Noureddin: The Darkness and the Light

in Hochdorf, Switzerland

Noureddin (34) from Syria lives in the village of Hochdorf, Lucerne, as an asylum seeker. His journey from Damascus to Riyadh, Istanbul, Athens and Zurich is the story of escape and the loss of self.

The house was once grand. The stuccowork on the exterior is still there, but the walls underneath, the ochre bricks, seem tired, and the blue of the blinds is pale and brittle. An old man, frail and grey from exhaust fumes.

Writing on the wall recalls the history of the building. Pension Eintracht, Guest House “Harmony”, it says in white on a blue wooden sign. It was here that the innkeeper once tapped an evening beer for thirsty workers and the waitress used to serve the pearls of post-war cuisine. There were guest rooms on the upper floors; red geraniums bloomed on the window sills. That was then. Today, the canton of Lucerne rents the former guest house in the village of Hochdorf to accommodate asylum seekers.

This is where 34-year-old Noureddin from Syria lives. His sneakers are printed with stars and stripes in US national colours, his jeans light, his shirt pinstriped and grey, the sleeves rolled up. His eyes, date brown, are deep-set in his striking face, his shoulder-length, towel-dried hair parted in the middle. Noureddin brushes a strand from his forehead and checks the letter box: nothing. He is waiting for a decision on his application for asylum.

The house is quiet. The dim corridor leads straight to the kitchen, past closed doors; the grey linoleum floor squeaks underfoot. To the left, a staircase leads upwards. In the hallway, there is a worn-out armchair on a Persian rug. Here, on the first floor, live men from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria; Eritreans are on the ground floor, Somalians right at the top.

Noureddin’s room, at the end of the corridor, is comfortable. It has some sofas, a sink, a fridge and a bed. I can see the main road and train tracks through the window. Trucks and cars drive through the autumn fog to Lucerne and Lenzburg – but here, time stands still. The picture calendar on the wall is from the past year: May, an alpine lake surrounded by steep cliffs. Noureddin asks if I’ve had breakfast.

In the kitchen on the ground floor, there is a table without chairs, and four stoves, of which only one works. Pizza boxes, plastic and glass bottles are strewn everywhere, two bikes lean against a messy cupboard. Paint peels from the ceiling onto the sticky floor. Noureddin smothers a flatbread in chocolate spread, then cuts bananas into strips and lays them on top. On another bread he sprinkles olive oil and zatar, a traditional spice mix he keeps in a Winston tobacco tin. He rolls up the flatbreads and puts them in the oven. I ask him about the past. Noureddin speaks English well.

He grew up in a suburb of Damascus, in Qudsaya, half an hour by car from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus’ old city. The streets smelled of flowering Jasmine and history. Noureddin’s father is a journalist, his mother a teacher. While the family of eight live modestly, they have enough. The children share a room, but not beds. While still in school, Noureddin sells second-hand clothing at the market; in university, as a law student, he serves as a policeman and works at a car dealership, selling Russian and Ukrainian models.

One day, a father visits the car dealership with his daughter. She is pretty, slim and has dark hair. The law students sells the father a Lada 112 and arranges to meet the daughter in secret. He and Maha become a couple and keep their relationship a secret for three years. At 24, Noureddin is a lawyer; they get married. Once married, Noureddin is unhappy, he feels fenced in and controlled by Maha’s family. The couple drift apart in the stifling closeness of the family. Noureddin files for divorce and goes to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That was in 2007.

The fake leather couch is quite comfortable. Noureddin has cut the bread rolls into bite-sized pieces and put them on a plate. He throws his head back and eats with his right hand. After breakfast, he prepares some instant coffee and makes cigarettes with a little machine. He places the cigarettes in an old tin, which lies open next to the ashtray.

He had wanted to stay in Saudi Arabia for a few years at most, then go back to the Damascus of his youth. Noureddin works for a leading holding company in the Saudi Arabian fashion business. He is the manager of a ZARA in Riyadh, then in the coastal city of Al-Khobar. In both places, he’s the boss of dozens of employees: cashiers, storekeepers, cleaners. He has his own office and combs his curly hair back with gel, but the isolation and the Islamic law of the Kingdom stifle him.

