[i] Can you introduce yourself? Who are you?
[r] I am [name], I am 31 years old and I am from Syria. I am married and I have 2 children…
[i] Where and when were you born?
[r] On December 27, 1987 in Saraqib.
[i] Can you tell me anything about Saraqib, about the village or the city?
[r] My city of Saraqib is a small city, but it is a very beautiful city. All the people in the neighborhood are like family… In the past…
[i] Where did you live in Saraqib? In what area? In what kind of house?
[r] I lived next to the court of Saraqib. In the Mohammed Aldorastraat.
[i] That was a big house, a small house? Always in the same house.
[r] No, we had a large house with 5 bedrooms. We had three floors, two floors. There were nine of us. Five boys and four girls. My father is [name].
[i] Your mother?
[r] My mother, [name].
[i] So, you were with nine brothers and sisters? And two parents? With eleven?
[r] We were with eleven persons. Two parents, father and mother and nine siblings. Five boys and four girls.
[i] Who were your parents? The origin? From Saraqib?
[r] Their profession, engineer in Idlib. My mother stays at home, she was a housewife.
[i] How are the people in Syria? In Saraqib different?
[r] Friendly people, really friendly people. For example, if I need help, I get it quickly. Whether someone knows you or not, they will help you. Friendly people. No racism, like a family.
[i] And Saraqib is different as Aleppo or as Idlib?
[r] The difference is that in Aleppo people don’t know each other. You wouldn’t know many people from your neighborhood there. In my street in Saraqib everyone knows each other. That is the difference.
[i] And where is Saraqib somewhere?
[r] Saraqib is located 50 kilometers from Turkey.
[i] Near which cities?
[r] Close to Idlib. A strategic place. Saraqib is in the corner. If you go from Aleppo to Damascus, you have to use the highway of Saraqib. If you go to Latakia as well, and to Turkey you also go via Saraqib. A strategic place.
[i] What did you do after school?
[r] I started working fast. I found work as a welder. I started working with my uncle and worked for almost three or four years. Then I left for Loubnan, another country.
[i] Lebanon?
[r] Lebanon, yes. I worked there as a welder with metals for windows and doors. Then back to Syria when I was twenty years old. Then I stayed in Syria for about 1 year. Then I went to Algeria and worked there for two years. Also as a welder in Algeria. I had no papers in Algeria and was not allowed to stay there. I was not allowed to stay there because you have to be older than 28 years, if you are younger you are not allowed to stay there. That is a rule of Algeria. I went back to Syria and had a friend in Dubai. He said that he had a small business there and needed 2 to 3 people. I said I could come to Dubai to work. I went to Dubai for 1 year or 1.5 years. But it wasn’t good there, sometimes there are bad people in Dubai.
[i] Much discrimination for people from Syria?
[r] Yes, I worked with people from Syria, but the people from Dubai are not good. Not everyone, but for me they weren’t good there. It’s very hot there too, 45 degrees Celsius. For a welder this is really difficult. I went back to Syria. And in 2011 the war started. So everyone is on the street; Freedom, freedom” in Syria. For six months people were calling for freedom. The police then took to the streets.
[i] In Saraqib?
[r] Yes, in Saraqib.
[i] How did the freedom movement start in Saraqib? Was that one person from; Freedom?”
[r] It first started in Daraa, on the border with Jordan. Some people start this. And in Idlib they heard about Daraa. Many people from Saraqib didn’t like Assad to stay. Assad’s family has been president in Syria for 45 years. First Hafiz Assad and then Bashar Assad. That is not good. It’s like a king, not a president. Like a king.
[i] What was life like in Saraqib in Syria before 2011? How was life under Assad? Good or not good?
[r] Good life, but… In the past safe… But when 2011 came, everyone was afraid. For example, I went out on the street to protest with my friends. But my brother stayed at home, because he was afraid. Because when the police come, you could be arrested. They were able to arrest you quickly.
[i] Were the police very hard before 2011? And arrest people? If you were against Assad?
[r] Not in the past! But earlier, when you had Idlib on your identity card, at least I think so, you had a problem. So earlier from Hafiz Assad, the father of Bashar, he has a problem with my city, Idlib. When he visited Idlib he always had a problem, everyone would come and throw tomatoes at his head, at the car of Hafiz Assad. Of all the cities in Syria; Aleppo, Homs… know nothing about Idlib. Someone from Homs asks, for example, which city is Idlib? In which city do you live? In Idlib. Idlib? Sometimes they don’t know. Why? Because Hafiz Assad wanted everyone in Syria to think badly about this city. Why? Because the people there didn’t like that president.
