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The Syrian refugee who shook up Slovenian politics

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He fled his war-torn home country and decided to come to Europe, rebuild a life for himself in a peaceful place and eventually bring his family over. He found himself in Slovenia by chance and became integrated. Caught between political upheavals and citizen activism, Ahmad Shamieh's 'case' is one of a kind. Cafébabel met with this Syrian refugee whose path shook up the little Switzerland of the Balkans.

We have barely had the time to introduce ourselves and walk towards our interview spot when Ahmad sticks his smartphone in front of my eyes. I see a photo of four brunette women – three of whom are teenagers – all smiling. "This is my wife and my three daughters. They stayed behind in Syria," he tells me, visibly moved as he fixes his dark eyes on mine. We walk towards a coffee shop in Ljubljana, which is just a few steps away at this point. On this sunny Saturday, the Slovenian capital is almost deserted due to the many public holidays in May. With his elegant moustache, Ahmad agrees to share bits and pieces of his past and his new life, too. A new life that began on the 15th of September 2015.

That day, Ahmad left his war-torn country. Like many of its inhabitants since the start of the conflict in 2011 (there was an estimated 5.6 million exiled inhabitants in spring this year), Ahmad chose exile. The Syrian, who did not speak English and had never left his country, went by bus from Syria to Lebanon and then by boat to Turkey. He wanted to flee the war and find a better life before bringing his family over. After being stuck for several months in Erdogan's country, he first set foot on European soil upon entering Greece, before travelling with thousands of other refugees to ex-Yugoslavian countries. Then, he set off to western Europe. But the voyage was exhausting and the living conditions even worse. Temperatures dropped very quickly and sudden uprisings would burst out in the camps. Despite all this, Ahmad kept on going. As weeks went by, he crossed Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. In Croatia, he was officially registered by the authorities.

Barbed wire and “naivety”

At that time, the so-called "refugee crisis" as media outlets and politicians call it was unprecedented. It exposed the selfishness of some nations, European failures and contradictions but above all, the lack of anticipation. "We found that the Slovenian authorities were unprepared, or at least wanted to seem unprepared," says Neža Kogovšek Šalamon, director of the Peace Institute (Institut de la Paix, e.d.), a research and advocacy centre focused on the defence of human rights. "I think they were naïve," the lawyer says, who had approached the authorities with other civil society organisations during the 2015 crisis, without obtaining credible answers. "They were very secret, it was impossible to get a sincere answer from the authorities," she explains, evoking a certain degree of improvisation that was important, given that Slovenia "was somehow counting on its neighbour, Croatia."

The crisis hit its peak when each government in the region decided to go solo. Solidarity no longer existed; it was every man for himself. Faced with the lack of help from its neighbours, Slovenia decided to set up barbed wire fences on its border with Croatia to stop the influx of migrants. "These barbed wires remind me of the time I was in the Yugoslavian army 40 years ago," says Marjan Strojan, a Slovenian writer, translator and member of the local Pen Club Presidency, who I meet in a coffee shop in Ljubljana. In less than a year, nearly one million people crossed what was later called the "Balkan route", which was eventually barred off in March 2016.

Ahmad continued his journey after Croatia by crossing Slovenia until he finally reached Austria at a crucial moment of the crisis. But he was stopped and forced to return to Slovenia, where he was kept with others in a refugee centre near the capital. Time stretched out in front of him and the weeks went by very slowly in Ljubljana.

Ahmad kept himself busy while he waited for his fate to be decided. He started learning Slovenian and spent time at the "Rog", a former bicycle factory in the city that has become a famous local squat over time, where alternative events are held. A community of activists helped the disadvantaged and many asylum seekers. Ahmad made friends with many of them, especially the local volunteers who are part of a left-wing organisation called "Rog Embassy". Miha Bajic, for example, a musician in his thirties known as N'Toko became one of his most fervent supporters. He also got to know a journalist called Aljaž Vrabec, a blonde giant who stands 2.07 metres tall and who spends his days as an interpreter. "These are my friends and my new family," says Ahmad, pointing to the small group having drinks, "This is what allows me to distract myself from bad thoughts about the war."

“Provincial politics”

But a few months after his arrival, a piece of news hit him hard. Ahmad had to leave. He was told to go back to Croatia, the first European country in which he left his fingerprints. This is the cold and administrative toll the Dublin Regulation takes on refugees. According to the regulation, the country in which a refugee is officially registered for the first time must take care of them. The only problem is that it puts a disproportionate amount of weight on countries in southeast Europe, to the detriment of others. But beyond European law and regulations, there is a human being.

And the Syrian refused to leave. He had started rebuilding his life here, gradually integrating himself and learning Slovenian. "He quickly became attached to the place and to the people. He put people in touch and became a real organiser," says N'Toko, emphasising Ahmad's "charisma". Ahmad couldn't understand why he had to leave and return to a country he didn't know, a country he had only crossed as thousands of other migrants had done before him. Especially knowing that Slovenia has an advantage as it is part of the Schengen area.

Faced with this decision, the first legal battle began. The group wanted to take legal action because Member States are subjected to their obligations. By first deciding to attack the case before the administrative justice, they wanted to obtain a modification of the Dublin Regulation, so that the country where a refugee is first registered wouldn't necessarily have to be the country that takes them in. The case was passed on to the higher court, who then asked for help from the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, which, after several months, rejects the request.

"It was a political decision that sent out a warning to countries in the south," says N'Toko. The message was clear for the Member States and, to a certain extent, called on them to monitor their borders. Despite this first negative response, the group didn't give up hope. They wanted to increase the pressure and started questioning the government. They called on the exemplary integration of Ahmad, his important role in the community of asylum seekers and insisted that his expulsion would go public.

