His heart’s in Samarra, but his future’s in Berlin

Anas Samarrae

Sometimes Anas Samarrae sings when he’s conjugating irregular German verbs. That helps him learn what is still a foreign language to him. If you bumped into him on campus you’d think he was just one of the many international students at HTW Berlin. But he isn’t – at least not yet. Anas Samarrae, 27, only came to Berlin about 11 months ago. Last April, the engineering graduate started taking intensive German lessons and, like many other refugees and asylum seekers, he’s now preparing for his new life in Germany – maybe even another degree – with the help of the INTEGRA programme. His home country of Iraq has been ravaged by war for more than 20 years. Anas Samarrae was born in Samarra, a city that was once the capital of the Abbasid caliphs and where scientific discoveries were made that are still legendary in Islamic history. Samarra is now on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger and has been under siege from  so-called Islamic State, or ISIL, since 2014. Terror reigns in the place where Anas grew up. We wanted to get to know him and met for a long chat.

"Samarra is 120 km north of Baghdad, in a region that has a population of around 600,000. My mother raised me and my older brother on her own with the help of our uncles and grandparents. My father has been missing since the 1991 Gulf War. He’s a doctor and was forced to join the army and was sent to the frontline because he wasn’t a member of the ruling Ba’ath Party. My mother never went to school, but she taught herself to read and write. She just kept on learning and went on to get an MA in Education: Arabic Language, since education is very important to her. Our family ties are very strong, which is why we never felt alone when we were children. What we loved most in our childhood was being surrounded by a big family and playing football and computer games with other children in our area.

I started school when I was four. After getting my high school certificate in 2007, I went to the University of Tikrit to study in a medicine related area. At the same time, I applied for a scholarship at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani. I was awarded the scholarship because my grades were good in high school. I spent a year learning English, and then studied the Liberal Arts, for example politics, philosophy, for two years. After that I studied engineering for three years. I had a great time studying there. I was a member of many groups, including a Shakespeare theatre group. We even took part in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the United States. What was astonishing about that play was that we performed it in three languages. Whenever someone in the audience shouted ʽchange’, we had to switch between Arabic, Kurdish and English – sometimes in the middle of a sentence, which was a real challenge! Later on, I finished my degree in May 2015.

Fleeing from ISIL to the land of engineers
By that point, ISIL had already conquered the city of Mosul and around one third of Iraqi territory, and the militias had taken over the other areas. They killed my uncle, who worked for a regional authority. Being a Sunni and studying at an American university made it impossible for me to go back to areas conquered by ISIL or the Shiite militias. People kept disappearing following so-called ʽchecks’ or ambushes. One day while I was on my way home, they nearly got me too. I was nearly kidnapped, but was able to get away just in time and flee to my brother in Turkey. Unlike my brother, though, I was unable to settle down there and had to start thinking about where else I could go. I chose Germany, as it has the best culture and policy of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers in the whole of Europe. Also, as an engineering graduate with some work experience, I hoped I would be able to find work in Germany, the land of engineering.

It took us 10 days to get to Germany via Greece and Austria. I was part of a group that included some of my cousins and their mother that travelled by boat, bus, ship, car and train. Luckily, I was able to get here more easily than others by speaking English. At the border post on the Austrian–German border, we applied for asylum. They registered us and put us on a train to Berlin.

Once we arrived in Berlin, we were split up and sent to different reception centres, like the German Red Cross Centre in Marburger Straße. Including children, there were six of us in one room. It was awful because it was a very small room for six of us and for about seven months; it was always noisy, so we couldn’t sleep or read. The food was not at all what we were used to; it was what Germans called ‛Krankenhaus Essen’. While I was living there, I wanted to do something useful, so I helped the head of the centre and the social workers there by interpreting when they were registering other refugees or helping and translating for many different activities. Lots of people in the reception centre were sick and needed an interpreter when they went to see the doctor.
“Soon after that, I went to the Employment Agency with my certificates, and was offered my first German language course. The Agency also helped me to do the bureaucratic stuff to start my internship for a communication agency called TRIAD. I got to know TRIAD while helping them put together information in different languages for the reception centre in Marburger Straße to help other refugees find their way around. So, during the day I worked as an intern, and in the evenings I went to German classes. I would have felt useless if I had just sat in my room not doing anything useful.

Hoping for asylum, a job and a secure future
It was at a job fair for refugees in the Estrel Hotel in spring 2016 that I noticed the HTW Berlin stand and found out about the INTEGRA programme. I registered straightaway, and in the summer, I passed the first German test. The course isn’t over, though. Now, I’m thinking about whether I could combine an MA in engineering with a job next year after finishing the German language course. I am now also applying for jobs and recently applied to Siemens. Since July, I have been living in a shared flat with Germans in Neukölln. My flatmates are really nice and explain all the bureaucratic procedures and German culture to me. We cook and eat together sometimes, and of course we take turns cleaning.

I believe I’m doing comparatively well. I really hope my asylum application will be granted; I’m optimistic. There’s no point being sad, is there? But my thoughts are often with my mother and relatives in Samarra – I talk with my mom everyday on the phone. I keep hearing in the news about the heavy fighting, for example in and around Mosul. The situation is very bad and complicated. The problem is that there are about two million civilians living in the city; they can’t get out of that miserable situation. So, I feel very bad for all those innocent people. And what makes it even worse is that I myself know what the situation is like; I know what it feels like to be there as I spent 13 years living in such a situation. Even though I am optimistic, given what I see in the news is happening there every day, it doesn’t look like I’ll ever be able to go back again."