At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, in 2011, Mohamad Al Masalmeh was only 17 yrs old.

While many young men decided to take up a rifle, he slung a camera around his neck and started accompanying his cousin who was an activist in the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. In January 2013, Mohamad’s cousin was killed by a sniper while working as a reporter in Syria. It was then that Mohamad decided to leave his family, to try to reach Europe. His desire to become a photographer caused me to approach him and it was then that I decided to tell his story. He has with him images of his tormented nation and the horror he saw impressed in his eyes, yet still full of hope. After one year in the Harmanli refugee camp, in Bulgaria, Mohamad travelled on his own paying a human smuggler that showed him the route to cross borders. Then he took a train and finally joined his cousin Hany in Warstein.

Many scream for “Europe Europe!”, but the European dream has vanished for most of them.

And the daily nightmare they find themselves trapped in has become a fact of life. The horror of war is not the only open wound. The journey itself, in order to reach Europe, leaves permanent scars in the memories of asylum seekers. Before to succeed, Mohamad and some of his friends escaped and tried to travel illegally through Greece and Macedonia, but they were arrested and pushed back in Bulgaria. I wasn’t with Mohamad that time, but I decided to follow in his footsteps to see what he might have experienced there.

«It’s beautiful here, but it reminds me too much of that forest between Romania and Hungary. I swear -Mohamad claims- I can’t bear to think about it: it was a real nightmare».

A peaceful walk in the natural park of the Arnsberg forest, in North Rhine-Westphalia, brings his memories back to light. His family in Syria, the escape, two years of failed attempts to reach the heart of Europe. Appointments with smugglers, money thrown away. Well, he finally did it, Mohamad has been in Germany since 31 December 2014. After his arrival more than one million asylum seekers entered Germany during 2015. He waited for over a year before receiving a three-year residence permit with humanitarian protection. Mohamad and Hany are two Syrian cousins who met back up again in Germany. They started their trip together and together they are integrating themselves into German society: after living for a period in a refugee camp, they have now been allocated a small apartment and each receives an allowance of 400 euros per month, which they can use to provide for themselves. They have taken their admission tests and they have signed up for a German language course at a preeminent academy with the intention of pursuing their university education. However, it’s not easy for them to live in Germany and being branded “refugees”. «A girl asked me: “Do you have the moon in Syria?” -Mohamad claims, incredulously-. This is absurd, Syria is the cradle of civilization, people do not realize that, before the war started, we had everything. When I fled Syria I didn’t even know what the word “refugee” meant. Then I realized -Mohamad claims-. I realized that at some point, your life depends on a sheet of paper and it becomes the only goal you need to set in order to start your life over again».

Cultural adaptation to German life is a long process, a compromise between their habits and the preservation of their own identity.

They have made German friends to spend an evening with, going dancing to Rüthen or Cologne, as well as having their trusted Syrian-Kurdish barber in Soest. They play table tennis in the town’s team in Warstein and they go to the mosque in Meschede to pray. They sleep with their phones in their beds and, just like their European generation, they too are phone-addicted but all their thoughts are turned towards home, in Syria, whence bad news keeps on coming: Hany’s brother was killed in a bombing by the government forces of Bashar Al-Assad on 17 December 2015, and the very same fate awaited Mohamad’s brother, Alaa. He was killed during a battle in Daraa on 23 February 2017. It’s quite impossible to deal with loss being so far away from their families. Mohamad took his anger out on a door, Hany collapsed and he has been having nightmares every night since. They both found pictures of their brother’s corpses on social networks. «I’m here but, sometimes, it’s like I’m not -Hany says- I can’t explain and, what’s more, I couldn’t even go to his funeral». Mohamad and Hany stick together, trying to move on. Their future lies in Europe now; nevertheless, they write the name of their home city, Daraa, where the Syrian revolution started, in the snow. If the war were to end tomorrow, before that snow could melt, they would already be back home. Where they, too, have a moon waiting for them.

SOULS OF SYRIANS (2013-2017)