These Syrians found refuge in Germany, but they’re still seeking peace

Finding refuge, still seeking peace

Six Syrians recall a year of hope and trepidation as Germany swelled with migrants

Published on September 14, 2016

The German government’s prediction spread quickly: 1 million refugees were expected to reach the country by the end of 2015, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel announced on Sept. 14 last year. Only a month earlier, official estimates had put the number at 450,000 at most.

Virtually overnight, Germany had become the Western world’s main destination for refugees.

At the time, tens of thousands of people — most escaping the war in Syria — were stranded in Hungary, which had taken measures to stop the flow of refugees. A decision by Austria and Germany to open their borders to relieve the pressure was supposed to be a short-term solution. But the borders remained open.

Week after week, European Union governments revised their estimates upward as more people streamed in.

At first, the mood in Germany was generally welcoming. But tension and uncertainty soon replaced the initial excitement as Germans realized the challenges involved with absorbing so many people.

On Sept. 14, 2015, during a special E.U. session, German officials pressured other European countries to share the responsibility of accommodating refugees — without much success. World leaders will discuss the issue next week at a U.N. refugee summit in New York, the first of its kind, as governments deal with a global refugee crisis. While Germany will probably be publicly applauded for its commitment, the country’s recent experience might also provide arguments to those opposed to welcoming more refugees.

In the past year, Germany has changed. It has seen terrorist attacks on its soil, and attacks against refugees. But has Germany’s experience with refugees been a success story or a failure? There are more than a million ways to see it.

Here are the stories of six Syrians who are trying to adjust in a country that is still coming to terms with the massive influx.

Tamara Nahar is an artist in Tübingen, Germany. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Tamara Nahar, 26

She fled Syria, and a new home in Germany

Tamara Nahar smiled as she stood in front of the painting that decided her fate.

It was of a shirt hanging upside down, with blood appearing to drip toward the lower end of the frame. She painted it in 2013 when she was still living in Syria, after a friend told her that soldiers had hung him upside down and beaten him.

Tamara paid a price for turning those memories into art: She was arrested and briefly detained.

But standing next to that painting this spring in Berlin, Tamara said she had no regrets.

When Syria tumbled into civil war, her work started to become more political — and that brought more risks. Her professors at Damascus University, where she was pursuing a master’s degree, grew hostile toward her. But Tamara continued to organize art exhibitions.

She finally decided to flee, but her problems weren’t over when she reached Germany.

Syrian refugees work to adjust to life in German society

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The Post talks with three people who fled the war in Syria to find a better life in Germany. Here are some of the most challenging things they face. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Germans who live in the country’s formerly Soviet east tend to have different attitudes about refugees than Germans in the west. Protests against more immigration and refugees have mostly taken place in the east. It has also been in eastern Germany where most physical attacks against refugees have occurred and where asylum centers have been burned down.

Tamara has experienced those regional differences. When she lived in Chemnitz, a city of 240,000 in eastern Germany, “it was really hard to speak to other people,” she said. Then she moved to the southwestern city of Tübingen. “When I came here, I had friends,” she said.

But attitudes have changed in some parts of the west, as well, since several attacks and sexual assaults allegedly by refugees, Tamara said in an interview this month. Now when she enters a tram, she said, passengers look at her with fear.

Tamara held her first art exhibition in April in Berlin. It was the moment she felt at home in the country for the first time — and the moment her journey out of Syria truly ended.

Her paintings have changed over the past year — they are no longer mostly red and black. Her latest work, “Memory,” shows flowers and butterflies. It looks like spring in Germany.

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Where refugees are seeking

asylum in the E.U.

Many refugees who arrived in the European Union in 2015 fled Syria and other embattled countries. Up to 1 million refugees entered Germany, but fewer than 500,000 had applied for protection by the end of December, mainly because of bureaucratic delays. More than 750,000 first-time applicants for asylum registered in other E.U. countries.

