When Kareem Taha fled from Egypt, he went through inhospitable deserts of sand and rock. Little did he know that on reaching the Czech Republic, he would find another kind of desert – one of social isolation in the beautiful but tourist-oriented city of Prague.
“I would go to bars to try to meet people but they ignored me, or even threw me out,” he says. “I was so lonely that I played football in the park on my own.”
Kareem, 33, came from Cairo. He trained in business administration and law, and had his own transport company. He was also involved in a peaceful movement for human rights.
“Mahatma Gandhi is my model,” he says. “I love him; and also Nelson Mandela.”
The authorities saw him as a troublemaker, and jailed him twice. The second time, he was warned that he could get a life sentence.
Kareem felt he had no choice but to leave Egypt. He made a hazardous journey overland to Sudan, from where he flew to Prague in September 2015.
When he landed, he got a shock.
“On the road from the airport, I saw billboards saying: ‘Migrants, go home.’ I didn’t want to live in such a country; I thought of moving on, perhaps to Switzerland. But I was told that as a refugee, I had to stay in the first safe country I reached.”
Kareem was sent to a refugee reception centre in the city of Brno. He found the experience challenging. “It was difficult to communicate,” he says. “The Czech social workers didn’t speak much English. Luckily, some of the African refugees did.”
Kareem had some money, so after three weeks of intial checks he was able to go and live in a flat he could afford to rent in Prague, pending the outcome of his asylum application.
Time dragged and the loneliness was killing.
On the streets of Prague, the locals, weary from seeing hordes of tourists, were not exactly friendly. On a tram, someone even called him a monkey, although other passengers spoke up for him.
“I didn’t expect this,” he says. “I thought the Czechs would understand me. They went through Communism.”
Kareem feels that if he had been allowed to work while he waited for an answer to his asylum application, his integration would have progressed quicker. But the law did not allow it.
Neither were there any free language classes for him. He could only pay to learn Czech, but that was a stretch too far for his limited budget.
“As I saw it, there was no integration. From my point of view, this was wasted time,” he says.
UNHCR supported him and after a wait of one-and-a-half years, Kareem was granted asylum in March 2017.
What really transformed his life was meeting likeminded people at Amnesty International. Finally Kareem had Czech friends. His language skills improved and he was able to express himself and appreciate the Czech sense of humour.
He met his wife-to-be Nela and moved to her home city of Brno, where they are raising their son Alex, 2.
Kareem now works as the director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, an independent organization with reporters across the Middle East (https://egyptianfront.org/). In cooperation with Amnesty International and the Czech information campaign Hate Free (www.hatefree.cz), he takes part in human rights education for a generation of Czechs who have perhaps forgotten the repression their parents knew under Communism.
Most of all, Kareem enjoys a peaceful life with his family in Brno. “It is an ordinary Czech city. I do not feel like a tourist here but as a citizen. It is all I ever wanted, for myself and others. I am a human being; respect me, that’s it…”