Back in 2010, all 13-year-old me cared about was hanging out with friends and playing video games. My homeland, Syria, was a safe county. As in many places, the average person worried about providing for his family and little more.
But all of that changed in early 2011 when the Syrian revolution began and led to the conflict still happening today.
At first, there were just peaceful demonstrations asking for democratic reforms. But that didn't last long. Demonstrations spread, and on April 25, 2011, the Syrian army began a series of large-scale, deadly attacks against Syrian towns. By the end of May, thousands of students, activists, and human rights advocates had been detained or killed.
But most of this was happening in the south of Syria, more than a thousand kilometers from my hometown in the north. Peaceful demonstrations continued every week, but we all knew more serious unrest was coming.
That summer, escalating violence, including a major uprising in Jisr Al-Shughour on June 4, led to the beginning of the full-blown civil war. In July, the Free Syrian Army was formed, the death toll began to rise, and the whole country headed into the deadly conflict that continues today.
Meanwhile, in the Kurdish region where I lived, the PYD — a Kurdish nationalist party founded in 2003 — began to assume political power. This happened with the tacit consent of the al-Assad regime: Preoccupied with the FSA, the government didn't want to begin fighting on another front. Between July 20 and 24, 2012, the YPG — essentially the military of what is now called Syrian Kurdistan — gained control over Kobanî, Amuda, Efrîn, Dêrik, and Serê Kaniyê, some of Syria's most important Kurdish-majority cities, with little to no resistance from government security forces.
By August 2, it was announced that most cities in my region were under the complete control of YPG. The Kurdish flag was raised above all of them. It was a relief. My father, as well as most of my extended family, was politically active and critical of the Syrian regime. But now it looked as if we were beyond Assad's reach. Perhaps the crisis consuming the rest of the country would pass us by.
While we would remain insulated from the worst of the civil war for a little while longer, internal political conflicts began almost immediately. PYD was becoming more powerful, and YPG's military might was growing. While the new regional government had some encouraging positions on women's rights and religious freedom, their corruption and sometimes naked lust for power made cooperation with smaller parties difficult and led to a level of mistrust that undermined the political process.
By then, I was 15 years old. I was still in school, and while the unrest around me was obvious and difficult to ignore, there were always ways to be distracted. That changed in late 2012, when internet access and mobile telecommunications were cut off in my region. Suddenly being unable to access the outside world forced many people to look around and realize how much the local world had changed — and just how miserable things had become.
There was an upside for me, at least. In April 2013, two years after the start of the civil war, I convinced my father and uncle to give me enough capital to buy a satellite broadband connection and open an internet cafe. Within two months, I was able to afford a space that held 16 computers, three PS4s, and wifi. I was, for a moment, the man.
The cafe brought some life back to the town. Being able to call friends or play games or even just browse Facebook gave people a badly needed distraction. I was studying for my baccalaureate and running a business — for a while, my life felt like it had some continuity. The civil war was getting worse, and by April 2014 there were murmurs about YPG introducing mandatory military conscription, but most of us dismissed those reports as rumors.
But the rumors turned out to be true. Three months later, I found out that all men ages 18 to 30 would be required to join the military.
On July 17, just days after the end of an awesome World Cup and after finding out I'd done great on my exams for the year, two soldiers came into my cafe. They told me that I was required to register my name for military service before my upcoming 18th birthday.
I protested, but the soldiers were insistent. The regional government was registering the names of those believed to be planning to leave, especially those with the financial means to do so. Leaving the country legally required permission, and the database was designed to flag people like me who might try to flee before being conscripted. At any rate, they said, it wasn't up to them — if I wanted an exemption, I'd need to talk to someone higher up.
I went to the local police — the Asayish — and begged. The only people officially exempted were those with a physical disability, but I argued that an inexperienced, untrained 18-year-old would be of no use to them. They countered that every man was needed to counter the rise of ISIS, who would kill me — a Kurd — if they could.
It was a legitimate point, but I was reluctant to carry weapons for a government I wasn't even sure I believed in. The YPG didn't conscript minors, but they'd welcome boys and girls of any age who wanted to join them. Is that who I wanted to fight for? Were those really my options? Fight for a dictator, fight for a fractured opposition, or be killed by ISIS?
After some pressure from my family, I decided I had to leave Syria.
Unfortunately the Turkish government had, by that time, closed every border point between my region and their country, and so in early September 2014, several Syrians, including me, attempted to sneak across the border illegally.
Turkish soldiers caught us. They beat us where they found us and then took us to a Turkish police station. We were jailed there for three days and then sent back to Syria.
A week later we tried again. This time, we arranged via a smuggler to pay off a group of soldiers. For $1,200 each, they let us through. The soldiers took us to a nearby Turkish town, where we were registered and fingerprinted. Each of us was given a piece of paper with our name and a serial number to act as our ID.
We thought we'd made it. But we soon learned that this "registration" was useless. We couldn't rent apartments. We couldn't work or attend Turkish universities. We couldn't even go to the refugee camps because they were prioritizing women and children.
With no home, no work, and no school, I decided continuing on to Europe was my only option.
I traveled to Istanbul. My plan was to apply for asylum at the German Consulate there. But when I arrived, I was told that in order to apply for asylum I had to be in German territory — the application couldn't be made from the consulate.
Disappointed, I tried the British Consulate, too — but I knew what the answer would be.