First-time

Applicants

asylum

per million

applicants

residents as

in 2015

of Jan. 1 2015

Germany

441,800

5,441

Hungary

174,435

17,699

Sweden

156,110

16,016

Austria

85,505

9,970

Italy

83,245

1,369

France

70,570

1,063

Netherlands

43,035

2,546

Belgium

38,990

3,463

Britain

38,370

591

Switzerland

38,060

4,620

Finland

32,150

5,876

Norway

30,470

5,898

Denmark

20,825

3,679

Bulgaria

20,165

2,800

Spain

14,600

314

Greece

11,370

1,047

Poland

10,255

270

Ireland

3,270

707

Luxembourg

2,360

4,194

Cyprus

2,105

2,486

Malta

1,695

3,948

Czech Republic

1,235

117

Romania

1,225

62

Portugal

830

80

Latvia

330

165

Lithuania

275

93

Slovakia

270

50

Slovenia

260

126

Estonia

225

172

Croatia

140

34

Source: Eurostat

CRISTINA RIVERO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Where refugees are seeking asylum in the E.U.

Many refugees who arrived in the European Union in 2015 fled Syria and other embattled countries. Up to 1 million refugees entered Germany, but fewer than 500,000 had applied for protection by the end of December, mainly because of bureaucratic delays. More than 750,000 first-time applicants for asylum registered in other E.U. countries.

First-time asylum applicants

In thousands

Applicants per

million residents

% change

as of Jan. 1, 2015

from 2014

100

200

300

400

0

’14

Germany

+155

5,441

’15

441,800

Hungary

17,699

+323

Germany had the

Sweden

16,016

+108

highest number of

Austria

9,970

+233

fi

r

st-time a

s

ylum

seekers in 2015;

Italy

1,369

+31

Hungary had the

France

1,063

+20

highest number

Netherlands

2,546

+98

per million

residents.

Belgium

3,463

+178

Britain

591

+19

Switzerland

4,620

+73

Finland

5,876

+822

Finland

experienced

Norway

5,898

+179

the greatest

Denmark

3,679

+43

percentage

Bulgaria

2,800

+87

increase from

2014.

Spain

314

+167

Greece

1,047

+50

Poland

270

+83

Ireland

707

+127

Luxembourg

4,194

+129

Cyprus

2,486

+42

Malta

3,948

+33

Czech Republic

117

+36

Romania

62

–18

Portugal

80

+89

Latvia

165

–10

Lithuania

93

–29

Slovakia

50

+18

Slovenia

126

–27

Estonia

172

+54

Croatia

34

–63

100

200

300

400

0

CRISTINA RIVERO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Eurostat

Enana Asr at her one-room apartment in Berlin. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Enana Asr, 21

Feeling like an outsider in both countries

“When did you know you were homosexual?”

“How did your parents react?”

“Why didn’t you stay in Syria?”

Her interviews at Berlin’s asylum agency seemed like interrogations, “and I felt like the criminal,” Enana said.

She thought she had left those kinds of attitudes behind when she fled Syria, where homosexuality is illegal.

In January 2015, Enana told her closest family members in Damascus that she was gay, and they seemed to accept her. But their attitudes changed when other relatives and neighbors reacted negatively. Enana soon stopped talking to her father, and her relationship with her mother became strained.

But even as the war raged, she was determined to stay in Syria and continue her studies in English literature.

One day, two soldiers on motorbikes followed her while she was riding a bicycle. Enana says they knew her, and they knew about her sexuality.

The bruises they left on her body would hurt for weeks.

It was the moment Enana decided to leave.

She traveled to Turkey with her mother and teenage sister, and then by boat to Greece. “The hardest thing was that I had to worry about not just myself but also about two other people. It added responsibility,” Enana said.

A month later, they were in Germany.

Relations with her mother slightly improved after they risked the journey to together. But then Enana sang at an LGBT festival in Berlin — an event that was supposed to mark for her the end of her oppression in Syria. In a text message following the event, her mother wrote that she was “tarnishing the family’s name,” Enana said.

Enana has lost contact with her father and with her mother, who is still in Germany. “My family didn’t accept me as I am, so I gave up on them,” she said in an interview. Enana found a place to stay in Berlin after approaching an LGBT association.

Enana now has a residency permit but is still waiting for one of the most important people in her life — her girlfriend, who is still in Damascus.

Nader al-Mahmoud at an accommodation facility in Stuttgart with the decision from the immigration office to grant him refugee status in Germany. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Nader al-Mahmoud, 25

Worried, but hopeful

German businesses hoped for people like Nader al-Mahmoud when the country opened its doors to more refugees a year ago. He is young, is educated and wants to stay in Germany, which is experiencing a severe labor shortage.

