When Ahmed* takes his cap off a thin layer of black hair appears. With an almost apologetic smile he says that it must be because of stress. He puts the cap back on top of the missing hair and asks “How old do you think I am?” It is a tricky question. “I am only 20 years old,” he says as if it surprises him too.
Ahmed has lived most of his life in the city of Aden in Yemen, but today he is a refugee in Tanzania. He arrived in the international airport in Dar es Salaam almost two years ago.
His future in Yemen was running towards a brick wall – the level of education was poor and the country was on the brink of an armed conflict. His school had split the classes in morning, afternoon and evening classes, and he was on the evening team. Some evenings the noise from shootings in the street would interrupt the class and make the students hurry home.
“It was like fear for us to live in Yemen. I was scared. At that time there were so many signs of war, the petrol prices went up and there was no electricity,” Ahmed remembers.
So Ahmed decided to leave and the most obvious place was Tanzania, where his grandfather lived. He was his only relative outside of Yemen and Ahmed had never been to Tanzania before. He left his mother and older brother alone and came to Dar es Salaam to see if they all three could make a life here. But after a few months the shooting in Yemen got worse.
In early 2015 a political conflict escalated into civil war when Houti rebels loyal to the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh attempted to overthrow the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
At that time Ahmed’s mother and brother still lived in Aden. They decided that they should follow after him and come to Tanzania. Ahmed had only been in Dar es Salaam for five months, but now there was no way back. When his mother and brother arrived, they all three applied for asylum in Tanzania.
Ahmed and his family are not the only asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries to arrive in Tanzania. Recently more asylum seekers from countries like Syria and Yemen have arrived, The Citizen reported last month. According to Charles Mkude who is a National Project Officer at the International Organisation for Migration, the origin of the refugees is new. He mentions that as Europe tightens its borders, more refugees will seek a safe haven elsewhere. When someone faces personal prosecution or live in a country of armed conflict, he or she can apply for international protection under the Geneva Convention anywhere.
Last month Ahmed and his family’s application for asylum in Tanzania was granted and they now live as refugees. They live four people in the grandfather’s town apartment, but the space for movements is little.
“Now we can move freely in Dar es Salaam. But I don’t feel like I’m free yet. I can’t study and I can’t find work,” says Ahmed who has only finished his first year of high school.
His older brother is mentally unwell and can’t speak English, while his mother has only very basic education from Yemen. She used to provide for the family by taking cleaning jobs, but now Ahmed has to take over the role of the provider.
Transit in Tanzania
He is not yet allowed to work or study, and often the family relies on food they get from their neighbours. The grandfather is old and sometimes Ahmed thinks he would rather they left. Ahmed can’t see, how he will be able to create a life in Tanzania. He does not feel at home in the streets of Dar es Salaam, as if he is pushed into a corner between his dreams and reality.
“We had a hope that the local Muslim community here would accept us, but they didn’t. Now I hope to move to another country where I can study and live and where my brother can get medical care. My mother is also getting old. This is a developing country and there are not many services that can help us. And I can’t go anywhere without worrying,” he says.
In the mosque he prays alone and people don’t greet him on the streets. “I think it is because we are different. We are refugees,” he says.
The number of Middle Eastern asylum seekers who have arrived in Tanzania is still rather low, and the reasons to seek refugee status in Tanzania are many.
Reza* came to Tanzania from Iran last year, but he never planned to stay in East Africa. He wanted to go to the US, Sweden or Canada, but on his way westwards he passed through Tanzania on a fake passport and was not allowed to go any further.
He applied for refugee status, but he hasn’t got his answer yet. Now he waits for the Tanzanian authorities to decide where he should go next. Iran is not an option.
“This country is easy, but Iran is strict. There you cannot abide from the line and a lot of people have gone into hiding,” he says.
Reza crossed that line and was caught. He converted to Christianity and one day when he went to church he was reported to the police. He has been to prison for his religion and he is desperate to go somewhere to build his life. With a fake passport it was his plan to obtain a European Schengen visa or an American visa, but now he is temporarily in Tanzania.
“People here are good, I appreciate it, but this is more like a transit. I can’t stay here. I will like to come back and visit, but this was not my plan,” Reza says.
Like Reza, Ahmed can’t imagine to go back. Yemen has been in a state of armed conflict for many years, he explains, and the hope that future leaders will change the fate of the country seems almost utopian.
Among his identity papers is a certificate with Arabic letters. At the bottom appears a name and the year 1997. It is his father’s death certificate. He was executed by a fraction of the army after he refused to fight in the 1994 civil war, Ahmed explains. He looks at it for a long time.
“At least there is no war here,” he says.
*The names have been changed