Figs on the Euphrates – elders on the Neckar: the path of Hamza Salama

By Meike Bischoff, February 2020

The sturdy young man appears to fill the doorframe, he smiles awkwardly, his legs cannot hide a certain restlessness. Dark eyes look attentively from the oval face with its shock of black hair. His face awakens associations with times past – Harun al-Rashid – Euphrates and Tigris – enchanting tones ascending …

Hamza has been a pupil at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School for three years. His tutor, Douglas Kennedy, asked me to support him in the preparations for the university entrance exams in the subject of German. Hamza is Syrian. Actually we are Iraqis, he says. A great flood of the Euphrates washed away his grandfather’s land. He, his father’s father, left the land and moved across the border to the south. He, Hamza, tends to speak an Iraqi dialect but the extended family is a veritable orchestra of different tonal colours of Arabic. I am astonished by the linguistic awareness of such a young person. “We are one world, we are brothers,” I hear him say, “Iraqis or Syrians, it’s not important.” Political boundaries are meaningless for language, Despite all conflicts, they do not adversely affect the basic feeling of shared identity. The Koran and the power of its language support this.

In the Salama family the twins Hamza and Omar are the youngest. One of the three older daughters lives with her family in the Kurdish area and speaks Kurdish, that is an Indoeuropean, not Arabic language. Of the five sons, the second oldest is a civil engineer. He works for the UN in Damascus where we was arrested one night. For months his parents tried to find out where he had been taken, without success. Escaping from his prison and torture, he fled to his parents. He never spoke about the torment of months of incarceration in a tiny cell. For a long time he continued to sleep huddled up in a ball.

His parents had already fled from IS twice and lived in Albsera. This village, too, fell into the hands of IS. The schools were closed and the sixteen-year-old twins, who were close to taking their final school exams, were threatened with military service. A clear signal for the father: “There is no future for you here.” He sold land to enable his sons to flee. Their goal wasn’t Germany, no, it was Stuttgart! That was the advice from a cousin who had already lived for many years in Berlin.

From Syria to Stuttgart

Fleeing is to set out into the unknown: Ibrahim, Ahmed, Hamza and Omar left their parents, their home. Ibrahim promised his father to look after his brothers.

The path into exile became a struggle for survival, a struggle with nature, with other people. “We were afraid we would suffocate (in the lorries), we were afraid we would drown (on the rubber dinghy), we were afraid of arrest, we were afraid we would lose one another. We were afraid and we experienced a lot of help, always when the danger was greatest,”  and so they reached Stuttgart. The most precious piece of luggage the brothers had was their mobile phone: the link to home, to where they had grown up. When Hamza talks about it, his eyes start shining. And he speaks even faster than usual. He has more than a thousand photos on his mobile. They show the spacious house of his parents and the large garden with palms and many fruit trees; the harvest was so delightful! The figs were so delightful! And the sheep!

Both parents were teachers, his father of Arabic language and literature in a cultural centre of which he was the director, his mother of biology, mathematics and also Arabic. She experienced her childhood and youth in Morocco where her father had been called as an Arabic teacher after the French left the country.

So she introduced the images, scents and sound of the Maghreb, of Moorish culture, to the family life in Syria. His mother also worked for women’s rights. Hamza proudly shows a photo of her.

Hamza does not have many positive things to report about his school days in Syria. Learning by rote dominated the school day. That is how he experienced it. When war broke out, regular lessons stopped. His mother and the oldest brother were now their teachers. His brother had been able to explain mathematics to them much better than the teachers.

They set off during the night of 21 March 2015. They reached Stuttgart in early May. They finally had sight of their goal. Not immediately, because the police sent them to Karlsruhe. There it was noted that the twins were still under age; so they were returned to Stuttgart to the emergency reception centre in Kerner Street. “Without my big brother...,” says Hamza, “that made me cry!”

