This CFE, 18 students on the Germany/Italy trip had the opportunity to tour Berlin with a newly arrived Syrian refugee who shared his experience around different landmarks around the city of Berlin including Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall and the Holocaust memorial. This is his story, followed by brief writer commentary.
“They just stop you because they’re ba—…well I wouldn’t say bad guys but,” Syrian refugee Nafeh Kurdi said, referring to the checkpoint police back in Damascus, Syria.
He spoke about the corrupt police force with a certain amount of candy-coating. He explained that they could kill, arrest and force whomever they wanted into the army. They have no one to answer to. 19-year-old Nafeh could get through checkpoints only because he was a student studying.
One day Nafeh was pulled off a bus by a guard and forced to stand in front of him. He stood there waiting for some sort of instruction while the guard went and sat at his station.
After an hour, Nafeh went and politely asked what he should be doing. He was told to go back and stand there again. After another hour, the guard told him he could leave. “He wanted me to give him a bribe,” Nafeh laughed. “I made him mad.”
In 2015, Nafeh and his best friend from high school made the terrifying decision to flee Syria. They took a bus to Beirut and flew into Izmir, Turkey, where he ran into one of his friends from third grade.
Their group got bigger which was considered safer. His third grade friend’s brother had connections with a Turkish Mafia member who offered to give the 45 people in Nafeh’s group a boat to Greece. Just $1,000 a person. The boat, which was a 30 foot long inflatable raft, arrived beaten up and slightly deflated.
About a half-mile into the ocean, half the boat was underwater due to the excess amount of weight onboard. Nafeh and all the other men jumped off and swam back to shore, and the woman and children remained on the boat and carried on to Greece.
After that incident, many people in the group thought it might be a sign from God not to go. They backed out and lost their $1,000 to the mafia.
The next day the new boat arrived. Nafeh and his friends had been told that if the boat started sinking, it was best to be seated in the back. They waited and boarded last to ensure they were in the way back, as soon at the boat departed it rotated 180º, and they ended up in the very front. Nafeh said the scariest part was in the middle of the trip, when he knew if the boat went down, he would die.
He landed on the Greek island of Samos. The police found them but ended up being very kind and helped the group fill out papers that allowed the Syrians to legally stay for a couple of weeks. Then, they took a ferry to Athens, then a bus to Macedonia and then to Serbia.
“Serbia was the worst,” Nafeh recalled. The weather was cold and wet and the people were equally un-welcoming. They then traveled to Croatia, then Hungary. Upon arriving to Hungary, Nafeh was separated from his group he had been travelling with. They called each other family in order to avoid separation.
When Nafeh told a Hungarian police officer that he couldn’t board the bus to Austria until he found his family, the guard grabbed him by his shirt and threw him on the bus. He found his group in Vienna. Nafeh’s goal was to make it to Berlin where he already had a friend he was planning to stay with. He was told the quickest way to get there was to go through the Czech Republic, but Nafeh knew if he did that he would be thrown in jail immediately.
Instead, he went through Munich and finally ended in Berlin. His trip totaled 10 days and cost $2,000. He said his trip was relatively easy—one of his friends spent a whole year and $10,000 to make it to Germany, with a wife and child in toe. When Nafeh first arrived in Berlin, he slept on a cot in a gym for four months, surrounded by 300 other Syrian refugees. He volunteered and taught guitar lessons to refugee children. Since he had no papers, he couldn’t get a job.
One day, he and his friend from high school, who made the same trip to Syria, decided to post an ad on Facebook offering to do any job for free, since they couldn’t legally work. They offered to tutor (they were both engineers), do manual labor, or just sit and listen if someone needed. The post blew up. 10,000 likes, 1,550 comments, 500 replies to the ad. Nafeh says he owes everything to it, his girlfriend, his apartment and even his job touring students around.
However, the war in Syria still haunts Nafeh; New Year’s Eve fireworks and music at dance clubs ring like bombs in his ears. His mother and siblings are still in Syria as well; he talks to them every other day and he hopes they can come join him in Berlin soon. He knows the government won’t help him bring his family out of Syria, but he’s prepared to do it illegally.
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The Syrian Refugee crisis, that fluctuates in and out of the news, that pops up on your Twitter feed occasionally, is real. Sometimes in politics, the reality of a real person living in these terrible conditions, dealing with real pain, it gets lost.
As students in a sheltered, upper-middle class school in Minnesota, it can be hard to empathize and imagine what other people in the world are going through. Here’s your reminder to read to news, to send money to the red cross, to vote carefully and conscientiously. This atrocity will go down in history, and you get to decide what side you will be remembered for.