Although the life of Alan Eddin, a 35-year-old guy from Damascus, Syria, has been a hard furrow to plough over the past ten years, he can’t help but face each new day with a broad smile on his face. Stefano Reposi hears his story while he’s serving baklava, a multi-layered pastry Turkish dessert that the place is famous for…
During the one-hour interview I had with Alan Eddin at Reina Cleopatra, the Syrian pastry shop he runs right behind Estación del Norte (Gran via de Ramon y Cajal, 19), there were just two things that made his grin fade: remembering the war that has ravaged his country and oranges.
“As soon as I see one, I look the other way: it reminds me of my days laboring in the orange groves,” he says sadly.
Back in Damascus, Alan was chief accountant for an important local enterprise. He worked there for five years before the government started to enlist young men in the army, forcing him to leave both his parents and his war-torn country. While his sister fled to Egypt and his brother went to Germany through the Balkan route, Alan decided on a less dangerous path.
“I would rather die in my country than on the route.”
Upon reaching Lebanon, he flew to Turkey. From there he caught a plane to Algeria, then he arrived in Morocco, where he finally entered Europe crossing the Melilla border.
“That was the beginning of a new war for me: the one with life”.
After obtaining subsidiary international protection from the Spanish government, he was sent to a refugee centre in Sigüenza, Guadalajara, where he shared a house in the town centre along with other refugees.
“There were 20 of us, African and Syrian, with two bathrooms. Some of them relieved themselves on the floor. I couldn’t take it anymore. I talked with centre officials, asking them to find another house, but they told me that it would not be possible. So I decided to leave, and they made me sign a release stating I didn’t want any help.”
At the time, Alan didn’t have a work permit yet, but thanks to an old family friend who owned a warehouse in Granada he managed to find a job as a storekeeper.
“Work in the warehouse was hard. It was a 12-hour shift a day over two hours down the road, one to reach the workplace and one to come back home, for 600 euros a month. It was quite good for a start though, because I managed to rent a room in a house with an old Spanish couple. They talked to me in Spanish and at first I didn’t get a word. After studying it by myself and hanging out with locals, I was able to speak the language after six months. I’d ask for directions, or I’d talk with the old people sitting on the bench for the sake of practicing and improving. I wanted to get into Spanish culture, adapt to the country.”
But only after a few months, Alan started to reconsider his life as a warehouseman.
“I’m used to being in my office with my laptop counting numbers. A 14 hour-job for 600 euros a month wasn’t the life I felt that I deserved.”
Furthermore, problems with his boss began.
“He never paid me on time, and I had to cover my expenses until the end of the month. Even though life in Granada is not as expensive as in Madrid or Barcelona, I ran out of money. I had nothing. The couple who rented me the room were retired, with no revenue other than rent money. But they were incredibly kind, and the lady told me they were gonna tighten their belts until I’d worked something out.”
By chance, he found the number of a voluntary association devoted to migrants’ aid in Madrid called Red Solidaria de Acogida. As soon as he reached the capital he started to meet with a lot of volunteers, among which a Spanish couple who hosted him for two weeks and helped him find a more permanent accommodation in another house run by a married couple. Thereafter, he took a course for waiters and started working at La Tagliatella, a popular Italian restaurant chain, until summer. The reason why he subsequently left his job in Madrid was the proposal made by the man he was living with, whose brother-in-law owned an important restaurant in Palma de Mallorca.
“He told me they paid well over there, and he was damn right. I made 1,700 euros in one month. I started working as a waiter, but after five days the cook was rushed to hospital following a severe intestinal infection, so they gave me one week to learn the menu and then bumped me up to the kitchen.”
Since he was the only person working in the kitchen, he had to do the dishes as well, while he had 35 tables to bus.
“Thank God the kitchen was provided with a smart oven. The boss was very happy.”
As summer drew towards its close, the high season was about to end and the cook was rehabilitated, he knew he couldn’t go back to work at the restaurant.
