Everything about the life of an asylum seeker has two sides. The dreams that refugees may have of a Promised Land can shape their destiny, making them indignant or satisfied. If they are looking for safety and the right to a better life, then they would be grateful towards Germany, its renowned bureaucracy and the delays of the asylum process. If they are seeking prosperity and a heavenly life, however, their fate would be nearly identical to the lives of immigrants that pursued the American dream and collided with the rock of reality.
Luck plays a large role in the fate of refugees. They may find themselves in a refugee centre with a solid network that is able to navigate public and political will in their favour, or they may end up in a crowded place where opportunities are scarce and refugees’ rights are neglected.
The nature and dreams of refugees are vital in shaping their vision of life. Most refugees are in search of safety, always thankful and understanding towards Germans and respectful of their laws. Some, however, come in search of an imagined paradise, working illegally, always unhappy and seeking to take advantage of others.
There is no doubt that the psychological status and motives of refugees often affect the way in which they view their surroundings. Germany’s relationship with refugees resembles a forced marriage. The German government is obliged to accept the refugees and convince its citizens to accept them. The German community may be unhappy with the situation, but is understanding. Refugees on the other hand are hard pressed to find a better alternative than Germany.
German officials faced many challenges when they were obliged to follow laws set by the European Union for the care of refugees, particularly when Germany faces many significant challenges in housing, healthcare, and education.
Germany lacks qualified personnel for some services, and has had difficulties in providing enough German-language teachers and schools for refugees, resulting in a reliance on volunteers to fill demand. This has resulted in a lack of professionalism and has led to many problems.
As a result, this forced marriage is one in which all parties operate with a limited budget and in a diminished capacity, balancing a sense of duty with what is possible. Despite the fact that everyone involved is overloaded, stressed, and frustrated, this may very well be the start of a process by which we are able to arrange and organise our community for the best.
Sanaa’s journey: a perilous eight-month crossing to Europe with her daughter
As the battle heats up in Syria, for Sanaa, a Syrian-Kurdish nurse, the only escape from the scourge of war was to leave her country and venture out into the great unknown, looking for safety that has become scarce in her homeland. Sanaa had to brave the eight-month journey to Germany without her husband; she had her only daughter Sara in tow. Her husband followed her to Germany after she had spent a year and a half in the Diaspora. Although she feels safe and comfortable in Germany, Sanaa still dreams of returning to her homeland, saying: “I am longing for my mother’s home.”
Sanaa and Sara’s arduous journey began when she and her husband made the joint decision to leave Syria out of necessity, even though their area, Al-Malikiyah in Hasakah province, is still under the control of the Kurds—the ethnic group to which Sanaa belongs.
Sanaa said: “Nothing is more arduous than fearing for your children. Even if there are no clear indicators of danger, just thinking that the danger is close enough and that the balance of power could change to not be in your favour … this is enough to drive you to escape to safety.”
Sanaa’s story of her escape, while not vastly different from stories of other Syrian refugees, is made vivid by her facial expressions which reveal her fears for her daughter on the perilous journey to Europe, which she found all the more difficult without her husband. As she recounted her tale, she often had to pause and shed a tear, as the memories and emotional wounds are still fresh in her mind. She remembered looking up at the sky as she and her daughter slipped through Turkish borders to eastern Europe. She and her daughter, along with other refugees who were strangers to her, were taken by a guide through dark woods on foot. The trek took five hours, after which the guide left them near the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, telling them to carry on and look for the Bulgarian police.
Initially, Sanaa had simply wanted to reach Bulgaria where she stayed with her brother for seven months. However, their finances were meagre and the situation for refugees there was pitiable so she decided to go to Germany, in the hopes that things would be more organised there.
The Kurdish nurse said: “Germany became my goal because it has a good reputation for receiving refugees as well as dealing with them and caring for them. The language barrier made communicating with my new ‘community’ difficult. At that time, I talked to my husband once a fortnight via the internet; he finally came to Germany after I had been there for a year and a half.”
The journey for Sanaa’s husband, a construction worker, was more difficult. They did not have the money required to smuggle him between Turkey and Bulgaria, $2,000 in total. Now he is in Germany, her husband is looking for a job and learning the language.
