Stuck in the Middle

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[aesop_chapter title=”Stuck in the Middle” subtitle=”Chapter One: Waiting” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

 

“Sometimes when I’m feeling empty she gives me the power to continue my fight. This situation is my battle.”

Karim speaks beautifully of his girlfriend while we are sitting in a cafe in the center of Ljubljana. Rain is turning into snowfall as we talk and drink coffee in the shelter of a roof of a terrace. It’s quiet Sunday in mid-December, people are passing by every now and then. For most of them, the word battle means surviving from home to Christmas shopping in this horrible weather where snow becomes slush immediately when it touches the ground. For Karim, battle means something completely different.

He is fighting to have a life which one can call normal. It seems though that everything is pretty normal for Karim. He has neat clothes, a job, a salary that is good enough for living, friends and a roof over his head. Karim has the basic prerequisites for living but he is lacking something really important. He is afraid to dream about the future, in fact, he is afraid to even think about the future. That’s because he is stuck in the middle. He can’t go back or either go forward. He is waiting.

Karim is a 38-year-old asylum seeker from Iran. He has been living in Ljubljana, Slovenia for almost two years now. He doesn’t want to appear in this story by his real name because he is afraid that it might affect his chances to obtain asylum from Slovenia. He doesn’t either want to tell the reason why he had to leave Iran two years ago but he assures that he didn’t have other choice than flee from home.

 

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“If someone left without any reason that person is crazy. If I had a chance I would have stayed there. I love my country and I loved my job and my life there. Now my life is like number zero. I was working in Iran around 15 years and making a lot of things for myself and in one moment I lost everything,” Karim says.

At the present moment Karim is waiting for his third interview with Slovenian authorities. The answers from two earlier were negative and he doesn’t know why: “I’m a strong guy but sometimes you don’t know what will happen in the future. This is a really hard feeling when you think about it.”

“That’s why I don’t want to stay at home without doing anything. I want to spend my time in job or with friends. If I stayed at home I would go crazy. For three or four months I went to psychologist here in Ljubljana because I was under pressure and depressed. I couldn’t do anything.”

 

[aesop_chapter title=”Chapter Two: One of a Thousand” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Karim arrived in Slovenia in 2016 when the country received 1,308 asylum requests, up from 277 in 2015. Slovenia granted asylum to 170 of those people, up from 46 in 2015. Slovenian interior ministry data show an asylum procedure usually lasts about seven months but can take more than a year.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#ffffff” text=”#000000″ width=”content” height=”auto” align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”Asylum seekers in Slovenia
2017:
Number of applicants: 1476
Asylum granted: 152
Refused applications: 89
2016:
Number of applicants: 1308
Asylum granted: 170
Refused applications: 96″ parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

The number of asylum seekers in Slovenia has been increasing because the tightening border controls across the region. Two years ago Slovenia was known as a country through which migrants and refugees travel to Western Europe but the situation has changed. More and more people have decided to seek asylum in EU member Slovenia which is one of the most prosperous nations in southeastern Europe.  The main reason for that rising numbers is, according to Nataša Potočnik, Director of the Migration Office in Slovenia, the closure of the “Balkan-Route”.

If a person wants to seek asylum in Slovenia the process looks like this:  “When a person applies for international protection in Slovenia they mainly do it within the police procedure. Then they are first informed of their rights and duties, done by NGO called PIZ”, Potočnik says.  After that the asylum seeker is questioned by the police which takes usually an hour or two. The next turn is another interview with representative of Ministry for Interior and after that the applicant obtains the status of an applicant for international protection in Slovenia and all the rights that derive from it. The applicants are living in the Asylum Centre in Ljubljana which has six units: a unit for families, for single men, for unaccompanied minors, for single women, for the disabled and a special unit for those with restricted movement. The state is supporting asylum seekers financially with 18 euros in a month.

Nataša Potočnik, Director of the Migration Office in Slovenia. (Photo: Hazal Halistoprak)

“We have some nice security guys, we have nice social workers and place to sleep. These things are good but that’s it. Food is really bad, the government is helping with 18 euros in a month. I don’t need the money but some people are really living with that money and they can’t even afford a cup of coffee,” says Karim. Aida Hadžiahmetović from the NGO Slovenska filantropija confirms that: “18 Euros is not enough”, she says. “We tried everything, but the government always said: The have enough, they came here for secure and we gave them secure.”

