Germany led the charge in opening its borders to waves of Europe-bound refugees last year. Not surprisingly, the hundreds of thousands of visitors began taking stock of their host country: new climate, food, customs, and overall lifestyle—a lot to adjust to. Ramy Al-Asheq saw many people who could use a hand navigating the new system. So, last fall, he assembled a team to help inform fellow migrants. Makeshift caught up with Ramy at his apartment in Cologne.
Makeshift: Tell us about your personal story.
RA: I’m a Syrian-Palestinian poet and journalist. I left Syria in May 2012 for Jordan. Some militias from the regime tried to kill me, because I took part in a demonstration. But, as a Palestinian-Syrian, I wasn’t allowed to stay in Jordan. I came to Germany, under an asylum grant, which protects artists and writers from dangerous and unsafe countries. I’m now editor-in-chief of Abwab, the first Arabic newspaper in Germany.
What made you start Abwab?
When I came to Germany, there weren’t any Arabic newspapers. I initially had the idea of making a website in two languages, Arabic and German, to bridge the two communities. Then a publisher contacted me with some funding and an idea to make an Arabic print paper. Since I have a good network of writer and journalist friends, we began planning, and we launched Abwab in just a month. ‘Abwab’ means ‘doors’, so it’s like a guide to Germany.
What’s your vision for the paper?
We’re not in Germany because of choice. We were forced to leave our countries. As a result, we don’t know much about the culture, the life, the bureaucracy. Abwab is a newspaper by refugees, for refugees. There are articles about education, about finding food you recognize, and these pieces are written by either Germans or older Arab people who have lived here for a long time. We have sections—‘doors’—for international news and German news, doors for community news, reports, interviews, literature, concerts. There are two pages for feminism and women, two pages for success and happiness, and two pages for arts, literature, poetry, and caricature. So in a sense, we are a map.
What is the biggest challenge for refugees in their first years?
The language. Because without knowing German, we always have problems. And we don’t want to make mistakes. A small mistake cost me a fine, because I was on my bike and checked the time on my phone. I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed.
Who are your contributors?
The majority of contributors are refugees living in Germany. Our designer and layout person is in Turkey. The newsroom is in Paris; they are friends of mine. Because of my network, the majority of contributors are Syrian. But there’s Iraqi writers and journalists, [as well as] Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian, and Palestinian. And some German.
What is the circulation? How and where does it get delivered?
We distribute all over Germany. BAMF, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, will help us distribute 10,000 copies in camps, but we already distribute in some refugee camps. We’re also circulated in the Arab and Syrian communities here in Cologne, in Berlin, and other cities. Many refugees ask us to send them copies so that they can share with their own community.
How long do you think you’ll stay in Germany?
What do you miss from back home? For me home is not a geographical area. It’s about the people you know, and the memories. I have both friends and memories in Syria, but I lost many friends, family members, colleagues. And I lost a lot of my memory also. When I think about Damascus, there is black. A black map.
But that doesn’t mean that I’ll forget my country. I will do everything I can for Syrian people. But if you asked me now, if I’d go back to Syria, with the regime, today? No. I couldn’t.