The small bus stopped in front of a large building, large relative to the houses in the village we were assigned to. We were five: two Kurds from Syria, two women from Ethiopia, and an Afghan man. The first person to see us – he sounded Syrian – told us: "Have you served in the army? This camp is like an army punishment."
We got out of the car and were taken to a room with somewhat comfortable seats. We waited, looking at each other's faces, we had no idea what awaited us; a few hours ago we were in a temporary camp in the city of Karlsruhe, housing a large number of refugees, but now we were reassigned, in a small village on the bank of the river Rhine on the German-Swiss border, awaiting our futures. Refugees enter the room and leave it without so much as looking at us, as if they knew everything here. The wait felt like an eternity. Eventually, we were told to go into an adjacent room. A middle-aged white woman sat behind a desk, along with a large man and elderly man with a full head of white hair, he appeared to be man in charge.
This man began speaking in German, which was incomprehensible to us. He said a few words, perhaps words of welcome. Then the woman sitting behind her desk began speaking in English, I was the only one who understood her. She spoke of the place that is now our home for the upcoming years, and of administrative duties and the provisions that we would be given. She told us that today was Tuesday, which was designated as the day to go shopping at the only supermarket in the village, to receive our own coupons specific to each of us, in order to buy the things we needed for the week. Every refugee received their food coupon on Tuesday before one o'clock from the man in charge of our camp, who stood behind a table in the supermarket's entrance. If a refugee failed to come for two consecutive weeks to collect their coupon, the police would be informed, which could affect the absentee's asylum application.
The coupon allowed us to purchase our needs from food, drink and cleaning equipment until half past two of the same afternoon – otherwise, we would miss out on that week's provisions. The value of the receipt varied from one week to another, but always ranged between 25 and 33 Euros. We had to purchase all we needed for an entire week using this sum of money. At the end, the woman asked us to wait outside, to be taken later by the large man to our rooms.
We waited. The large man arrived minutes later and asked two of the refugee women to follow him. He returned shortly afterwards, after he accompanied the women to their new places of residence, and told us to follow him. We were handed a blanket, pillow, plate, spoon, fork, knife, cup and cooking pot, and were made to sign a document affirming our receipt of these provisions, to be returned eventually or purchased when we leave this place.
I walked behind him with my friend. The German man took the Afghan refugee to a room on the ground floor, then us two Kurds, went up to the second floor. My friend was taken to his room and I to one opposite his. He entered his room before me, before looking at me and pointing to one of the three beds in the room, saying words that I did not understand. The two men who were in the room started shouting, and I understood that they were against me staying with them. The German man's voice also grew louder, before he turned to me with an angry voice and motioned for me to stay there, before closing the door behind him. I found myself face to face with two men who didn't want me there, as I stood in the small room's entrance with my large backpack, all I had in my coat pocket (which did not quite insulate me from the cold of this country) was 10 Euros, given to me by my roommate in Karlsruhe, half of the 20 Euros to his name at the time. One of the men told me that they had no problem with me, but did not want a new roommate with them in the room. They told me that I had to return to the official in charge of the place and ask them to find me a new room.
I did so, only to be met with the wrath of the German man. He took me back to the room and he told them that I would stay there, whether they liked it or not. I put my new belongings and bag on the bed. The room was square, with a large window relative to the size of the room occupying most of the wall opposite the door, in front of which was an old television purchased by the occupants of the room for cheap, with Al-Jazeera news running. On the right side was a washing machine, and a cabinet with a key that would later become mine, and a bunk-bed, prison style, I chose to sleep on the lower mattress. On the left side was another cabinet, a single bed and a refrigerator, and on the wall adjacent to the door was a shelf on which there was bread, onions and potatoes. In the middle of the room there was a large, torn old chair facing the television. In short, a small room with a lot of things shared by three men. The other two men sharing the room were Syrian Palestinians; after many months we would become friends, and before I left the place one of them told me that I was the best roommate he had ever had.
I wanted to explore the place, so I went out a bit. I was scared of this unknown and ambiguous place. I returned to the room scared that I would otherwise forget the way back. The two men weren't there. I spent a few minutes on my bed thinking of my next step. What will I do? What will I eat? Where is the bathroom? I need to pee. I went out to look for the bathroom, only to end up meeting people from around the world: Indians, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Afghans, Moroccans, Iraqis and Somalis – I met people from everywhere. A small place in a forgotten village in a faraway place that housed dozens of refugees from all over the world, and no one cares about my situation. Where am I? Who am I? I don't know anyone and I am too embarrassed to ask for a place to pee.
My search for the toilet lasted long minutes before finding one at the end of my room's corridor. Now I can think. I returned to the room, standing in the middle of it, not knowing what I should do. I hear a voice outside speaking in Kurdish and asking others: "There are two Kurds who came today, do you know where they're staying?" I quickly left the room and told them in Kurdish that I was one of them and the other was in the opposite room. The Kurdish residents welcomed us, with one telling us that we had to head quickly to the supermarket as it was approaching one o'clock and we had to receive our coupons in order to buy food.
What do I need to buy? And will this small sum of money be sufficient to purchase food for an entire week? On that day, and in the four weeks that followed, the old Kurds showed me how to buy good, cheap products that would suffice for a week, with the meager amount we received. I arrived at the check-out, placing my purchased items in front of the cashier and giving her a refugee coupon. She pointed to an empty bag that I held in my hand, and inspected it, suspecting I could have stolen something. I later discovered that this was a common practice with refugees.
We returned to the building that would be my home for a few long months, and the home of others for years. One person – Ahmed – who would later become my closest friend in this place, a Kurd from the area of Ain Diwar on the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi border, told me: "Put your belongings in your room and come back to this room (his), I'll cook in your honor." And so it was, for five consecutive days, I ate in Ahmed's room.
After we cooked together, exchanged various topics of conversation, ate and drank, I returned to my room and to my roommates, who initially didn't want me to stay there. We exchanged some personal introductions and other small talk. We watched the news. We smoked some marijuana. I took out my laptop and a 3G flash drive, and connected my small laptop – which my brother had given me when we met in Berlin two months ago – to the internet, which my brother would continue to pay for every month throughout my duration at this place. I was the only one amongst the refugees who had access to a computer and internet: this was a luxury that was not available at this place.
After hours of browsing the net and talking to my love who was in Cairo at the time, I decided to sleep. It was a long and exhausting day. I put my belongings in the cabinet and locked it. I took the key and secretly wished that I would not be robbed. The place did not offer safety nor security. I put the key under my pillow. I covered myself with my new blanket, and I cried silently.