Syrians fight for passports in Berlin | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.03.2015
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Syrians fight for passports in Berlin

Syrian opposition members report that their embassy in Berlin refuses to give them passports. Ambassador Bassam Abdullah would like to solve that problem, but he's not allowed to.

Evening traffic creeps past the construction site that occupies half of this major street in Berlin's Mitte district. Opposite, a woman rushes through the misty rain, past a small cafe trying to lure customers with a giant sticker in its window that reads "Home Sweet Home."

Next door a rather inconspicuous sign hangs next to a house entrance: "National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces." Below that, another reads: "Office of the Ambassador."

A little later, after he has said goodbye to two Syrian visitors, Bassam Abdullah will explain that he is not actually an ambassador. Draped across the wall behind him is a large Syrian flag, and his business card says "Ambassador," nonetheless one cannot openly and honestly say that the title accurately describes his situation. "You need a country for that." Then Abdullah, a friendly man who weighs his words carefully and often uses hand gestures, sighs.

A doctor by day and an ambassador by night, Abdullah is the official representative of the "National Coalition" in Germany, and as such is considered to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by the German, American and British governments as well as those of several Arab countries. Three years ago, Syria's ambassador to Germany was expelled from Berlin and diplomatic relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad were officially shut down. These days Abdullah is invited to any number of receptions and events. But he is still not allowed to issue passports.

Is the Syrian Embassy harassing opposition members?

Deutschland Schild Büro des Botschafters der Nationalen Koalition Bassam Abdullah

The Syrian National Coalition was founded in 2012 and functions as a government in exile

And that, says Abdullah, is a problem. According to him, he and his fellow campaigners have documented some 1,800 cases of Syrians being "abused by the embassy in consular questions." For instance citizens whose passports were not renewed, or who were refused copies of birth certificates.

The consulate, or as Abdullah calls it the "residual embassy," which has continued to offer consular services after the expulsion of the ambassador, helps those Syrians that it wants to–but not those that it has identified as opposition members.

This also affects the polite, almost shy man who only wants to be referred to as Abu Muhammed, so as not to endanger his family in Syria. In a café not far from Abdullah's office, the young man explains that he became a "full-time activist" as soon as the revolution began. Together with other students he organized demonstrations and lectures and uploaded speeches onto the internet. With that, the government promptly ended his academic scholarship.

But it didn't end there. At the end of 2012 he applied for a passport for his newborn daughter, and in the beginning of 2014 for the renewal of his own passport. He is still waiting for both. The letter that he presented to DW states: "As the issuance of travel documents takes place at our Syrian headquarters, applications must be sent to Syria." Thus the embassy cannot say how long it will be before he receives his new travel documents.

The Syrian embassy declined to make any statements to DW without official consent from Damascus. A written request for a statement on the situation has gone unanswered to date.

Who is in control of the passports?

However, Abu Muhammed does not need an official answer, he knows that as long as the Assad regime is in power there is no way that he will get his passport. "I knew from the beginning that they would harass me if I got involved in the opposition." His university granted him a special scholarship, and he was able to work "here and there," but the regime's pressure worked in the end.

Without a passport neither he nor his family would be able to travel, or even move for that matter. But recently he was awarded German citizenship. He smiles, almost proudly, and says, "You can't imagine what a feeling that was!"

Bassam Abdullah knows of many more such cases - and therefore demands full recognition, or as he says, "control of the passports," from the German government. So far he has yet to receive an answer - likely for pragmatic reasons considering the large numbers of Syrians who have fled the civil war over the last several months and are now living in Germany.

To offer those people consular services would be a tall order requiring a serious administrative effort - one for which Bassam Abdullah sees himself prepared. With a degree of certainty he says that a number of diplomats have deserted the Assad regime to join the opposition over the last few years, with enough outside help, he and his comrades-in-arms could get the job done.

He says that he is generally "very disappointed" in the meager help afforded by the international community. He pays the rent for his sparsely furnished office out of his own pocket. The Syrian National Coalition wires him money rather irregularly. "Actually, the international community could help us." He doesn't just mean with the rent, he wants weapons for the Free Syrian Army. Regular pay for the fighters of the moderate opposition would be "an enormous help" as well.

Dr. Bassam Abdullah

Abdullah is demanding full "control of the passports" from the German government

Moderate opposition marginalized

Yet, despite the agreement between Turkey and the US to arm the moderate opposition, he is not too hopeful at the moment. Abdullah admits that over the last several months the moderate opposition has been marginalized. Not only by the "victory march of the extremists," but also on the global stage, where they occupy ever less space in light of the fight against IS.

Voices can suddenly be heard through his door - colleagues he says, volunteers like himself who are organizing a protest march through Berlin on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution. With it, says the quasi-ambassador, they want to remind the world that there is definitely still a moderate opposition in Syria, made up of people "who stand up for human rights and democracy."

If the international community had supported the opposition in Syria earlier and more vigorously, it would not have become the hotbed of extremism that it now is, he says, sounding tired.

In parting, just before he disappears into the room next door in which men and women crowd around a table, he says that last year he didn't have time for a vacation, and that he barely finds time to say goodnight to both of his little daughters. Then he excuses himself - there is work to be done.

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