Morality. Often you find it in the most subliminal things. I have found it in a man named Asem.
Asem Shalash has made a long journey. Not only did he flee from a country where words can get you killed, he also had to make the most difficult choice of his life: to leave his family in Syria. The name of Asem Ensami, as he calls himself, describes him perfectly. Ensami meaning the independent one, and Asem meaning the preventer of the faults. In other words: a hero.
By a strange coincidence I stumbled upon this man walking near a road here in Volda. I asked him for directions and so he offered to walk me to my destination. It is always nice to meet new people after all, but Asem really got my attention when he told me he journeyed through Russia… On a bike. Now I have the honor to share his story.
As I meet him in the cantina of Volda University I ask him about his life in Norway and his former life in Syria.
– I call my family every day, three times or twice a day… sometimes even four times. Yesterday I checked my Facebook for any news. Three children got killed in a bombing near my home in Syria. They never tell you their names. I quickly called my family, but they didn’t know what had happened even if it was just 3 km away from them. People are being killed every day. You see blood on the ground every day, but they are covering it up.
Asem explains that being a parent in Syria is not easy. The choices you make, directly affect your family’s future.
– When you are on your own, you can say everything you want. But if you have children, it is no longer only about you. They can kill your children.
He exhales in an effort not to cry.
– There is no electricity. Nobody knows why, but they just have 3 or 4 hours of light, for their necessities. Yesterday my daughter had a birthday party. They sent me a photo, but it was so dark I could barely see them. People are blindfolded in their own country.
Asem doesn’t want to pick any sides on the political conflicts. As he says, «Everyone with a gun is my enemy». In Syria only the fear of being killed exists. The question is not by whom, but when? He nervously shifts in his seat, playing with his empty cup. It feels as if he is already creating the scenario’s that go with the things he speaks of. Like Asem mentioned, every action has its result, so he doesn’t tell me any names for the fate of his loved ones.
Love is a far-fetched word in Syria, and it is something you will not come across with so easily. As Asem tells me of the horrific events that transpired, I get that humanity is seen as something long forgotten in his former home. There is no such thing as choices. Freedom is owned by people with money.
– If you ask someone about freedom, they will not understand, ‘what about freedom?’ When you can go to school or work, and you have food, it is enough. You don’t need anything else. Nobody will ask for more. You just live your life and don’t ask the name of the president. He doesn’t care. It is all about surviving.
It is clear that the man sitting in front of me has seen much. His eyes are quite unreadable, but there is a glint in them that says it all: he is nowhere near giving up on his quest to be with his family once more. So many questions pop up into my head when I look at him. As Asem says, Syria used to have grand cities, «capitals like London» as he describes it. People have the tendency to forget that it is not a country with just deserts and sheep. Children grow up there. Dreams have been build, and alas also have been crushed.
I ask him what he has got to say to the world if he could say one thing. He answers, «Wake up! When you keep your eyes closed, perhaps you will dream but you will not know the truth. You must open your eyes to see». He might not realize it, but this man may be a great philosopher. It is the simplicity in his words that makes me want to question the world and what we are doing to it. At first sight you might think he has become a bitter man, consumed by sorrow, but within him resides a love for all. A love that is selfless and humble. When our interview is over he asks me if I am okay.
He has told a great deal of his life in Syria, and yet he asks about my wellbeing. That’s Asem Esami. It’s this love that keeps him going in his quest to bring his family over to Norway to start a new life. A safe and happy life.
Many may wonder Asem arrived here by himself. As I mentioned Asem came here partially by bike, a long journey through Russia. But a lot had happened before even making the decision of coming to Norway.
It all started when we talked about his parents. I asked him:
– If your parents were here, what advice would they give you?
He said they would say to go and get your wife and children. It is of course something any parent would say. I was not entirely satisfied with his answer as I felt his restraint to give me something more. So I waited. He looked away and swallowed, I saw a wave of emotion hit him with something entirely new in it. – My mother and father think I am in Nigeria right now, he confessed.
He clarifies his statement by revealing his story of a job offer in Nigeria, which was the reason he left Syria in the first place. By the time he had started working there at a factory he noticed this was merely a replacement for the present Syria.
– People get killed there too, and it is dangerous for white people. I lived as a prisoner in Nigeria. If I would go outside I was afraid to get killed. So it is not safe for my family to live in Nigeria.
