Alex Assali fled Assad in Syria and ISIL in Libya. Now he runs a charity kitchen in Berlin.
Alex Assali woke up in his small Berlin flat on the morning of November 22, 2015, and checked his email. There were 1,000 messages waiting for him.
The day before, a friend had uploaded a photograph to Facebook of Assali feeding homeless people on the streets of Berlin. The caption below read: “Acts of kindness: A Syrian refugee mans a food stand for the homeless, to ‘give something back to the German people’.”
The image went viral - it was shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook and nearly three million times on Imgur. Assali, 38, had become an overnight social media sensation.
Although he had started his informal soup kitchen back in August, the photo had suddenly captured the media’s attention; news crews flocked to his flat.
But while Assali may have been swept to fame overnight, he was no accidental activist.
Syrian refugee Alex Assali serves a Syrian lentil soup and rice to homeless people
at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany. [Elie Gardner/Al Jazeera]
Over the past 11 years, Assali has had to flee two countries - Syria and Libya -after speaking out against political corruption and human rights abuses.
His political roots run deep. His great-uncle, Shukri al-Assali, was a member of the Ottoman parliament who, in 1916, was executed for his criticism of Ottoman policy. Assali’s grandfather was the three-time Syrian prime minister, Sabri al-Asali, who served during the 1950s.
Assali’s own father was a soldier in the Syrian military, who, in the mid-1970s, was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia with his family after he intercepted confidential military dispatches. Assali was two when they settled in Riyadh.
Assali’s father died in 2000, and three years later in 2003, the family decided to return to their ancestral home in the Syrian capital of Damascus, when Assali was 24.
But their return did not go unnoticed by the Syrian government, which forced Assali to report his whereabouts every few weeks to authorities.
“They thought I was the same as my father,” he says.
He began to doubt their decision to return, but his mother assured him that “soon, they’ll forget you”. So he began to build a life for himself there, opening a modest shop selling computer parts and revelling in discovering the familiar and unfamiliar in his homeland.
Approximate number of Syrians
in Germany, Oct 2015*
Approximate number of Syrian
asylum-seekersin Germany, Oct 2015**
Approximately 67% of all Syrians in Germany are asylum-seekers.
* Source: Federal Statistical Office of Germany
** Source: German Interior Ministry
After a few months, Assali ran into an old friend of his father’s, who told him about a political group opposed to the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, that he was a part of: the Damascus Declaration. When the family friend asked Assali to help by printing some flyers in his shop, he agreed and soon became more involved. When he began to anonymously share the group’s critique of Assad online, the government tracked him down.
In September 2006, three years after he had moved to Syria, a cousin called him at work to tell him that the police were outside his flat.
He remembers what his cousin told him: “Run.”
Assali did as he was advised.
Taking $2,000 from the cash register and without his passport, he hailed a taxi to the capital of neighbouring Lebanon, Beirut. From there, some friends helped him to board a ship to Cyprus.
Without any identifying documents, the only job Assali could get was one cleaning hotel bathrooms. He struggled to get by on his meagre wages, but eventually saved $600. With that, he managed to get to Cairo, where he spent another six months cleaning hotel rooms.
Assali attends German class five afternoons a week. [Elie Gardner/Al Jazeera]
When an acquaintance of one of his sisters offered him free accommodation in Libya, he accepted the offer - staying in a village house in the district of Zawiya. Things began to fall into place for Assali. He secured a fake ID card and landed a job as an IT manager at Tripoli University. The chaos of the preceding months receded and six calm years passed. Assali even bought a plot of land and built his own house. Zawiya had become his home.
But the peace would soon be shattered.
Assali could not conceal his criticisms of the then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and was arrested on several occasions, spending nearly a month in prison each time. But it was worth it, Assali says.
In August 2011, Gaddafi was removed from power.
“The year after the revolution - 2012 - was the most beautiful year of my life. I felt free. For the first time, I felt safe to tell people who I was,” he says.
Assali cooks a Syrian lentil soup at his friend's apartment.
His friends usually help him to cook and serve the food. [Elie Gardner/Al Jazeera]
But it was short-lived. Civil war soon broke out and, in 2013, groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) entered Zawiya. Everything changed.
“When ISIL arrived, people were killed for having an opinion. Every day I saw someone dead on the streets or in the sea,” he says.
Assali created a Facebook group to expose ISIL’s crimes. It attracted 25,000 followers.
For a few weeks, he exchanged online messages with a man who seemed to share his views. Then he sent him his personal telephone number. The next day, several men turned up at Assali’s house and arrested him.
He was taken to a makeshift prison where, he believes, he was kept alive only because his captors thought he had valuable information. That did not stop them from torturing him. He was severely beaten - his wounds intended to serve as a warning to the other prisoners.
He resigned himself to dying. But, three months later, he was suddenly offered freedom - in return for his house and car. Assali agreed and the man he made the deal with paid for him to reach Sabratha city, where he was to board a boat to Italy.
Assali shows a photo of his body after he was beaten and tortured by ISIL. [Alex Assali/Al Jazeera]
For days, he waited for the boat at a farm alongside hundreds of others. When they eventually boarded, there were 380 other people with him. The boat sank mid-way through the journey.
When he thinks back to that night, he remembers the stars in the sky, being unsure where the sea ended and the sky began. He recalls and seeing others he’s met on the boat struggle to stay afloat alongside him - everything coming in and out of focus.
“The waves take you where they want,” he says.
For two hours, he was drifting in the sea, unable to feel his own body. More than 100 people drowned that night, but Assali was eventually rescued by the Italian navy.
A few weeks later, he arrived in Germany, where, in June 2015, he was granted asylum.
In the capital, Berlin, he encountered something entirely unexpected: people sleeping on the streets. He arranged rooms for them at the City Mission and began volunteering at a homeless shelter. The work quiets his mind, he says.
Now his family is scattered outside of Syria. He keeps in touch with two of his sisters. But his three other sisters and his mother no longer talk to him because, although born Muslim, he now identifies as Christian.
There are other parts of Assali’s past that he prefers not to recount - things he would rather not have as part of his story. He tries to bury some of these memories, but it is not always possible. Often, he just lights a cigarette to distract himself from his grief.
Whatever happens in his future, Assali knows he will never return to Syria. So, he passes his time - helping the homeless, learning a new language, and taking small steps to connect his past with his present.
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