On a spring night in 2011 Noureddin is stuck in rush-hour traffic as, in his home country, the song Yalla irhal ya Bashar first sounds from hoarse throats. The revolution in Syria begins with laughter, with dancing and singing, and ends in dirges to the hopeful. Noureddin watches the revolution from Saudi Arabia on Aljazeera, Facebook and YouTube. Because he worked for the police during his law degree, he is registered as a reserve policeman in Syria. The regime calls up the reserves, to kill and be killed. Noureddin wants neither. He becomes homeless.

In 2013 he works for a company in the tourism sector, in marketing and as an operative manager. Since the outbreak of the civil war, his family depends on him financially. His new employer tries to take advantage of that. Noureddin and other Syrian employees are systematically underpaid, until at last they refuse to work and go to court.

A year passes without work and without a verdict. Noureddin loses faith in the protection of his rights by institutions. His Saudi Resident Card expires and, because he is unemployed, he is not entitled to renew it. He can’t stay in Saudi Arabia and he can’t go home, can’t return to war-torn Syria. 

He sells his car and his motor bike, cancels the contract for his flat and withdraws all the money from his account. He books a flight from Riyadh to Istanbul and posts the confirmation of reservation on Facebook. That was the 15th August at 10.44pm.

The regime calls up the reserves, to kill and be killed. Noureddin wants neither. He becomes homeless.

The afternoon is windy and cloudy. Noureddin has put on a coat and strapped on his shopping bag. In Migros, he picks up a head of lettuce, lemons, yellow and green peppers, a chicken. He insists on paying for our shared dinner. After that, he wants to go to the lake, where he spends a lot of time. He needs the air and the solitary hours when he can get away, out of the house where he sees himself reflected in every face.

It’s straight ahead, along the main road, then through the underpass at Baldegg train station and down to the shore. The gates to the lido are open, the water ripples in the breeze. Noureddin sits on a bench and lights a cigarette.

On 3rd September 2014, 1.15pm, the plane lands smoothly in Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen airport. The pilot promises sunshine and a mediterranean 28 degrees. Noureddin gets a taxi and finds a cheap hotel. In his backpack are T-shirts, boxers, socks, trousers, swimming trunks and 5000 Euros in cash. He feels drunk on his new-found freedom and the beauty of the city. He takes a boat tour of the Bosporus, visits museums and takes photos in front of the Hagia Sophia. In the evening, he eats köfte and drinks cool, light ayran.

In calm moments, he sees people from his home country in the parks and cafés and hears them speaking in the language of his mother about borders and walls and Europe. In the parks and cafés, where the homeless gather, so too do the crows. Noureddin joins them on the park benches and plastic chairs, and drinks Turkish coffee with cardamom until a Turkish man sits down next to him.
Where does he want to go?
Over there.
He’d take him over there.
How much?
1200 euros. For him: 1100.
When do we start?
This week.

Noureddin agrees. The man tells him what will happen: He would be taken to Izmir in the back of a truck, then by boat to Greece. Noureddin objects, he isn’t in Turkey illegally and so won’t travel to Izmir by truck, but by bus. His protest is ignored.

Three days later, Noureddin walks across cobblestones to Istanbul’s old city. It’s early morning, the restaurants and souvenir shops are still closed, the narrow streets empty. He finds the pickup easily. His name, which is written on a list on a pin board, is struck through. 

The hold is full of people, the vehicle not made to transport living cargo. It is dark, cramped and hard to breathe. Noureddin can’t stop thinking about how he entered Turkey legally, with his passport and his own name. He feels that he’s losing control.
He feels the maelstrom pulling at him from all sides, warping and distorting everything. It pulls him into twilight and then into darkness.

The drive to Izmir is eight hours long. The traffickers are professionally organised, they keep track of their transactions and have offices. Noureddin leaves money for his crossing in one of these offices. Outside the building, a crowd of people waits.

