Refugees in Croatia all know that if they need help, one of the best people to go to is Mazen Al Ahmed. The 54-year-old Syrian, who has lived in Zagreb since the 1980s, has helped hundreds of people who have arrived more recently from war-torn areas of the Middle East, traumatized and desperate to find a safe home.
“You could say I have been like a bridge for them,” Mazen says in an interview at the Centre for Cultural Dialogue, where he now works as an interpreter and cultural mediator.
Mazen came to Zagreb to study medicine, back when Croatia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Syria was a partner country in the Non-Aligned Movement. He never practised medicine but had a private transport business with his brothers. He married a Croatian woman and they have three sons and a daughter.
Zagreb has long been home to Mazen but he also kept in touch with friends and family back in his hometown of Azaz, near Aleppo. Watching from afar the intense fighting that was going on there, he was well aware of how the Syrian war was afflicting people on the ground.
“When refugees began arriving in Croatia in September 2015, I felt an urge to help,” he says. “I am an Arabic speaker and I have local connections, so I knew I could be useful.”
He volunteered first at the premises of the Zagreb Fair, where refugees were being taken in, and later went with the Croatian Red Cross to the border with Serbia to help with interpretation and cultural mediation.
“It was not just language,” he says. “People were arriving into a completely new environment. They needed access to food, doctors… Without help, pregnant women would have been in a sensitive situation.”
While helping at the border, Mazen lived in the same conditions as the refugees, sleeping first in open fields in the relative warmth of September and then in tents as the weather got colder. Not that Mazen got much sleep. He was much in demand and sleeping only a few hours a night. “So many people were in need and I could not refuse anyone,” he says.
Eventually proper reception centres opened, at Opatovac and Slavonski Brod. Mazen continued volunteering for the Croatian Red Cross until he was taken on professionally by various organizations, including UNICEF, the Association for Psychological Support and the Jesuit Refugee Service. His second son Nuri, now 28, who was studying geology and oil engineering at the time, helped at weekends.
Refugees arriving in Croatia were often surprised to see a Syrian who had settled there. In telling them about his life in Zagreb
Mazen saw many dramatic situations and heard many terrible stories. But what will stay with him for the rest of his life is the alert he got at 5 am one January morning in 2016 when his nephew Ahmed called to say he was on a boat that was sinking in the Aegean Sea. Eighty-three other people were on board. Over the phone, Mazen could hear the screams of women and the cries of children.
“The boat was going down. They were fighting for their lives,” he says.
Mazen ran to his colleague, Nevenka Lukin-Miletic, a senior protection assistant for UNHCR. “I froze,” she says, “I didn’t know what to do.”
Nevertheless, she had the presence of mind to find the phone number of the Turkish Coastguard on the internet and to make the call that saved 84 lives. Because Ahmed had switched off his phone to save the batteries, Mazen and Nevenka only found out after an agonising six-hour wait that everyone had been rescued. Ahmed, 25, is now living in Germany.
Other refugees were not so fortunate on the treacherous sea crossing between Turkey and Greece.
Mazen recalls meeting a Syrian man who said he was fine but whose eyes told a different story. “They were full of anger and sorrow,” he says. Eventually, after Mazen gained his trust, the man broke down sobbing and revealed that his wife and four children had drowned on the journey. Mazen found other Syrians who would look after the man as they continued on their way to Austria.
Nowadays, he specialises in cases of family reunion. Recently he smoothed the passage of an elderly Syrian couple
“I will never forget his eyes,” he says, “his shaking hands. I think of him every time I meet a refugee. You never know what a person has been through.”
Refugees arriving in Croatia were often surprised to see a Syrian who had settled there. In telling them about his life in Zagreb, Mazen became a kind of ambassador for his adopted homeland to people who knew little about it and were aiming for other destinations.
“ ‘Germany, Germany, Germany,’ was all I heard from them,” he says.
Thus, when Austria started to return refugees to Croatia under the Dublin Regulations, Mazen was able to be particularly helpful to people who were feeling disappointed and bewildered at apparently being rejected.
“To gain someone’s trust, you must tell the truth and not sugarcoat it,” he says. “I would tell them that the law is the law. But I would also encourage them to look on the bright side. I told them if they got jobs, they could have a good quality of life in Croatia.”
Mazen helped at least 50 people in this way.
Nowadays, he specialises in cases of family reunion. Recently he smoothed the passage of an elderly Syrian couple, Mohamadnour and Wafaa, who had been separated for six years from their daugher, Hadil, living in Croatia. In the time they had been apart, Hadil had had two children and they had become grandparents.
Not only did Mazen help with the paperwork but he also spoke on the phone to explain the situation to border guards as the couple made their way through various airports on their journey to Zagreb. Finally they were able to hug their grandchildren for the first time.
“For six years, I only saw them on the phone,” says Mohamadnour. “I wanted to see them really bad. And when I saw Hadil, I forgot about everything – to finally see her in person!”
“Of course my parents were suffering over there (in Syria) but we met again here,” says Hadil. “It is all thanks to Uncle Mazen; he was the one who helped us. May God grant him health.”
This post was originally published on UNHCR Central Europe.