“The welcoming and supporting vibes I received from the German people were surprising and spirits-lifting,” he said in April. Two of his seven siblings are now also there.

But his transition has not been a trouble-free. Like other newcomers, he has faced growing resentment — from Germans but also from other refugees.

Syrian refugees are divided over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And rumors about Islamic State members arriving in Germany have led to suspicions and arguments among people living in asylum centers, and at times they have led to violent clashes in camps.

Nader said he wasn’t interested in politics before Syria’s uprising, but that changed when a friend was released from prison. “I could not recognize my friend’s face anymore,” he recalled.

He left Damascus in September 2015,  several days after he learned that he would be drafted into the army.

After arriving in Germany, he was given a place to stay in an emergency center that accommodates 160 people. He liked being in Germany. But resentment against him and others has grown.

When Nader tried to search for an apartment in April, he encountered his first challenges. “Few people are renting properties to refugees,” he said.

Nader, who lives in Stuttgart, is still waiting to be relocated to a permanent place. The recent attacks might make his search even harder, Nader said in his apartment, which accommodates three people and looks like a hostel room, with one table and metal beds.

So for now he spends time in the nearby library instead, where he focuses on improving his German language skills. “It’s like a key to open the door to Germany,” he said.

Recently, he completed a six-week internship with an IT company in Stuttgart. Nader used to work in the same field in Syria, but says he needs to improve his skills to work in Germany.

By offering apprenticeship programs to refugees, hundreds of enterprises hope to recruit young migrants for jobs that have remained vacant because no qualified German applicants have been found.

Nader has applied for several courses despite “a huge knowledge gap.” He is determined to close it.

Migration in Germany

Arrivals minus departures of refugees,

by region in 2015

Baden-Wurttemberg

169,238

Bavaria

159,949

Berlin

45,713

Brandenburg

25,352

Bremen

13,647

Hamburg

17,416

Hessen

93,695

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

20,451

Niedersachsen

119,599

Nordrhein-Westfalen

273,935

Rheinland-Pfalz

53,631

Saarland

15,178

Sachsen

41,435

Sachsen-Anhalt

29,835

Schleswig-Holstein

30,003

Thuringen

30,326

..

Sources: Statistical offices of the Lander

and the Federal Statistical Office

CRISTINA RIVERO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Migration and anti-refugee violence in Germany

Arrivals minus departures

0.7

of refugees in 2015

6.7

SCHLESWIG-

0

HOLSTEIN

MECKLENBURG-

VORPOMMERN

Hamburg

0.3

50,000

1.4

Bremen

6.1

NIEDERSACHSEN

Berlin

100,000

0.7

3.4

BRANDENBURG

5.9

1.3

SACHSEN-

274,000

ANHALT

NORDRHEIN-

WESTFALEN

SACHSEN

0.6

5.3

Cologne

Anti-refugee violence

..

9.7

HESSEN

TH

U

RINGEN

events per 100,000

0.9

inhabitants, January

Frankfurt

RHEINLAND-

2014 through

PFALZ

December 2015.

SAARLAND

0.5

BADEN-

..

BAVARIA

WURTTEMBERG

..

0.7

1.1

Sources: Statistical offices of the Lander

and the Federal Statistical Office; Kiel

Institute for the World Economy report

“Refugees Welcome? Introducing a New

Dataset on Anti-Refugee Violence in

Germany, 2014-2015” by David Bencek

and Julia Strasheim

CRISTINA RIVERO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Tarek al-Wawi at his apartment in Tübingen, Germany. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Tarek al-Wawi, 34

Trying to come to terms with the past

When the German officer asked for his passport, Tarek had only his military ID to show him. He feared that German authorities would decide he had been on the wrong side of the war and not let him in.

An army deserter, Tarek had fled to Germany hoping to escape memories of the fighting and violence. Shortly after he arrived in the city of Tübingen, he sought psychological treatment.

Estimates of how many refugees have come to the country with mental health issues vary, but a German association of psychotherapists said last year that at least half who flee war zones may need psychological support.

Tarek had studied media and communication at Damascus University and founded a theater project. But in 2010, the year the Arab Spring started, he was drawn into compulsory military service.

Tarek’s loyalty to the president weakened soon after the uprising began. Tarek said he was repeatedly arrested by regime forces for refusing to participate in operations carried out in areas where civilians were present. In 2013, he was one of about 300 soldiers who defected to Turkey, driving to the border in a dangerous three-day journey, he said.

