‘Before the revolution, my life in Syria was good. I had a great career as a professional basketball player, and my family – all liberal intellectuals – supported me in everything I did. I have been a freethinker for as long as I can remember. When I was nine years old, I began asking critical questions about Islam. I soon realised that the Quran is a book written by people and that no one can prove the existence of Allah.
In Syria, only religious men have beards. However, when hair began to appear on my face, I let it grow. Not because I considered myself a Muslim, but because my father and his father before him had beards, and because I think facial hair makes a man really attractive. With my beard, I showed pious people that I can do whatever I want: that my beard does not represent religion, it represents me.
When the revolution broke out, my friends and I made flyers opposing the dictatorship. During the demonstrations, the police used sound bombs and bullets. I never expected the army would fight its own people. But they did, and they arrested us. They tortured us because they wanted to know the names of our friends. I did not give in.
‘With my beard, I showed pious people that I can do whatever I want: that my beard does not represent religion, it represents me’
After my father got me out of jail, I learned that he got shot by a sniper. I paid the border police a fortune to let the rest of my family go. Leaving Syria was one of the biggest humiliations of my life. I felt castrated. My homeland was a mess, and I could not do a thing about it.
We all got different visas. I went to Turkey, and the rest of the family went to Egypt. I have not seen my mother in more than five years. The separation tears me apart.
In 2015, I moved to Berlin on a political visa. As a refugee, I get generalised and stereotyped all the time. People treat me as an idiot, they ask me if there are cows in Syria. I have more university degrees than most people here.
My beard makes people scared of me; they think I am a terrorist. The police often stop me and ask for my papers. As part of my integration into German society, I had to take a course called Leben in Deutschland. I do not want to have to lose my identity in order to be German. I am Syrian.
‘As a refugee, I get generalised and stereotyped all the time. My beard makes people scared of me. They think I am a terrorist’
However, Berlin is my safe zone. My friends come from all over the world, and together we talk and eat and dance. The multitude of cultures is beautiful. I have the freedom to do whatever I want here. People don’t judge. The best thing about Berlin is that it enables you to get out of your comfort zone. I remember going to Pornceptual – a big sex-positive party – and feeling extremely nervous. I saw naked people everywhere and they were all having a great time. Something like that could never happen in Syria. I took my shirt off and danced the whole night.
Syria is a war zone now, a jungle full of fundamentalists and people living in fear. There is no way to build real freedom there. When things get better, I will return. I was part of the beginning of this, so I must finish it too. I will rebuild Syria.’