[i] Why?
[r] This president was bad. A bad president, Hafiz Assad. Yes… A dictator. He was really a dictator. In Idlib almost all people, or 85% of the people, are Muslim Soena.
[i] Not Sunni?
[r] Sunni, yes.
[i] Is Assad also Sunni?
[r] No, a Shiite, Alawi.
[i] Alawi?
[r] Yes, Alawi. He is a Muslim, but as with the Christians, Orthodox or Catholic. With the Muslim; Sunna, Shia, Alawi… That is the difference.
[i] In Idlib and Saraqib the people are not Sunni? And in Aleppo too?
[r] In Aleppo also sometimes Shia or sometimes Christian, or sometimes Armani. In Aleppo is everything. In Hama it is like in Idlib.
[i] When the war and the conflict started in 2011… Free Syria and against Assad… How was that for you? You went out on the street?
[r] For me, yes. For me it was really very good. I didn’t like this man and this family. He is a dictator. I have nothing, I have to pay for everything… Even my apartment belongs to my father. I think I can rent for everything… Electricity, gas, everything is real… Good life, but it’s not good for everything. Always for the government it is a problem. Everyone from the government in Syria, sometimes it’s Soena, but the heart of him for you… Their heart is with Bashar Assad, with the Alawi.
[i] What happened then in 2011? You took to the streets against Assad? What happened?
[r] When it started in Daraa and in Saraqib I went with many friends on the street saying “Hurria, hurria, freedom, freedom”. So six months or eight months started that way. It was crazy with the police… What is that? In Syria you’re not allowed, you all have to die. But the people didn’t have Kalashnikovs, they just spoke, or put their arms up in the air to protest. I had no weapons. The police, the federal thought everyone would get Kalashnikovs. I have an older brother Ahmed. Ahmed didn’t go out on the street, he was afraid of the government. He said: “Brother come home anyway”. Or if you go, they can’t see your head. You have to cover everything with a scarf. I say: “No, no, it’s not a problem for me”. So the first day when the police had come to my town, I left for another town in the Province of Saraqib. The police came to my home and all my family was home then; my mother, my brothers and sisters. Everyone was at home. They came with a tank, the police and many people. Someone came and said that our house does not belong to Shabaan, but that people from Irhab live there. Do you know what Irhab is? That is ISIS. ISIS… But why do they come with someone from the street and Bashar Assad has to leave and stuff? So the police came and said that there are bad people living in our building. All the boys had to come. Why? All the boys had to come with them. My brother and my sister’s husband, [name] too, and Ahmed also had to go with the chief. He ordered them to come with him. He said: “It’s okay, don’t be afraid. We’ll talk and ask some questions.” They asked Imad and Achmed why they were going to call out freedom. Imad said that he hadn’t done that, that he was just at home and could see the people on the street. Achmed, and Imad, the neighbour Hassan… So many people came together with this chef. They had to stand against the wall with their hands like this (she sticks them up). You want freedom? Someone said, “No, no”. Everyone said: “No, no”. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr with the Kalashnikov and everyone dead. What is that? Many people… My brother is dead. I have seen it, your brother. Not me, but someone. I have seen that this brother is dead. Then I’m going to die too, for sure. My brother stayed at home… What is that? They think… Now for example. If your father dies next to you. So what’s the problem? For me my heart went this way… My blood… Do you know what I mean? I wish everyone in the police would die. They have to die. I’m crazy, I’m young. That’s why they started by picking everyone up with Kalashnikovs. That’s how it started.
[i] Then you were somewhere else and you came back? And did they tell you that the police came and Ahmed was shot… Yes? What did you do?
[r] So I went back to my home.
[i] So you went from Algeria back to Syria?
[r] Yes, I lived in Algeria for almost 1 year. At the end of 2011 I went back to Syria. And then I came out on the street with all my friends. I used to have a camera so the whole world could see what was happening in Syria.
[i] You were filming?
[r] Yes, I filmed with a camera.
[i] What happened then?
[r] I also helped the ambulance for the hospital. When the planes came with bombs for another city, I left by car with my friend to help people with a hand off, or feet, or sometimes their head.