Nowadays, Sanaa says her life is better overall. She is thankful that Germany readily and willingly gives aid to refugees. She is more accustomed to Germany and has become proficient enough in the language for simple encounters. Of course, life is not without its hardships. When Sanaa encountered a problem at the elderly care home where she works, she was unable to defend herself properly due to the language barrier. Her manager laughed at her manner of speaking, which made her feel broken.
Unlike her parents, Sara had more difficulty accepting her new life in Germany. Sanaa said: “My daughter was incredibly sad; she longed for her father and toys. Even now, she wants to return to her country. In Syria, she did not fear anything, but here, we fear everything. We didn’t want her to know what’s happening in Syria or watch the atrocities of the war going on there, but now she knows everything. Sara is in Kindergarten now and much happier; she just needed time to adapt. She is learning well and becoming proficient in German.”
Germany no longer represents the “beast of expatriation” for this Kurdish family. They are here for their children’s future. “I do not feel like I am in exile anymore because there are many Syrians here. There is an annual day for Syrians and other events; we meet up a lot.”
Sanaa criticised the inaction and laziness of certain refugees, saying that some Syrians do not like to work. “I like to work and I do not want to be a parasite on the German state. I dream of one day opening a restaurant.”
The situation for Syrians in Germany is decent—except for the Alawites who support Bashar Al-Assad. “I do not feel that we are different [anymore]. Here, we are all Arabs and Syrians.”
If the situation improves in her homeland, Sanaa would return as her life is better there. “There, I was living and breathing in freedom; I was not leeching off anyone. The weather in Syria is purer and magnificent. Our hometown remains untouched until now. If I had known what would have happened to me, I would never have left Syria.”
Sanaa finished by saying that she didn’t seek refuge in other Arab states because they can see what is unfolding in Syria but haven’t come to their aid.
Costantine: a Kurdish Yazidi father flees religious persecution
While seeking refuge, it is inevitable that people will seek out what they miss from their homeland in their new life. For Constantine, a Kurdish Yazidi father from Syria, this was a reality. Once a rich man he fled from his vast farmlands in Hasaka province, located in Syria’s northeast and famous for its agriculture. Fleeing his land, he was escaping religious and political persecution in search of a tolerant country that would not punish him for being a minority. In Syria, his origin of being both Kurdish and Yazidi worked against his wellbeing.
Germany was Constantine’s answer to his fears. He fled Syria after he found out the regime was out to arrest him for not supporting Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad at a demonstration. This was supposed to be the beginning of his escape from persecution.
In the beginning, Constantine was reticent to talk when he spoke with Daily News Egypt. He feared that his minority status would be put at the centre and he would be once again subject to discrimination. As a Yazidi surrounded by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Constantine and his compatriots were always treated like outsiders. Thus, not only did he suffer at the hands of the state, but he was also persecuted by his fellow countrymen.
Constantine says: “I’m not against Islam, and I refuse to attack it. But I’m against intolerance and the improper use of the concepts in the Islamic religion. This results in persecution of others, and is what we see being carried out by Islamic State (IS). The fact remains that the Syrian regime was the first to create the conditions through which IS could thrive, due to the cultural marginalisation within Syria. In the past, different religions coexisted without conflict, but the regime created a systemised way in which conflicts and rivalry could find power.
Constantine, who works as a teacher in a primary school, was aware of the growing spectre of extremism in his country. Thus, he was keen to form good relations with circles of power and sovereign authorities. As the conflict in Syria grew, at first he did not consider that he would leave his country. However, after he chose not to participate in pro-regime demonstrations, he was classified as an anti-regime protester and became a wanted man. He decided to flee to Germany.
“I was a Kurdish Yazidi, and in Syria being Kurdish is a problem. If you are a Kurdish Yazidi, you will face a double crisis. The Kurds do not recognise you as one of them, and IS considers you a heretic,” said Constantine.
In terms of the living standards in his country, he said: “I was rich in Syria, I had 30 hectares (a hectare is equal to 10,000 sqm) of land, but I could not collect my savings when I was escaping from Syria, even though I did not put my money in banks. Gold was always the best choice.”
