From Refugee to Political Activist in Germany

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Adam Bahar, right, a refugee from Sudan, chats with a friend in Oranienplatz, the Berlin park he lived in for more than a year as part of a protest against the German government’s treatment of asylum applicants. Winston Ross for Newsweek

Before Libya descended into chaos, before civil war broke out in Syria, before refugees from those countries began streaming across their borders seeking safe haven in other Arab lands or dying by the thousands crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, a young Sudanese man named Adam Bahar made his way to the Turkish port of Izmir in the black of night, to board a boat that none of its passengers knew how to operate.

Bahar, 33, had fled a war zone in Sudan, where he says government authorities held him captive for a month. He escaped to Egypt, then to Syria. Then, after two unsuccessful attempts to sprint into Lebanon, he hiked into Turkey. And in the spring of 2010, he embarked on the most perilous leg of his two-year odyssey through seven countries, a journey that ended in Berlin three years ago. He wanted into Europe. But first, he had to make it across the Mediterranean.

Migrants (fleeing poverty) and refugees (fleeing danger) have been risking their lives in search of safe haven in places like Europe for as long as there has been war and poverty in the world. In the past few years, the flood of both refugees and migrants has reached crisis proportions on the continent, pitting nations against one another and resulting directly in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of desperate people as developed nations dither over who should pay to rescue and/or shelter these people.

Bahar made it to Berlin before the current crisis hit its most acute level, but his journey before arriving in Europe has proved to be no more difficult than the one he’s endured since he first applied for asylum in Germany in 2013. This is why he has morphed from a refugee on the run to a political activist, and he vows not to stop fighting for the rights of asylum seekers until European countries abide by the international treaties they’ve all signed.

The night he crossed the Mediterranean, Bahar was traveling with seven other Sudanese men he had met in Syria. They’d stopped for a spell in Istanbul but decided to press onward—north, because other Africans told them their best chance at a real life would be in the U.K. or Scandinavia.

Other migrants had secured a boat—from where, Bahar isn’t sure. The plan was to depart at midnight, navigating in the pitch blackness toward a light they could see from Izmir to the first point of land in Greece. Night after night, this group gathered in the woods where they’d stashed the boat, waiting for the right weather window. After a week, they set sail. “It was dark,” Bahar remembers. “Really dark.”

There were two children aboard, along with two women, and no one in the group had ever operated a watercraft before. Twice during the two-hour journey the engine broke down. Waves washed over the craft regularly. By the time the boat arrived in Greece, it was barely afloat. As the sun rose, these new arrivals split up and walked along the beach into the nearest city, where they were almost immediately met by police. The officers took them to an office established to deal with migrants and had everyone examined by a doctor. I’ve arrived, Bahar thought. And in a way, he had.

09_22_Refugees_02 Bahar leans against the vandalized information booth in Oranienplatz. Winston Ross for Newsweek

Collecting a Debt

In April, I met Bahar at a coffee shop in Germany, as he anxiously awaited word from the government on an appeal of his application for asylum there. In recent weeks, the German government has accepted thousands of refugees from conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other countries and has pledged to accept tens of thousands more, as well-to-do nations have found themselves embarrassed internationally by images of dead children washing ashore and by headlines about refugees dying by the hundreds in desperate attempts to reach safety.

Bahar considers Germany among the most racist and unfriendly countries for migrants and refugees, but he has decided to make this home, he tells me, because he’s tired of asking European countries for safe haven. He walked the streets of Berlin in open violation of German laws that required him to remain within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the city in which he first applied for asylum, and he refused the government’s demands that he appear in court to pay a 2,000-euro fine for his disobedience.

By the time I met Bahar, he’d had his asylum application rejected by both the French and the German governments. “They said they didn’t believe the stories,” he says. “That’s the easy way for them to say no.” That matters, because he wouldn’t be granted asylum unless he could convince the government his life was in danger if he went back home again.

This is a major problem, not just for Bahar but for all refugees. Europeans are, to an extent, sympathetic toward bona fide refugees—those who are forced to flee their countries to escape war or abuse. But they’re not so willing to welcome migrants—those who leave their countries in search of better economic prospects. It’s nearly impossible for most refugees to prove that they deserve asylum, which is partly why they are so often stuck in limbo, as European governments try to figure out how to determine who needs protection and who should be sent back to their countries. It’s notable that Germany’s offer to accept tens of thousands of asylum seekers in August was specifically targeted at Syrians, who have little difficulty arguing their case as refugees because of the nature of their country’s war.

