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The Refugees Who Refuse Asylum

Photo courtesy of Liwaa Yazji

Liwaa Yazji arrived in Berlin on New Year's Eve, following over 1.1 million fellow Syrians who flocked to Germany last year. But Yazji, a filmmaker from Damascus, wouldn't call herself a "refugee." And unlike many of the other Syrians who have resettled in Germany and other parts of western Europe, she refused to apply for asylum.

"If you apply for asylum, you can't travel anywhere until you have your documents, and you can never return to the country you fled," Yazji told me recently at a cafe in West Berlin. "I need to go back to Syria—as long as the Syrian government doesn't ban me, why would I ban myself?"

Yazji, who came to Europe on an EU tourist visa and is now applying for an artist visa to extend her stay, is part of a select group of Syrians who have recently moved to western Europe through legal outlets other than asylum. She and others claim asylum comes with too many restrictions on their ability to travel and to stay connected to their war-ravaged home.

In Germany, asylum applicants live in assigned parts of the country while awaiting their court decisions and cannot travel unless authorized by the federal immigration authority, according to Kira Gehrmann, the press officer for Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

"Individuals who draw social benefits may not freely choose where they live," Gehrmann told me of asylum seekers, whom the government provides with room, board, and other social support. "As a matter of principle, displaced persons are obliged to have their habitual residence in the the country of origin, such as a serious illness of a close relative. But if the reasons for the journey only include the purpose for a vacation, this might be an indication that there is no real threat of persecution. If this is the case a withdrawal of the protection status is possible."

There are other restrictions on asylees, including employment options. Germany's Asylum Procedure Act mandates that refugees must wait at least three months after applying for asylum to begin working, and even then, Gehrmann noted that they must first "obtain permission to engage in work from their immigration authority."

Because of all these limitations, individuals have typically applied for asylum only when no other legal options were possible, according to Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute's International Program.

"For a lot of people, refugee status is a last resort to stay in a country where they're safe. People prefer to be under any other status than refugee status because it has limitations," Fratzke told me, claiming she was "not surprised" by Yazji's decision.

Yazji has no intentions of applying for asylum, and continues traveling to Syria both to visit her family and to document the nation's upheaval. She is one of the few Syrian artists and intellectuals who has not been banned from the country by the Assad regime.

"At the end of 2012, when people started to be detained, I understood I could do two things: open criticism on social media, or do what I want to and stay relatively quiet," Yazji said of the regime's crackdown on the 2012 revolution. Yasji realized that if she openly criticized the government, she would likely be detained or exiled—so instead, she engaged in more subtle forms of activism.

There are just a handful of activists who keep going back and forth to Syria with this right, Yazji said, and many of them use "pretend names" on social media so they don't get caught.

"The country is almost evacuated of intelligentsia and artists, so it's my duty to go back as I can," Yazji said. "I'm part of this population and I don't want to just read about it."

Few Syrians are as fortunate to come and go like Yazji, who flew back to the country just this spring to visit her mother in Damascus on Easter. (Yazji's mother is Christian; her father is Muslim.) While there she traveled the country taking photographs, and she tried to film in Aleppo, but couldn't enter.

"It was a very polarized time in Syria. ISIS was being cleared out of the city of Palmyra, Aleppo was bombarded, and there was an Easter celebration happening," Yazji recalled. "The temperament of everyone was so bad. But the center of Damascus where my mother lives was not bombed, so my grandparents, uncle, and aunt all fled to live with her there."

Yazji first left Syria in 2014, following a group of Syrians who fled to Lebanon. At the time, she was completing a documentary film focused on individuals in Damascus and their decisions on whether to stay or leave the country. The film would go on to be featured in a film festival in France, which helped Yazji secure her EU tourist visa shortly thereafter.

"I got my visa for France, which extended to all of the EU, early in 2015. But you can only stay 90 days at a time and then must leave for six months before returning," Yazji said. "Now, I'm applying for an artist visa."

Yazji is now writing a television series about refugees in Berlin, and feels the German metropolis is the ideal locale to live at the moment—as long as she can continue visiting home.

"I think I made the choice to be here because so many Syrians are here so the Syrian issue is present. So many Syrians are on the streets, in the metro, and in shopping centers," she told me. "As long as war is the status quo, I can't live in Syria full-time—but Syria is the subject matter that motivates my work, so I will not exclude myself from it."

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