Khalil Hamdouna pokes his head out of his door, cringing at the sudden flood of early-morning sunlight in the hallway. Clearly just awoken, he says, “I’ll be right out.”
By Michaela Cavanagh
Hamdouna lives in Lyngbygaard Asylum Centre in Trustrup, just outside of Grenaa. He lives with his sisters, his brother-in-law, his niece and his younger brother, all of whom have come from Libya.
Hamdouna has lived in Lyngbygaard for more than a year now — a long time even by asylum seeker standards. The 19-year-old made the journey from Libya to Denmark last September with his younger brother, and his sisters followed soon after.
Hamdouna’s original plan was to head to Norway, but his uncle told him that in Denmark his chances for quick asylum processing were better. “My uncle told me that in Denmark in a month and a half you will get the permission to stay, and in six months you will get your parents here.”
After Hamdouna washes up, he leads us through a maze of identical dormitory-style hallways lined with doors and littered with bikes to a small, cramped kitchen. Seated around the table, he tells his story from the beginning.
Hamdouna says he has been a refugee his whole life. He has a Palestinian passport but was born in Syria, where he lived until he was 2-years-old. His family then moved to Libya, where he lived all his life and where he was studying to become an engineer.
But in August 2014, the civil war in Libya was worsening, and Hamdouna’s parents urged him to leave. Hamdouna says two things sparked his decision to go: one was the increased fighting and recruiting of fighters near his hometown of Zintan.
The second hit closer to home: amongst his two close friends from childhood, “who were like brothers,” says Hamdouna, one killed the other, and then killed himself. “So I was thinking, if he can do that, he can do it with me, too. I know him, he’s the same as my brother, and I couldn’t imagine that.”
“I didn’t want to leave. But if you didn’t fight, they thought you were against them, and I knew if I’m going to fight, I’m going to die, of course.”
Hamdouna left Libya with his 14-year-old brother last September. They started their journey with the treacherous 12-hour boat trip from Tripoli to Lampedusa, a 12-hour trip in a dinghy measuring 24 metres. The normal price is US $800 to US $1000, but Hamdouna paid US $1300. “I was paying $1300 because I told them that if we buy it like this, you’re only going to put 600 people on the boat, and the boat will be a little bit new,” he says.
“I couldn’t go back, because they had guns and everything. I mean, if I knew it was going to be like this, I would not have come, I would not have tried,” says Hamdouna. “It was very dangerous. Those people who are working that boat, they don’t care about you.”
Hamdouna’s sister enters the kitchen, greeting Hamdouna and speaking in Arabic about the translation of a word he was stuck on. The conversation ends with “Nescafé”, something we all understand, and soon a thermos of water and a jar of instant coffee appears on the table before us.
“This is the first time for me to get responsible, and it’s not easy at all,” says Hamdouna. “I was 18, anyone the same age as me will just be thinking about how he parties.” Hamdouna says that during the voyage, the life of his younger brother, aged 14, was a lot of responsibility for him.
“But this is how it is, when you get responsible, you be the father, the brother, and the friend. You left behind some friends and family, and he’s the same as you but he’s younger than you.”
After landing in Lampedusa, Hamdouna and his brother boarded a larger vessel on which they traveled for two days. From Italy, they took a train from Bolzano directly to Munich. “I knew I shouldn’t take rest in Italy because if I rest there, they [the authorities] would have taken my fingerprint,” says Hamdouna. “I thought if I get to Munich, I’m already safe. I didn’t sleep for two, maybe three days,” he says.
In Munich, Hamdouna was sleep-deprived, not having slept either on the boat trip or on the train. Hamdouna says he met two German men his own age that helped him navigate the trains. “They were such good guys,” says Hamdouna. “I just told them I wanted to go to Hamburg, and they said ‘OK’, and I just slept.”
Hamdouna says that on the trains or at the stations, the police could have stopped him at any time. “There was one police officer, he came up to me, and I was so scared he was going to catch me, but instead he just said, ‘dirty kid, you can’t smoke here.’
“But when the police saw those two guys standing with me, they thought I was Arabic and had been living here for a long time, so [the two guys] helped me out so much.”
“And after that one guy, he didn’t want to go to Hamburg but he did it just for me, just because he wanted me to be safe and he wanted me to arrive. So I went to Hamburg and from there I went to Copenhagen.”
When Hamdouna arrived in Copenhagen, he searched for some police to help him. With no police around, Hamdouna took a taxi to Sandholm Asylum Centre.
“I was so scared of the police in Germany, and now in Copenhagen I couldn’t find any police officer. So I just stopped one guy and told him, call the police!”
“I arrived at 8:00 at night and until 2:00 a.m. nobody talked to me, they just put me in a room,” says Hamdouna. When they finally gave Hamdouna a room, they didn’t register Hamdouna and his brother as a family. “They registered us as two singles. Even they didn’t believe me that he was my brother at first.”
Hamdouna and his brother spent three days waiting to be fingerprinted and register with the Danish authorities, and two more weeks waiting for their registration cards.
“Every day there are a hundred people waiting to get fingerprinted. So I would stand I would stand every day from morning to night outside the office, and after three days they let us get our fingerprints taken,” says Hamdouna.
Hamdouna says that they registered him as Palestinian coming from Syria, rather than coming from Libya. “I don’t know why. I was just born in Syria,” he says. “It would have been so easy to tell them I was from Syria, and then I get the permission to stay. And actually there are so many people who tell me that you can lie so easily, just do it.”
“But I feel like I have a problem, I didn’t come to lie. I need the people to feel my fear, that I was coming because this [the Libyan civil war] was a problem, and if you didn’t give me the permission [asylum] just for this problem, then you don’t care about human rights,” says Hamdouna.
At Lyngbygaard, the first four months “were so bad.” Meals were available for only three hours each day. “I was just eating potatoes, and I didn’t like it. We were eating potatoes three times a day.” There was no Wi-Fi at the centre, and so no way for refugees to contact their families.
“How could you text your parents to tell them you were safe? I don’t know. We were walking to a school three kilometres away from here, and we would go and stand outside the school in the rain and cold to use the Wi-Fi.”
More than a year later, although a room with computers has been set up and their stipends increased, Hamdouna finds himself in the same position — if not worse off. Although he has his sisters with him now, three weeks ago he was denied asylum by the Danish immigration authorities for the second time.
“For me, after a year I got a negative decision — that I can’t stay here. After that they said we’ll go to the court, and I got another negative.”
The Danish immigration authorities told Hamdouna that he should return to Libya.
“They say it’s not dangerous for me in Libya. And for my sisters, they say they can even go to Syria.”
“I’m so tired of meeting people, and then they go,” says Hamdouna. “They go because they get a permission [asylum] and they go to big cities and lead a normal life, they start to study. It’s hard to see that for me. When they go, you think, oh my god, they’re my friends, my family, and you remember, I’ve been here for so long without leaving.”
As our coffees go cold, Hamdouna asks matter-of-factly, “They say they are going to try to apply again, but how can I wait more years?” “I don’t know if it’s going to be after six months or a year, maybe more.” “I’m just eighteen or nineteen, I don’t know what’s going to happen. For me, it feels like my future is dark.”
Photos by Teresa Weikmann.