This article from Iwona Laub originally appeared here.
Mulham looks exhausted. Before we start chatting he takes a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket, there are only two cigarettes left. He offers me one but I decline, thanking him for his generosity. Despite everything Mulham seems to be in good spirits. He’s cheerful. He’s thankful. “I’m so happy that people are bringing us so much.” Every day people are bringing food, clothing and supplies for babies to Traiskirchen, the initial reception center for Eastern Austria.
In fact, without the help from people living in Austria the situation would be vastly worse. “I don’t know what the food is like in there, we’ve only been here for two days,” says Mulham, who is from the Syrian city Hama.
“We left everything behind.”
A few meters away there is a man who looks to be a barber, cutting an older refugee’s hair. The police officers urge those helping to move their cars otherwise they’ll receive a ticket. On the other side of the camp there is a teacher sitting on the sidewalk under a tree teaching refugees German. “We’re here every day. A lot come each day, sometimes others join us for the first time and then others leave again.” There’s a lot happening in Traiskirchen.
Mulham’s wife, Amina, is pregnant and four of five months along, her stomach hasn’t quite started to grow. She’s holding Omar, the couple’s 14-month old son. She doesn’t speak with us since we don’t share a language but her husband speaks perfect English. “I used to work in a call center. I learned English in Dubai, though, after working there for three years.” Omar looks at us shyly, turning his head whenever the camera is aimed at him, but his father continues without pause: “The camp isn’t that bad but then we’ve only been here for two days.” He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be here until he is allowed to leave. “I have no idea what to believe. There’s so much conflicting information out there. Many have been here since two or three months and others says that you get to leave after only a few days.”
I ask Mulham about his trip, his reasons for leaving, his escape. How arduous a trip it must have been with a child so small. “We managed. Sometimes I carried him, sometimes my wife took over.” It’s beyond my imagination; my son is only two months older.
It’s 2723 kilometers by foot from Hama to Traiskirchen and that’s without the detours that Mulham and his family had to deal with throughout their journey. “We escaped into Turkey since it’s the only safe route to travel over the border,” Mulham explains, “We couldn’t stay there, though, because we knew that people are treated poorly there. As a refugee you pay twice the price for everything, just pure harassment.” Together with his wife and son they traveled to Greece and then into former Yugoslavia. How much did Mulham have to lay out to finance his escape?
“If I don’t count what we paid for lodging and food that we bought along the way, we paid traffickers €10,000.” I ask Mulham where he managed to get so much money and how long he saved. “A portion of it we paid ourselves and the rest was given to me by my family.” The little family that he has left in Syria since most left during Hafez al-Assad’s reign over Syria before power passed to his son and the current “ruler” of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. “They’re safe, I’m not worried about them. I do worry about my wife’s family, though.”
“If you come across the wrong guy, you’ll either be shot or thrown in prison. All because they don’t like your face, your clothes or your beard.”
“My wife is from Raqqa. Her father is a farmer and he regularly receives visits from the local so-called warriors of God. One time they wanted to take her 12-year old sister away, which they were able to stop at the last minute. She’s too young to get married, her father said.”
I feel stupid asking why they fled but I have to ask. “There are people on both sides of the war that are claiming they fight in the name of religion and faith. If you come across the wrong guy, you’ll either be shot or thrown in prison. All because they don’t like your face, your clothes or your beard. There is no rule of law, they don’t have to justify themselves to anyone; God promises them an eternal life.” Mulham’s tone is very severe as he speaks but then he suddenly starts laughing again.
“How is it possible that we have to be afraid because my son has the wrong name? If I go shopping, I don’t want to be blown up by a car bomb. What’s the point?” Mulham points at me says, “You would die instantly just because of the way you’re dressed”, and he laughs. I know what he means and I laugh with him but I’m not sure why. “My wife’s head scarf also wouldn’t be appropriate. She would be allowed to live for three days before she dies.” Although Mulham tells us so much and laughs with us, he looks weary from the fight. A fight that does not yet seem to be won. Does Mulham know this?
“We want to stay here, we can’t go back.”
“If we both went out to eat, you can eat pork and I’ll eat beef. No problem at all! But to kill someone for that…?! My faith is between me and God.”
I ask Mulham if they want to stay in Austria or if they want to travel elsewhere. “We want to stay here, we can’t go back. We left everything behind.”
“What I love most about it here is that I have an undisturbed view of the sky. There are no plans flying past that could drop a bomb at any moment.”