Firas Alshater

Age: 24 years old

Interview in: Berlin, Germany

Date: October 14, 2015

Homs, Syria
Berlin, Germany

Firas Alshater, 24, from Homs Syria was granted asylum in Germany two years ago and has since been studying filmmaking in Berlin. An anti-Assad activist, Alshater spent 9 months incarcerated in Damascus before deciding to seek a new life in Europe. Berlin, Germany. October 14, 2015. © Miguel Winograd

My name is Firas Alshater, I am from Syria and I am 24 years old. I was born in Homs, but grew up in Damascus. I studied acting for theater. I did that for two years. In 2011 the revolution began in Syria, and after that I couldn't continue my studies. It was a problem because I was against Assad and this was reason enough to send you to jail, and if you were sent to jail they would kick you out from the university.

I worked hard to get my place to study as an actor. In Syria we always need what they call “Vitamin B,” which means you need to have a good contact in the army or in the security services who will support you to get what you want. I had to work really hard because I didn't have that.

In 2011, when the revolution started, it was clear that I had to do something, that I couldn't be silent. I saw the people dying in Dara'a and Homs. I went to the demonstrations to say together with the people protesting: “we want freedom.” Nobody at that time was saying, “We want the Islamic State,” or anything like that. The people wanted democracy and freedom. But, from the very first day, the Syrian regime's media said that these were terrorists with guns who were coming from the mosques. No one was like this.

If you are asking for freedom and someone comes and arrests you, or kills your brothers, or your sons, or your father, no one gives you your rights, what are you going to do? How long will you stay silent? If no one gives you your rights, you will claim them yourself. Some people decided eventually to take up arms, but this was later, after 6 or 8 months of peaceful demonstrations. This also happened because some officers were giving orders to soldiers to shoot at the demonstrators and kill people. Some soldiers didn't want to do that, so they defected and went to the people's side to protect them. That's how it started in the beginning: soldier's defected and formed the Free Syrian Army and started fighting against the regime. At this time I was not sure if I was for or against these people taking up arms. I totally understood their point of view and their reasons, what they were living and what they were seeing.

When I was in jail, the only thing I thought was that the first thing I would do when I got out would be to take a gun and kill these people who tortured me. I always remember when I was in this small room. At first I spent three weeks alone in this room that was just one-and-a-half meter squared. Nobody talked to me, I could just hear the tortures; I could hear people screaming, “help,” “I didn't do anything!” Then at some point I didn't hear this person anymore and I knew that he died. And that is the hardest thing: you never know when your turn will come. You don't know when they will call you. You don't even have a name anymore. They are just calling numbers. So I was sitting and waiting for my number, 36. But they never called it. One time the door opened in the middle of the night. I couldn't sleep because I was very afraid in this place. You didn't see the sun in this place; you didn't see anything. You are just feeling really cold. They try to make the conditions unbearable. It is like two or three floors underground and there is nothing, and this makes the place really cold. You don't have a jacket or anything. They took everything. And you are just sitting like that. It's hard.

I heard other people living in a room like mine, but they were many. And I thought: how could there be so many people in this room? One time they opened the door and brought in a guy. He was an officer who had raped a girl. They caught him and sent him in for one week or ten days. But it was hard, because I was sitting with him and had no one else to talk with except him. For me it was difficult because I was talking with someone who loved Assad and thought I was a terrorist. I also viewed him as a terrorist. We hated each other, but we had to accept that now we were in one room. We were two people and we sat for more than twenty days. But our ideas were too different. He told me that God would fall before Assad fell. And I told him no, because the people didn't want him, and it was a long conversation. I was actually afraid that he would go out and tell someone everything I said to him. But I didn't fucking care, what would they do, put me in jail? I was already in jail. That was in 2012. I was 21.