For more than two years, he worked for a radio station in Turkey that broadcast in Syria. But his work became increasingly risky as Islamist radicals started to send Tarek and others death threats.

He decided to escape to Germany in May 2015.

But Syria continued to haunt him. At night, he dreamed of his friend whose head “shattered like glass” when it was hit by a sniper’s bullet.

In an interview in July, Tarek said he had stopped attending therapy sessions, which the German government provided. He said that there were many reasons for his decision but that “the language barrier made it hard for me to express my emotions in a language that I had been learning for less than one year.”

Tarek said he tries to keep busy. He organized a Syria-themed evening for local Germans to share food, listen to music, dance and watch a movie. He also set up a photography workshop for other refugees.

Samir al-Hajjar in his room in Berlin. (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Samir al-Hajjar, 20

German red tape

When Samir woke up on April 15, he started crying: It was the day the memories of his father’s face started to disappear.

He had left his family behind in Damascus in October 2015. In Germany, however, he has struggled to find a new home. Keeping himself busy had helped, but without a job he just isn’t busy enough.

“Berlin became our safe place,” Samir said. But he still struggles to call it home. Like many other refugees, Samir felt bureaucratic procedures took too long. So, he started working for free. “We decided to offer our services to everyone, repairing lamps and plating walls,” he said.

Tens of thousands of single male refugees are unemployed in Germany — a situation that politicians say could leave the newcomers particularly susceptible to jihadist propaganda or prone to commit crimes.

Born in Damascus, Samir grew up in Saudi Arabia, then moved back to Syria. “Everything was ideal,” he said of returning to his country of origin at that time. The revolution of 2011 changed everything. “We, as a family, supported those chants,” he recalled, referring to the opposition protests.

Samir was determined to graduate from high school despite the growing conflict, but he had become a vocal critic of the Assad-government. When the secret service became aware of his views, Samir’s family urged him to flee.

The trip to Germany was tough, Samir said.

But the questions he faced after his arrival in Berlin worried him more.

At first, Samir lived at the Tempelhof refugee accommodation center — housed in an old hangar at an airport that Western allied forces used to fly in food and other goods to the city for weeks when the Soviet Union cut off supply routes.

Once a symbol of a massive humanitarian operation for Germans, the airport has since become a center in Berlin’s struggle to accommodate thousands of foreigners.

Around Easter this year, a German friend went on vacation and handed him the keys to her apartment. “It made me feel — for the first time since I arrived in Berlin — as a normal person who is living a normal life,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, he lived in the homes of other friends who had gone on vacation. In April, he finally found a permanent home, at a friend’s apartment. Still unable to work or study, he spends most days talking to neighbors and volunteering.

Samir was recently encouraged to apply for a scholarship at New York University, but he declined — not only because he still lacks official residency papers.

“I would never leave this sexy city,” he said, referring to Berlin.

Sakher al-Mohammad takes part in a pro-refugee demonstration in Cologne, Germany, after a sexual-harassment incident occurred there (Hani Zaitoun for The Washington Post)

Sakher al-Mohammad, 27

A refugee movement against sexual assaults

Six months after it all started, Sakher was sitting on the square that changed Germany’s attitude toward refugees.

On New Year’s Eve, about 2,000 perpetrators assaulted at least 1,200 women in Cologne and other German cities, including Hamburg in the north, according to a leaked police report.

Sakher believed that refugees had to strongly condemn the attacks.

“I started a campaign called ‘Syrians Against Sexism,’ ” he said, sitting at a cafe next to where many of the assaults took place. Police cars were parked outside the nearby train station, and armed officers walked around the square.

In Syria, Sakher worked as a journalist and had been critical of the Syrian government. He knows the impact that initiatives and protests can have on public opinion. Days after the assaults, he organized a protest on Facebook, drawing up to 500 participants, he said.

Sakher said he was lucky to be in the country. But not everything has been perfect, Sakher said.

He criticized the country’s refugee camps, saying the government had failed to properly monitor them. According to him, drug use was prevalent in the camps while he was there.

“Even my German friends have started questioning me about the role of refugees in carrying out recent terror attacks,” Sakher said. “I expressed my condolences, but I still think it is unfair to associate me with those people. I fled to Germany to start a new life.”

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