#Guest Contribution: The Newcomers' Stories

In a series of articles published in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics we examine how the refugee crisis is being dealt with on the web. In the fifth and final article euro|topics looks at how refugees are sharing their experiences on the blogs, social media and traditional media in the countries where they now live.

In newspaper articles and on the social media, refugees are telling their stories, describing how they fled their country, their new life, the bureaucratic hurdles and the culture shocks. They also explain how chocolate bars and crochet help them feel a little bit more at home.

The man with the hipster beard and the big quiff looks challengingly into the camera: "Hello. My name is Mahmoud Bitar. I come from Syria and I am going to tell you about Syria." Bitar fled his country three years ago. After a long journey he ended up in Sweden. This is where he now lives, makes films and comments on his daily life. He has more than 460,000 followers on Facebook. Last August he even made headlines outside Sweden by telling his countrymen: "Don't come here!" He says that refugees have unrealistic ideas about what life is like in the Scandinavian country. It's hard to say how serious Bitar is about his advice. He often exaggerates in his videos, his comments coming across as impulsive and a little over the top. But in the background the films show the reality of life in Sweden: peaceful, clean – and pretty dull. Bitar's greatest wish is to return to Syria one day.

"We cried constantly"

In many countries in Europe refugees are writing, blogging and making videos. They describe how they fled their home country, what their new life is like, the bureaucratic hurdles they face and the culture shocks they experience. In the Spanish edition of the US blog site Huffington Post, Wafa Mustafa, a young Syrian journalist who fled to Turkey with her mother and sister after her father was arrested by the regime, writes about her first days in the Turkish city of Mersin: "We stayed there around three months without knowing why we were crying. Every time we tried, we couldn't identify exactly why. There were a lot of reasons, but the result was always the same: a father we didn't know anything about, a house and a family we left without even saying goodbye, a collective memory full of pictures, voices and dreams – and a foreignness that stole our ability to live."

Naïm, a 29-year-old Syrian, fled his home city of Homs with his siblings and their children via Morocco to live with relatives in Paris. In the French paper Libération he talks about the huge cost of the journey: "The most expensive part was crossing the border from Morocco to Melilla. If you're a man fleeing on your own, you can ask the smugglers for a discount. But we were a family with women and children who were afraid. We had to pay 37,000 euros just to get across that border. Then we travelled by bus and TGV to Paris. Now we have used up all our savings." 

"I don't look for money. I look for peace."

A group of Finnish journalists, photographers and interpreters set up the Facebook page "Stories from the Reception Centre" last autumn to give asylum seekers in Finland a voice. Their aim was to draw attention to the individual destinies behind the statistics, and in this way help Finns and refugees to get to know each other better. One example is the story of Asia, a young teacher from Somalia. Asia fled her home city of Badoa for the country's capital, Mogadishu, after Al-Shabaab militia killed her father. But in Mogadishu, where she worked for an NGO that helps youths, she wasn't safe from the Islamists either. So she fled to Turkey and then travelled on to Europe. "Often I didn't even know in which country I was. I got a ticket and was directed to a train without even knowing its destination. ... Life is fearful but at the moment I'm safe. I don’t look for money, I look for peace. And I'd like to continue my work for the young Somali girls," the 21-year-old explains.  

Cornflakes, Mars and Twix, Like at Home

Once refugees arrive in Europe they first have to find their bearings in a foreign environment, a foreign language and a foreign culture. So they find comfort in things that remind them of home, like certain products at the supermarket. Once a week a Syrian woman called Layla and her family describe in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant how they are getting on in the Netherlands. Layla explains why she prefers to shop at expensive rather than cheap supermarkets, even though she has to get by on just 68 euros a week for breakfast and lunch for her family of four: "It's because those supermarkets have the brands my children know from Saudi Arabia. Cornflakes, Mars and Twix. I want things to be as normal as possible for them." 

Layla and her family lived in Saudi Arabia for a while before they travelled to Greece via Turkey and then moved on to the Netherlands. They are still waiting for their asylum procedure to begin, and to keep herself occupied Layla crochets little mats and embroiders birds on cushions. "Embroidery takes my mind off other things," she explains. Her nine-year-old son Ziad has also taken up his mother's hobby. He recently finished crocheting his first coaster, which he did in red, white and blue – the colours of the Dutch flag.

Photo credit: Metropolico.org (CC BY-SA 2.0)