Unteraegeri, 23.04.2019

Plight of Syrian interpreter and former university lecturer only granted provisional refugee status

Smartly dressed in a suit, Ziad al-Mahmoud looks more like a diplomat than a refugee. Alas, the 48-year-old Syrian, a qualified interpreter in Arabic and French, has been granted only provisional status as a refugee, meaning possible employers are not so willing to take him on, even though he has excellent references for the work he has done since living in Switzerland.


Even though it was his birthday last Friday, al-Mahmoud was not really in the mood to celebrate. At present he is getting depressed spending so much time in the accommodation provided for him, a small room in a dilapidated house on Zugerstrasse in Unterägeri. He has actually had some work experience at two places, at the GGZ@work charity and at the Mülimatt Old People’s Centre, both of whom spoke highly of him. Alas, he has not had any luck from any of the many applications has made for a more permanent job; the reason, he feels, is because he has only been granted provisional refugee status (F), meaning he is only being allowed to stay temporarily, deportation is not deemed appropriate as his homeland is in a state of war. This also means employers are hesitant to take on anyone who might be suddenly asked to leave.


Having no job to go to is just one of his many problems. For some reason he is not allowed to see his sister, who lives in Stuttgart. As for his wife, a Russian national, he only rarely sees her. And in his homeland, Bashar al-Assad remains in power. What he would like to do is return to Syria and teach modern languages, and help build up the country again, but as a known opponent of the current regime, this is not possible, as his life would be at risk.


Al-Mahmoud spent the first four years of his life on the Golan Heights, until he and his family were forced to flee from there after they were occupied by Israeli forces during the Six-Day war in1967. Hence they went to Damascus, but life became difficult for them there, too, especially in the Eighties, when Bashar al Assad’s father, Hafiz, was in power. The interpreter also mentioned the massacre of Hama, when, in1982, between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed by the Syrian army in the city after it had become a centre of anti-regime uprisings.


Ziad al-Mahmoud actually comes from the Turkmen ethic minority group, some of whom remained in Syria following the break-up of the Ottoman empire, and who subsequently suffered under increasing Arabisation, which restricted the practice of their culture. Indeed, as a student, young al-Mahmoud demonstrated against this, but the secret police made this increasingly difficult, and he was often interrogated, causing him great fear.


It was in 1991 that the then student abandoned his course in interpreting and fled, initially to Turkmenistan. “I thought that, with having roots there, I might be able to get a passport there,” he said, but this was not the case. After ten years he was charged with having lived there illegally and he fled to Russia, working there, illegally, too, as an interpreter.


In 2005 he was finally able to get an extension to his Syrian passport and was able to get a job reaching French at the Moscow State Linguistic University. It was in this city, too, that he met his wife. All seemed well, but in 2011 with the onset the Arab Spring, along with other Syrians, he set up a support committee for the Syrian Revolution, seeing, perhaps, the possibility of returning to his homeland, bearing in mind people were openly defying the al-Assad regime there.


Alas, the hoped-for revolution turned into war, with Russia backing the Syrian leader. With four of his colleagues duly arrested and deported to Syria, al-Mahmoud felt he had to leave Russia, and with the help of people-traffickers, he came to Switzerland as he felt it was a country where human rights were supported. This was in 2015. Much has happened since, millions of Syrians fled, either from al-Assad or IS. Increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Europe dominated the headlines for some time. Now IS is virtually gone, but Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and Ziad al-Mahmoud remains in his room in Unterägeri.


Initially, he thought he might be able to find work in French-speaking Switzerland, but he was allocated to Zug, and here he remains. He has already achieved his B1 certificate in German, something of which he is rightly proud. However, as mentioned, his refugee status remains F, and all that this means. As things stand, he is not able to travel abroad, to see his sister, for example. As to his wife, it is too expensive for her to travel from Russia. It is only understandable that al-Mahmoud feels depressed and in a dead end; if only he could find work and make Switzerland his new home.


This article is based on one by Christopher Gilb.