Personal history | Lebanon

Stateless no more

Civil war, nightly air raids, a lack of water: as a refugee from Palestine, Mohammad El-Hassan, felt he had no future in Lebanon. He fled to Berlin in 2003 and today works as a cook in Prenzlauer Berg

A middle-aged Lebanese man stands at the counter of a small restaurant. He looks friendly into the camera

Mohammad El Hassan at work in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg

Before I left, I didn't think about living in Germany at all. Instead, all my energy was focused on a single goal: How do I manage to get there? As a stateless refugee from Palestine, I knew from a young age in Lebanon that I had to emigrate. My childhood and youth were marked by war. Tyros, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea where my family has lived in exile since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, was the site of regular military conflicts.

The civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990, followed by the Lebanon War in 1982 and Israel's air raids in 1996: it felt like there was constant violence. I still remember quite vividly the dull sound of the bombs before they exploded. One day, when I was eight years old, the big water canisters in the attic of our apartment building were shot to pieces. For one day we couldn't drink anything.

As I grew older, I quickly realised that there was no future for me in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees are discriminated against there, even if they were born in Lebanon. We are denied citizenship and the right to vote, and many professions are denied to us. It was also very difficult for my parents - my father was a gardener, my mother a midwife - to find work.

When I was twenty, I only had a seasonal job: I built and repaired air conditioning units. For a while I toyed with the idea of going to Zambia. But my mother didn't want to let me go. Not least because my two older sisters had died young. The first, born in 1977, died of cancer, the second, who was only a year older than me, was run over by a car.

I changed my plans and decided to go to Germany. My older brother was already living in Berlin at the time. I went to a ”simsar“, a man Germans call a ”trafficker“ and we call a ”facilitator“. He got me a visa for Russia for the equivalent of 5,000 euros.

"At some point the police picked me up"

I flew there in March 2003, and from there I took a flight to the Czech Republic. After spending a week in prison in Prague because I didn't have a visa, I hid in a truck with thirty other people to get to Germany. We were on the road for 24 hours without food. Not far from Frankfurt am Main, I got out of the truck and walked along the motorway through the forest. At some point the police picked me up. The next day in the morning, the police took me to a home.

I remember that morning very well: I was completely exhausted and unshaven, it was very cold and I tried to get a phone card to call my brother. I was walking back and forth in a drowsy state, people were giving me nasty looks. My brother then picked me up in the car and took me to Berlin. At first, my time in the capital was very difficult because of bureaucratic problems. For the first three years I was given a tolerated status. This meant that I was not allowed to work or leave my place of residence, i.e. Berlin.

After a persistent search, I found a one-room flat in the Neukölln neighbourhood - for 350 euros rent. The 140 euros I got from the social welfare office was nowhere near enough to cover my fixed costs. I was constantly plagued by the worry of not having enough money. As a 22-year-old, I also had my first experience of having to take care of the household alone. I felt lonely, which was compounded by the fact that I could rarely talk to my family on the phone, a few minutes a week at most.

After several unsuccessful applications for a work permit, the Foreigners' Registration Office granted me the long-awaited permit in August 2006. Many refugees, especially those from Syria, call Angela Merkel ”Mama Merkel“ today, but when I came to Germany, politics was very different. At my first job, I distributed advertisements on the street. Around that time, I married a Palestinian woman who was born in Germany. In 2007, our first son was born. We now have five children.

In 2009, a friend who worked in the oriental snack bar Habba Habba in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg offered me the chance to work with him there. I have had German citizenship since 2017 and have already been able to vote twice. It was an amazing feeling to finally no longer be stateless and to be able to participate in the political life of the country where I live. In my heart, of course, I remain Palestinian first, that is my home.

My dream, however, is to bring my parents to Germany. Even if it's unfortunately officially not allowed, I still hope that it will be possible one day.

As told to Cécile Calla