Ahmad, 28, is a Syrian ballet dancer and artist. His dream is to meet Roberto Bolle. He was born in a place called Manbij, in the countryside of Aleppo. There he attended primary school. Then, he moved to a suburb of Damascus, Sayeda Zaynab, close to the Palestinian camp Yarmouk. It was 1999. Ahmad studied English translation and, briefly, at the High Institute for Dramatic Arts. In 2011, when the revolution started, Ahmad was forced to leave Damascus. “In that area, the majority are Shiite. At the time, Sunni were against the regime, while Shiite supported the regime. Not all of them, of course. We moved to Manbij and there my journey started.”
In Manbij, Ahmad set up a place called Home, in his grandfather’s house. A physical and spiritual place documented in Rafat Alzakout’s film.
However, the return to Manbij – a liberated area controlled by the FSA – was bound to be short. “We were forced to leave Manbij because of ISIS … The old people from ISIS were not as aggressive as the newcomers. When we liberated the territories from the old people the new ones came with very vicious intentions. They tried to kill every civil activist, so we were forced to go. I left, first, then my family. They tried to go back. I was on the black list of ISIS. They accused me of dealing with the West and spreading the devil’s word.”
Ahmad starts telling me the story of his exodus from Syria to Germany. He keeps smiling, he laughs a lot, in stark contrast with the heaviness of his words.
“I went to Antakya in the end 2013. There, I worked with my old group. We played Little Riding Hood and the Wolf, as a puppet show. We made a new version, it was more funky. We toured for two months in the countryside of Antakya and inside Antakya. Many people there speak Arabic.”
“After this, I got a contract with the DRC (Danish Refugee Council) to teach kids how to make puppets and I worked on other projects, a play called Dr Salma, and then I’d teach how to write a story and how to find the hero of the story, what is the message from it, and it was amazing. After this, I moved to Urfa. I was thinking to make a version of Swan Lake for kids, and then I met IMC (International Medical Corps). I spoke with the Psychological support manager about my idea and she said ‘OK, I will let you whatever you want but I need someone on the women group’. So, I taught dance classes to women and then we did a small part of the Swan Lake. It took me six months to do 15 minutes of the Swan Lake [laughs]. It was very difficult! I think in the end they realised they could do that, but they are not allowed to express how they feel. I’m a man and they’re women, there’s a barrier. I couldn’t correct them because I couldn’t touch them. I had a female assistant but she didn’t know a thing about dancing so she couldn’t help me in that.”
“I moved back to Antakya and I worked with a Turkish dance company, but I soon left heading to Germany.”
“Actually, I didn’t want to go to Germany. My brother went first, alone. After two months, my father decided we should go, too. He told me I had to go because I had no future in Turkey, all NGO would go and blablabla. I had to go with him. But I was not ready to go at the time.”
“We went to Istanbul. I tried to cross the border in Edirna and mosquitos would eat us alive [laughs]. Then, we tried the sea and it worked out.”
“This is how it works: You go to a cafe in Istanbul where you know you can find smugglers. Actually, for us it was a simple coincidence. We were in the Aksaray province and we saw some people preparing to go. Then, we asked them who was the smuggler and they said he was a relative of them, a good man. So we decided we wanted to go with him. The next day we met him in a cafe and he was very nice. We told him how much money we had and that we couldn’t give him more. We paid $1000 each. It was just me and my father, the rest of my family came three weeks ago, but they came by plane so it was easier for them.”
“The next day we reached the meeting point by the sea, by bus. We had run out of water but I was too afraid to miss the boat to go get more, the closest shop was 6 or 7 km away. I also ran out of cigarettes. That drove me crazy!”
“We arrived at the meeting point at 6 or 7 in the morning and waited until 5pm. They brought the raft and the passengers inflated it, it was really hot, it was August. We were the last trip, 43 people. The raft was for 25 people, the man [the smuggler]told us not to board on a raft with more than 40 people. Many smugglers take on board 50-60 people.”
“So, we set off, there were children crying and I started reading every line on the Holy Book to protect us. After 45 minutes we were in Mitilene [on Lesvos]. The Greek people are really good people. They just asked us not to throw any garbage or light fires. They said you are welcome, good luck. We were prepared to camp in the woods or in the streets, but we had no sleeping bags.”
“Then, we went to Athene by ferry. Then, we reached the border with Macedonia. It was an awful situation there. There were a lot of people waiting to get on the train and you would lose your brother, your father in the crowd. I lost my father and we met when we arrived. When you cross the border between Macedonia and Serbia, it’s 3 or 4 km to the first village. In Serbia, they let you go ten by ten. We slept in the fields, we light a fire because it was very cold at night. We set off in early morning. The Serbian border police let us go because there was a pregnant woman with us. It was very difficult because you have to wait two days until you get the papers – they allow you to stay three days then you have to leave. We couldn’t wait to get the papers because my father has diabetes and was running out of medicines so we had to move fast. So we were illegal entrants, we found a car and asked the driver to go get the tickets for Belgrade for us.”
“In the city, we slept in a garden because we couldn’t stay anywhere else. After that, we headed to Hungary. But the Serbian soldiers caught us and put us in jail. They told us the court would fine us as much as €500 each and that if we didn’t pay we would end up in prison with all sorts of criminals. We arranged with the guards to pay €50 each, because I was helping them as an interpreter.”
“So, we reached Hungary. It was really bad. We slept in the fields, with the insects biting us. It was a very inhumane situation. Then a car arrived and the driver asked €200 per person to drive us to Budapest. Only six of us got on the car. The rest of the group didn’t and they were right.”
“Five minutes after we left they caught us. Again, they put us in jail for a couple of days. We asked for medicines for diabetes and they gave us candy… The Hungarian police is really bad. They don’t care if you’re ill or pregnant. They beat you. They beat you hard. They put us with ordinary criminals. The worse people I ever met. And everybody asks for money in Hungary. They don’t have any humanitarian empathy. They turn you in and get money for that. The jail was crowded and dirty.”
“We had to give our fingerprints, even if we didn’t want to, otherwise they would put us in jail for two months. We stayed in a terrible camp for three days. Woods would have been better. It was very dirty. Then, they wanted to accommodate us in a camp in Budapest, permanently. We absolutely didn’t want to stay in Hungary. Our experience in Hungary was a nightmare! We managed to reach Vienna by train and then to Stuttgart. Finally, the German police found us. We’d been looking for them for the entire night. They found us in the morning. We were sleeping. We were relieved. They took our fingerprints again.”
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