Because Germany rejected Bahar’s application for asylum, he had only “second-class” permission to work, meaning he could get a job only if no other German or European citizen applied for it. He earns money writing pieces about refugee rights and at speaking engagements, after his daily German lessons. He has become a professional political activist, fighting not just to appeal the government’s decision in his own case but to shame Europe into following the Geneva Convention, which requires governments to provide safe haven for refugees. He is at the nucleus of a new movement of Africans, Syrians, Iranians and Libyans who argue that Europe’s historic colonialism and its modern war profiteering have wreaked havoc in the Middle East and Africa, and that refugees streaming into Italy, Greece and Spain are here to collect a debt, not to ask for a handout. Bahar is no longer begging for help. He is demanding retribution.

“These people should have the right to choose where they need to go to,” he tells me, sipping from a cup of coffee. “We’re not asking. This is my right, and I will take it, whether they accept it or not. It’s better for them if they accept it, but if they don’t, I will have it.”

Bahar and others fighting for refugee rights hope not just to force Germany to process asylum applications in a more timely manner but to do away with Europe-wide policies like the “Dublin regulation,” which states that asylum seekers must apply for refuge in the European Union country in which they first set foot. This is among several policies that encourage southern nations to nudge refugees to the north without helping them, and northern countries to ship people back south again without helping them. Bahar marched for 28 days from Würzbach to Berlin, and for another month from Strasbourg, France, to Brussels, in protests that defied Germany’s ban on freedom of movement for asylum applicants. He and hundreds of others spent a year and a half camped out in a Berlin park called Oranienplatz, staging an Occupy Wall Street-style protest that ended only after the German Senate agreed to negotiate.

Members of Bahar’s leaderless group of activists, who call themselves the “Refugee Strike,” have traveled the country by bus, raising awareness about detention centers scattered across Germany. They organize regular protests in Berlin’s most visible squares, and they host what they call soli (solidarity) parties to raise money for individual refugees. Bahar and his cohorts organize such protests under constant threat of deportation as well as violence from racists and xenophobes in Germany. The camp at Oranienplatz was attacked by arsonists four separate times.

Leaving Home

As with many asylum seekers, Bahar’s story is hard to verify. This is how he tells it. In May 2008, war came to Khartoum, where Bahar and his family had moved six years earlier, after bandits robbed their farm in West Darfur, where Bahar was born in 1982. He is the second of eight children. Rebel groups had been battling the Sudanese government for the previous five years, claiming it was oppressing non-Arab populations in the country, but the fighting had been contained 400 miles to the west. Until it wasn’t anymore.

As Bahar rode a bus to work in Bahri, the opposition group Justice and Equality Movement attacked the city and attempted a coup, taking temporary control of the city of Omdurman along with the airport at the Wadi Sayedna military base and three bridges that lead into the capital city of Khartoum. Heavy fighting ensued. Bahar was about eight miles from his home, across the Nile River, when people on the street started talking about a gun battle. He needed to get back home, but public transit was frozen. So he walked for the next several hours as shots went off all around him.

At the time, Bahar was studying economics and banking at Alzaiem Alazhari University in Khartoum. He made it home safely that day, but in a response to the uprising, the Sudanese government dispatched plainclothes officers to the homes of anyone suspected of sympathizing with or aiding the enemy in Darfur, arresting more than a thousand people over the next several weeks. Bahar had been working with other students in secret, collecting information to distribute in the few media channels not controlled by the government, hoping this subterfuge wouldn’t be discovered. Within days of the attack on Omdurman, Bahar told me, government forces came for him.

“Are you Adam?” an officer asked after knocking on his door. “You need to come with us.”

For the next month, police held Bahar captive and interrogated him, he says, but he refused to admit his role. After a month, the government had him sign a form swearing he wasn’t involved in any rebel movement, and the authorities let him go. Bahar returned home to find that he’d lost his job, and security forces continued to follow him. It was time to leave Sudan, he decided. “There was no life there for me.”

