Only forwards, not backwards

Syrian-Palestinian author Ramy al-Asheq on a question he often gets asked in Germany.

It seems to me that many of our German friends empathize strongly with the homesickness we refugees feel. Hardly a festival, a reading or a panel discussion goes by without somebody asking me: “Do you think about returning to your home country at some point?” or: “When will you return to your country?” Such questions do not necessarily mean that the person asking them does not like us or is a member of the AfD party who wants us all to go back where we came from. It can well be that someone asks them out of genuine sympathy. Yet it does surprise me that this question repeatedly arises and I am not sure whether I really need to answer it.

As someone who was born in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates as the son of a refugee and then lived in Damascus as a refugee, whence I had to flee to Amman, Jordan, and then to Cologne, who then fled on from there to Berlin and who will possibly have to move onto to who knows where in the course of my life, I find the question not only unimportant, but often also annoying. Perhaps because I come from a culture where you only ask such questions of a guest one does not like having. So if Germany were the house of a host and we refugees were the guests, then we would interpret the question as to when we intended to return home as a polite way of telling us our presence is not desired.

However, I believe such questions as to when I wish to return are not meant personally at all, but apply to us Syrians and refugees in general. For this reason it is perhaps worth clarifying a few fundamental things for our German friends – even if one could assume that after six years of war in Syria these things are a matter of course.

  1. We refugees did not come here to holiday, and we also did not come to bring you a new culture or convert you to a new religion. Moreover, it is not our aim to live off your taxes. Rather, we had no other choice. We were driven out of our homes and saw our friends die there, some of us lost our families, our children, our memories, the places of our childhoods, our jobs and a place where we could express ourselves in a language we mastered. We fled to seek the protection of a safe haven.


  1. We were not born as refugees, and we did not run to flee an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. We fled and lost everything because a dictator named Bashar al-Assad is destroying his own people and together with those who support him is committing crimes against humanity, while the “civilized world” and its media practice normalizing relations with this criminal without in the process thinking of the millions of Syrians who were killed or driven from their homes by him. The occurrence will continue as long as the cause persists. And the cause is a war criminal who uses all forms of state terrorism against his people, and who uses all the weapons he can muster in his own country: from Russian rifles, combat jets and tanks to barrel bombs he has had made locally and chemical weapons bought from German producers.


  1. There can be no peace without justice, and there will be no safe system without the resignation of Assad and his sentencing by a court. And without peace, safety and freedom, refugees will not return to their country. On the contrary: their number will simply increase. If the causes remain then the result will likewise not change.

I have hopefully just answered the question on the Syrians’ return. For me personally I wish to say that I do not like to use the word ‘return’. I do not like to go back somewhere, just as I do not like to look back at the past. For me there is only one direction, and that is forwards. I did not leave Damascus behind me, but instead I wish that in the not too distant future I will again see Damascus before me, so that I can go there. But I do not want to go “back” to Damascus.

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