[aesop_chapter title=”Chapter Three: Ambasada Rog” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Karim doesn’t need those 18 euros because he is working at a factory in Skofja Loka. Due to legislation asylum seekers can’t work during their first nine months in Slovenia. During that time Karim’s family was supporting him but he wanted to earn his own living. At first he got a job from school through his friend who works as a teacher. When the school year ended last summer Karim was again searching for a job. This time he got helped by one translator who told that there’s one agency willing to hire people to factory in Skofja Loka. Same company employs also other asylum seekers and Karim got the job. Salary is good enough, approximately from 800 euros to 1000 euros in one month.

“Everything is not because of money. When you work, you feel good. I hate to use social money. I don’t have any reason to use social money. We have some guys who live with that money and they are not going either to school or work. Some people are like this, also Slovenian people.”

When Karim talks about we he means asylum seekers living in the Asylum Centre in Ljubljana. He is not trying to pretend that all of them are living their life responsibly. Some people sell drugs in Metelkova, some people just use drugs. But most of them are trying to do some meaningful with their lives even though their options are limited since they are waiting for the asylum decision. After spending few months in Slovenia Karim and his friends started to build a place called Ambasada Rog which is an open social space located in a former bike factory Rog, nowadays a squat in Ljubljana.

“Before it was just dirty and ugly place. We started to fix it with a big group of people, refugees and also Slovenian people. We painted it, build a bar for people, brought table football and so on. I don’t want to say we made it really really beautiful but if you compare it to what it was before, it’s beautiful,” Karim explains.

Ambasada Rog is in a premises of an old Rog bike factory. (Picture: Joska Saarinen)

Next week Karim leads us to Ambasada which is full of discussion, laughter, the sounds of life. People are having dinner around a big table. Every now and then someone comes to wash dishes to the kitchen where we are talking. As Karim said it’s not the most beautiful place on Earth but it has its own special atmosphere created by the people. And that’s what Ambasada is all about. There is parties, dinners, game evenings and other events which are open for everyone: “Many people came here and they didn’t know anything about refugees. Sometimes you should prove yourself for people who don’t know you.”

Karim used to spend most of his time in Ambasada before he started working. Nowadays he doesn’t have that much time for going there but it’s still the place where he meets his friends in Ljubljana. It’s not all the time about having fun. Ambasada is also the place to go when you need help with money, bureaucracy or something else. And others are trying to help in any way they can.

[aesop_chapter title=”Chapter Four: Love” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

 

Even though Ambasada is open space for everyone, most of the people who spend time there have similar background than Karim. They came to Slovenia within last three years using the famous Balkan route.

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Karim’s journey started approximately two years ago. In Iran he used to be real estate agent who was enjoying his middle class life. Then problems occurred to him, problems which he is not willing to talk about but which forced him to leave his life. Not only the life as a real estate agent but also the life as a brother and a son. His three brothers, two sisters and parents were left in Iran when he decided to go. Karim went through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia – and was lucky to stay alive. He still remembers well what happened when he was crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece.

“Normally you would need one hour to cross the sea. But we were in this boat for six hours because the boat engine didn’t work. It was really dangerous, there was something like 55 people in the boat. Greek police came and saved us. We were one or two kilometers from the coast and we couldn’t continue. As you might know many people died there but we were saved by the police.”

Karim continued to Macedonia and was forced out from the country in few hours. In Serbia he had to wait a few days before he could continue. After Slovenia Karim was trying to go further to Austria but was turned back to Slovenia.

“It is like prison. There is just policemen and army guys around you and you can’t do anything. You just sit and wait what they want to do with you. You are like toy, they are just playing with you.”

Sometimes Karim spends his time playing table football in Ambasada Rog. (Picture: Joska Saarinen)

Eventually Karim settled down in Ljubljana. He was living in the Asylum Center, studying English and found a job from a school. Most importantly, he also found love. She worked as a security guard at the Asylum Center. It was a coincidence, however, that this Iranian man and the Slovenian woman found each other.

“I was working for this school and they were having this Iranian theater play there. They asked me to teach the students Iranian dance for this story. I started to teach the students and they gave some text to read which was in Slovenian. I asked her if she can teach me how I should read this text. She started to teach me and… I don’t know what happened. We fell in love and we have been in a relationship for seven months now and we are happy.”