Firas in his apartment in Berlin. © Miguel Winograd

We only had two times a day to go the toilet. When you went to the toilet, you just had 5 seconds to finish: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, you have to go out! If you didn't go out, they would beat you crazy hard. Some people were already in the toilet when you walked in, because they tortured them and then hanged them from their hands in the toilet. So you had to go in there and do it under these people, because you don't have another chance, you had to wait maybe 12 hours to go again. You have to do it quick and these people are there. Sometimes you couldn't. Sometimes I said I should try to not do it and just take some water from the toilet and give it to this man, because he needed some water. When I went out I found a small plastic bottle, I took it with me. I said I had a sugar problem and had to go to the toilet frequently. So they said, “Ok, take it!” I was lucky this time. I got this bottle and this made me happy.

Why did you get arrested?

I got arrested four times: four different places and four different stories. One time I was in the demo and when the police came I went inside a bus. The police saw me, or maybe the driver told them I was there. They came and took me.

Another time I was invited with my friends to go to a café, and the security service people were sitting just near us, listening to everything. They were actually looking for my friends, not for me. But they took us together just because I was sitting with them. After they took me, they opened my Facebook and saw what I wrote against Assad. This was enough to send me to jail. This one time I spent a long time in jail, around two months. They talked with me, and in the end, they released me with this girl because she was a Christian. One of the fathers in the Christian church called the security services asking them to let her go and they released us together because we were in the same file. This was the beginning and they wanted to placate the Christian people so they wouldn't be against Assad.

© Miguel Winograd

I was out for two weeks and met with a Swiss friend, a photographer who was making photos in Damascus to show what was going on there. This was in 2012 also. They caught us together, and they released him after two hours, but they left me in. That was one of the hardest times. I was in a room that was 5 meters square with 200 people. And it was crazy: you couldn't keep your clothes on in there because it was so hot, so everyone was down to their underwear. It was fucking hell: really, really hot. When you went in, the floor felt flooded but it wasn't water, it was just because all the people are sweating a lot. It was like a sauna, all these people in a very small room. Many people can't breathe and they die in jail. Others are tortured. After torture you can't breathe because they beat you up so badly. At some point everything stops. Your brain needs a lot of oxygen to work and you don't get it in this place. Some people start going crazy. Someone would talk into his shoe as if he was using a mobile. Someone would go to the door and say, “open the door, I am going home now.”

Some people also start going crazy because they are not eating well. We just eat potato, you know like these shit things. They don't give you salt or anything; they just give everyone a potato. Or maybe five people get one tomato to share, maybe five people get a piece of bread. So it's very hard to get things there, to live there. And people start to fight with each other after being in there such a long time. You start to feel that the entire world is against you, so you feel that you also want to be against someone. You start to fight with your friends there.

How long did you spend in jail in total?

Nine months, if you add the different times. The last time they arrested me I stayed a long time, around five months. That is when I was tortured; they put cigarettes on my body and did a lot of other things. Eventually, my family paid money to help get me out. When I was out they told me I had to leave Damascus. They said if I stayed in Damascus and they caught me, they would kill me. This is why I decided to leave: I knew I didn't want to be arrested again.

So I left Damascus and went to Beirut. I stayed there around two weeks. Then I went to Istanbul and stayed there around five weeks. I tried to find a job but I couldn't. It was really hard for me to find a job because I don't speak Turkish. You also get a feeling that you are not welcome. At this time I was even sleeping in the cold, in the street or in the park, because I didn't have anything. I decided to go back to Syria. I went to the north of Syria to see how I could work a little bit. I was lucky to find a job with a charity. And then I got a chance on Facebook: it was a German company that contacted me to continue making the film of a Syrian guy called Tamer al Awam who was in Germany. He went to Aleppo to make his movie but he died there. They were looking for someone to continue his movie. Then they sent me a visa to come to Berlin to edit the film, it was May 2013. I arrived and now I am here.