With the last of my cash (and some help from my father back home), I started looking for a smuggler who would help me get to Europe. I had enough money to go by plane, and while this saved me from trying one of the dangerous and often fatal sea routes or — even worse — attempting to walk to the west, it still presented some challenges. The smuggler I found told me that my ticket would either be to Germany or the Netherlands, and that he'd provide me with a fake Italian ID card that would let me board the plane. But, he said, this was going to take time. I needed to wait, and in the meantime, I better start practicing my Italian accent.
In late December 2014, I got word that my fake ID was ready. In order to more effectively sell myself to security as a real Italian national and not a Syrian refugee with forged papers, I got myself some new high-end clothes and an expensive haircut. Now I was ready too.
I tried my best to remain calm and confident, but despite the civil war, despite my brush with conscription, despite being beaten and jailed by the Turks, despite everything I'd experienced so far, the day I went to the airport was the most stressful day of my life.
My strategy was simple: Act like a douchebag.
I arrived late to the airport. I only spoke in (heavily Italian-accented) English. I did everything I could to be somebody you don't want to bother and don't want to talk to, somebody who is so annoying that a beleaguered Turkish security guard will do anything he can to not deal with. It worked. Even though the passport control officer in Turkey was suspicious — asking why I didn't have my passport, why I was leaving Turkey from a different city than the one I ostensibly "arrived" in, why I was so late — he ultimately decided it wasn't worth the effort to look too closely. Here was some asshole shouting at him in a language he barely understood about how he was delaying an important European citizen — the whole thing became awkward fast, and he had better things to do than be abused by some entitled tourist. So after checking that my papers were at least superficially valid, he let me through with a tight smile.
Still, the 15 minutes it took for the plane to take off were the most nervous of my life. I was convinced somebody would burst in at the last minute and pull me off. But nobody came, and the minute the plane was in the air I finally felt relief. Twenty minutes into the flight, I closed my eyes and slept my most peaceful sleep in months.
I woke up three hours later — in Germany.
It was -3°C, but I got off the plane slowly, lingering behind the other passengers as we headed to the arrival center and passport control. I stood at the end of the line so that the other, tired passengers wouldn't have their days delayed any further.
It's important to understand that while lying to Turkish customs is one thing, trying to trick passport control in the country where you're trying to seek asylum is a completely different matter. First, they're much better at verifying papers. Second, if you do manage to fool them, when you get around to applying for asylum they're going to ask how you got into the country in the first place — and "I lied to one of your security officials" isn't a good answer.
So I did what I was told to do once securely on German soil: I told the truth. Once the other passengers from my flight had passed through customs, I went up to the passport control officer and said, "Hello, this ID is fake. I'm not Italian; I'm a Syrian refugee."
He nodded and told me to follow him. We went into a separate room where he brought my luggage as well. Ten minutes later, four new officers came in. They told me my rights as an asylum seeker and told me that they needed to search my things and me. They told me not to be afraid, but to be honest, I wasn't — it was the first time in my life that a police officer had called me "sir" or suggested I had rights.
After searching my luggage, one of the officers brought me coffee, and we sat there talking about football for a while. Half an hour later, a detective arrived. He took my statement, some photographs, and my fingerprints, and then sent me to a refugee center, where I was processed and assigned to a small village for temporary housing.
I spent the next month in an old school repurposed to warehouse large numbers of people for a short time. I couldn't travel, and there wasn't much to do while I was there, but conditions improved when I was reassigned to permanent housing in a city. The new building was much better equipped — an old firehouse, renovated to hold refugees on a long-term basis. I was given a bed in a room with only two other people, and was granted permission to travel within the state, along with a monthly allowance.
After acclimating to the city, I started visiting museums and libraries. I met friendly people who taught me more about the region and the country. I'd read a lot about Europe before leaving Syria, and the culture shock wasn't too bad. I do remember being struck by the apathy of German voters. In Syria, turnout had always been low — living under an authoritarian government, elections were a joke anyway. But of these people, who lived in a democratic country governed by a truly elected government, a full quarter couldn't be bothered to vote either.
The weeks went by, and in late June my asylum application was finally approved. The letter made me ecstatic. Even though I expected it — even though the acceptance rate for Syrian asylum seekers is nearly universal in Germany — holding the actual letter in my hands meant something. After nearly a year of being lost, of being legal nowhere, I was finally officially welcome.
After my asylum was approved, the letters began to flood in. Bureaucratic notices arrived, information about what I could do from here. I received papers informing me of my rights and duties as a legal resident of Germany.
Free from refugee housing, I began looking for an apartment. It was hard, especially for somebody still receiving government assistance, but I managed to find a place, and shortly after I enrolled myself in a German integration course. I signed up at a table tennis club. I made new friends and began settling into my new life.
Now able to travel anywhere within Germany, I went to Cologne and saw the cathedral there. I went to Lake Constance in the south and attended a football match at the famous Westfalenstadion arena in Dortmund. I used all the free time I had to get out and see the new world around me.
I've now been in Germany for more than 10 months. I've met wonderful people and made what feel, finally, like permanent friends. My life feels "normal."
Looking back at 13-year-old me, I can't help feeling sorry for my former self. His dreams were shattered. He watched his country dragged into a deadly civil war, one that still has no end in sight.
But I think he'd be proud of me for doing what I had to in order to stay safe, for not giving in and joining the violence, for finding a new home and pursuing my goals, even 4,000 kilometers away from home.
Kameran is a young Syrian immigrant living in Germany. He has previously discussed his journey in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session.