Fictionalizing the News is a writing exercise I set myself where I search the local news for an interesting but relatively minor piece of news and use it as a basis for a short story. I do not in any way purport to tell the truth of what happened, this story and the characters in it are entirely fictional. This installment of Fictionalizing is based this article, and I call it The Asylum Seeker.
Hamid and Babak were seated at the small table in their shared room at the refugee center. Officially it was an ‘initial reception center for asylum seekers’ but no one – neither the Germans nor the people living there – called it that; to Hamid and Babak it was just ‘ the barracks’. They were playing cards as usual, there wasn’t much else to do other than watch TV in the common room or go into town. The former meant being stuck with German TV channels and neither of them spoke enough German to enjoy it, and the latter required money which they didn’t have. So they were stuck playing cards, this was probably the tenth game in a row – keeping count was pointless.
Hamid smiled wryly, “I already know you’re going to win, but I can at least delay it,” he said then placed a card on the table.
“You’re right about me winning, but you’re wrong about delaying me.” With that, Babak laid out his entire hand, spreading the cards out like a fan and smacking them down on top of Hamid’s, flashing a triumphant smile.
“Damn you’re good,” Hamid said, and started gathering up the cards, “another round?”
“Lets get a cup of Chai first,” Babak replied.
Hamid went to his locker and took out the tea bags and packet of sugar then joined Babak in the corridor. They walked down to the little shared pantry and Hamid filled up the electric kettle and turned it on while Babak rinsed two cups in the sink.
“This sucks,” Babak said, taking out a couple of tea bags from the carton, “I wish we could brew some proper chai.”
“I know,” Hamid replied, “the first thing I do when I get a job is to buy a proper kettle, I’ll even import one from home if I have to.”
“That’s if you can get a job.”
“I have an engineering degree and ten years of experience, I’m pretty sure I can find something.”
“Don’t be so certain, I’ve talked to some of the guys who’ve been here longer, they say an ‘Arabian’ degree doesn’t count for shit in this country. Besides, you have to get the papers first.”
Hamid looked dejected, “You think they wont let me stay?”
“I’m sorry man, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Babak sighed deeply, “It’s just that this wait is killing me.”
Hamid gave him a pat on the back, “I know man, I feel it too, but it’s better not to worry about it.” He poured the hot water into the cups, plopped a sugar cube into each then handed one to Babak. “Here, have some of this and forget about the papers, we’ll get them when we get them.”
“Yeah, I guess your right.” Babak took a sip of tea then forced a smile. “Hey, when you buy that kettle, make sure to get some Nabaat as well, these cubes just doesn’t have the right taste.”
“Sure, I’ll do that, I’ll buy you as many sticks as you like.”
They took their cups back to their room, sat down at the table and started chatting, avoiding any subject related to asylum or getting a job, while they sipped their tea. When his cup was empty Hamid pushed it to the side and reached for the deck of cards. “How ’bout another match?”
“You think you can beat me?” Babak’s smile was genuine this time.
“Oh I’m sure of it, you know I always play better after a cup of chai.”
“Wanna bet? The winner gets the others’ dessert at dinner.”
“All right, it’s on,” Hamid said then started dealing the cards.
They were several rounds in when there was a knock on the door. “It’s open,” Babak hollered without looking up from his cards. The door opened and one of the staff at the center, a woman named Renate, stepped in.
“Hamid I have a letter for you. It’s from the ministry of …”
Before she could finish the sentence, Hamid was on his feet, reaching for the letter.
“Is it my asylum?”
“I hope so, you’ll have to open it to find out.”
He tore the envelope open and started studying the letter with an intense look on his face. After a few moments he looked up.
“Renate, can you help me read this, the words are too complicated,” he handed her the letter.
“It says here that your reasons for asylum are insufficient and that your request has been rejected.”
“I…I don’t understand,” he mumbled.
“It means they will not give you asylum. I’m so sorry Hamid.”
The moment those words reached him, Hamid’s face crumbled, turning into a mask of shock and pain.
“I won’t get asylum?” he whimpered.
“No, I wish I could tell you something different but that’s what the letter says,” Renate’s voice was full of sympathy. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, just leave me.”
