Two years ago, Ahmad was a 23-year-old Computer Engineering graduate from the University of Aleppo when he fled Syria and made the journey to Germany to start anew.
At a pivotal time in young adulthood where most his age are focused on getting a good job, moving into their own place, dating or getting married, and simply beginning their big-kid lives; Ahmad’s sole focus was ensuring that he first had a future.
The instabilities and dangers of the Syrian civil war pushed Ahmad to leave his country, leaving behind his mother, father, sister, brother, fiancé, and life as he knew it. Now 25, Ahmad is living in Darmstadt, Germany and recounts his past and the journey that has shaped the person he is today.
But his story begins far before the war was as dire as it is today.
Germany was always the key
“I always wanted to study in Germany after I finished my bachelor’s,” Ahmad says. “It didn’t matter if there was a war in Syria or not – I wanted to get my master’s degree there.”
Shortly after finishing his bachelor’s in July of 2014, he started learning German hoping to go to Germany as a student and not as a refugee. He knew in order to achieve that and support himself financially, he had to learn German.
However, that was easier said than done. Ahmad explains that the Syrian currency, the Syrian Pound (SYP) or Lira, has been in a downward spiral since 2011, and has continued to plummet faster as time has gone on. This made affording German classes challenging.
According to the UN reports, in October of 2014, around the time Ahmad was taking German classes, the operational exchange rate of the SYP was 180.25 to 1 USD. To make ends meet, Ahmad worked 10 hours a day, making £17,000 a month and owing £15,000 a month for German classes.
Even then, he knew this was his grand opportunity.
“I knew that learning German was the key to leave Syria, to integrate very fast in Germany, to do everything. I wanted to work to support myself financially on my own because I didn’t want to put more hurt on my father. He already had the family [to support] and because of the [decreasing] lira value, I didn’t want him to have to pay for me too, so I was working and doing it by myself.”
Although it was the education that drew Ahmad to Germany, the state of the war at the time and the increasingly dangerous conditions surrounding him ultimately forced his decision to leave.
But, it wasn’t always this bad
Ahmad explains that in 2011, before all of the bombs, rockets, deaths, fighting, and chaos of the civil war, there were just civilians conducting peaceful demonstrations in efforts to gain more freedom and dignity. There was no Free Army in Aleppo, and the goal wasn’t to overthrow the regime or force President Bashar Al-Assad out of power, but instead the demonstrators hoped Al-Assad would stop imprisoning and killing what they felt were innocent people.
“At first we would say, ‘please take our people out of prison. Please give us more freedom. Please give us more humanity. Stay in leadership, take some money, but don’t take everything. Don’t take our rights and don’t take our people. Let us live in peace.'”
This initially hopeful movement became known as the Revolution, and as a young man, Ahmad felt compelled to get involved and demonstrate near the end of 2011.
Early on, the Revolution grew and progressed. More people joined in and started demonstrating. According to Ahmad, in 2012 people even brought demonstrations to the University of Aleppo in hopes that demonstrations conducted by students would ensure their safety and discourage the government from using guns and treating them like criminals because the students did not see themselves as criminals.
That ultimately proved unsuccessful and equally as dangerous. Still, the momentum continued.
“At some point, you ask yourself why you are demonstrating. Let’s say the first demonstration was at the university with 10 other people and these 10 people all disappear – gone to prison – and one of these people is my best friend. I will get angry and think ‘okay, that’s enough, I will demonstrate with you guys because that is wrong and we should do something.’ So, the demonstrations grow every time – bigger and bigger.”
At the same time, tensions were rising. Prisons were filling up everyday with demonstrators, suspected organizers of demonstrations, and even innocent bystanders who, according to Ahmad, were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“If we were 10 people, the government will send 10 people to cover us. If we were 100, they’d send 100. If we’re 1 million, they’ll send 1 million. But they don’t have to send a million of course, because one person with a gun can terrify 100 people without guns.”
Still, Ahmad says people were being oppressed and killed by their government for simply wanting change, which also heightened frustration. Although, he notes being killed wasn’t the problem for most.
“If you get killed, you will just be relieved – you don’t feel anything anymore – but to be caught, nobody knows if you’re alive, dead, being tortured everyday, so being caught was a much bigger problem than being killed.”
In February of 2012, Ahmad was captured and imprisoned by the regime for planning to attend a demonstration at the University.
Ahmad won’t go into too much detail about his experience in prison. He does say, however, that in prison, you can’t let your mind wonder to your family, your fate, or whether you’re going to live or die because that alone can ruin you.
“It’s better to have no idea rather than thinking I may die tomorrow. Just keep your mind clear cause if you think too much, really, you will be dead from inside. A lot of thinking would make you crazy.”
For the most part, Ahmad just expresses gratitude for being released after just 15 days. Others weren’t as lucky, he says.
Ahmad explains that he was arrested at a time where many demonstrations were happening nearly everyday, so they had a frequent influx of new prisoners, which created overcrowding, thus resulting in his release. In addition, his father had connections in the government, so Ahmad thinks he called and payed money for his release, which was a common tactic at the time.
Even after being imprisoned and held in what has been described as spine-chilling conditions, Ahmad still felt impelled to demonstrate, despite his family’s disapproval and pleas not too.
“I still went, because it’s my country. If I get afraid, you get afraid, he gets afraid, and then we get back to before 2011, and everyone who was killed, caught, tortured, is just gone for nothing because we got afraid. So, no, I will not get afraid.”
With the rapidly rising tensions in Aleppo and all over Syria, Ahmad explains that unfortunately, the once nonviolent demonstrations put on by civilians hungry for change ultimately turned into the deadly Syrian civil war between the regime and the Free Army that took over Aleppo and cost millions their homes and lives.
“At some point, there were no more demonstrations, but more guns and fighting. So, I decided I am not going there. I am not a gun fighter. I will not fight another person. Fighting another person is not easy, and killing is not my thing. It doesn’t matter – I don’t kill a monster, I don’t kill a cat, I don’t kill anything. Killing a monster is not easier than killing a [regular] person – both are people. It’s not who I am. If I saw [President] Bashar [Al-Assad], I wouldn’t kill him because killing is something out of my dictionary.”
In June or July of 2012, Ahmad stopped going to demonstrations. The rebels (Free Army) came to Aleppo and took the eastern side, while the regime held the western side. From then on, a seemingly new wave of horror filled the city, and Ahmad’s story continues.