They asked the Minister of the Interior to exercise, with discretion, an answer to the previous bad news by allowing the Syrian to remain in Slovenia. "But we went nowhere with this strategy. They were deaf when it came to our demands," N'Toko continues. That is when the small team decided to publicise the case and launch a real lobbying campaign. Joining forces with various civil society organisations, the group became larger and larger.

Then, the affair took a political turn. In this small European country of only two million inhabitants, the "Ahmad Shamieh case" became widespread in the media and in the political world. The right used it as an example to warn people about the potential dangers that a wave of immigrants could bring forth. Still, most migrants were crossing the country to get to Germany or England. Slovenia only counted 1,239 asylum requests in 2016 – most coming from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – and has a very low acceptance rate.

"I call it provincial politics," Marjan Strojan tells me. The reason? For the 60-year-old chain smoking cigarettes with his coffee, the abandonment or reduction of national privileges in Brussels since the European integration almost 15 years ago has brought about a change of attitude among local politicians. Any subject related to refugees was good enough to start a debate and surf on rise of populism. The approach worked in many countries. But Ahmad's case created a significant ripple effect in 2017.

When MEPs protect a refugee

While the group of activists gathered more and more signatures for a petition and organised a press conference, the Ministry of the Interior summoned Ahmad to be deported. Although the image this gave off to the general public was negative, it reinforced the Syrian's case. Meanwhile, four of the political parties in power took a stand in his favour and urged Prime Minister Miro Cerar, one of the rare centrist leaders of the region, to do the same. Finally, the head of the government made a speech and officially announced his support for the refugee. For her part, the Minister of the Interior, Vesna Györkös Žnidar, resisted. She didn't want to give in and support the prime minister's position. "This is when the case became a political battle," N'Toko explains.

The day of the summons, Ahmad went to the refugee centre at dawn, surrounded by his supporters. The centre waited for a confirmation from the Ministry of the Interior that never arrived. Meanwhile, the Minister of the Interior and the prime minister negotiated fervently. Two MEPs at the refugee centre suggested for Ahmad to wait for the official order in their office. "Technically, he didn't flee. But at the same time, they couldn't expel him by going to pick him up in the parliament buildings," N'Toko smiles. Taking refuge in the institution, the Syrian was visited by a number of MEPs who came to greet and encourage him. "It was a great political moment," the activist says. While the case became a highlight in political media, the prime minister decided to take the floor. He argued that there must be a vote to avoid the deportation of the refugee. Given that the subject was on the table for a long time, the process eventually had to become a formality.

But the local right-wing quickly pushed back. While they were banking on a victory in the upcoming elections and wanted to warn the public about a 'dangerous' wave of migrants, Slovenia's right-wing violently attacked Ahmad and threatened the prime minister with impeachment. They finally managed to knock down the vote. The blow was violent for Ahmad who, facing these delays and an unbearable amount of suspense regarding his future, almost had a heart attack and found himself in the emergency room of a hospital. "It's not normal to live life that way," Ahmad recalls, sitting across me in the terrace of the coffee shop.

Finally, the group retaliated against the Ministry of the Interior calling for a ministerial decision. The ministry took a long time to reply, in fear of creating a new law for refugees. At the same time, a new case was brought to court, forcing the government to take a decision. As weeks went by, Ahmad was helped by his friends who hosted him here and there. And finally, the six month deadline imposed by the Dublin Regulation in which countries must implement their procedures passed...

“These two years felt like thirty”

Finally, after over two and a half years in Slovenia, Ahmad found out he wouldn't be sent to Croatia. He could legally apply for asylum status. "A real victory," exclaims N'Toko, the singer and activist with a skateboarder look. An asylum status will allow him to get help from the government. Given the situation back home, he is most likely to stay in Slovenia.

But Ahmad has bigger plans: moving his family here. His wife and three of his daughters are in Damascus, and his other daughter managed to reach Germany where she lives with her Syrian husband. His 23-year-old son lives in Turkey, the country that hosts the most Syrian refugees globally. But there have been many attacks carried out in the name of Daech over the last years. "I am worried about him. I'm scared he is going to meet the wrong people," his father tells me, before asking me in a direct manner: "Do you have a child? How long has it been since you've last seen them?" It has been over two and a half years since Ahmad saw his cherished family. Yet he wants to keep his optimism, despite his lack of resources and health problems.

When he speaks to his wife and children on WhatsApp, he tries to play down his problems and tells them that everything is going well. "I don't want to worry them," he tells me. It makes for difficult situations, since his family tend to do the same. But his morale is like a yo-yo. Ahmad prefers to use the image of a balloon that is inflating and deflating. "Imagine losing everything that you've built in the past 25 years. You lose everything," he explains, reminding me that he took on several casual jobs when he was younger before starting a small family business. Does he still think about going back to Syria? "I know it will take ten years to rebuild everything once the war is over," he admits, "I'm too old."

This phase of his life after having left Syria has damaged him. "My father is 85 years old. I'm 47. Still, these two years felt like thirty," he confesses. Ahmad keeps smiling, although he admits being "scared for other refugees." He takes out a small comb from his hunter-like jacket, elegantly adjusting his moustache before we take his photo. He tells us he would like to open a barber shop in Ljubljana. Just before we say goodbye, he looks at his group of friends sitting around the table. He insists one last time: "Last but not least, don't forget to say they helped me!"

Cover photo © Pierre-Anthony Canovas

Translated from Le réfugié syrien qui a bousculé la politique slovène