difference shows in the dynamic of the conversation; Muhammad is a documentary film maker and has lived in England since 2010. As I ask Yosef questions in English, Muhammad adds side notes to his answers. Kaled has arrived recently and lives in a refugee centre in Doetinchem. As his brothers expand in English, he stares into mid distance and stirs his ginger ale.

Yosef finds Europe hard to get used to. “If you come for a little while, you can go around, visit the historical places. But if you stay for longer, everything will be different for you than in Syria. Fo instance, in Germany you have four types of garbage. Half your salary goes to tax. And everyone follows the rules! You wonder if there are rules for the bedroom as well.”

Expect the worst

He laughs, but the pressure is real and expectations are high. “When arriving to a European country, like Germany or France or Sweden, refugees are expected to do everything like a native. But now imagine someone from Iraq. Since twelve years he has been living in warzone. Now you expect him to be perfect in German in six months, know all the rules, and carry them out. You expect the best from refugees, but you should expect the worst.”

Yosef considers himself lucky for landing a job. “The majority of the refugees don’t find anything.” Bavaria is not a kind place to strangers. Yosef: “If you are not from Bavaria, you’re already looked at suspiciously. Now imagine being an Arab. When you walk into a bar, it will become silent. And when you order a beer, you think some people are getting a heart attack.” 

I will always be Arabic, the culture is too different

Finding a house was a challenge: “I have a visa, I have a contract. But still I got turned down all the time.” On the visa he received last year, Yosef can stay for three years. After that it could be extended. I ask Yosef if he could ever feel European. “I will always be Arabic, the culture is too different”.

Muhammad disagrees with his younger brother, “You will change. It is a slow process, but you will change. You’re already changing, it’s about getting used to a place, to daily life”. Yosef is not convinced. “For instance the food, I don’t like German food.” Muhammad retorts: “Even the Germans don’t like German food. But can you say that about German beer?”

Narrow-minded

They laugh.Neither of the brothers has any hopes about the recent peace treaty. Kaled winks: “What peace treaty? I hear about it from you for the first time.” In the odd chance of peace, would they go back?  Muhammad is clear: “When I left Syria, there was no war to flee from. For me Europe is a very advanced society, that has gone through the strife that is happening back in Syria now. People there are narrow-minded. The government is harsh, and I learnt to live with that. But if society is set in their own ways, there’s nothing you can do about it but leave.”

Kaled would return tomorrow: “To be with my family. To be close to my mother and father. But if I could get them out of there, that would be good too.” Yosef probably wouldn’t return: “I might not stay here, but I probably won’t go back. If you asked me this question five years ago, the answer would have been different, but now there’s nothing to go back to. My friends are either dead or have left. If I would go to America instead of Syria, I would have more friends there.”

Curious to find out more about what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Europe? Watch Muhammad’s report “The Unwanted Nation” about Syrian refugees in the UK here.

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This interview is part 6 of the series #ThisIsMyEurope. Join the conversation on Twitter and read the other interviews on the special #ThisIsMyEurope Oneworld page.  

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Reinier J. M. Vriend (1984) is mediawetenschapper, docent en filmmaker. Hij is mede-oprichter van stichting Volunteer Correct, waarvan hij …
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