Caught In TransitionOne in Five Million
Muna Kharbin is one of the 5 million people who have left Syria since the start of the civil war. She took shelter in Ronneby, Sweden.
Sweden is the country in Europe that has taken in the most refugees in proportion to its population within the last year.
In total, it received 109 000 Syrian asylum applications from April 2011 until September 2016. Germany had the most asylum applications from Syrians with about 450 000.
In this period of time, Europe has had a total of 1 117 914 asylum applications from Syrians. For Turkey, the number is 2 764 500.
On the Train
On the Train
Bang, bang, bang!
„No passport? Then pack your stuff and get out!“, screams a police officer with a dark voice. I am on my way back home from Vienna to Hannover after visiting a good friend over the weekend. The light is dimmed and a few instants ago there was nothing but the calming sound of the train rolling through the pitch-black night. The cabins are oddly crowded on this Sunday night, most people are already asleep. They seem exhausted.
It is November 2015, migration towards Europe has reached its climax. Passau will be the first stop on German territory. Here, most passengers will be denied passage. Minutes before we arrive, the train decelerates, becomes eerily slow. Once it halts in Passau, the police storms into the train creating a chaotic situation. Everyone is woken up and most people are ordered to leave the train. They are scared and confused and no one explains what is going to happen to them. I can see tents with a perfectly arrayed line of busses next to them. This is where everyone is taken to. Some women carry babies, only wrapped in blankets. Most people simply follow the officers with their shoulders and heads hanging down, still half asleep. Jackets and food, that were given out by the Austrian Red Cross just one stop before, are hastily left behind in the now empty train cabins. Three young men managed to hide in one of the restrooms.
Another passenger on this train is Muna Kharbin, traveling with her two sons and sister – her only family left. I share the same cabin with them. She tells me they have already been on the road for several days now. One year earlier, in 2014, Muna had decided to leave Syria. She was too scared for her boys and therefore chose to undertake the dangerous and uncertain journey by just herself. Now they managed to reunite.
Muna and her younger son Ghaith (Re-is) are visiting her former neighbours in Karlshamn, a nearby town 30 km away from Ronneby. She spends almost every weekend with Selma and her daughter Rama.
They often have sleepovers and watch Arab Idol all night, smoke shisha and dance. Yet, Muna misses her friends from home.
Sometimes, Muna admits quietly, she really wishes for another child, a daughter of her own.
Muna is tired. As the police officer approaches, she gets very nervous and produces many different ID cards and certificates from her little bag. Her sister Samah doesn’t have a passport. She knows that this will be a problem. It is still dark in the cabin and Samah and her two sons Tarek and Ghaith (speak Re-is) are sleeping on the stretched out seats. The officer takes a short glance at all the different papers in her shaking hands and then walks away. Almost everyone has to leave the train. Muna whispers: „Are we safe now?“ and sinks down crying in my arms.
Muna got divorced from her husband a long time ago. Back in Syria, all of her friends were single women.
She tells me she only fell in love once. But the man's family rejected her because she doesn't wear a hijab. For her, it was no option to change that. Her father had always told her she is free to wear a hijab if she wants to, although he disapproved of the patriarchic society in Syria. He wanted Muna to become a liberated, self-reliant woman. Like her mother, he died of cancer.
With 24, Muna married a man she did not love. She was afraid that otherwise she would never have children. After Tarek is born, she decides she wants to have one more child and then get divorced. Her ex-husband never paid alimony.
It took a whole year until the family finally found a permanent apartment. It has two rooms and a balcony, almost all neighbours speak Arabic.
It’s quarter past seven in the morning. A soft alarm is ringing from the room in which Muna, Tarek and Ghaith sleep. The door is open, letting in the light that the boys left on when they went to school. Every day, they have to take the bus to Karlshamn, which is 30km away, because the local school was full. Ten minutes later, the alarm rings again. Clothes are scattered around the apartment. Then there is silence for a while. Eventually, Muna sighs and gets up. Her body hurts, she is tired. She starts folding the clothes that her boys left, puts a little coffee pot on the stove and gets into the shower.
Sometimes she sings.
"Since I came here,
I sometimes feel like
my hands are tied."
One of the few old photos
Muna brought from Syria.
She loves the bright colours
in this picture and doesn't
understand why people in
Sweden mostly wear
black or grey.
It’s the third day and it dawns on me: Maybe this doesn’t
work. Maybe this whole idea of a multicultural society, of integration is one
big floundering illusion.
I would miss our supermarkets, our chocolate, our bread. The
smell of the air when it becomes spring again, the endless nights in summer, my
neighbours and friends that I so often see randomly in the streets. I have been
abroad many times and it’s the little things you miss in every day life that
make you who you are, that make your life a livable one, with ups and downs. Naturally,
we start looking for familiar elements when we come to a new place.
When I’m with Muna, I don’t feel like I am in Sweden at all. We listen to Arab music all day and everywhere we go, we find someone who greets us with a friendly „Merhaba!“.
Maybe different cultures can only exist next to each other, but not coexist.
Currently Muna goes to school eight hours a day. She learns slowly, she says, because she is already 46 years old. She hopes to find a job soon, so she can pay back all the money she has received from the Swedish government.
We go swimming. It's a Wednesday afternoon and the pool is mostly filled with older, Swedish people. They calmly swim their laps, one after another. Muna sits down at the side because she cannot swim. A few minutes after we're in the water, Ghaith asks me when the springboards will be open. I can tell he is already bored. He starts to crawl but Muna tells him to stop immediately. She is anxious to do something wrong, to make someone angry.
Suddenly I hear Arabic music playing. Although I do like this type of music I've definitely overheard it the last days and wonder where it is coming from. I glance over at Muna and see her watching a video on her phone.
Muna's apartment in Qaboun is in the hands of the Free Syrian Army. If they win the war, she has to wear a hijab and sit in the house all day, she says.
"Muna means 'wish, desire'. I have so many wishes, but I never get any. Sometimes, I think I should change my name. But then again I don't believe in those kind of things."
When the war is over, Muna wants to return to Syria. Because she used to work for the government and left her job without notice, she would be sent to prison if Assad remains in power.
Muna still likes Assad, but is disappointed in him. She thinks he could have avoided the war if only he had said the right things. When it comes to politics, she tells me her opinions but asks me strictly every time not to publish anything. She is too scared that she will never be able to go back to Syria.
When I last talked to Muna, she had a trainee
job at the local library – unpaid, of course.
Her biggest wish is that Tarek and Ghaith
can finish their school and find a good job.
About the Photographer
As the refugee crisis started, Sina thought to herself: If everyone only helps one person, then we can easily do this. So when she met Muna, she knew this would be the person she should help. Studying Photojournalism for a semester at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, she decided to integrate her friendship to Muna into her final project there.
Normally, Sina studies Photojournalism in Hannover, Germany. She has won the Canon Profifoto Förderpreis and published in various German magazines such as Cicero and Chrismon. When she doesn’t work on independent projects, she likes to play the Hula Hoop or hop on a bike, bus or car and see where it takes her.