What happened next? The Syrian family who fled to Germany in 2014
Family grateful for ‘protection’ offered by Germany – but they long for Damascus
Jamil’s mother Leila, and sister Carla, walking in a square in Greece en route to Germany in 2014.
The winter sun strips away the clouds hovering over chilled Berlin as Jamil opens the street door to a narrow building in a leafy suburb of Berlin. Leila greets us in the hall of the top floor flat, we shed shoes and sit on the L-shaped divan in the warm sittingroom. “Second hand,” Jamil says.
Wrinkles have appeared at the corners of his eyes in the two years since we spent hours tracking the family’s arduous and risky journey from Damascus to a postcard pretty village in Bavaria.
At that time, only Jamil and his youngest sister, Carla, were home; Lora, his second sister, and mother Leila were in Amsterdam visiting her parents who had, years earlier, left the Palestinian refugee “camp” in Damascus’s Yarmouk suburb. The family fled their comfortable flat on December 17th, 2012, after a war plane bombed a mosque and a school in Yarmouk where opposition fighters were suspected of hiding.
Later the same day, the rebel free Syrian army and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra stormed the area. Jamil remarks, “We still do not know what happened to our home, our possessions, my library, since we cannot visit Yarmouk.”
The family do not wish to use real names as they have relatives in Damascus.
When they fled Yarmouk they moved to an elegant building in the centre of Damascus, then to hotels in the old city before, in 2014, braving smugglers’ routes through Turkey to Europe. This was a highly dangerous journey as Jamil might have been detained and drafted by an insurgent group at any of the many checkpoints they crossed, or his attractive sisters who, although heavily veiled, might have been kidnapped when they passed through Islamic State country.
The family’s new home is a three-room flat with bathroom and kitchen, board floors, and freshly painted white walls. Leila gives me her bedroom. She will sleep on the divan in the sittingroom. On the salon’s small balcony resides a tiny olive tree smuggled from Palestine by a German friend.
Leila sets out on a low table in the sittingroom a feast of chicken, wheat pilaf, salad, hummus and eggplant dips, before we go through iphone photos taken during my October trip to Homs, Deir al-Zor, and Aleppo. Leila, whom Jamil calls “the family revolutionary”, shakes her head. “I didn’t believe photos of [Islamic State] weapons captured by the [Syrian] army in Deir al-Zor until I saw yours.”
Dinner is Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings at the flat of Maeve, Jamil’s Irish-American girlfriend, a university colleague. Caroline, the fourth guest, is an Iraqi refugee and college friend. Her memories of Baghdad have faded; Jamil’s images of Damascus remain sharp and painful.
The next day we tour the city centre beginning at the Brandenburg gate where a man in traditional dress cranks a barrel organ. As we walk through the Holocaust memorial, a collection of concrete slabs ranged on undulating ground, Jamil says: “It reminds of me of Palestine and what happened to us.”
We visit the remains of the Romanesque Kaiser Wilhelm church bombed during the second World War, and the Christmas market where failed Tunisian asylum seeker Anas Amri used a hijacked lorry to kill 11 shoppers on December 19th last year. Every site is a relic of warfare. That night we celebrate Lora’s 30th birthday at a Chinese restaurant where, in two minutes, Leila masters chopsticks.
Freezing rain greets us on Saturday when scholarship student Jamil receives his MA diploma, the occasion for my visit. Classmates hail from the US in the west and China in the east as well as Germany, providing Jamil with a wide circle of friends. While they celebrate, Leila, Lora, Carla and I return to the flat where Jamil joins us for conversation over tea, tangerines and Spanish watermelon.
“Afghans, Iranians, and Iraqis find it more and more difficult to get asylum,” he says, “Syrians were favoured in 2014 and are still favoured.”
Lora says: “Mum is the last person who wanted to leave Syria. We tried Dubai and Algiers but could not stay. We didn’t want to be refugees but there was a rain of bombs [on the old city]. We have to study and work.”
Jamil adds. “We had no choice but to go out.”
Lora is delighted to have moved to Berlin after eight months in a Bavarian village, where the authorities first placed them. “I hate green. I want to be surrounded by cement.” Carla agrees: “I am a city person. I want to take advantage of all the events,” then adds, wistfully, “I love the sea, Algiers.”
An architect trained in Damascus, Lora sighs “I miss Damascus, my job. I was happy. I was the only woman working with seven men. But the boss did not pay us for three months ”– leaving the family dependent on Jamil’s salary. Lora now works part time at a small, reputable German firm where she does research on popular housing. She plans to apply to a university to study for a Master’s degree. Employed part-time, Jamil is looking for a full-time job .
‘Some people have been rude’
Carla says: “Our neighbours are so nice. It’s okay to walk around at night. Late can be a problem [with drunks] . Mum has had trouble because she wears a headscarf. Some people have been rude. [Nevertheless], she goes for long walks and shopping on her own. But she doesn’t feel it is safe for us to stay out late.”
The girls dress according to current fashions and go where they please, as they did in Damascus. They often visit Sonnenallee, known as “Little Beirut”, or the “Arab Street”, lined on both sides by kebab parlours, Syrian restaurants, Arabic sweet shops, groceries with Levantine fruits and vegetables.
“When I go there I feel like I am in a souq in Syria,” says Carla. She attends an arts workshop but intends to go to university to study architecture. She had registered at Latakia university in Syria but war intervened.
Jamil is the most integrated due to his university and part-time jobs. “We need to take part in activities in order to have a social life,” says Carla. Although they had many friends in Damascus, she continues: “We don’t have connections with Germans or with the Arab community. We couldn’t find anything in common with most of the people we meet as their thinking and lifestyle are far from our way of living.”
Jamil adds: “Sometimes we think people we encounter feel hostile, when they don’t.”
Money is tight. “Since we don’t have jobs yet, we rely for the basics on subsidies,” says Carla. “We have to save to buy the things we need.”
Germany has given them temporary residence documents allowing them to travel. Rent and health insurance are paid by the government and each family member receives a monthly stipend large enough to provide food and transport. Earnings are deducted from the stipend.
To progress from temporary to permanent residency can take three to five years and citizenship can be obtained, depending on the case, in not less than six years. A refugee must gain proficiency in German, attend an integration course, secure full-time work for 24 months and pay taxes. “We must stand on our own,” says Jamil.
Lora has passed the final German exam, which Jamil and Carla have still to take. Leila has to tackle the first exam. Her studies were interrupted by an operation covered by medical insurance. The young people are likely to secure jobs. Leila, who married young and has never worked outside the home, may find this difficult but she is determined to succeed.
Lora says: “We are born refugees. We want real passports. Palestinians always have problems, we’re always rejected. During this war, we were treated worse than Syrians and were denied entry to many countries, including neighbouring countries.”
Germany offers them “protection and status” for which they are grateful, while longing for Damascus.