“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia
Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for transit to Europe. According to [Russian state-operated news agency] RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.
The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.
I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.
Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.
In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to [Moscow exurb] Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.
During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.
I lived in Moscow Oblast and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.
When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time around, my case was handled by a different officer. He asked me the familiar questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother, brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.
I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russia illegally; for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.
The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude toward Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow city where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least once or twice a month they detain one of us.
I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in [Moscow suburb] Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words of Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.
This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.
Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.
War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we lived peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.
In Sana’a, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.
There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.
We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry. I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not the thirty dollars we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.
At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.
Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.
In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Between January 19 and January 25, twelve people were killed. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.
The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party. I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.
Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. I had the contacts of the people In Russia who had helped me get a student visa. For the first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.
There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.
Russia is a white Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has completely forgotten about people. The president works only to benefit his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.
People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.
I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.
More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.
And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not do anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.
I am from the city of Kobanê, on the border with Turkey. I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanê was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the factory in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.
Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by the Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but then I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanê area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight the Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.
All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue but officially had not shown up. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally.
I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with the policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.
After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanê, and there is almost nothing left of the city.
Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article.
Further reading on the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia:
- “Refugees from Yemen in Dead End,” January 30, 2016
- “Ripe for Exploitation: How Syrian Refugee Children Are Treated in Russia,” August 24, 2015
- Paul Canning, “Russian hypocrisy on refugees explained,” September 27, 2015
Olga Tseitlina: “Society does not understand why it should provide protection to Syrian refugees and refugees in general,” September 12, 2015
Featured image: Civic Assistance Committee. All other images: Furfur