From Syria to Bulgaria, part I: Escaping death

Some years ago, an ambitious Kurd from a village in northern Syria won a scholarship to study abroad. He ended up in Havana, where he learned Spanish. Elias later returned to Syria, where he became a journalist at the state news agency, SANA. EURACTIV Romania reports.

In 2011, massive protests were mounted against Bashar al-Assad and our man started leading a double life. By day, he was a free spirit, demonstrating at the protests. But by night, he translated false news favourable to the regime in Damascus.

Inexplicably, the Kurd escaped being drafted into the military, which most likely would have meant ending up a deserter or dead.

When things got out of hand, Elias left Syria, but not before making sure that his brother – close to enlisting – could also escape.

Elias left Syria with only his backpack and set course for Europe. He dreamed of living in Germany or one the Scandinavian states.

Part I – The Uncountried : Escaping death in Syria

Let`s start from the beginning.

Elias: I was an activist in Syria, organising protests at the university, as a Kurd. There were like 300,000 Kurds without Syrian citizenship – even though they were born there and have lived there. That was one of the reasons why I started to think about leaving Syria.

That was in 2003. I got a scholarship to study in Cuba, to study Spanish. I decided that that was a better option for me because the other way would have meant finishing in prison. So, I started a new career, new studies there in Cuba. I spent seven years there. And, actually, I was thinking of not coming back to Syria, but the scholarship stipulated that I must spend double the time of the scholarship working for the government.

I was supposed to come to Syria to teach Spanish at the university, but after a couple of months, the revolution started. So, they decided to take me at the Syrian Arabic News Agency (SANA) as a journalist and as a translator. And that is how I started to be “a journalist”.

And human rights as well?

Of course.

It was really hard for me to work with them, but I was forced to. If I had said “No,” they could have killed me immediately.

And this was how you ended up being an activist in the street (by day) and then a journalist for the government (by night)?

Exactly, and translating something that was not related to reality. I saw how they started to kill people. I saw how the government wanted to make it like it was not a peaceful protest. They forced the people to do it.

I have a story about one guy that actually detected that I was not translating this in the news and he said to me: “Be careful.” He was a friend, working in the Spanish section. He told me: “If they detect that you are not actually translating that, they will immediately kill you.”

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It was not easy to go to the protests and work there. There were some guys always letting us know that they – the government – were behind me.

How were you getting these messages?

One time, one guy said “Hey, sir, this is… this guy is here.” I looked behind, and I said: “Do you know who I am?” He said: “Yes, I know who you are.” I said: “I am journalist at SANA.” And he said: “I know.” They knew. Just to let me know, to let me feel…

They knew your every move.

Exactly. They were checking everything.

I started to think that the only way to survive is to pretend that I’m with the government. Sometimes they started to do something to force me to say different things. But I was like, “OK, you’re right, you’re right.”

They work this way to threaten you, to make you feel like, “Hey, we control you!” But they don’t control anything. They cannot control anything.

I had been using a card for journalists working for SANA. It gave me access to any place. It saved my life. In every place, at the checkpoint, I used this card. Even when I escaped. Something stupid happened. At the first checkpoint, they stopped the bus and told us: “OK, all the guys get out” and they wanted to check us. “Give me your ID!” and I gave them the ID.

At that time, I thought that if they check my name, they will take me immediately and they will know that I’m trying to escape. So, I got out of the bus and I showed them my card for the last time. “I’m a journalist and I’m on a mission to go to my city to cover some news there.” Even the opposition was dangerous, because I was working for SANA. With ISIS it was the same.

But you were forced to do that.

But no one knew that. I wanted to escape. Anything could have happened.

You were threatened by all of the parties.

Yes, I was threatened by all the parties.

When did you leave Syria?

It was 2013.

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So, you had almost three years of work.

Yes. I saw the destruction done during those (preceding) three years.

When you left Syria, what remained behind?

I left everything. I left my mom, my family. Everything that was precious to me remained in Syria.

Are they safe? Are they still there?

Some of my family are still there. My mom doesn’t want to leave. It’s not easy. Just imagine, if it is really hard for us, how it must be for an old woman.