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One evening in September five Syrians visited the Berlin office of DIE ZEIT. Four men and one woman who knew each other from when they lived in Damascus, where they all owned businesses. They produced furniture, manufactured machinery and ran factories – until the war turned them into refugees. Now they have to start afresh in Germany.
DIE ZEIT: Ms. Albassir, you used to manufacture garden furniture near Damascus. What happened to your factory?
Furniture factory owner Hiba Albassir: It was ransacked and now there’s very little left.
Furniture factory owner Khaled Karimo, her husband: We were worried that they would clean out our warehouse and use the furniture for firewood, so we brought all the furniture over to Germany.
ZEIT: In the middle of a war?
Factory owner Karimo: Yes. Between Christmas and New Year a secure corridor opened up between Damascus and the port in Latakia. So we took advantage of it. The furniture was loaded onto a container ship in Latakia and brought to Hamburg. And from there on to Berlin.
Factory owner Albassir: Since then we’ve opened up a small shop in the Berlin district of Zehlendorf, where we sell the furniture.
ZEIT: Are German customers any different to Syrian customers?
Factory owner Albassir: In Germany some people come into our garden furniture shop and say, “I’m just looking, I don’t even have a garden, I don’t want to buy anything.” This doesn’t happen in Syria. You either want to buy something or you don’t come in in the first place. Other than that there aren’t really any big differences. When customers come in, you chat to them telling them that the furniture has a very special story and that they’re the last pieces to come out of Syria or things like that. That’s how the business works, just like it did back in Syria.
ZEIT: Can you live off the shop’s turnover?
Factory owner Albassir: No, because we haven’t built up a reputation yet. But it’s going ok.
Factory owner Karimo: Well, we would have shut down our shop in Syria ages ago with a turnover like this.
ZEIT: What do you live off?
Factory owner Albassir: The job centre. And to be honest that’s the worst part of it all for us. It presses down on here (she puts her hand round her throat). We’ve never had to depend on state benefits.
ZEIT: What’s the worst part about it?
Factory owner Albassir: Don’t get me wrong, it’s really good that we get these benefits. But it’s hard to accept it. It’s also hard to live off.
ZEIT: How well-off were you in Syria?
Factory owner Albassir: We were never one of the super rich and we never wanted to be. They were so deeply entwined with the regime. But we were well-off. We had a house, two cars, a holiday house on the beach.
ZEIT: Is there a job centre in Syria?
Factory owner Albassir: No. Families perform the role of the social services in Syria. And business owners have to look after their workforce. If one of our staff was sick or wanted to get married, then we paid for the operation or contributed some money towards the cost of the wedding.
ZEIT: And now…
Factory owner Albassir: …we’re not seen as business owners, who could produce anything. We’re just refugees. People who need help.
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