As streams of refugees flood Europe by way of its southern and eastern borders, the debate over immigration has grown more and more contentious. All too often, the political and financial aspects of the issue are given center-stage, while the human beings at the heart of the debate are forgotten. More recently, the press has focused on the number of migrants who drown as they make their perilous way over the Mediterranean on dangerously crowded, open vessels. But what happens to those who do make it across the water safely?
In this interview, Ulrike Plautz, a journalist in Hamburg, Germany, speaks with Indho Mohamud Abyan, a 25-year-old Somali who fled war and famine eight years ago, and is still searching for a place to call home. His journey has been one of endless frustration, but also one of rare inner strength.
Ulrike Plautz: You fled Somalia at the age of seventeen. What were the reasons?
Indho Mohamud Abyan: The main reason was that I wanted to live in peace. In Somalia we’ve had civil war for decades; especially in my hometown, Mogadishu, the violent clashes between government troops and various opposition forces has been going on for years. Anyone who can afford it carries a weapon. My uncle was murdered on the street. He was like a second father to me. My own father died when I was six months old. The daily threat of violence is something people here in Europe can hardly imagine. Here in Hamburg, for example, you can go shopping without constantly fearing that around the next corner, you might be shot. My mother also wanted me to live in peace, and supported my decision to flee because of that.
Were there other reasons as well?
Yes. The poverty in Somalia is also very great. My mother used to feed our family by selling hand-pressed orange juice and homemade sweets. She just managed to keep our heads above water this way. I am the oldest child, and I wanted to stand on my own two feet after completing school. But the possibility of finding a job is very slim, and educational opportunities aren’t good either. “School” was often thirty children from the neighbourhood crammed into an apartment and “taught” by one teacher. I wanted to become a doctor. By the way, that is still my dream. The death rate is extremely high in Somalia. I wanted to train here in Europe, and then return home as a doctor, to help there.
What happened to you once you got to Europe?
That’s a long, complicated story. I first landed in Europe eight years ago, in 2006. Initially I made it to Hungary. I was so happy. I felt secure there and thought that the world was open to me. I could work, study, learn a skill – or so I thought. But after six months in an induction center I was told I had to leave Hungary: they had no room for me, and nothing more could be done for me.
I received a refugee pass and €150, and that was that. I stood there; I didn’t know the language; I had no apartment, and no job. I was eighteen and homeless, and I had to figure out how I could survive on the streets. But I didn’t want to give up. I hadn’t fled here to Europe to hang out on some corner. So I took all my courage in my hands and decided to use the money I had to get to Sweden, in the hopes of being accepted there.
In Sweden I was informed that I had to return to Hungary, because of “Dublin 2.” [This is an EU regulation which specifies that asylum seekers like Indho must be processed in the country where they first set foot on European ground.] So I was deported, and lived another three months on the streets. After that I found my way to Holland, and tried to apply for asylum there. But I was arrested and detained, and after three months I was sent back to Hungary again. Then I heard that the United Kingdom might be a better possibility, so I made my way there: first to southern England, and then to Scotland. That was in 2008.
In Glasgow I was able to go to college for a year and learn English. My hopes of being able to finally stay put somewhere grew. Then one day the police showed up at 9:00 in the morning, and it was back to detention, in order to be deported again. Although I had committed no crime and done no wrong, but only wanted to live in peace, I had to spend three months behind bars. I thought this was extremely unjust. Afterward, I was sent back to Hungary once again, which meant: back to the streets.
It was winter, it was cold, and I was so exhausted. I took all the papers I had collected (including the certificate from my English course) and found my way to Copenhagen. I had meanwhile heard that the chances of being admitted to Denmark were good. And so it seemed, at first. At the immigration office, the official received me warmly with the words, “That’s good you brought your documents with you right from the start. So few do that!” Then he put aside my papers and had me detained – for two months. That was a real shock. Then it was back, once again, to Hungary.
Only little by little did I come to understand what Dublin 2 meant for me: namely, to always be returned to a country which told me, as did all the others, that there was no room for me. What kind of sense did that make, I wondered? I had no hope anymore; I grew discouraged. Despite all this, I always told my mother (on the phone) that I was doing well.
Luckily, someone from Pro-Asyl [a German human-rights organization dedicated to helping asylum seekers] happened to meet me in Hungary, rescued me from the streets, and brought me here to Germany. I wouldn’t be sitting here, if it weren’t for that person. Eventually I was able to take a seven-month course in plumbing and heating installation. I was told this would qualify me for FSJ. [FSJ is a German program funded by the federal government. It places volunteers in service positions and sees that they are housed and paid a small stipend]. I found a place to do such a year, at a nursing home in Hamburg. Everything seemed perfect: the contract was signed, and I was supposed to start right away. Then came the news: I had to go back, once again, to Hungary.
Where are you living now?
At the moment I’m in a guest house; I’ve been taken in by a church that offers sanctuary to illegal immigrants. I have received a lot of support from the staff of this church. It has done me good, and I am grateful for it. But I still wish I were allowed to work, for once, and to stand on my own two feet. I am twenty-five! I’d like to start using my energies somewhere, and stop wasting my time. After all, I have the same dreams and wishes as anyone else my age. I’d like to find a meaningful job and make my own contribution to society. I’d like to start a family. For me, basic human rights include the right to exist, the right to work, and the right to live in peace. In Somalia I lived in fear of being killed physically. Meanwhile, here in Europe, I’m afraid my soul will be killed.
What sort of support do you still need?
Well, I’m not exactly alone. There are countless refugees who live in the same situation as I do. But it would be a great help if more people knew what is happening to us. Or if they wouldn’t just look away, but would inform themselves about the issues we are facing and talk about them – at work or wherever, also on the street. Just talking about this problem could change a lot, I’m convinced.
What gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that I’ve kept meeting people who supported me – and in some cases are still supporting me. Personally, I can’t criticize the officials who keep deporting me. They believe they are doing the right thing; they are acting in accordance with the law, and the law is what it is. But you have to ask yourself, “Is the law just?” That’s why I’m so grateful to the people I’ve met whose outlook is guided by another, higher law – people who have a different idea of what justice is. That gives me hope.
Ulrike Plautz is editor of Weltbewegt (“World In Motion”), the magazine where this interview first appeared in the June-August 2014 issue. Translated from the German by Chris Zimmerman.