Ahmed’​s Story: From Syria To A South Korean Island

For Syrians able to escape the horrors of war, Europe is the preferred destination. But some have ventured farther afield. One 22-year-old refugee landed on Jeju island, a popular honeymoon spot off the coast of South Korea.

Aleppo-born Ahmed Lababidi on Jeju Island
Aleppo-born Ahmed Lababidi on Jeju Island
Jason Strother

JEJU â€" With its black volcanic rocks that jut out of the sea, Jeju Island is best known as a honeymoon getaway for South Koreans. But it also has a local population of approximately 600,000, nearly all of them Korean. Ahmed Lababidi is a rare exception in that regard. He's not even Asian. He's from Aleppo, in Syria.

It's a typically windy day here, so we go into a nearby cafe to have a chat. The 22-year-old wears glasses, is clean-shaven, and has dark hair that he's growing out. His journey out of Syria, he explains, began in 2012, when war engulfed his hometown. Ahmed and his family managed to escape â€" to Turkey.

By the end of that year, he and his brother both obtained three-month business visas for South Korea. They told Korean authorities that they were going to buy cars. Ahmed says he originally planned to live in the capital, Seoul, but changed his mind during a trip to Jeju.

"I've been to Seoul a number of times. But whenever I go, I get sick. I get stressed, tired. All I want to do is head back to Jeju," he says.

After a few months of living on the island, the young man went to immigration and applied for refugee status. But officials there told him that fleeing war isn't grounds enough for asylum â€" only escaping persecution is.Lababidi recalls the conversation he had with the immigration agent:

"Of course the government is after me," he told the agent.

"How do you know that? Gives us proof and then we'll give you refugee status," the agent said.

"How can I prove that? I had some activities on Facebook, anti-government stuff. They know my name," Ahmed replied.

The immigration authorities decided in the end to issue him a humanitarian visa, which allows him to stay in Korea but is a lot different, Ahmed explains, than refugee status. "No healthcare. No housing. No salary." He doesn't know how long he can keep the visa, nor how many times he can re-apply.

Jeju seashore â€" Photo: Yoo Chung

Ahmed is not alone. As of late 2015, approximately 850 other Syrians had applied for refugee status in South Korea. So far only three people have had their request granted.

An immigration official I spoke with insists that all applicants are treated fairly. But some human rights activists say there's a negative bias towards refugees from countries other than North Korea, especially toward people coming from Muslim countries.

Chung Shin-Young, an immigration lawyer, says Muslim asylum seekers are generally treated with suspicion in South Korea. "If you look at Korea, you see it's a very homogenous society. It's really hard for people here to accept diversity," she says.

Shin-Yung says that in some cases, just like in Europe or North America, some South Korean politicians, media and law enforcement try to make the link between Syrian refugees and terrorism. She shares an example of what police reportedly told Muslim migrants in one city here.

"The police approached a group of Muslims and asked them to shave their beards. "You look like terrorists," they said. They've even gone into Mosques just to look for people who look like terrorists," the immigration lawyer says.

Ahmed says he's happy with his life on Jeju Island, and that he's made a lot of friends through his job waiting tables at a local Indian restaurant. But he admits that police did question him following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. "I felt bad that they came to me, that they thought I was terrorist. But later I understood it was just something they had to do," he says.

The young Syrian says he hopes South Korean immigration will reconsider his refugee application. There's also a chance he could end up in Europe if his parents, who are still in Turkey, get refugee status there. His preference, however, would be to bring the family to Jeju Island.

"Wherever I go on Jeju, I think about them," he says. "They can't see the places I'm seeing. They don't know what it feels like to be here. But maybe later."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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