In terms of his escape, he said: “I received a call from a Syrian military officer advising me to get out of the country. At first, I thought he was joking, but then he insisted. Security forces raided my house, and I knew by then that security would pursue anyone who does not participate in pro-regime demonstrations. We [the Kurdish Yazidis] live in only four villages, and have always lived in fear of an impending religious conflict with Muslims. So, we are cautious when it comes to religion and politics. Our four villages did not innerve in the conflict, and our problem was that the regime considers us as Kurds, while Kurds consider us Muslims Yazidis. Thus, we tried to maintain our independence, and not get involved with any party or side.”
Knowing what was working against him and understanding that there was no way to survive without being tracked down, Constantine decided he had to leave.
“It was hard for me and my family to hide in Hasaka, so we decided to flee to Turkey temporarily until the situation calmed down. We had the intention of returning home. However, things turned out to be more complicated, so we decided to flee to Europe. Bad luck was our companion several times during our pursuit for tranquility. We finally reached Germany where one of the largest expat Yazidi communities resides. Germany was one of the first countries the Yazidis escaped to,” he explained.
However, before reaching Europe, Constantine and his family had to contend with other systematic forms of persecution in Turkey.
“Unfortunately, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan excels in spreading exaggerated, extremist religious ideas, and the Kurdish provinces are often systematically targeted. In the region where Kurds live in Turkey, schools are being closed, and poverty and unemployment are on the rise. This is part of a plan to spread ignorance. Thus, we could not stay in Turkey and decided to flee to Europe,” Constantine continued.
Constantine said that interacting with traffickers was like something out of the movies. They approach you in coffee shops or they may offer their services while you are buying vegetables from them.
“Afterwards, the smuggling trip begins, and it is a lot likes movies. In the beginning, we got on a 12-metre boat with 30 people, including two families from Afghanistan and an Iraqi family, with 10 smugglers carrying guns who take us from Izmir to Greece. There was barely any space on the boat to move.”
“The journey took 16 hours before the Greek coast guards saw us. They started shooting at us and we were forced to go back to Turkey. We had hoped that the Turkish police would come and take us away from the torture we were enduring, the salty water and cold we were suffering from.”
Jacqueline, Constantine’s wife, spoke to us with difficulty for her fear of remembering what she went through with her children while attempting to leave Turkey.
“Every time an attempt failed, I asked my husband to return to Syria, but he made us keep trying for our children because the return was more dangerous. I could not help but cry with my children,” Jacqueline said.
Constanine and his family made four attempts to cross the sea to Greece. In each one, they travelled closer towards death than they did to life; however, that never stopped them from trying. On the fourth time, they finally reached Greece.
“Each attempt was an attempt made towards death. The last time we tried, the smuggler said he had sacrificed two boats in order to reach the larger boat, and that half the passengers of the other two boats drowned. The stories we heard in Greece revealed how naive we were and how those Turkish smugglers fooled us,” Constantine said.
Although finally reaching Greece provided some sense of relief, it was not the end of Constantine’s journey.
“We could not stay in Greece. There were various ways and options provided by smugglers, but for nine months I tried in vain to leave the country. After a while, I managed to send my children and wife in different phases. My eldest son was put on a truck travelling from Greece to Italy, then from Austria to Germany. The rest of my children were sent through different families. Then I travelled to Germany via aeroplane,” said Constantine.
“The Yazidi community in Germany received us very well even though I did not need support. The German government received me very well too and offered a helping hand,” he said, adding that he already had 10 brothers residing in Germany to provide support.
He stressed that neither himself nor a member of his family was exposed to any sort of racism during the two and a half years in Germany. On the contrary, they were treated well. “I have heard about racist incidents that others were exposed to, but these are individual cases that cannot be generalised,” he said.
Ibrahim, Constantine’s eight-year-old son, said: “I got into school two years ago with no problems. Germans treat me well. I have five friends, three of them are German. I often visit them to play.”
When asked whether he would have come to Germany if he had the choice to stay in Syria, Ibrahim said: “No, I would ask my father to stay in Syria. We had a house with a garden. I also really miss my grandparents and I cry when I speak to them on the phone.”