After his return to Syria, his boss at the factory in Nigeria raised his offer even higher. Asem tells me no money is worth as much as his family’s safety. Instead of going back to Nigeria he headed for Norway.
– I reached Moscow, and traveled further into Norway and into Oppdal. I called my family and tell them I am in Norway now, not in Nigeria. I just wanted them to know so they would not be worried about me.
I could tell his thoughts were in turmoil as he fidgeted around with his hands, his eyes cast downwards. It was the first time he left his family without having the security to be reunited with them.
He could not take his family with him as he traveled in harsh conditions. His one and only mission now, he explains, is to provide a good foundation for his family to arrive in. This means he needs to find a job in Norway. Even having said this, it takes about three to four years to get the loved ones of a refugee. One obstacle he has yet to overcome is to stay in the country.
– It happened to a couple of friends of mine. I have seen them leave. I cannot do anything about what the government says.
The war in Syria affects many Syrians. A Norwegian newspaper asked Asem Shalash how he would feel as a rich man in Norway.
– I tell him, it’s like a dream come true but there are a lot of people in Syria still dreaming of a better future and there are a lot of people you can help in making their dreams become reality.
It frustrates Asem how the governments in Europe handle things. His eyebrows knit together as he asks me how we can call this humanity.
– Why are all the European countries closing the doors on the Syrian people?
I could not answer his question rightfully, because I honestly do not know the answer. He says there is no justice coming from them because it is just another way of killing people.
– It is exactly as if someone who is standing behind the glass looking to someone in the snow – he points to the window - and calls to them: I will help you, I will fight for you! However the glass is still there.
He left me wordless for a moment because what do you answer as someone who is part of the party behind the glass while he is on the other side fighting to get in?
The story continues after the picture.
Asem in his room.
Syria was not always what it is today, but everybody seems to have forgotten about it. Now it is just another Middle Eastern country where there is a war and when there are bombings, we are not devastated anymore. It is not new anymore.
This is not a story about yet another asylum seeker, it is about a human being who has lost everything and keeps on battling to get his life back and even that of others.
– I didn’t ask for anything, I did not want to be a policeman or a president. I was content. I dreamt to make a future and I worked hard to see my dreams come true. I think nothing could have stopped me before the war in Syria. I had everything. I was free.
No longer watching his hands, but looking me straight in the eyes, I can tell it is what makes him strong. “I will be back”
. Biting back tears by grinding his teeth and balling his hands into a fist.
An individual like Asem needs to have a strong will to go on like that and I know he thrives to be what his family sees in him.
– When you have a friend you have everything. I have a friend in Oppdal, he raised me up by saying the best things. He tells me, “you will succeed. You will get your work and you will get your family back”. They may be simple words, but they keep me going.
If it is one thing Asem likes to talk about it is his family as it is one of the things that gives him hope in these troubled times. Not everything is sad, not everything is a daring subject, as he too is just a man with dreams and hopes. His two daughters Nour Alhouda and Naya and his son Nwar are the home in his heart. He tells me that on his journey when coming here something beautiful happened.
– When I was young I dreamt to be a pilot. It was very expensive, so I went to a science faculty instead. I became a chemist. I asked my son what he wants to be when he grows up and he tells me: I want to be a pilot. You will help me to make it there, he said. When I was in Moscow I was in a conversation with a professor from Kazan and he promised me he would help my son in become a pilot at Kazan University. For a second his eyes light up when he says this.
The humbleness within Asem didn’t escape me while talking to him. He simply has a love for all and he wants to see peace restored in our world. We talk about humanity and the world in its present state.
– When you think about the money and how much this war costs. If you use only ten percent of this money to the public it would make a huge difference. But always they choose war and death.
It is something neither I nor Asem understand.
– Everything is owned by money. Money has become more than just exchanging currencies. In Syria money equals life; money has replaced human rights.
There are a lot of opinions about citizens in countries that are not directly involved in the Syrian war by refugees. This can be a delicate subject but Asem opens it dialogue without any doubt and keeps surprising me with his innocence.
– Everyone has something. My teacher in school once told us; the rich man needs to change his car and he has stress to do so as the poor man thinks about how he can bring back food on the table for his family. Everyone has something to do. And everyone has a dream.
It amazes me how people can inspire you in times of war. While there were many graphic tales Asem told me of the suffering of him and his people, it does not take away that when a person loses everything you will see the light behind his shadows and see the goodness and truth in them.
Asem has showed us that even without being granted freedom; we are always free because there is always the power of choice.