He sat next to me on the train one day. He seemed nervous, insecure. He wore faded jeans and a puffy black polyester jacket. It was unzipped and I could see his old gray sweater with the misspelled name of a big sportswear label in bold letters across his chest. He put down the tray table in front of him and spread out the papers he was holding. I sneaked a peak at his train ticket. He was headed to a small town in the East of Germany. I noticed some Arabic instructions scribbled in the top right corner.
His curly black hair was greasy and unkempt. It framed his tired, unshaven face. He must have noticed me staring at him. He turned and looked right back at me. I was taken aback by the direct eye contact. He seemed surprisingly self-confident and dazzled me with a friendly smile. His dark eyes twinkled mischievously. I asked him if he was from Syria. It was a sophisticated guess, considering the large number of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe. It has been one of the major topics on the news for the past couple of weeks.
He was from Idlib. His name was Mahmoud. He and his brother, the younger man with similar dark features, sitting across the aisle, had arrived in Germany a few days earlier. Their perilous journey took them across the Balkans, mostly on foot and hitched a ride with a human trafficker in Romania, who doubled the fare upon arrival in Hungary, threatening to report them to the police if they did not comply. The change of plans cost the brothers all of their savings. After that, they hiked through the Austrian forests in the cold rain, to reach the German border town of Rosenheim, in the South of Bavaria, where they headed to the nearest police station pleading for asylum. The local authorities registered their arrival and issued them a train ticket to a refugee center in a forlorn town in Saxony.
A young Afghan boy, sitting next to Mahmoud’s brother, had joined them on their journey through Eastern Europe. The self-proclaimed sixteen-year-old had a beautiful round face and gleaming green eyes. His snub nose, his thin lips and his tainted gray-brown skin seemed to accentuate the sharp features of his Syrian companion sitting next to him, with the bulging eyes, the large boxer’s nose and the wide smile, revealing an incomplete set of large yellow teeth.
Mahmoud and his brother had a truck back in the Northeast of Syria and used to earn their living transporting goods across the country. The company went bankrupt due to the ongoing war. Like many others, their business suffered from the road blocks and the stagnant economy. He decided to flee Syria with his wife and his two-year-old son to neighboring Turkey. His brother joined the family on the perilous adventure, in search for safety and a future. Mahmoud then left his family near Antalya and promised to bring them to Europe as soon as he successfully resettled.
I was dumbfounded. This man had lost everything he owned, left his family behind, risked his life to come to Germany, yet he seemed so cheerful, not whining nor complaining. I could not imagine the sacrifice he had made and the dangers he had put himself in to come to Germany. I deeply admire this man’s endurance and his positive attitude.
I am Syrian too. I consider myself very lucky to have been born into a middle-class family. My parents are both engineers, to whom I am very grateful for sending me off to Germany for a better education when I was eighteen, more than a decade before the war broke out.
A decade before the war broke out. It seems like a lifetime ago … I never would have imagined something like this to happen. Not in Syria. I would watch the news and occasionally shed a tear or two for the Afghan refugees or the starving children in Nigeria.
But this is different. This is personal. Today, I helplessly stare at my TV screen, watching my home town being bombed to ruins. Images of familiar places. Pictures from my childhood memories. The cries of the women, who had lost their children in the bloodshed. Speaking my language. Begging our God for mercy. Their pleas are like a punch in the gut making me feel sick to the stomach.
My fingers clutch my seat. My knuckles turn white. My chest tightens. Tears flood my eyes. I squint in despair and the hot tears start rolling down my cheeks. My mouth opens as if to scream, but I can’t seem to make a sound. I can’t breathe. My lungs feel like they’re on fire. My heart breaks … over and over again.
I want to stand tall and proud again when I claim to be a Syrian, not dreading the pitiful looks and the worried questions about my family and my opinion about the outcome of the war. There are no winners in war. Just victims.