Regarding integrating with European communities, Constantine, who now works as a volunteer to help refugees, said that Muslims coming from Arab countries have “double personalities”, because they carry a lot of pride. “They then are shocked when they travel to foreign countries they think are full of infidels. They are given two options: either to abandon their culture or allow it to grow stronger. The second option can lead to extremism.”
“Germans try to take hold of the situation and integrate refugees, but the number of refugees has swelled to epic proportions, making matters more difficult. It seems that the Germans are reflecting on the French experience, which did not care much for integrating the Arab community. This has lead to many security issues,” Constantine added.
After living a life in fear of persecution due to his identity, Constantine found adjusting to life in Germany much easier.
“Within a year, my children merged well with the community, but my family is not a model example. As Arabs, we have our problems when it comes to integration, which usually boils down to religious thinking. We have to benefit from the advantages of the communities we move into,” he said.
Constantine argued that the complaints made by Syrian refugees are based on cultural differences and beliefs. “I’m against those who say they want to go back. If you force them onto aeroplanes, I doubt they would go back,” he added.
The Syrian community has many positive advantages, but generally, the double personality is a problem. Quick integration is necessary, according to Constantine.
When asked why he would not move to an Arab country, Constantine said that Arab regimes are no different from each other and they are all based on oppression. The “peaceful coexistence” that was present in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq is only the result of pressure exerted by the security apparatus.
‘I was once a refugee, and now I try to repay what I owe’: elderly German lady helping refugees
Although she is over the age of 60, the German lady always follows up on the conditions of Syrian refugees in her country. She visits them in their homes, and brings them electrical appliances and other commodities which they may need. Daily News Egypt met this lady by chance in one of the refugee’s homes, where Syrian refugees live side-by-side with Germans. She said: “I am from a refugee family who came from Eastern Europe, so I can feel their suffering.”
“I migrated to Germany several decades ago. I needed help then, so I feel that it is my duty to help refugees today, to repay what I owe to those who helped me at the beginning of my life.” She excused herself and quickly left after it started to rain during the conversation.
Daily News Egypt’s meeting with the German lady came after we had visited a building inhabited by a group of Syrian refugees side-by-side with their German neighbours, in one of the few projects that aim to integrate refugees in their host country. We were keen to visit the project to see how the Germans deal with refugees. We met with many German neighbours during our visit to the refugees’ compound, and most of them greeted us with a smile. We did not feel any grumbling about the presence of Arabs in their buildings.
We were also welcomed by two young Syrian refugees, who preferred not to be identified by their real names, while one of them refused to appear in the photos, out of fear of his family being targeted in Syria.
The first was called Kareem from Tartous. His brother works for BMW while also pursuing his studies. Kareem was studying agricultural engineering in Syria, but did not like it, so he decided to delve into another field.
He said: “My parents died several years ago. Before the war, our life was good, but the war wiped everything out. I fled to Germany, where my brother lives. After six months, I decided to turn myself in to the officials responsible for refugees here.”
“At first, I did not think of travelling to Germany, but the Syrians who went to Sweden had complained about the difficulty of being able to study there,” he said.
Kareem, 20, accused the Turkish intelligence apparatus of facilitating the trafficking of refugees in exchange for money, saying “traffickers in Turkey are working under the observation of the Turkish intelligence, which receives a share of the money we pay them.”
He added: “Although we face a housing crisis, the German government is working to resolve the issue. The most important thing is to learn the German language, and then I will search for a job in a bank or a tourist company.”
The other young Syrian was called Ali, 21, from Hama. He said that he used to work as a driver in Syria. He came to Germany by paying traffickers $3,500. He noted that many of his relatives live in Germany. His uncle was an architect in Syria before he traveled to Germany and worked as a barber, and now, he obtained German citizenship.
“I dream of a new life,” Ali said. He reluctantly compared between his current situation and his former life in Syria, saying: “My father was a taxi driver in Hama. Everything was good, and our city suffered nothing but kidnappings. Here in Germany, we do not suffer from anything, and the Germans treat us well.”