Karim’s eyes starts to shine when he speaks about his girlfriend. She definitely gives him power to fight his battle. But nothing is perfect. At the moment Karim’s girlfriend is working in Switzerland but they try to see each other as often as they can.

“Let’s see what happens, I don’t know. Maybe she will stay there or maybe she will come back because of my situation. But I don’t want to push her. It’s her life. Of course I’m in her life also but she should do the best for her life.”

[aesop_chapter title=”Chapter Five: Iran” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

 

Karim says that he has two big loves in his life but both of them are living in a different country; girlfriend in Switzerland and mother in Iran. And it’s impossible for him to travel and visit them because of his situation. With girlfriend it’s easier because she’s coming to Slovenia once in a while but he is really missing his mother and other family.

“Sometimes I talk with them. They worry about me. They don’t know that I got negative answers from the first two interviews. Only my youngest brother knows. I didn’t tell them because I don’t want to make them sad. I’ve been just saying that I’m waiting for an answer.”

Karim continues to explain how hard it is to be apart from his family. He is saying that the people from Middle East are really emotional and family oriented.

“We are feeling that we should be together all the time. When I was working back in Iran my office was near my parents home. So when I ate a lunch there and wanted to go back to the office my mum asked that where I’m going. To work, I answered. No, she said, come here and sit next to me, drink one cup of tea and then go,” Karim says. He is silent for a while and then repeats: “It is really hard.”

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He doesn’t believe that it’s possible for him to go back to Iran in near future. He is sceptical that things will change in his home country. At the moment, the largest anti-government demonstrations in Iran are underway since 2009. Over ten people have died in the protests that started in December. It is still unclear how organized these protests are and what protesters are aiming for but it’s been widely recognized that protesters are disappointed with economic situation and high prices as well opposing Iran’s involvement in conflicts across the Middle East. Karim is not willing to speak politics in detail but he has a fairly clear opinion on what is wrong with his country.

“They don’t give you the freedom of choice. Why you need to cover your hair? Why you can’t say that you are gay? Why you can’t say that you don’t like the president? The leaders make themselves like God. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, you know, he is not God, he is just a human. In Slovenia, if you don’t like something you can go to a street and say it. But if you do the same in Iran they put you in a prison or they shoot you.”

“People are fighting for their freedom. I hope things will change in the future but it is not simple.”

[aesop_chapter title=”Chapter Six: Future” bgtype=”color” full=”off” video_autoplay=”on” bgcolor=”#000000″ revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

 

It’s impossible to say what is going to happen in Iran as it is impossible to say what is going to happen to Karim. At the moment he doesn’t even want to think about what he will do if he gets a third negative answer from the authorities. He has been waiting for 21 months and there is nothing he can do to fasten the process. And he is not alone. There’s a lot of people in Slovenia who are in exactly the same situation.

“I don’t know how long we have to wait. Maybe one year more, maybe less. Sometimes I don’t understand them [authorities]. They don’t look at you, who you are, they just look what they have on the papers,” Karim says.

Aida Hadžiahmetović says that the quality of the process get worse in the the last year because the Slovenian government had to speed up its procedures. Especially the second interview is, according to her, way shorter than before. But that means that the quality of the interviews can be worse and that could lead to a wrong decision.

Nataša Potočnik says: “If the person fulfills the conditions for a refugee-status, we give him a positive decision. If not we have to see if there are some reasons for subsidiary protection.”

Karim has been thinking that maybe people don’t want more refugees to Slovenia. (Picture: Joska Saarinen)

“I really don’t want to think about these things. If you think about negative things you cannot live. I don’t want to say I never have bad feelings, sometimes I have really bad feelings but I try to think about the good things in my life. I have nice friends, I have my job, I have my girlfriend.”

It seems that Karim is ready to start a new life in Ljubljana and actually he has started it already. But as long as he doesn’t get the confirmation that he can stay here he can’t sleep at night in peace. He is afraid to dream about the future but sometimes, when it’s a good day, he pictures himself living somewhere closer to nature surrounded by animals. And there is room for dreams in that picture.

“If I get the status I will go to Armenia or Turkey to visit my family. My mom is a bit old so it would be a struggle for her to come here but I can go there if I will get the status.”

“This is really hard. Maybe I will never see my mom and hug her again in my life. That’s really big for me.”

 

Text, film and pictures: Eirik Sedlmair, Joska Saarinen, Hazal Halistoprak