[i] So first there was an uprising, then the government, the police came to Saraqib to shoot people and then there were planes with bombs?
[r] Yes, with a lot of bombs. Also many Hezbollah militias in Iran. All Shia came to Syria.
[i] Did the people of Saraqib have weapons then as well? Kalashnikovs? Against Assad?
[r] To Assad yes.
[i] You too?
[r] No. I thought that was not good. I can’t kill anyone else. That’s not good for me.
[i] What happened then? Planes are coming and you are coming by ambulance?
[r] Yes with the ambulance and also with the camera. So help people who have been bombed. My neighborhood and home were all broken. I then went to the place to help the people. Or to another city or to a hospital. If someone had a problem with the hand or with the head…
[i] What else happened before you left? You finally left Syria?
[r] No, no. I wanted to stay and help the people. I had money and a good life, but now that the war is coming it is a bit difficult. I saw that a lot of people wanted to help and I can help everyone, so you have to stay. That’s why.
[i] What happened then? Because in the end you fled? Left Syria.
[r] Me?
[i] Yes, to Algeria, Libya. What happened, why?
[r] Ok. Late in 2013 IS came to my city. So we had problems with everyone. Either you are a friend of IS or an enemy. I don’t like to get a Kalashnikov and kill other people. I always talked about these people and said they were bad. Always, on facebook, on the street, but that was dangerous for me. Maybe they are making a bomb in my car. Or with my brother, or with my family. I was scared, so I went to Turkey and from Turkey to Algeria by plane. From Algeria to Tunisia… Tunisia…
[i] Wait a minute, but before that everything had happened to you in Syria? Before you left? You had told me before that there were still problems with the family, with planes…
[r] RBG or tank with bombs came to my home. My home was almost completely broken. I couldn’t stay there anymore, because that was dangerous. Almost all the walls were broken. No one could stay there anymore. My mother told me to leave. I left for Turkey. From Turkey by plane to Algeria. I stayed 2 or 3 days in Algeria. I came with a friend of my brother, Bashar. I then went to Tunisia. From there I walked almost 35 kilometres through the Sahara. That was really difficult for me. I paid almost 4,000 euros from Syria to here.
[i] And of Tunisia?
[r] From Tunisia to Libya, to Zuara. I stayed in Zuara for almost twenty days. About twenty to 22 days. About 700 people in a big house. With many people staying that way (his body presses against each other). You can’t sleep well.
[i] You have to wait there?
[r] Wait for the boat. Someone who gave you money who says waits… Today we leave for Italy. Then he says, tomorrow… Next week, certainly next week… Wait for 22 days. At the end of August, I’m not sure which day…
[i] 2000…
[r] 2014. In August I left for Italy.
[i] Big boat?
[r] No, five meters, I don’t know. About five meters. With 721 people. This boat was not good, a bad boat. I think that man had a money problem with other people. In Libya, Italy, many people, the driver of this boat, problems… I don’t know. This one broke down.
[i] The boat?
[r] Yes.
[i] Where?
[r] About three or four hours from Libya. Sea of the… The sea between Italy and Libya.
[i] The Mediterranean Sea?
[r] Yes. The sea here. We have a problem with the boat. Under the boat, it was broken. Many people on the engine, almost dead, because smell a lot.
[i] And when the boat was broken, what happened then?
[r] Yes, the bottom of the boat was broken… The water came in from the back at the bottom…
[i] And then?
[r] Many people died.
[i] Did the boat sink?
[r] The boat will be here soon? (shows by hand something that goes down) But there came a plane from Italy and a big boat. He came to help everyone.
[i] A big boat?
[r] Yes.
[i] And you in the water?
[r] Yes, in the water. People came with a small boat to help. People had died. My wife’s brother has four children. Two children and his wife then died.
[i] So the boat had sunk and you were in the sea? Swimming?
[r] A little swimming, yes. People were swimming everywhere. An airplane with a camera arrived and looked at who urgently needed help. Afterwards I heard from a Moroccan woman working with the UN that she had called the Italian police to report the problem, that anyone could die. They need your help. That is why the plane came.
[i] What happened then?
[r] Then a big boat arrived with food and medical help. It was cold, with medication and food. She went to Italy, to Sicily.
[i] Palermo?
[r] Little one next to the sea…
[i] An island.
