My name is Kaothar Khalil, and I am from Damascus. I am 33 years old. I studied in Syria in the Institute for the preparation of teachers in the music department. I was a teacher in Syria before I went travelling. I currently reside in Berlin, Germany, where I have lived for five and a half years.
The reasons that led me out of Syria were the conditions there. Whatever you want to call it, there are those who call it "revolution" and there are those who call it "crisis". The conditions in Syria had a great impact on me and forced me out of the country. First, my dad, may God have mercy on him, died a year before I left, and we lived in conditions that were not good and there were problems. For example, reaching the school where I taught in the Baghdad Street area in Damascus was very difficult, as I lived more than an hour away. I suffered a lot because of that and the lack of basic services such as electricity and the internet. Life became difficult to endure due to the horrific conditions in the country and that was one of the main reasons that forced me to leave, and then the death of my mother. I was left with only my brother who is ten years younger than me.
When I left Syria, I was 27 years old and my brother was 17, and therefore his help was minimal due to his age. Our house was demolished and the conditions were against us so I decided to go to Europe. I contacted many friends who were in Germany and some who were in Norway, the Netherlands and Austria. My first plan was to go to Norway but it was not possible do so. That is why I came to Germany, and I have been residing here since the end of 2014. I feel that Germany is my second country, and I have found wonderful things here. I consider myself as a person who got a second chance, and I am very happy to have travelled because I started a new life in this country.
I was planning to go to Berlin but it did not work out. I went to Munich because of the paperwork and I went with my friends to the asylum centre. We were three Arabs and we stayed in the asylum centre for about four days, and then they sent us to an upmarket city where the majority of the residents were retired. We were the first group of refugees of mixed nationalities that went there; our group included members from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and Eritrea.
When we went to that city, we stayed in a three-storey building. They gathered all of us refugees arriving in this city in one place. After that, a group of women created a small group to take care of us refugees. They wanted to help us since some of us might have come from an environment of war and violence, and this prompted them to fear that we had tendencies towards violence, or that we were negative, for example, or angry, or anything that is stereotypically negative. Therefore, they were passionate about helping us and guiding us on how to settle our affairs in Germany.
Every woman took two or three refugees. I got to know a German woman called Angelika Kollerd. She was new and is a retired physician and she settled in this city having previously worked elsewhere. She was the first German that I connected with and she was a very nice lady. She helped me in the beginning to do all my paperwork and she drove me in her car to all the places where I needed to go to finish my paperwork. She introduced me to the city, for example, the bank, the institutions, the municipality and the places where I had to go to finish my paperwork. She showed me both expensive and cheap restaurants she liked to go to. She also took me to the supermarket and introduced me to the different sections to find out what I could buy. I am a veiled Muslim woman so she showed me the halal things that I could buy and what I needed to avoid. She immediately anticipated that I would not drink alcohol and since there are many German products that contain alcohol, she was clear with me from the beginning and indicated to me products that contained gelatine (pig fat), for example, because I do not eat that.
She anticipated all the things that Muslims could not do, and of course, showed me both expensive food and cheap food. This lady not only showed me the right and wrong, but also explained to me everything that I wanted to know. She told me what I could afford based on my income because being a refugee, she knew that my financial condition was not good.
This lady loved to know about my culture and introduced me to her culture. Learning about the culture helped me feel that I was not a stranger in the country. It is true that it took me some time but in the end, I came to the conclusion that I was not in a strange country.
We used to go out to walk her dog, and we would go to garden centres to buy plants, go for a walk and sit under the sun in the gardens. She had a beautiful terrace in her home and we would spend a lot of time there. She tried to get closer to me by sharing the details of her life.
When Christmas season came, just before New Year, she asked me if I would like to go with her to celebrate in the church. I told her that I would and she asked me to do it knowing that I was a Muslim and veiled. I knew that her purpose was to show me Christmas rituals that they practice. She wanted us to celebrate together at Christmas, so I told her that this would definitely make me happy and she took me with her to the church. I saw their practices in the church and they sang a little and then donated money. After that, we went out to the cemetery and she apologised to me because about the time it was taking but she wanted me to experience all of the Christmas rituals. All people go to the cemetery to visit their relatives’ graves and light candles for them. She wanted to visit her mother's grave and talked to her a little in front of me, then we went back to her house together. She prepared sweets and she had brought a special gift for me and I had a gift for her as well because I knew that they exchanged gifts for Christmas, just as we do for children on our festivals. I spent a very beautiful Christmas with her.
She loved getting to know our culture, as unfortunately she had some misconceptions. She was surprised when she found out that I was a music teacher. Surprised when she learned that three women from my family worked, that I was a teacher, my sister was a nurse and mom worked in the Ministry of Tourism; this surprised her a lot! Likewise, she was surprised when she learned that I had a driving licence as she thought that Muslim women in Arab countries never drive. She was astonished to learn the opposite, and that we are open.
She asked me about our culture, and I explained to her what we do in Ramadan, what we do on Eid and how we visit each other. I explained the Eid rituals such as bringing sweets and offering them to each other, and treating the children by giving them money or gifts. I explained to her about Eid Adha and how some people offer a “sacrifice” and serve meat for free to the poor. This lady was a fan of Arab culture and she tried to learn some words of the Arabic language. She said to me "peace be upon you" even though I often replied, “peace be upon you? Hello. I do not limit my peace to you only.” But she always wanted me to feel that I could experience the Arab-Islamic atmosphere that I knew in Syria. Unfortunately, this city that I used to live in was never Arab but later I got to know some Turks who were going to pray in one of the houses, and she asked me if I wanted to go because she could take me to the small mosque to pray in the evening in Ramadan.
She had a keen interest in getting to know and learn about our culture, and seeing how we celebrated our holidays and how we treated each other.
She was surprised when I told her that we lived with our parents until we got married, when the girl goes to her husband’s house. It was a big surprise for her; she thought that we lived with our parents and we paid the rent with them. She was surprised by the fact that we could keep in touch with our families, visit each other, contact each other and check on the family. She was very happy to know me and my culture.
Unfortunately, I moved away from that city because it was small. At first it was good for me, but I could not continue there because I was not able to find work or a place to study in. I moved to Berlin but I visited her two or three times. We always speak, and I call her often, and she calls me as well. I am very grateful for her and her grace, as she made me feel that this is my country and that I am not a stranger. My relationship with her allowed me to know that if I need any help, Germans are there. They care about human beings and they have a strong sense of humanity. Thank God, they lend a helping hand when they can. I am grateful to her and to everyone who hugged, helped, and offered us an opportunity, even for ordinary people in this community.
I am happy that I am in Germany. Thank God, I speak German more than well, not fluently but very well. Six years is not enough, but my language level is very good.