From Syria to Poland: across the land and sea

Istanbul is a transitional place. It is a city of expats, immigrants, nomads, exiles and ‘étrangers’. Some of them end up at the bottom of Istanbul, some of them find themselves on the city’s magnificent rooftops. One of Yabangee pub gatherings in Istanbul introduced me to A., and we talked a little, mixing together several common languages that we shared, which seemed natural in this multilingual metropolis. In a place like Istanbul, you are bound to question your identity. So many foreign residents of this city are migrating from East to West, or from West to East, or just hanging in there, suspended between the two.

Turkey hosts over 2.7 million refugees, most of them from Syria and Iraq. Just a small fraction stays in the refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border, but the majority make their way to bigger cities. Those who have some start-up capital, open small businesses, but most of the urban refugees in Turkey are struggling to obtain legal work and end up being exploited on the labour market – despite the recent legal implementations. Most of them, sooner or later, undertake the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

There is a fuzzy connection between identity and citizenship, especially here, on the edge of Europe and the Middle East.

Almost 2 years after we first met, I decided to ask A. a few questions about his journey from Syria to Istanbul and to Europe, about the people he met on the way, about the place he calls home, and about the identity he’s been assigned ever since he fled Syria – the identity of a refugee.


Q: Heyo! Thanks for becoming the subject of this interview! I have about three times more questions than I will actually ask, but also a very short attention span. First things first, tell me when was it that you left Syria?

A: October 2013.

Q: Was it a difficult decision, and how much did you leave behind?

A: Actually, and surprisingly, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It came so fluently and was a natural result of how I felt back then.

I left too much and nothing at the same time. By “too much”, I mean almost all of my material possessions (except my laptop and some pieces of clothing), all the things and places I was attached to. Also, I left my parents, although I keep in touch with them electronically.

By “nothing”, I mean that somehow I could detach myself from the things and places I loved. Nowadays, I can extract the feeling those places provided me with just by evoking the memory of them (through pictures, songs…)

Q: Do you think you would have left it anyway if the war had not started?

A: I guess yes at some point, but the war made it an urgent must for me.

Q: You mentioned pictures, songs and other media that help you recall the things you’ve left behind. What is it that you miss about your former home? People, places, food, landscape?

True story

A: Actually it’s the places, but I managed to be content with memories of them. As for the food, Levantine food is everywhere, and I can prepare it myself. Also, sometimes in Istanbul we’d go and busk in the street and earn enough in an hour to stuff ourselves with falafel (True Story :P).

The people, most of them are now in Europe and we always get a chance to meet, once in a while. The only ones I truly miss are my parents, but my relationship with them is not so “emotional”, but rather “intellectual”, that’s why having virtual communication is bridging this gap a lot.

A modern-day castle in Syria
A modern-day castle in Syria

Q: How long were you in Istanbul for? How did you find the means to survive there, like job, accommodation, human connections? Did you feel welcome in Turkey?

A: I stayed in Istanbul for about 1 year and 6 months. I depended on my job as a freelance translator, which helped me to find accommodation, and then along came the connections when I started to be socially active (CouchSurfing, house parties, music events, street acquaintances…) The social part was totally new for me, because in Syria I was rather introverted and kept away from the hustle and bustle. I can say that it’s in Istanbul that I really started to be active to some extent, on Facebook and Couchsurfing, to keep up with my new acquaintances (I had had my accounts dormant since 2009).

Did I feel welcome in Turkey? The term «Turkey» is very general, but I would say that I felt welcome in Istanbul, especially because I always had something in common with the people I knew there, and our relationships were not in any way based on financial and material interests, so the good vibes were always present.

In this context I would like to mention two nice “you’re welcome” short stories that I had right from the first day.

After landing and getting out of the airport, I reached a place near the centre of Istanbul (Zincirlikuyu), and I was supposed to look for the Metrobus to arrive to my host’s place. I asked a random guy in the street using my unconfident Turkish, so after providing me with directions he asked me where I was from. When I answered Syria, he exclaimed in broken Arabic with a smile on his face: “Mabrook Habibi”. Actually this means “Congratulations, my Love”, but I think he wanted to express “You’re welcome” in Arabic somehow! That gave me a lot of good vibes!!!