[r] Yes. I waited in the port of Sicily. I left there by bus to a large hotel or asylum centre. Someone told me to stay there. Taking a shower and changing clothes and food. New clothes. Okay, I have to stay here. I then left for Paris. And from Paris to Brussels.
[i] Alone?
[r] I was with my friend, Bashar.
[i] Your friend.
[r] Yes, together. From Saraqib to here.
[i] And from Italy, Sicily to Paris? By train?
[r] By train.
[i] Not difficult?
[r] No. I pay 125 euros.
[i] Just normal.
[r] Yes, normal. No passport.
[i] And then what?
[r] Then I went to the Commissariat.
[i] Go back a bit. When you had left from Syria to Europe. Why didn’t you go via Turkey and Greece?
[r] This road was closed. I think it opened at the end of 2015. It is easier than via Libya, on the sea, Tunisia… Many thieves in the Sahara.
[i] How much did it cost from Syria to Brussels?
[r] About 5,000 euros, maybe a little less or more. Between 4,000 and 5,000 euros.
[i] Was it difficult for contact with people smugglers?
[r] Yes sometimes difficult, not sure.
[i] Also lost money?
[r] Yes, in Tunisia in the Sahara. There are many thieves, so people come with a knife or with a Kalashnikov and ask all your money. From everyone. I was with my friend from Damascus, with women and children. And many people have lost money. All your money… If you don’t give it, you are definitely dead.
[i] And then you gave all the money?
[r] Sometimes I have money in my pants.
[i] And not given?
[r] No.
[i] A little money?
[r] Yes.
[i] How much?
[r] Nearly 2,000 euros.
[i] Lost?
[r] Yes.
[i] To Belgium… Why to Belgium?
[r] Bruxelles. I had no money, all the money was gone. I ran out of money, I used to think I’d go to Great Britain. It’s a good life, a big country. But when I arrived in Belgium, my heart calmed down. So I think, good place. You have to stay here. I have no money, I have nothing. I stay here. I asked someone what I had to do to stay here as a refugee. You have to go to the Commissariat first. I went to the Commissariat on 23 September, 2014.
[i] Was that the same day you arrived in Brussels?
[r] No, two or three days earlier. No, more, ten days with my friend.
[i] Where did you sleep?
[r] With a friend in Brussels. Someone who had a small apartment and papers here in Belgium.
[i] That friend was already in Belgium?
[r] Yes, from Syria?
[r] On 10 January 2013 I got papers here in Belgium. As a refugee, for 5 years.
[i] And then you were still in Liege or already Antwerp?
[r] No, I asked all the Belgian people in the asylum centre. Old people, every weekend we came to speak a little French and someone translated into Arabic. They said that Flanders is better than Wallonia… Wallonia is good and quiet, but for work it’s better in Flanders now… Ah Flanders… I came to visit Antwerp, and in Antwerp there is a tram and bus and very quiet and in Liège there is no tram. I thought in this city of diamonds I want to work. I don’t like to stay at the PCSW forever. I’m young and I have to work. I have a lot of experience as a welder. I also have a driving licence. I started Dutch lessons via the PCSW…
[i] In Antwerp?
[r] In Antwerp yes. In the CVO Antwerp. I speak a bit of Dutch, so that’s good for me. I told the PCSW assistant that I would like to work, please. And she said Mohammed; “Calm down you have to understand Dutch first”. I had someone who helped me translate, I spoke a bit. You have to speak perfect Dutch… How? I saw “KunstZ” on facebook. A friend of mine said that he did theatre there. I wanted to do that too, and I like to sing. I went to KunstZ with the friend. I’m Mohammed Shabaan and I want to do theatre with you. I’m also looking for volunteer work. I went to a church in Antwerp to do food distribution to undocumented migrants. To speak a little Dutch. Someone from Morocco who spoke Arabic, I could translate a bit. A little listening, a little hearing. Also in the evening at school I received a lot of Dutch. And a little speaking. Through article sixty, a line from Belgium with Guy Swagers, I work like a welder in Antwerp. That’s the husband of the wife of KunstZ.
[i] What did you do?
[r] Welder. He works with the opera, Arenberg with everything.
[i] For decor?
[r] Yes scenery for theatre, everything.
[i] As a welder?
[r] Assembly and welder and wood painting.
[i] Did you work there for a year?
[r] Yes one year, I started in 2016 to 2017.
[i] And when did your family come?