Learning with absolute commitment

Stuttgart was the one goal; the other, bigger one  was: education, obtaining the school leaving qualification, the Abitur, which had been thwarted by having to flee Syria. That rankled. “I was always the best!”

First things first: learning the language. They did not know a word of German and had only a little knowledge of English. “Je suis Hamza”, this simply but important sentence encapsulated his knowledge of French. They did not look for work, they wanted to learn.

2015: Kyra Karastogiou, a class teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School, had experienced the plight of the refugees in Athens during her summer holidays, had seen Syrian women and children cowering in temperatures of 40°C in the meagre shadow on the streets being brought soup and drinks by Greek women. These images went back with her.

In Stuttgart she was strolling through the city centre, entered a small shop for a look around and came upon a small booklet. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW she read, and Escape to us. She leafed through it and came to an interview: three brothers told about their flight from Syria and what had happened to them in Stuttgart. Of the three of them, the twins were still under age. The Waldorf school can help them, she thought – and took action. With perseverance she telephoned her way through the various authorities until she reached the carers of the two boys in the youth welfare office. She also spoke with Douglas Kennedy who was responsible for class 11 in her school. His neighbour worked in the youth welfare office. He spoke with her and she with him about these two Syrian boys: Omar and Hamza were accepted for class 11.

It only took a few days for Hamza to know: I want to stay at this school! To begin with, he did not understand anything in the lessons but listened attentively – as the teachers reported – and learned and learned. With almost obsessive, restless persistence, he climbed the ladder of German courses until he reached the top rung. In the evening, he recounts, a jumble of languages had churned in his head. He slept little and often suffered from headaches. But he was determined. And had strength.

Putting his hand up in lessons? “No,” he says, “that wasn’t possible. My heart thumped like mad when I wanted to say something.” A thirst for knowledge and shyness were battling each other. He worked hard, did his work punctually, always displayed presence of mind: a remark was all it took and the mistake was eliminated. Sometimes he felt like saying: “Stop being nice to me. I’m a refugee, yes, but I’m a normal person!” He could not bear being pitied because of his fate.

He chose eurythmy as the subject for his year-long project in class 12. Two motifs determined his decision. “I wanted to communicate something of my Islamic culture.” So he studied Sufi whirling. The dancer rotates on the spot, practises inner peace and outer movement. Hamza sent his measurements to a tailor in Damascus whom his sister had found. He sewed his garment. No tailor in Germany could do that! Hamza’s goal was to combine this dance with eurythmy, his second motif.

Eurythmy was very important to him. It was the lesson in which he felt on an equal level with his fellow pupils. They also had to learn this “language”, something that did not come easily to everyone. Here he was not the refugee. In these lessons he came inwardly to rest. Hamza moved the dance around himself out into space, for eurythmy is movement in space.

Hamza initially broke off his preparations for the university entrance exams, the Abitur. At the second attempt he was put in a different class. He felt freer among his new classmates. They had not experienced his initial language difficulties which had also made it difficult for the others to meet him appropriately for his age, never mind his life experiences. Today he speaks almost perfect German, he observes himself precisely in speaking. And Hamza passed the Abitur.

“Do you miss your parents?” – “If I had remained with my parents in Syria, I would not be the person I am today: an adult person. I am grateful to Assad that he drove me away, because I owe everything I have learnt, the people I have got to know to this fact. It is my destiny that brought me here.”

It pains him that he cannot support his parents in managing their everyday lives and he tries to earn money to send to Damascus.

“Where does your path lead now?” – “I will study environmental technology. Syria needs that for its reconstruction. And the world needs it. I would actually like to study philosophy. My head is so full of ideas. I want to learn languages, many languages! Including standard Arabic which I can’t speak. Do you know Mahmud Darwish? He is the greatest Arabic poet today”:

“I have become like the Euphrates.
I wander between banks through the countries.
Who am I without exile?”

I learnt about this poet through Hamza.

About the author: Meike Bischoff was for many years a French and German teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School.


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