Where there’s a will, there’s a way

5 Feb 2020

Back home in Syria, Samh Yousef could not have imagined that he would appear on German television. But those who set themselves a goal and steadfastly pursue it have already won half the battle.

Samh arrived in Germany on January 3, 2016, and since then his life has taken several surprising turns. He is now studying German as a Foreign Language at LMU. “Having learned the language as a second language, I would like to pass it on to others. I am well acquainted with the difficulties involved, I know the sorts of problems that learners run into, and I enjoy helping others to master it,” he says. He himself has worked hard to realize his ambitions. He began by tackling the thickets of German grammar on his own, and followed a circuitous route before he fortuitously enrolled in a proper language course (he attributes its discovery to fate). Having completed his first real course, he went on to take two more. His route to these classes regularly took him past LMU, and one day he decided that he wanted to study there. “My host family was not exactly enthusiastic when I announced my intention to study. They wanted me to take a vocational training course.” But he was insistent, even though it meant that he had to move back into an accommodation center for refugees. “At that point, I had reached B1 level in German. In other words, I was able to make myself understood, but I couldn’t really express my feelings. It was difficult period for me,” he says. In order to matriculate, he would have to pass a rigorous language test. Not only that, he was determined to take a course on integration, although his application for permanent-resident status had been rejected. So he registered for the necessary courses, and began by attending two different courses every day. “But then I felt that I needed to do more. So I searched for a third, applied and was accepted.”

No second thoughts – just do it! “At home, I really wanted to study music, but my father always argued that there was no money to be made from music.” So Samh studied Persian and Arabic instead, while occasionally singing in bars and cafés at night, unbeknownst to his father. “In Syria, men who sing are not well regarded. Only my mother knew that I sang. She was my co-conspirator and every so often she would accompany me.” The year 2011 put an end to that. War broke out in Syria and its male citizens were systematically conscripted into the army. Samh was also targeted, but he had no wish to fight. “I was kidnapped by members of the military, who wanted to extort money. But they realized that our family was poor – and that’s the only reason why I’m here,” he says. “Life in Damascus became impossible. There was no water and no electricity.” He and his family were now trapped in the city. He moved into a hostel and paid his own way, not wishing to be a burden on them. “War changes how people behave. Mutual respect is the first casualty, and greed takes its place,” he says. Then one day he noticed that the flag embossed on his student identification card resembled the regime’s flag, and he realized that he could use it to pass himself off as a soldier. “At the local bakery there was one line for soldiers and one for everybody else. The soldiers were always served first and they received extra treats.” This was what finally convinced him to leave. “If a piece of paper can decide how much bread you can buy and many people have to suffer hunger, what sort of a life is that? Having taken the decision, he immediately set about implementing it. He arranged to have his documents and certificates translated – that they were translated into German was serendipitous. The whole family chipped in to help him pay those who smuggled him into Turkey. Two months later, he moved on, intending to reach Sweden. But he was picked up by the police at the German border. “Either you stay in Germany or you will be sent back,” they said to me. “I believe there are times when fate intervenes.”

The budding interpreter Samh arrives in a refugee center in Munich, and immediately begins to learn German, with the aid of old schoolbooks and online courses. And in spite of his poor grasp of the language at this stage, he does his best to help other refugees who have had experiences similar to his own. He accompanies them when they have to consult doctors and during their unavoidable encounters with bureaucracy. “Small things can sometimes make a huge difference. Although my German was not great, it was good enough. And often the very fact that one is not alone under such circumstances helps.” That’s something Samh himself has experienced in many situations. “I know what it feels like when one is in difficulty and can’t solve the problem on one’s own. Not everyone has the degree of resolution needed to keep going,” he says. Then, after a brief pause, he adds: “If you really want something badly enough, then you can get your hands on it.” In this respect, he knows what he’s talking about. “The worst thing for me was to hear people say that we refugees had no future here. I wanted to demonstrate that there was nothing we can’t do, provided we learned to speak the language properly.”

Simple wishes How then does he view his own future? He nods and takes a moment to consider the question. The year 2019 was a good year for me, he replies. He has a job as a project manager with Land der Kulturen, an organization dedicated to opening up new perspectives for refugees by stimulating their creativity and helping them to adapt socially. His immediate goal is to do a Master’s degree. He’s also thinking of buying a small apartment, and perhaps starting a family. His CV includes a long list of voluntary work, diverse projects and a number of different jobs. With references like these, many futures are open to him. But his ambitions are not focused solely on his studies or any particular profession. “I have just begun to build a new life for myself,” he remarks. Does he have plans to return to Syria? At present, that option is closed, so he would like to bring members of his family here, he says. “When I first arrived here, I was often unable to sleep at night. It’s not easy to live with the knowledge that my family is not safe.”

From DSDS to DAAD – and back? On November 21, 2019, Samh received the DAAD Prize at an official awards ceremony. “It was a great honor for me, and I had spoken to my family about it on the phone the night before.” The DAAD Prize is awarded to students from abroad who not only have a good academic record, but have also devoted some of their time to social work in the local community. “First my appearance on DSDS* – then the DAAD Prize! It’s been an incredible year for me.” Unfortunately, Dieter Bohlen and the other members of the DSDS jury were not sufficiently impressed by his performance on stage to invite him back for the next round. “But Bohlen praised my voice and gave me a lot of encouragement.” So Samh is now determined to pursue a career as a musician. “I once gave up that ambition for my father’s sake. I don’t want to repeat that mistake.” He has now formed his own band. “Who knows,” he says, “maybe you’ll soon see me on ‘The Voice of Germany’.”

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