She handed him back the letter then turned and walked out. Until this point, Babak had remained seated at the table, cards still in hand. Now he got up, closed the door behind Renate then went over to Hamid who had remained standing in the middle of the room, and laid an arm around his shoulders.
“I’m so sorry brother, this is the worst news.” Hamid nodded silently.
“Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?” Hamid just shook his head.
“Whatever you need man, I’m here for you.”
“Thanks, but I think I just need to be alone for a while.”
“See you at dinner?”
Hamid nodded and with that Babak left the room. When the door closed Hamid sat down on his bed with the letter in his hand. How could they reject him? Didn’t they understand that he couldn’t go back to Iran? How could they not see that he would be in real danger if ever went back? He stared hard at the letter, willing the words to change but he knew they wouldn’t. As the realization sank in tears started rolling down his cheeks and he covered his face with his hands.
At six o’clock Babak made his way to the canteen. He couldn’t see Hamid anywhere so instead of joining the queue he hung back by the entrance, waiting for his friend. Ten minutes passed by but there was no sign of Hamid. He considered going back to the room to look for him then decided against it. Five more minutes passed and still no Hamid. By now the queue had disappeared and the guys serving the food where starting to give him strange looks. “This is ridiculous, Hamid can’t expect me to wait forever,” Babak mumbled to himself. He grabbed a tray from the pile and went up to the counter, absentmindedly pointing out a couple of food items while he kept glancing at the door.
He sat down at the usual table, right across from Hamid’s empty seat. He ate with little appetite, picking at his food, and every time he heard something over by the door he would look up, hoping to see Hamid but it never was. When he got back to their room after dinner he did something he never had before: he knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” came Hamid’s muffled voice.
“Alright, come in”
When Babak opened the door he saw his friend sitting on the bed, all hunched up, the letter from the Ministry of Immigration still in his hands.
“Where were you? I was waiting for you at dinner”
“I know, I’m sorry”
“It’s alright, how you feeling?”
“Like shit! I mean, I risk my life coming all the way here and then they reject me?”
“I know man, it sucks”
“No, it doesn’t suck. Not getting any desert sucks. Losing at cards sucks. Having shitty teabags and sugar cubes instead of proper chai and Nabaat sucks. Having your life ruined by some faceless German bureaucrats who’ve never even been to Iran, let alone understand the political situation is in whole different level of bad than just ‘it sucks’.”
“Hey, I was just trying to show some sympathy.”
“Sympathy, from you? You didn’t get rejected, you still have a chance. Do you really think your sympathy matters?”
“Oh, screw you.” Babak turned on his heel and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Good, just leave me alone!” Hamid shouted at the door.
Babak walked to the common room where a few other people were watching TV. He sat down behind them but couldn’t concentrate on the images on the screen. Instead the scene that just happened in their room kept playing on repeat in his head. After a little while his anger subsided and he was able to think about it more clearly. Hamid was such a nice positive guy, that rejection letter had really broken him. Thinking about it, Babak realized that he would probably have a similar reaction if his asylum was rejected. He decided that even if Hamid might still be angry at him, he would do all he could to help. The first thing in the morning, he would go talk to Renate or one of the other ladies in the office, see if there was something they could do, get Hamid another chance.
When he came back to the room no one answered when he knocked. He quietly opened the door only to find Hamid fast asleep on the bed. He was still fully dressed, lying on top of the covers, the hateful letter on the bedside table next to him. Babak got undressed, crawled under the covers and turned off the light. When he woke up next morning, Hamid’s bed was empty and the letter was gone. Looking around the room he realized Hamid’s locker was open which was strange, he always kept it locked. Looking inside he saw that Hamid’s backpack and shoes were gone. Hamid must have woken up early and snuck out for reason. With a vague sense of fear growing in the back of his mind, he got dressed and went out to search for him.
When he woke up Hamid had already made up his mind. Making sure that Babak was still asleep he got his backpack and shoes out from his locker, taking care when opening the creeking metal door. He snuck out barefoot, carefully closing the door behind him and waited until he was at he main door of the building before putting on his shoes. He took his time walking to the city center but when he got there it was still too early so he bought a coke and a sandwich in a small kiosk and sat down on a bench to eat his breakfast. He waited there for the shops to open, carefully thinking over his decision but kept coming to the same conclusion. What he was about to do was the only way.