And the other one: when I arrived at the Metrobus station an hour later, I asked a woman for directions. Again, after providing me with directions, she asked me in Turkish “Memleket nerde?”, so I was surprised by the question, because I wondered why was she asking me about my “kingdom”?! It turned out this is one of translator’s «false friends» between Turkish and Arabic. “Memleket” in Turkish means “homeland”, not “kingdom” as it does in Arabic!

Q: This is brilliant. Awkward linguistic stories are my favourite. Istanbul always delivers. What made you leave Turkey after all these years?

A: From the beginning I knew that Turkey was only a transit stop to Europe, the main reason being that, if I got my papers in Europe, I would have more possibilities to move here and there. In Turkey, there is no such possibility.

Q: By the way, you speak a sheepload of languages: Arabic, Turkish, English, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Greek – what else did I miss? How did that happen?

Open mic event in Istanbul
Open mic event in Istanbul

A: Back in Syria, I had a very boring job at a translation bureau for three years, the only positive side of it was fast internet connection. I had this idea in my head that I might leave the country, so I used this opportunity to learn languages. Working with languages was everything I did continuously for 4 years (both as a “job” and as an “extracurricular activity”).

Q: Translation job is one of the most boring things in the career world. You expect you’d be translating Shakespeare, but all you get is a user manual for a refrigerator. Over and over again. But then you also mentioned busking. What’s with you and the music? What instruments do you play? Is it just a hobby or you’d consider it as a potential career?

A: Actually it started by accident when I liked how my friend played the Oud (Oriental Lute), so I decided to give it a try. Being an introvert, I started to get “sucked” into the world of music in my room. I started buying cheap instruments one after another (like Ney, Violin, Buzuq – a long necked lute with metal strings) or borrowing them from the people I knew.

I’m not a musician in the professional sense, or you could say I’m a “professional amateur”. I play Oud and Clarinet mainly, and I’m familiar with Violin, Flute, Piano, and Accordion.

Q: You are a proper Renaissance man. Do you consider the love of languages and music as part of your Syrian identity or as your steps to becoming a citizen of the world? Also, please share some music so I could disperse it throughout the length of this interview.

A: A Renaissance man? Why? 😛

In fact, I don’t consider myself Syrian anymore, because I think the regional, ethnic, religious identity (or any other “herd identinty”) is starting to be a hindrance to thriving and a source of suffering at the onset of the third millennium.

I have no favorite music, as it changes from time to time, but I have styles that I like: Ethnic, Jazz, Hypnotic Rock, Oriental, etc. I can’t even remember what I like!

Let’s try this:

  • Longa Riad al Sunbati (Longa is a composing pattern from the 20th century in the East):
  • Fairouz, the famous singer of the Levant, singing “Perhaps” in Arabic:
  • Greek Rebetika:
  • Django Reinhardt, les yeux noirs:

    Q: I know it is a story fit for a novel. But what was the toughest part of crossing over from Turkey to Greece and making your way to Poland? What were the brightest and relatively happy moments of this journey?

    A: The toughest was traveling from Izmir to the “Launch Point” near Ayvalik! We were 47 people in a minivan with no windows. It was moving so quickly it could turn over if it tripped over a little stone.

    There were two bright moments. The first was when we reached Lesbos. The second was when I landed in Berlin!

    On the boat
    On the boat

    Q: How did you and your travel companions handle the sea journey?

    A: The Greek Coastguard were extremely nice and helpful but had a hard time keeping our big crowd in order. The scary thing is that the Coast Guard perforated our rubber boat and it started to sink… but all our stuff was still there! At that moment, I decided to use my good knowledge of Greek language which I love too much, although it wasn’t my plan to use it in such circumstances. I always wanted it to be a language of music, food, and love. But the first words that came out of my mouth in Greek were: “Mipos boroume na paroume tis tsantes mas parakalo?” (Can we take our bags please?) The coastguard guy glanced at me happily: finally they found someone to help them maintain discipline onboard.

    After a while, I overheard that one of the coastguard crew members was called “Sotiris”! I took it as a good sign, because “Sotiris” means “Savior”! I thought to myself: now we’re really saved. After a while I called all the members of the Greek crew “Sotiris”, because I forgot which one of them was the real “Sotiris”! They were all “Saviors” at this point.

    Q: How did you spend your time in Greece?

