“I wish I was dead,” says 30-year-old Danyar Asefi, speaking through a translator, “living like this in constant pain is worse than death, I have nothing to live for.”
The pain that Danyar is referring to comes from the gunshot wound he sustained to his head last year in Syria. His face is disfigured, he has lost all sight in his right eye, and doctors have told him he may lose feeling in his entire right side altogether. Danyar feels constant itching in his head, he has trouble getting around alone due to his lack of depth perception, and he has lost control of his emotions, often snapping at people around him. “I need help, I need medical help!”
Danyar is one of the million plus refugees who have surged into Germany through the Balkans since last summer. Arriving in November, he has been living in a growing camp in Wittstock, about an hour and a half north of Berlin. Like many in this crowded, cold camp, he is awaiting a decision on his application for asylum. However, his story is a little different from the countless Syrians and Iraqis who have fled their hometowns as fighting rages on in the region. Danyar is a member of the Kurdish minority in Iran, where a brush with the regime during university, put him on a course to be swept up by the recent crises affecting the Middle East and Europe. The stakes in his asylum application are high, for a rejection would not simply mean a ticket back home to Iran, but could very well spell a death sentence.
While Germany initially carried out an open door policy regarding refugees arriving there, the government has since introduced legislation to speed up applications and subsequent deportations, as well as expanding the list of “safe” countries. Priority for asylum is being given to refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq while others, even from Afghanistan, are having their applications denied. Iran does not top the list of war torn countries, though with its high rate of execution (Amnesty International reported 694 between January and July 2015 alone) it is definitely not a safe country for ethnic, political and religious minorities living there. The fact that a potential asylum seeker could face persecution, even death, upon being sent back to Iran does not seem to be a guarantee of asylum in Germany. In a September 2015 article, NPR mentioned one man who faced the death sentence for converting to Christianity, whose application was subsequently denied even though the judge knew the facts of his situation. Danyar could soon be in a similar position.
Danyar couldn’t have imagined how much his life would change in one decade. In 2004, he was a tanned, well-dressed engineering student at the University of Sanandaj in Kurdistan. Only a few months away from graduating, he was set to have a normal life going to work in his field. However, being Kurdish also meant Danyar was as passionate about equality for his people as he was for engineering. “I have always believed in justice and equality so I was very involved as a student activist.”
Like many human rights activists in Iran, his affiliation would cost him dearly. One night on his way home from university he was picked up by plainclothes police. They took him to the central prison in Sanandaj, where he was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, before being transferred into the general prison for an additional five months. During this time he attempted suicide on three occasions. Danyar’s family had to spend their entire savings and use their house as collateral to get him released on bail. Eight months later he appeared before a court, charged with crimes against the Islamic Republic, and was sentenced to 12-years in jail, exile to another city and deprivation of certain civil rights. While serving his first year, his mother and other family members worked tirelessly until they were able to get his sentence reduced to parole.
The problems didn’t let up when Danyar returned home though, “The security forces did not stop coming to my house… I had to report to intelligence ministry office every day, and I had to show up and sign their daily booking every day to show I was in the city,” he said. After months of harassment, the pressure became too great and Danyar decided to take action, “I decided to leave the country; they left me with no other choice.”
Danyar left Iran illegally, traveling throughout Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan for some time. When the Islamic State began taking major parts of Syria and slaughtering the Yezidi, he felt compelled to help his people. He made his way from Turkey to Iraq and then Syria, ending up in the besieged city of Kobani. Danyar hoped there might be an opportunity to use his background in engineering to eventually rebuild the city, but soon the reality of the situation set in, “little by little it became clear to me that there was no opportunity to work on the ground as an engineer so inevitably I joined the fight against ISIS.”
Kurdish forces like the YPG and PKK have been instrumental in fending off or recapturing ground taken by Islamic State militants. The brutal fight for Kobani resulted in a strategic victory for the Kurds, but Danyar was not around to witness it. One evening another soldier had asked him to help two young female fighters who had become frightened and were pinned down in a shallow ditch near the front lines. Danyar helped one of them out, put her in a secure position and then went back for the second. He was almost to safety when he stopped, feeling a sudden warmth in his face, “I did not think I was injured, because right then I felt no pain,” he said, “I touched my face and my hand was completely bloody.”
His next recollection is waking up in a hospital in Turkey, to a surprised doctor who had come to pull the plug on his life support. Danyar had been in a coma for several months, during which time doctors had performed multiple surgeries, however he required more complex operations. Left wondering how to continue with his life, Danyar again considered suicide, before deciding to join some friends to head to Germany where he hoped he could receive better medical treatment and start a new future. They paid a smuggler $1600 each to get them to Greece, where they crossed the border to Macedonia and made their way up the Balkans avoiding border patrols or passing as Syrian Kurdish when necessary. By this point it was October 2015, and the cold weather combined with constant travel was taking its toll on Danyar, who was without any medication for his injuries.
His arrival in Germany has not exactly provided the relief he had been hoping for. Arriving in late fall, the camp has been getting crowded as fast as the temperatures have been dropping in the unheated tents. He said last month alone the numbers nearly doubled from 400 to over 700 people. In addition, the medical services he was expecting have been slow coming, due to his current ambiguous asylum status. While he was allowed several doctors visits and even had a surgery scheduled, it was suddenly canceled by social services. In the meantime, his friends have set up a crowd funding website in the hopes of raising enough to pay for his surgeries. So far donations stand at $0.
More worryingly, Danyar described an atmosphere of “de facto racial discrimination” in the camp. He says everything is clearly geared towards Arabs, from the food being cooked, to the language being spoken by staff and healthcare providers. “Everyone who doesn’t speak Arabic is screwed,” he said. Fights have broken out along religious lines, a phenomenon which has been reported by German media as happening in camps throughout the country. Danyar says many ethnic Sunni Arabs will not interact with him, thinking that all Iranians practice Shi’a Islam, when in fact Danyar comes from a Sunni region. Even 3000 miles from Iran, the discrimination has not ceased for Danyar. For now, all he can do is wait for the status of his asylum to be decided. He would like to remain in Germany and even hopes to return to school for medicine. After his experiences fighting and seeing others injured in his journey, he hopes to one day be able to help others.
The choice, unfortunately, is not his to make. Thousands of refugees are arriving on European shores every day, with the German government reporting it could face a population of 3.6 million refugees by 2020. After widely reported sexual assaults by alleged migrants in Cologne over New Years, fighting in camps, and a rise in right wing nationalist groups, public opinion is starting to wane. The German parliament will soon vote on an even stricter set of regulations for asylum seekers, ever honing in on their preference for those from Syria. The odds are increasingly stacking up against Danyar, and he knows what a rejection means, “If I am deported to Iran they will
put me in front of the firing squad in less than a month.”
Depending on the decision of a German judge, he may get his original wish.
You can contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to help Danyar pay for some of his medical costs in Germany here: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/c15oZf
Photos provided by Danyar Asefi