Bahar began plotting his escape. Some friends he knew traveled to Egypt on a regular basis and offered to smuggle him across the border. So on a summer day, in July 2009, he gathered a few pieces of clothing and his Sudanese identification card in a small bag and left his country, never to return.

09_22_Refugees_03 “Our friends stay here!” reads a poster advertising a “School Strike” protest staged earlier this year in Berlin. Winston Ross for Newsweek

Moving On

Bahar had heard that an agreement between the Sudanese and Egyptian governments would allow him to work in Egypt without a visa, so he went to Cairo hoping to start a new life. After a month, he began hearing rumors that the Egyptians were deporting hundreds of Sudanese back home. If he was sent back to Sudan, the government would know he had tried to flee. Friends in Cairo offered to help him reach Syria in exchange for some work, so at the end of 2009 Bahar headed north.

Even in those days, two years before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Syria was not a hospitable country for people like Bahar. It was expensive and hard to find work there. Bahar’s plan was to make it to Lebanon by running across the border into the mountains. If caught, other migrants told him, he’d face six months in a detention center and then deportation back to Sudan. Twice, at sundown, he and a group of seven other Sudanese men he had met in Syria tried running across the border, assigning themselves different jobs like scouting for police and developing a code to communicate. Both times, someone spotted the cops, and they had to turn back. Bahar gave up on Lebanon.

Bahar’s next destination was Turkey, he and his fellow refugees decided, after consulting others trying to leave Syria. At the country’s eastern border, there were no police, rumor had it. So he linked up with a group of seven other guys from his country, and they boarded a bus to a small village on the Turkey-Syria border. The crossing was easy, back in 2009. That was before thousands of Syrians began streaming into Turkey to escape the conflict that started in 2011. When Bahar and his crew made the journey, they saw only a few bands of other travelers and no authorities. They boarded a bus to Istanbul.

In each new place, Bahar sought out people from his native Sudan. They always did what they could to help, offering up food, places to sleep and advice about work opportunities and treatment of migrants and refugees in that region. Bahar and his friends found a large community of Sudanese in Istanbul, and he quizzed them about how it might be to try to start a new life in Turkey. He could apply for asylum there, people said, but he’d likely wait up to a year with no right to work and only a little money for food. In Europe, they said, some refugees were having their asylum applications processed more quickly, and stories were trickling back about the chances for a real life there.

And so he ended up on that rickety boat headed for Europe. After the police scooped him up in Greece, Bahar spent the next month crammed with other migrants and refugees in a detention center, a place “like a jail.” Inhabitants were allowed outside only an hour per day, and the 100 of them shared one shower. They were fed twice a day.

“I counted every minute until I could go outside again,” he says. “Then I went back in, and nothing. People just sleep all the time.” At the end, the Greek authorities who ran the place took the inhabitants’ fingerprints and their names, drove them to a nearby town and handed them visas allowing them to reside in the country. For a month. After that, they were quite clear: “You have to leave Greece.”

Bahar and his friends found the local Sudanese population again and questioned them about the prospects for a life in Greece. Some had found work in the olive groves, he learned, earning about 25 euros a day. He spent the next three months picking olives and saving as much money as he could—300 euros—before deciding it was time to keep moving north. Bahar and his friends arrived in the port city of Igoumenitsa. There, a group of migrants and refugees were camped out in some woods nearby, all waiting for the right moment to slip aboard a shipping container bound for Italy. Bahar spent the next year in this camp.

They had a system. Each day, it was someone’s turn to head to town to get food for others in the camp. Those who remained waited for two windows of time each day when the conditions for sneaking into the port were ideal. The first window was morning to noon; the second, 2 p.m. to midnight. These were large blocks of time, but each day that Bahar and whoever he went to the port with tried to find a shipping container, they had no luck. Either the container they found was locked or there were too many police around. Finally, after 12 months of trial and error, Bahar and a member of the group he’d left Syria with, a man named Abrahim, found a place to hide. A truck came to load the container onto a ship, and the port authority police gave it only a cursory scan from the outside. For the next 18 hours, Bahar and Abrahim stayed put, and stayed quiet. A day later, they were in Italy, in the port of Ancona.