    A: In Athens, I was lucky to discover – completely by accident – the Travel House. It’s a great idea– someone hires a house in a city, free of furniture, in order to provide a platform for travelers to meet and cooperate in a very minimalistic environment materially, but very rich intellectually. Everyone is a guest and a host at the same time, there is a minimum required level of discipline in order to keep it going smoothly for all, but a huge margin of freedom: freedom in contributing, freedom in communication, freedom from the monetary system (at least as an alternative to paid accommodation).

    Q: Sweet! I’ve heard of the place before but never happened to be in the same city where they’re based from year to year. How did you complete the last leg of your trip from Greece all the way to Poland?

    A: There is a whole story of how complicated and at the same time easy it is to get a fake ID in Athens. You just need to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. When I first saw that Italian ID… I thought there was no way I was going to fly with this! It seemed very primitive, and even the name and the surname of the guy were not Italian at all! But it had my photo on it, so…

    My flight was was to Berlin, this way I would get a chance to drink coffee with my sister (she was studying there at the time) before moving onward to Poland. But of course, everything depended on these 10 seconds at the passport control! That day at the Travel House, before my departure, all I heard was “I hope I will NOT see you today”, as a wish of good luck in this attempt of mine.

    Q: I hope you’re keeping that piece of plastic as a souvenir. Thanks Italy for making your national ID cards so easy to forge.

    The world is now awash with travel writers and bloggers who think that being a “nomad” makes them smarter than everybody else (like this chick). You might know more than anyone about being on the move and travelling in extreme conditions. Do you feel like hitting the road again in the future, for leisure and exploration, now that you are finally settled in a safe country? Or did you have enough of it?

    A: Actually, I haven’t been a nomad! It’s only during the last three years that I changed places many times. In fact, I have no plans for the future, but I’m open to everything, I just act based on my current “vision” as I lack a future vision. I call this philosophy “positive pointlessness”. I see no point in nothing, but I’m not depressed. I just open my window for inspiration and thoughts from others to provide me with short-term visions about the next direction my life will take.

    Maybe could provide me with some of these “visions” 😛

    Q: I assure you she’s got no idea where to go from here either!.. What made you choose Poland as your place of residence? What adaptation and integration projects did you find in the city, for newcomers like yourself? I know you speak perfect Polish, but would you be able to get by with just English?

    A: The main two reasons are that I know the language and because it’s far away from the “refugee” twister, and you can add to that that it’s much cheaper that Western European countries.

    For me personally, I didn’t need any projects, because I was pre-adapted somehow. But yes, there are adaptation projects for refugees in general: workshops, trainings. I think English alone is not enough in Poland, in most parts of Warsaw you need at least a basic level of Polish to communicate and get by.

    Q: Do you often meet your countrymen here? Do you find much in common with them? Do you ever talk politics?

    A: I’ve only met one guy so far, and he is an interesting individual. There are two reasons why I don’t meet Syrians here. The first is that there aren’t many, the second is that I’m very selective in this matter, in order to avoid being dragged into any kind of political or religious tension. The main thing I find in common with Syrians generally is the shared memories of prewar era, and with a certain category of them I share that sense of “alienation” that we used to feel back there (not in Europe, in Syria).

    I don’t talk politics, unless I’m really convinced that what I’m going to say will be useful instead of provoking any kind of tension.

    Q: You might have noticed that an average European person knows next to nothing about Syria beyond common stereotypes. How much did you know about Europe before coming here?

    A: I think I knew enough about Europe through my acquaintances, through TV and Internet, etc. Actually, when I arrived I had a sense of déjà vu… especially upon my first landing in Berlin.

    Q: Do some aspects of the European society still baffle you?

    A: First, I think the term “European society” might be overly generic, but if you’re talking about it as an opposite of “Oriental/Muslim society”, then nothing really baffles me, except maybe the level of beer consumption in Poland and neighbouring countries, haha. For me beer is a real punishment, although I’d like to have a sip or two sometimes.

    Q: I concur. Beer is piss. Drink kefir!

    Before the war, what did a normal day in your home town look like? What did your normal day in Istanbul look like? What does your normal day in Poland look like?

    A: In Syria, my day before the war was consumed by this stationary full-time translation job I told you about. It was a very limited life intellectually, except the connections with the outer world through the internet and my friends with whom we used to discover new frontiers and talk about different topics as far as it could be from the local reality.

