I’m Sara Ahmar, from Syria. I’m 30 years old and currently living in Germany. I was like so many young men and women from Syria who left their country during the war in search of a better future. I came to Germany about a year ago, hoping to complete my postgraduate studies in media. From the outset, I discovered that people have so many differing ideas about German society, both negative and positive. Some people see it as a racist, arrogant, and xenophobic society, and others see the opposite, claiming that there are some German people who extend a helping hand to newcomers so they can better integrate. I listened to both views, but I wanted to have my own experience in order to make up my mind.
When I first arrived, I lived with my Syrian friend. I stayed at her place for about two months and she was really instrumental in teaching me the basics about how to act in German society in various different situations. Most important among which was respecting appointments, always being on time, always following rules and guidelines, and other such things. I also learned about German habits and customs, using the internet to do some research.
After two months it felt important to strike out on my own and have my own experiences, so I rented an apartment and started taking German language lessons. The way it works here when you want to rent a place is that you need to speak to the landlord and take an appointment in order to see the flat. The condition to rent is that they have to meet you in person, and then based on that they decide if they’d like to rent their house out to you or not. There are a lot of racist assumptions that can be made; they might have a certain fixed views or ideas about our societies or habits or customs. In any case, I called the landlord and said: I’d like to see the apartment. And when I saw it, I liked it very much and told him I’d like to rent it. And he let me know indirectly that he’d felt comfortable with me and wanted to rent to me. He was quite focused on the idea that since I’m an Arab girl I’d be traditional and wouldn’t let strangers into the apartment, which gave him peace of mind. After we signed the contact and all the legal measures had been taken, I began moving my furniture in. This was really expensive, since moving heavy things requires a car, as opposed to lighter things that might be carried by the person themselves. As a student with a limited budget, I decided it would be best if I moved the smaller items myself.
Coming and going from my building I’d sometimes meet some of my neighbors on the stairs. They’d always look at me strangely, or maybe they didn’t like the fact that there was a new person in the building who was also a foreigner. And of course I’d be carrying my personal items or groceries by myself, and they’d see me straining to carry them but no one ever offered to help. The days went on and things remained cold between us. I’d run into my neighbor and he never said hello, and that’s when I really felt a difference between our societies.
Of course the coronavirus pandemic has been terrible from a health perspective, but on the social level I somehow feel like it’s brought people closer together because we’re all supposed to stay home. Our lockdown coincided with some Christian feast days. I celebrate Easter just like all the Germans, and because there were no signs of celebration or a festive atmosphere, and no Easter mass or gatherings for people to be together, I decided to do something that would allow us to have a shared experience of the occasion. I wanted to break that barrier that seemed to me to be the result of my being a foreigner, so I decided to take a little initiative. I went to the supermarket and bought a huge bag of chocolate. I also had a stamp and some stationary, so I made these little cards in German basically saying: “Corona has forced some bad times on us, but we can still share some sweetness together.” Of course, I also added the usual holiday greetings, and with each card I enclosed a little bag of chocolate.
I was a bit hesitant at first about how to deliver these letters, and I thought it would be best not to have any personal or direct contact with anyone. So I went to the building’s post-office boxes, which people use here a lot. I placed a card with its accompanying bag of chocolate in each neighbor’s post-office box, eight in total. Then I waited to see what the reaction would be, though I also anticipated that there might not be one at all. The next day, I woke up in the morning to check my own post-office box, and found a thank you note there with a little gift. When I went back up to my apartment, one of my neighbors approached me with a dish of German sweets typically prepared for Easter. The people who didn’t offer food in return wrote me little notes and left them in my post office box, and there were some people who didn’t give me anything in return but thanked me when they ran into me on the stairs, and were now welcoming of me as a new neighbor living among them.
This might be a small thing in the general scheme, but for me it broke down a barrier between me and the new society. After that I started to see that a friendly act, or, as they say, a kind word, can allow a person to feel that they belong anywhere. I mean you can always extend a branch, building a bridge of communication through these extremely simple acts. You can present your own culture through act of kindness, and can also take the things you like from the other culture. In this way, you integrate, and this clash of cultures relaxes and melts away through simple initiatives of this sort.
I’m Sara Ahmad, and this was my story.
This summarised transcript of Haneen's story was prepared by Omar Alshikh, edited by Monzer Hayek and translated by Leena Mounzer