[r] My family came in May 2016, my wife and Ahmed, my baby, a boy.
[i] How old was Ahmed then?
[r] About three years old.
[i] Was the procedure difficult? Through papers or dna or how?
[r] I told the Commissariat that I was married to Karima Shabaan and a boy; Ahmed Shabaan. They had a passport and papers with my name and date of birth in Saraqib. Everything was correct. They went to the consulate of Ankara in Turkey. All the papers were in order and they got a visa.
[i] What was it like when they arrived?
[r] I was very happy with my family here in Belgium. I want a new life, only it is difficult for everything. But with a family here it is quieter.
[i] What was it like for your family to come here?
[r] Difficult, my wife is an engineer. She studied at the University of Aleppo and quit in the last year. She also had problems with the Aleppo police. She couldn’t go to university anymore.
[i] And it was difficult for her here in Belgium?
[r] The first year was difficult for Dutch. A little difference between Syria and here, that’s not the same.
[i] And for Ahmed?
[r] Ahmed is small and can now speak Dutch. He goes to school and my wife also goes to school. She speaks a bit of Dutch. Now it is easy to live.
[i] And was the difference between Syria and Belgium difficult for Ahmed?
[r] No…
[i] With planes and stuff?
[r] But when we came to Belgium he always thought of the war. I lived in Berchem next to the airport. There were planes coming and then Ahmed was scared. “Daddy, daddy, bomba, bomba”. He was afraid. He saw everything in Syria. Bombs, and everyone dead or seen someone lying dead on the street. That is difficult for him. He is three years old but his memories… I want to forget everything. I spoke to his teacher. He used to live in Syria and that is a bit difficult. She said okay; “You have to forget everything”. You have to live here again, you have to forget everything. Yes, Ahmed plays and learns a bit of Dutch. And in the weekend he goes to the park to play football. I want to forget everything before the war. You have to live a new life here.
[i] Do you have a baby?
[r] Yes, Said.
[i] Was he born here?
[r] Yes here in Antwerp.
[i] How old is Said?
[r] Three years now.
[i] Your wife has come and you have made a baby?
[r] Yes.
[i] Do you still have a lot of contact with tradition of Syria here in Belgium? Eating?
[r] Sure. My wife is a good cook of Syrian food. Here in Antwerp and in Brussels too. I now work in the port of Antwerp at a good MSC company.
[i] What are you doing there?
[r] Welder, repairing containers.
[i] How long?
[r] Now via interim. The last year I have a contract with them.
[i] Colleagues?
[r] Colleagues is difficult, not Dutch. Sometimes the chief of staff speaks Dutch to me, but most of them are Polish or Romanian and other countries. Many people speak English. I can speak a little English.
[i] Difficult?
[r] A bit difficult. If I don’t understand something, I ask the chef. Then he translates into Dutch. And then I understand, and then I learn a bit of English.
[i] Learning a little English now?
[r] Yes, yes.
[i] You say you like to sing. What?
[r] From Arabic of Syria.
[i] What kind of songs? Love songs? Or popular songs?
[r] Everything in Syria.
[i] Can you try something?
[r] (Song)
[I] Very nice.
[i] The song, what is it about? What is the song about? You sang a song about what?
[r] Yes. About my mother who lives in Syria and I live here and that is difficult for me. Abandoned… I live here in Belgium and my mother lives in Syria. And my brother Abdelkarim was arrested in 2012. He studied at the University of Aleppo. The police came to the university and arrested everyone… My heart is tired, staying here and always thinking about my family…
[i] A little nostalgia? Back in the day…
[r] Yes.
[i] Are you happy now?
[r] Yes, yes. Here I have a new life. I have a car, I have work, I have everything.
[i] What is missing for you? What else do you need?
[r] I want to help all people who have no money in Syria. I like to help old people here on weekends to learn Dutch. Buying a house and working well and later in the future a restaurant or something open.
[i] Doing business?
[r] Yes.
[i] Are you still afraid of something?
[r] No.
In Syria?
[r] From Syria for my family, my friends, the neighborhood. I don’t know what life is like there, difficult. But I always think about them.
[i] To your family always?
[r] Family always sure.
[i] To your mama?
Yes, my mama, there is nothing I can do for mama. I can’t go back to Syria.
[i] Maybe in the future?
[r] A bit difficult, but maybe Mom can come here. I think it’s a bit difficult for me.