I was thinking about the next step, what I was going to do here. It was not a plan I had in my life.When someone asked me as a kid what I wanted to be in the future, I didn't answer: “I want to be a refugee in Germany.” And now I was in Germany. So what could I do? I thought if I wanted to stay here I needed to apply for asylum. At that time it was only the beginning of the problem with the refugees. Back then it was not so many Syrians: more Afghans, Pakistanis, Africans, Palestinians.

I was living at a friend's place. It was actually the home of my friend who had died while making his film, Syria Inside. The woman who contacted me to finish the film offered me the place for free. She liked Syria, liked Syrian people. She was like my German mother at this time. I started to apply for all these papers, many papers. I didn't have the experience to deal with all the bureaucracy. I didn't speak German. It was hard to go and wait at the social services offices [LAGESO]. I had to wait for a long time, and sometimes for nothing. Even if you are applying for asylum as a refugee, all the offices are not in the same place. You have to go from building to building, and neighborhood to neighborhood. Sometimes you have to go far, like one and a half hours away, just to register your fingerprint. You pay the money in one place, and get your passport back in another place and so on. All this is very complicated. And there are some people who are coming from war, they are traumatized, and they cannot do all that. All of the paperwork is in German, and you don't speak German, it's not your place, it's not your city, so how are you going to do it?

© Miguel Winograd

I was lucky. I could sit down with my boss in the film production company and he explained the whole process to me. You need time to learn your way around this city because Berlin is one of the big cities. You don't know the name of all the streets so it's hard to get from one place to another. It's the beginning of many difficult problems. They also don't allow you to enroll in German class before you get registered as a refugee. After that they pay for the classes.

It was also very hard for me to look for a home. Oh my god! That was one of the most terrible things. You had to go everyday to two or three appointments, to see different places. Sometimes you go to a place and you find, 50, 60, sometimes up to a hundred people waiting to see the same home. Then you know that you don't have a chance. First, most of these people speak German, and you don't. Second, most of these people have been in Berlin for a long time so they can prove they have a job. You, you don't work, you don't have anything. It was really hard to get a home. I saw more than 90 homes in Berlin until I find this place where I'm living in now. I got it by chance because in the day when I came to see this house it was really cold and snowy, like -18 degrees C, nobody on the streets. I decided to come and there was no one else here and they gave me the home. I was lucky.

Then I started to learn German. I speak English, not very good English, but I can understand and people can understand me. When I started to study German that was a problem because I always wanted to speak English with the people. But after a while I decided, no, I don't want to speak English anymore, I have to JUST speak German. I decided even if I was making a mistake, or many mistakes, I tried to explain to the people what I wanted to say. Slowly, step by step, I got to learn German. I love to study. My university is in German. I applied to study film directing and now I study editing in school, and directing in the University. I have made several films in Berlin, some by myself, and others in which I have worked.

What is your dream? What do you want to be doing in 5 years?

This apartment will be my studio and I will have my own film production company. I'm sure that will happen soon. I will find another home and this apartment will be my workspace.

Have you ever felt that the Germans don't want you here?

Well, sometimes you see demonstrations of people saying they don't want the refugees. I get messages from Neo-Nazi people on Facebook because I am also active in some German groups to help the refugees here who are posting to ask for help. Many times I get these stupid comments saying: “Get out from our land! It's our land, our money! Stop stealing our money! bla bla bla” First thing they say is “I'm not Nazi, but ” There is always that “but” coming. Some people say “I'm not afraid of foreigners, but ” You are not afraid of foreigners but you are a racist. Racism is racism. Like when some people complain about women wearing the hijabs on the street. Other people say that there are people coming here to take their social welfare. But so many people left everything back in Syria because of the war: their work, their trades, and their homes. Millions of people left, not because they wanted social welfare, but because they lost everything. The main reason they left is because they were afraid, because there is a war. I'm sure if anything like that happened in Germany the first people to leave would be these Nazis.

A view of Alexanderplatz from Firas's building. © Miguel Winograd