“It was the beginning of a pretty tough time for me. I couldn’t get a job and the rent for my room was €400, so I started spending my savings from the summer to the point where I had no money left and had to leave.”
Discouraged by his unstable situation, Alan decided to reach out to his brother in Germany. “I went to Frankfurt for three months to apply for political asylum but they didn’t accept me as I had already received it in Spain. So I went back to Madrid and with the help of an association called Bienvenidos Refugiados España, I managed to find accommodation. If it weren’t for those people, I wouldn’t know where to go.
“I didn’t get anything from the Spanish government. In Germany, it’s a different story: if you’re being recognized as a refugee the government provides for the rent, and it gives you some money until you’re able to get a job. Here in Spain, they don’t come up with a solution, they just put you in a sleazy hotel for a while and if you don’t get a job they kick you out onto the streets.”
Bent on leaving catering, he took a course as a nursing assistant in Madrid. Even though the course lasted six months, he was considered eligible to work after barely three.
But only five months later, an accident at work forced him to stop. “To make sure a 100- kilo senior didn’t fall out of his chair, I held him and had a massive muscular contraction. They put me on medical leave for three months. The contract expired shortly after.” However, the worst was yet to come for Alan. A few days after he started working for a new senior housing company, he got Covid-19. “I spent 12 days in the hospital, three of which in intensive care.”
Once he got out of the hospital, Alan had to leave Madrid because there was no work. The only labour supply he found was to pick up oranges in the fields around Valencia. As soon as he headed up there, he says, he realised the harsh reality of work in the fields. “People would talk to me very badly, treating me like a slave. As the fields were located outside the city, there was a car picking us up every morning, docking us seven euros per day out of our paycheck. Since I had to work out of necessity, I stuck it out for two months. There were Romanians, Moroccans, Italians, Syrians – and Senegalese, who worked so hard.”
After being in Seville to work in other orange fields (where he made 100 euros for 20 days’ work), he came back to Valencia. While he was waiting for the bus to go to an interview in a retirement home in the proximity of the City of Arts and Sciences, he spotted a Syrian pastry shop that stood right behind the bus stop and decided to leave his resumé. One month later, he received a call from the owner, a native of Damascus, just like Alan. “I happen to be very happy here. My boss is a very nice man, he helped me a lot.”
According to him, even though it’s unreasonable to make any long-term plans, Alan seems to have clear ideas about the near future. “Given that my driver’s licence is not recognised in Spain, right after the first wave of the pandemic I started studying driving theory, and passed with no mistakes. Now I’m scratching around for money to pay for the driving test. Currently, I’m also getting an online master in financial management. Even though I’ve already studied almost all kinds of accounting (cost, financial, banks and agricultural accounting), I want to carry on studying and get back to work as a chief accountant, like I used to do in my country.”
Even if he’s always been good with numbers, back in the days of his adolescence, Alan had a different vision for his future: “I’ve always wanted to become a doctor. I got a good average (8.6/10) but it wasn’t enough to gain access to medical school. I found out that here in Spain my average could get me access to it, but now I’m 35 years old… I have to make my way through life. When I got into university I took a course and then did an internship for an American company that dealt with importing medical equipment for operations of the nervous system. While I was pursuing a business degree, I loved medicine so much that I also took a nursing course just to be inside the operating room, getting supplies to doctors.”
Despite being a pretty sweet talker, when it comes to the atrocities his country has been through in the past ten years, Alan is suddenly laconic and seems to keep his tongue at bay: “Before the war we lived very well, in my opinion. Surely way more than now. Prices were cheap and we lived in peace. Nobody is right, because an entire country has been destroyed and a lot of people died.
“They were fighting for different sides – but they were all Syrians.”
Reina Cleopatra; Gran Vía de Ramón y Cajal, 19, 46007 Valencia; +34 960 17 37 47; https://www.facebook.com/PasteleriaReinaCleopatra