    In Istanbul, the situation was very different after the first six months (which were very static). I used to work freelance every day from 08:00 to 16:00-17:00! But this was really unique. I used to sit in the kitchen with a view on the Bosphorus, it was only about 100 meters away. These days are not to be forgotten, working with a window over the whole world by my side, watching ships, submarines, boats, people – everything seemed possible.

    Istanbul - view from the window
    Istanbul – view from the window

    When the evening came, I would socialise whenever I heard about an interesting event, or just go wandering in different parts of town – the serenity of Kuzguncuk, the activity of Moda, the beauty of Bebek, the chaos of Eminönü. I think there was something else that I liked about Istanbul– it’s the idea that it was transient for me. I was preparing myself all the time to the fact that this is temporary, and was happy with the fact of having a next destination. This state of mind has a name in German, die Vorfreude, whenever you are happy because of some expectations, anticipations of something more than that present “something”. So Istanbul had this magic of being a launching pad to somewhere else.

    On one of my strolls I discovered an enchanting Studio, I like how Istanbul looks in this guy’s work: Muhsin Bilyap Atelyesi.

    In Poland, my day is rather routine and static unless someone is visiting me, but here I do some short visits to the neighbouring countries every now and then.

    Q: The question that bothers a lot of Europeans that oppose immigration right now is: “Are they going back when the war’s over?” I want to split it into two questions for you: when, do you think, the war in Syria will be over? And how big is the share of Syrian people who would want to go back to their former country after that?

    A: I think the majority would really like to be back ASAP when the war is over, but unfortunately I think the war is going to continue pointlessly for many years to come. Also I expect that “Syria” won’t exist anymore, because the level of division is really high amongst the Syrian “societies” – political, religious, ethnic division.

    Anyway, theoretically, as I said above, a huge proportion would love to go back, because they have an immense sense of alienation in Europe. They usually come from conservative Muslim communities, they lost everything, but they have a positive attitude towards the Europeans who saved them, while their own compatriots and fellow Arabs & Muslims didn’t give a damn about them.

    Q: I do believe this too, because I’ve seen the returning diaspora in Somaliland that comes back to invest into their country 20 years after the civil war. Syria and Somalia are two different conflicts, but there are many reasons for people to return to their homeland after a devastating war.

    You belong to the category that most European people opposing immigration find very hard to sympathise with. You are a young male of working age, with no disabilities and no wife+kids baggage. More often, refugee stories are about women and children – the category that attracts more compassion from the public. While the most common question regarding young men fleeing Syria is: Why aren’t they taking the arms and fighting for their country? What would you say to change the public opinion in regards to the refugee cause?

    A: I guess most of the guys who escaped already have no hope for Syria. I belong to the category of the ones who will never “take the arms and defend their country”, because I believe that the current situation is very complicated, and refusing to engage into a vain conflict between local and international forces is a good contribution pro Publico Bono. Even the refugees who were zealous for “the Cause” (the Regime or the Opposition) are starting to realise that this is going nowhere, and no “victory” is in sight.

    There is a whole category I call Cultural Refugees – the skilled, the creative, the ambitious who always felt as strangers in the socio-political systems of their original societies, which usually don’t support anyone trying to behave “outside of the matrix”. Many of them ended up being persecuted for speaking out loud and had to flee. I think if Europe witnessed something as chaotic and meaningless as this war (hopefully not), the young generation would start having this feeling of despair after some time, and would start looking for any possible alternative away from home.

    Of course I should mention also that a big proportion of the single guys come to Europe just for the sake of “the easy life”. The common denominator amongst these is their ingratitude towards the receiving countries. I think they are the examples that are scaring some Europeans from accepting refugees, and fueling the right-wing arguments against “The Islamic Trojan Horse” coming to Europe.

    It’s not possible in practice (let alone on the ethical side) to stop the waves of refugees in a world that is becoming more integrated, where a war in one place will spread far-reaching ripples in ways never seen before in the history of humanity. What’s up to Europe, is to design different integration plans according to each category (the cultural refugees, the conservative refugees, the «negative» refugees, etc.) and according to the situation in each country, down to the very local level.

    Q: Cheers to that. Thanks for sharing the stories and memories. I hope you’ll learn how to handle the beer-worshipping Polish society. And perhaps find a publisher to share the stories of all the people you met between there and here.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Very enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing his story!

    1. Bearded Lady Robot says:

      I’m glad you liked it and hope you’ll share it with others!

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