The nameless are driven to the sea that night. Noureddin carries everything he owns: The clothes he is wearing, some more in a plastic bag and a hip pack. This contains his passport, the Saudi Resident Card, his lawyers’ degree, the rest of his cash and his phone – everything wrapped in condoms. Noureddin can’t see, the darkness swallows the light of his eyes, he can feel the salty breath of the ocean and the murmuring of the waves. Next to him, people kneel in the sand, praying to God. Noureddin doesn’t dare pray, not after so many years of silence. He just says bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim and jumps in the boat. Everything good begins in the name of God.

The sea is calm but the people still cry, plead and pray. Noureddin stares into the darkness for hours. As the sun rises, land appears. The boat crunches on the sand, people stumble through the shallow water and embrace each other, relieved. But the picturesque beach isn’t in Greece, but Turkey: Çeşme, a holiday destination south of Izmir. This is revealed by GPS on a smartphone. Noureddin’s laughter is carried up to the turquoise morning sky.

The traffickers guarantee their customers passage. In case of a failed crossing, another attempt is guaranteed for free. The traffickers can afford it, because most who fail to cross don’t ask for another try – they drown. Noureddin didn’t drown, and a week later the same scenes are repeated on the beach and on the ocean.

This time, the sea is restless. The waves breach against the boat and the refugees bail out water with plastic bags. The boat is spotted by Greek coast guard after three and a half hours at sea. The refugees have all heard the stories of boats being turned back: One of them deliberately destroys their boat. The coast guards immediately throw out lifebelts.

Noureddin and the other refugees are rescued at sea and brought to the Greek island of Samos. He is wet and hungry as he first sets foot in Europe. 

That was the 4th October 2014.

Noureddin chops potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers and onions and puts them on a backing tray. He cuts up the chicken and spreads it out on top, squeezes some garlic into a glass and mixes it with fresh lemon juice and spices, then he sprinkles the marinade over the vegetables and chicken and puts the tray in the oven. He learned to cook from him mother, via Skype, while he was in Saudi Arabia.

After his arrival on Samos the police take him to a camp. 800-900 people live there and are not permitted to leave. Noureddin doesn’t mind. What he wasn’t prepared for, though, are the looks he gets from people, the volunteers, the police. There is pity in their eyes. Noureddin has never been pitied. He doesn’t feel like himself – the pity is what makes him a refugee.

After twelve days in the camp, he and a group of others are brought to the harbour in Samos. Most refugees take a ferry to the Greek capital; Noureddin does the same. Athens is still warm from summer, and full of refugees. Nobody wants to stay: Greece isn’t Europe. Noureddin likes it in Athens, especially in the alternative Exarchia quarter. Here, he contemplates the graffiti and sits in the shade of trees and here, in a café near the Plata Exarchia, he meets Chloé, a Belgian diplomat.

Chloé works Mondays to Fridays at the Belgian consulate. After work and at weekends, she spends time in Exarchia. She is slim, has brown hair and brown eyes. Noureddin is fascinated by her contradictions. They talk and exchange phone numbers. She calls him, and they meet - then they meet again, often, and become a couple. Noureddin moves in to Chloé’s apartment in the Athens suburb of Chalandri. Chloé works and Noureddin cooks dinner. They are happy until winter comes. Noureddin would like to stay with Chloé, in Athens, but he feels her inhibitions and her worries. The diplomat encourages him to go on, saying he has no future in Greece.

In February 2015, Noureddin tries to board a plane with fake papers for the first time. The traffickers offer a cheap deal: Tickets and papers until Noureddin manages to get on a plane, for only 2000 Euros. The offer has one drawback: He can’t choose his destination. The crow delivers and Noureddin flies.

Athens airport in 2015 is one of the last channels through which the tide of the desolate get to Europe. There is an enormous police presence. An Estonian ID and a flight to Italy, a Czech ID and a flight to Germany: Noureddin has no luck. Both times, the police escort him out of the airport. He faces no legal consequences. 

