Sara is 31 years old and lives in Germany. This is a translation of the transcript of her recorded story:
"My name is Sara Alagha. It is May 2020. I am 31 years old while recording this. I was born in 1989. Before I tell you about my experience with integrating into European society after immigration, I must tell you a little about the first ten years of my childhood. During those ten years, I moved between Damascus, Sharjah and Dubai almost every year and sometimes more than once a year due to my father's work. Of course, every time I had to change schools and make new friends. After settling in Syria in 1999, we continued to move even within Damascus, and every time to a new place, a new school and new friends. The only stable place in my life was my grandmother’s house.
In 2007 I entered the University of Damascus, Department of English, and graduated in 2011. Immediately after graduation, I decided to enter the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus and study singing. A course at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus is five years but I only studied three years because in 2015 I participated in the "Montserrat Caballé International Singing Competition" and obtained a 15-day Schengen visa. I travelled in September 2015, and I was the first Syrian to participate in this contest. The great Montserrat Caballé invited me to the stage and told me: "Please be happy."
I did not know anyone in Spain. I did not know where I should go. There were a lot of plans but asylum was not one of them because I did not want to lose my right to visit Syria and my family there. But then many things happened, and the only option left for me was asylum. The fact that I have a lot of friends in Germany led me to decide on Germany as the only option left.
I arrived in Berlin in the evening of September 20th 2015 and the next morning I was in Leipzig with my music friends whom I knew from the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. After spending two days with them, I had to present my papers to the German authorities and ask for asylum. We asked others where to go; the answer was to the main camp of Saxony, which is located in a city called Chemnitz.
I booked a train ticket on September 23rd 2015 and went from Leipzig to Chemnitz. I travelled an hour, and it was a very long hour. I had so many thoughts in my head and was totally lost because I did not know where I was going. I was literally heading to the unknown!
I arrived at the main camp, which is located on the outskirts of Chemnitz. The entrance was guarded by a lot of policemen and guards. During this period, a large number of refugees were arriving in Germany. I handed over my papers and after about three hours of waiting in a tent near the entrance of the camp, a taxi came to take us to another camp, which was nine minutes away from the main camp. I later discovered that they had opened it as an emergency solution because there was no room left in the main camp.
I can't correctly recall the exact number but the emergency tent camp had about 33 to 44 tents; in each tent, there were about 13 or 14 refugees of different nationalities. The camp contained a large number of children and the conditions there were very bad: cold, rain, mud, and sometimes at night, the temperature reached -5 Celsius. It was unbearable at night. I still remember that I did not have a single warm night in that camp. Of course, electric heaters were not allowed in the tents because they were afraid they might cause a fire.
From my first day in the camp, September 23rd 2015, I volunteered as an interpreter between the Red Cross (DRK) and the refugees. Sometimes they would wake me up at 3 or 4 am due to an emergency or ambulance arriving.
The translation process was difficult because most Germans in this city do not speak English. For example, when I used a word like “Hi,” some people looked at me displeased, refusing to use English to communicate. Still, I was very happy with the work I was doing, because I did not want to feel like my world was falling apart. It helped me see that I was doing something useful even though my musical life had stopped completely during this period. I couldn’t even think about music.
One of the Red Cross members who could speak English was Ronny Kolbe. I worked a lot with him because he was one of the few people there who spoke English, and we became friends. I translated for all nationalities, even those whose language I couldn’t understand, for example, Pakistanis, Afghanis and Albanians. We could always find a way to communicate with each other because in the end we are all human beings and when we really want to communicate, we can always find a way regardless of the language.
Ronny took me to visit his family and introduced me to his wife, Mandy, and his daughter, Linda, who was 13 years old then. After a couple of visits, they asked me to sleep over at their house because it was 45 minutes away from the camp and for some reason Ronny could not take me back that night. I still remember the first night I slept at the Kolbe's house very well because it was the first warm night I had had in a long time.
Linda took me by the hand to her room. She had emptied space in her closet and pointed with her finger to the empty section showing me that this section was mine - she had freed the space for me. Without saying a word, because at that time she did not want to speak English, she made me understand that she wanted me to live with her in her room. Later Ronny and Mandy talked with me about it and asked me to stay with them.
I stayed with them for 8 months till my documents were ready and I was allowed to rent an apartment on my own. Of course, we are still friends and like a family to this day.
Living with them helped me a lot to integrate quickly. I learned the language in a very short time. I also learned how to deal with German bureaucracy, how to deal with institutions and employees, and how to write letters and other paperwork. I went with Ronny every day to the camp to help him there until the camp closed and was moved to another place. During this period, Ronny and I regularly went to the train station and waited for the refugees there to take them to the main camp to make the process easier for them.
In this group, I met a lawyer named Peter. Peter has a daughter who was taking piano lessons with a piano teacher called Angelika Smyschlajew. Angelika was looking for a singer to organise concerts for her piano students. Peter introduced me to her in order for us to organise concerts together. Angelika then introduced me to a very well-known American opera singer in Chemnitz, Donna Morein, and to one of her piano students, Maximilian Oehlschlaeger. Donna and Angelika convinced me that I should complete my singing studies. Indeed, Donna started preparing me for the admission test, and she told me about the music school in Chemnitz so I could attend Music Theory classes and learn the musical terms in German. The music school director, Nancy Gibson, would later play a very important role in my life.
The preparation trip started with Donna, and I applied to take the admission tests for two music institutes. The first was in Dresden and the second in Weimar. I was accepted in Weimar and on October 1st 2017, I began my journey of studying singing in Germany.
I am now in the eighth semester and due to graduate in July 2020. It was not easy to study again in Germany because I was working at the same time. Whoever studies in Germany knows that this is not easy at all.
Now I will tell you about the music school director, Nancy Gibson. She was preparing a ceremony for the peace day of Chemnitz. On this day during World War II the city was bombed. She asked me to meet two German musicians to see if we could present a piece of music together. I met Mathis Stendike from Chemnitz and Jan Heinke from Dresden and we worked on two pieces and presented them in the "Marktplatz" on March 5th 2017. On that day, a lot of people attended the concert. Surprisingly, after we finished, we were asked to organise more concerts so we decided to establish an ensemble and we called it "JaSaMa", the first two letters of the name of each one of us: "Ja - Sa - Ma". In 2019, we released JaSaMa’s first album, which you can find online and we still do concerts together. I have even had concerts with Maximillian Oehlschlaeger and Donna Morein, who was once my teacher. I got to know a lot of musicians and friends who played a very important role in my life and stood by my side, and JaSaMa Ensemble is very well known in the city of Chemnitz.
By the way, I still have the key to the Kolbe's house. They attend all my concerts and I can enter their house whenever I want to.
I am Sara Alagha and this is my story from Germany."