After sprinting from the docks, Bahar and Abrahim arrived in the city center and found some Sudanese. There was a place in Rome, they said, where refugees and migrants were squatting. These strangers bought Bahar and Abrahim bus tickets to Italy’s capital city, and they were off. They slept the seven hours to Rome.

EU Rules

At the squatter house, Bahar and Abrahim found travelers from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Pakistan and India—a typical collection of people in search of a new land. They learned that the best anyone could hope for in Italy was a residence permit—no right to work—and thanks to the Dublin regulation, it would be ideal to slip out of the country without asking for asylum, so as not to get stuck there. “We decided to go again,” Bahar says.

Bahar figured he’d try for England, because he speaks English. He and Abrahim spent the next several days sneaking aboard one train after another, until they arrived in France. Abrahim fell ill in Grenoble and decided to stop to ask for asylum there. Bahar headed on to Calais, where he found another camp in the woods with people who hoped to sneak onto trains that ran through the Channel Tunnel to the U.K. He couldn’t make it across, so he moved into a squatters’ house in the city.

Over the next several months, Bahar kept bumping into the police. Twice, they asked him who he was and where he was from, and even after he admitted to being in the country illegally, the police let him go, hoping perhaps that he’d go somewhere else and be that country’s problem. The third time, they told him he had to apply for asylum in France or be deported to Sudan. For the next six months, Bahar stayed in government-issued housing in cities across France, as the country considered his asylum application. As is the case with 90 percent of such requests, Bahar was rejected. He was given a month to leave the country, in April 2012, two years after he first arrived.

Bahar had heard nothing but bad things about Germany in his travels—about the country’s Nazi past and racist present, that its people aren’t open and that it’s an unfriendly place for dark-skinned foreigners. He wanted to make it to Scandinavia, so he hopped a bus from Paris to Holland, then a train to Germany, heading north. At the train station in Hanover, police officers walked up to him and asked where he lived. He admitted he had no residence permit, so they took him to the station, fingerprinted him and sent him to a detention center called Braunschweig—a collection of three buildings 40 minutes from the city center by bus.

Bahar had no choice but to apply for asylum in Germany. He submitted his application on May 11, 2012. The government waited a year to answer it. For the next two months, he slept in a room with seven others, sharing a single kitchen and single bathroom with 100 people. He met people there who had been in the same place for 10 years. “Most of them just eat and sleep,” he says. “Some of them get crazy.”

Something changed in this place for Bahar. He stopped thinking about his own journey, his own final destination, and instead began to focus on the broken immigration system. He was in a country he considered one of the least hospitable to refugees like him in all of Europe. This detention center was just like the one in Greece and the one in France. “This is shit, everywhere,” he realized. “There’s no good place in the world. Somewhere you have to stop, and change something.”

So Bahar stopped. After the suicide of a fellow asylum seeker from Iran who’d been told he would be deported, Bahar walked out of yet another detention center.

End of the Road

I have my doubts about parts of Bahar’s story—at least the portion that takes place in Sudan. He first told me the version where an officer arrives at his house and asks if he’s Adam, but in his asylum application, which he showed me, he said he was arrested by being clubbed on the head. When I asked him to clarify the discrepancy, he says he was stressed with his upcoming court hearing and perhaps hadn’t filled me in on all the details of his arrest.

There’s also a bit of a language barrier, as his English isn’t perfect. Whatever the merits of his case, in Germany Bahar is now a well-known political figure who speaks out against not just that country’s policies but the entire European Union, as well as the dictatorship that has ruled Sudan. If he wasn’t in real danger before he left Africa, he certainly would be if he was sent back home.

After two years, Bahar was finally granted asylum in May, but that hasn’t slowed his momentum. He spent the summer organizing protests across Germany in response to attacks against refugee shelters in cities such as Heidenau. Recent agreements by Germany and other Northern European countries are little more than an attempt to “clean their faces,” he told me in a recent email. “In one month, we’ve had more than 120 attacks by fire in refugee houses,” he said. “It’s a big game, only, and nothing [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel has done makes any difference in the refugee crisis now. There’s still no safe way to enter Europe and people are dying in the sea and the right wing in Germany is growing. The only solution is to make a safe way for refugees to come to Europe, or open the border, or stop making war and selling weapons.”

Until that happens, Bahar promises to keep fighting.