“Which party? Which war? Which future?”

08 septembre 2016

My life is good, I have a house, a good job, and strong friendships and generally things are heading in the right direction for me. The choices I contemplate evolve around which camera lens I should buy next, which party should I wave my arms up in the air at and how to progress in my career. In this position it would be easy for me to think that the rest of the work around me is also going well. However, I watch the news and see that millions of people are seeking refuge from war, alliances are being broken and some of the discussions I have with friends, colleagues, acquaintances regularly strike me as ill-informed often based with very little objectivity. In this day of open communication I think that we can do better to understand the world around us and a recent experience with my company is allowing me to do just that.


The company I work for, Arcadis, is an open minded company that has grown considerably over the six years I have been here. Not only has it grown but I have too and recently I had an opportunity to experience something very different to my normal office environment. This year’s Arcadis Global Leaders Forum brought Arcadis leaders from across the globe to Berlin to develop the strategy of our business for the next three years. As part of this forum, a day was dedicated to “Giving back” in the local area by going into volunteering groups to help and understand the work that is being done locally. I took part in a group that visited a refugee camp which supported two thousand people in the old town hall in Berlin. During this visit I was able to talk to the camp director, teachers, security staff, refugees but of all of these people, one man in particular sticks in my mind. This man was willing to tell me his story; his journey from Syria to Germany when others were still in too much pain to talk about their experiences. However what struck me most wasn’t so much the details of the journey but more the decisions he had to make along the way which really put in context his life with mine and the choices our different environments facilitate.


As war broke out in Syria, his first decision came about by deciding between protecting his country or protecting his family. Do you choose to fight for your home and country but keep your family in a war zone or do you choose to leave for another country, leaving home, friends and memories behind with the hope of a better future for your children? Naively I always thought that if war was to break out in my country I would be prepared to fight for what I believed in and to protect my country but that is because I never considered the need to protect my family in a society where the basic social justice and local infrastructure have been eliminated and does not support healthy living.


Once he had made his decision to leave, this man had sell his house to war lords who acquire property in time of war for future investment. All their possessions were also sold in order to pay for the boat crossing to Europe operated illegally and costing the lives of thousands of refugees who do make it across safely. Knowing this risk, he had to balance the conditions in Syria against putting his pregnant wife onto the boat to Europe. Both were lucky to make it across which was not the case for the boat following them that capsized and cost the life of 60 people.


Once in Europe, he and his wife travelled the length of the continent in order to reach Germany. He and most other refuges had to walk the whole journey as governments of passing countries had forbidden their citizens to help refugees to travel on the grounds of human trafficking and other ‘concerns.’


However, they managed to get his family to Germany where he is now living inside the old town hall where we met. Being from Syria, the German government has offered him and his family automatic asylum but this is not true for refugees from other countries who have to wait six months or so for a decision on their asylum application. During those six months, they are not allowed to seek a job living in doubt as to whether they will be allowed to stay or be returned home.


At the time I met this man, he was learning German which is the first step for him to get work and then a more permanent household. Despite his hardships he repeatedly tells me that he is very happy that his child will now have a future. But when I ask him whether he will stay in Germany after the war or go back to Syria, his response really hits hard into me the weight of the decisions he has made on the way “After the war I will go back to see my friends and family, those above ground and those below”.


After hearing his journey and the choices he has made along the way which I cannot even begin to contemplate, I am left wondering how I can balance my lifestyle against those of people who are really in need? How can I make a difference?


Living in the UK I am shocked to see how few refugees we are willing to support, and the negative stereotyping that we see; however I take some comfort that Arcadis has employed 100 refugees, giving these people stability in a new world but I am still left wondering what can I do when I am just one person with only limited resources. And whilst I am still thinking it through, I realised the first thing I should do is share the story of this man to allow others to appreciate the enormous decisions refugees face against our own challenges and to raise awareness. I hope through this to help us all to understand the challenges that refugees face and dispel some myths associated with their tough situation.


Julian Heath

Global Shaper Generation 2013


(Source image: http://www.sloughrefugeesupport.org.uk/who-are-refugees/)