When the shops opened at ten he was standing outside the doors of the Hornbach home inprovement store. He knew it might look a bit suspicious to be standing outside right when they rolled up the shutters but he didn’t care. He had never been inside so it took him a while to find the section of special chemicals. After examining several of the bottles he finally found one with the desired “highly flammable” warning label. He made his way to the cash register, paid and left the store heading to the city center.
Andrea and Sabine were manning the front desk of the Göppingen District Office that morning. So far not much had happened and they were chatting idly when a middle eastern looking man came in through the door. He marched up to the desk with an angry look on his face, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and slammed it down on the desk. “You must help me with this!” He demanded in broken German. Sabine pulled the paper towards her, read through it quickly then handed it over to Andrea.
“It says here that your request for asylum has been rejected, you understand that, yes?”
“Yes yes, I know,” Hamid said impatiently, “You must help.”
“You want us to help you get asylum, is that correct?”
“Yes, I cannot go back, it will be very bad. Please, you must help.”
“OK, we’ll see what we can do. Andrea, can you check up who to contact for immigration cases?”
Andrea nodded then started searching the phone registry on her computer.
“We will do what we can to help you but it might take a bit of time.”
“No, you help me right now. You understand, I cannot go back.” The desperation in Hamid’s voice was tangible.
“We understand,” Andrea broke in, “but this is Germany, here we follow procedure,” she tapped the counter top with her finger in time with her words, “and procedure takes time!”
She continued, “I have the number here for a person working with immigration, he can tell us what options you have. Now, if you just calm down I will call him for you.”
Hamid’s face darkened. “No, I will not calm down! If I get sent back my life is in DANGER. You MUST help me!”
“We understand the situation but the only way we can help you is to follow the proper procedure. Now will you please calm down so I can make the phone call.”
With this Hamid took a step back, seemingly calmed. Andrea lifted the receiver and dialed the number, and while she was waiting for the signal to go through, Hamid started pacing back and forth in front of the desk. Andrea was too focused on the phone call to hear him, but Sabine noticed that he was mumbling something barely audible under his breath. She couldn’t quite make it out but it didn’t sound like German to her. When Andrea had been speaking to the man on the other end for a short while she mentioned that they might have to bring in the police. At this, Hamid turned and rushed up to the reception desk, slamming his fist down hard. His face twisted with anger he shouted “I knew it, you don’t want to help me, you are just calling the police to came take me away.”
“GIVE ME THAT!” He reached over the counter top and tired to grab the receiver out of Andrea’s hand but she moved back just in time to avoid him and blurted out a quick “help, he’s attacking me” into the mouthpiece.
Realizing that the police where bound to come and arrest him, Hamid’s face changed from rage to absolute desperation. He unslung his backpack, opened it and pulled out the bottle he had purchased earlier that morning, letting the pack fall to the floor. As he unscrewed the top and started pouring the liquid over his head Sabine grabbed Andrea by the arm, shouting a quick “we got to get help,” and ran for the door into the main office space. His upper body covered in the strongly smelling liquid, Hamid discarded the bottle, fumbled in his pocket for the lighter he had taken from Babak, struck a spark and immediately went up in flames. Sabine heard the wumph and saw the flash just as she was swiping her pass card in the reader. She flung the door open and shouted “Fire!“ One of her colleagues who had been standing in the corridor checking his phone rushed out into the reception, spotted the burning man, grabbed the fire blanket off the wall and rushed to put out the flames.
Babak had been searching for Hamid all day but couldn’t find him anywhere, neither in the refugee center nor in any of the places they used to visit in the city. After several hours he finally gave up looking and went back to ‘the barracks’ hoping Hamid would be in their room. He opened the door and found the room empty just like he had left it that morning. He took a seat at the table, picked up the deck of cards and started flipping them over absentmindedly while he thought of what to do next. A little while passed like that when there was a knock on the door and before he could answer, Renate opened at stepped in. She informed him of what had happened and that Hamid had been rushed to the hospital with severe burns but was expected to survive.