On the third try, the traffickers give him a Swiss ID and a ticket to Zurich. He listens to some Swiss German on YouTube and tries to imitate it. He appears confident and manages to check in his luggage and pass through security to the gate. The passengers get ready to board, show their IDs and boarding passes and disappear onto the plane. Then it’s Noureddin’s turn. He presents his Swiss ID. The Greek policeman asks him: «Are you Swiss?» Noureddin nods. The policeman asks him a question in German. Noureddin takes a gamble: The policeman probably speaks as much German as Noureddin himself. He angrily pretends to speak Swiss German. The policeman wishes him a pleasant flight.

He can’t remember the name on his Swiss ID. It was a foreign name, not the one his mother chose for him. His real name was an obstacle, because it’s written on the worthless paper he keeps in the inner pocket of his jacket. The name Noureddin comes from the Arabic nour (نور, light) and means Light of Faith or bright light.

Noureddin sits still, doesn’t move as sweat pearls down his back and soaks his shirt. Then the motor starts, the turbines whir and the plane rolls across the runway. An invisible fist pounds against his chest, presses him into his seat; and then, as the plane takes off, the pressure subsides and he breathes it all out: Saudi Arabia, Istanbul, Athens, the salt of the sea, and Chloé.

That was February 6th, 2015.

There is pain, but more than that, there is strength and freedom inside him.

Evening is turning to night in Hochdorf. Our empty plates sit on the table. Noureddin digs out his cigarette case and opens a bottle of white wine. He smooths his hair behind his ears, leans back and inhales smoke into both lungs.

Noureddin gave up everything: Home, family and friends, prosperity, his job, his identity. He knew what he was doing when he made the decision to come to Europe, as difficult and far-reaching at that decision was. He knew of the danger, the poverty and the loneliness and yet, he decided to do it. There is pain, but more than that, there is strength and freedom inside him.

The flight from Athens-Eleftherios-Venizelos to Zurich is three hours long. The flight attendants serve lunch. Noureddin feels drunk with relief, can’t think straight. Should he stay in Switzerland or continue on to Germany, Denmark or Sweden? In the end, the decision is made for him.

The plane lands in Zurich around noon. Noureddin follows the flow of passengers out. There are some policemen at the gate, watching the crowd. One of them looks at him and Noureddin can’t help but to look back and smile. The policeman waves him over and asks a question in German. Noureddin doesn’t understand and answers in English, which the policeman doesn’t understand. Another policeman comes over and asks for Noureddin’s papers. He reaches for his coat’s inner pocket, for his papers, his name, his provenance, and hands his Syrian passport over with the words «I am Syrian.»

Noureddin is taken to a small office. He is told to strip. His belongings are searched. He is given documents, which he signs. Two plainclothes policemen escort him to Zurich Airport’s police station. He is taken to another office and told to strip again. He says that he has already been searched. The police insist. After that, two policeman question him. One is attentive and friendly, the other loud and accusatory. The situation unnerves him.

Eventually, his is taken to a reception centre at the airport. This is where asylum seekers who reach Switzerland by air are temporarily housed. The centre has two dormitories, one for men and one for women, with around 25 beds each, simple bathrooms, a common room with a TV and a water cooker. The view from the common room windows is of the airport’s runways. Noureddin watches the planes taking off into the night.

The following day he applies for asylum in Switzerland. Five days later, he is taken to Zurich Airport’s underground train station, early in the morning. The police escort him.

Noureddin is given a train ticket and the address of the immigration office in Lucerne. During the train ride, he sees the streets and houses of Switzerland for the first time. Noureddin can’t believe that the sun in this sky is the same one that, in this moment, shines on Damascus, into the kitchen where his parents are having breakfast.

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Noureddin no longer lives in Hochdorf. He has been living with two Swiss flatmates in Willisau since November 2015. He is learning German and looking for work. He recently applied for a delivery job at a kebab shop. He is still waiting for a decision on his asylum application. 

Want to know more about Noureddin Najjar? Read his Profile