By Patrick Kingsley
30 April 2016
Refugees in Kos in August 2015 Photograph: Getty Images
When Mohammad el-Haiba first spots his boyfriend Youssef outside the German train station, it takes him a few moments to work out whether to approach him. Staring back at him from the entrance, Youssef is just as confused. They stand there, several metres apart. Neither knows what to do next. It’s not that they’re not delighted to see each other. It’s just that this encounter, on a cold October day in a quiet town in Bavaria, is unlike anything they’re used to.
Mohammad and Youssef last saw each other in mid-August in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Then Youssef left for Turkey, took a boat to Greece and made his way through the Balkans to Germany. A month later, Mohammad followed him. They knew they might never see each other again – and yet, six weeks on, they’re together once more. They’re in a peaceful country, where they don’t speak the language, and where for the first time in their lives they can be open about who they are. And who they love. It’s Mohammad who first tests the parameters of this strange new world. “Can I kiss you?” he asks.
I first met 23-year-old Mohammad at another train station, in much more chaotic circumstances, several hundred miles to the south. It was mid-September last year and we were in Tovarnik, a placid Croatian village just over the border from Serbia. Crammed into the village’s tiny station were hundreds of refugees; confused and dehydrated, waiting for specially-commissioned trains that would move them on towards Germany. The trains arrived only once a day, and each train had space for 1,000, even with people crammed into the aisles. There must already have been 1,500 waiting in the station.
When the train finally arrived, well past midnight, pandemonium ensued. Crowds of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans surged forward, squeezing through gaps in the police lines. The biggest men made it onboard first, and attempted to haul their relatives on afterwards. There were raised fists and a few shoves – understandably, given the situation. If you’re separated from your family here, you might all end up in different countries. You might never see each other again.
The carriages filled up, but the tension didn’t end. The train simply stood there on the tracks all night. From the windows, refugees gazed out, too exhausted to ask when it would finally leave, but too tense to fall asleep. Still more people arrived throughout the night, having walked from Serbia. One of them was a bespectacled biomedical engineer called Mohammad el-Haiba.
I got to know lots of people like Mohammad last year. As the Guardian’s migration correspondent, I travelled to 17 countries affected by the refugee crisis. I met people in surreal, chaotic places such as this one: a detention centre in Libya, a sports stadium in Kos, a riverside in Serbia. These were places entirely removed from the normal life they were searching for. Mohammad told me he wanted to live with his boyfriend, and to study in a laboratory that wasn’t in a war zone. Zahraa, a student who arrived at the station in Mohammad’s group, wanted to go to university without fear of being killed by militias. Ehsan, a 40-year-old engineer I met in Kos, longed for a place where his children could live without being hit by rockets on their way to school.
I heard their hopes and dreams, then wished them well as they moved on. But I never knew whether they’d succeed – whether they’d get asylum, whether they’d be able to integrate. They had made the journey of their lives – but who knew what lay ahead?
Ehsan struggles to get to sleep most nights. He lies on his bed in Belgium, shuts his eyes, and his mind races: why haven’t my papers been approved yet? Will I ever get them? How do they decide? Living in legal limbo, the only thing Ehsan can think about is how to escape it. He tells me that in his dorm of eight Syrians, in a reception centre in rural Belgium, half of them spend every night tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Some listen to music on their headsets. Others skim the news on their phones. But mainly they wonder when, if ever, they’ll be granted asylum.
Mohammad el-Haiba is now living in Berlin with his boyfriend, Youssef. Photograph: Michael Danner for the Guardian
In the small hours, one by one they give up on the idea of sleep. They leave the dorm for the common room outside, and discuss the mysteries of the Belgian asylum system. Why did one recent arrival get an interview so quickly, but not the man who arrived months ago? Do they choose people based on their age, or their origin? Ehsan has been trapped, one way or another, since the week he arrived in Europe last summer.
Along with 40 others, he and his 18-year-old nephew Karim had taken a rubber dinghy that reached the Greek island of Kos early one August morning. I met him there, and he told me: “Today in Damascus, there were 50 rockets falling on the city. It’s not about me. When my time comes, my time comes. But I’m thinking about my kids. I want them to have a future.” Ehsan felt the journey was too dangerous for his wife and two young children; he planned to apply for them to join him once he won asylum in Europe.
The situation on Kos proved his point. In previous weeks, the island authorities had given refugees a laissez-passer to the mainland within a couple of days of arrival. But soon the flow of people was so great that the police could no longer cope. More than 7,000 refugees were stuck on the island as officials struggled to deal with the backlog. Many began sleeping on the beaches, as tourists with ice creams walked by.
In an effort to create some kind of order, the island’s mayor ordered all Syrians into an old sports stadium – and then locked the doors. The aim was to fast-track their paperwork, but to the Syrians wilting in the summer heat, that wasn’t immediately obvious. As the temperature soared, people began to faint. There were clashes. The Syrians were beaten back with shields and truncheons, and sprayed with fire extinguishers. Gradually, people were given their papers. “Water,” a Syrian banker gasped as I greeted him on his exit. “All I want is water.”
I miss everything about Syria. We are all disappointed here. We are near the point of breaking down
At about 2am, a day and a half after he was first locked inside; Ehsan was one of the last to be released from the stadium. I spoke to him and Karim moments later, in the darkness outside the gates. Karim was dressed neatly in a smart shirt tucked in at the waist; he hoped to study engineering. “I got 91% in my high school exams,” he told me. “I want to go to university and get a degree, but you can’t do that in Syria. Rockets fall every day. There’s no electricity and no water, and checkpoints everywhere.” Ehsan and Karim felt humiliated by their experiences in the stadium, but for Ehsan the shame would be worth it if he won asylum in Belgium: “I don’t know if Europe will be heaven or hell,” he told me, “but I just want a place for my kids.”
Ehsan hadn’t been living in Syria for long before he decided to leave. He had spent nearly 10 years in Dubai, where he led a happy life and managed a metal factory. But then he lost his job, and with it the right to live in the UAE. Three years into the Syrian civil war, he returned to Damascus with his family. There, he was blacklisted by the government after a friend reported him for criticising the regime in private. Ehsan fled first to Turkey, where he couldn’t find work. Within a few months, he left again for Europe, hoping to reach relatives in Belgium. “I’m not happy to be moving about like this, but in Turkey there is no stability for Syrians, and in Syria you don’t know when the rockets will fall on you, or when they will come and take you.”
His preliminary asylum interview was in September not all that long after he and Karim arrived in Belgium. Or at least, it would have been were it not postponed some seven hours after he arrived at the asylum office. When Ehsan returned, he was told to come back again in October. In October, he was sent away until December. And in December he was fobbed off until February, when he was finally given a preliminary interview. He still has no idea when his second and decisive interview will be; meanwhile, Karim was given asylum months ago.
With no date to aim for, Ehsan feels lost and isolated. The Paris attacks in November, partly instigated by Belgium-based Jihadis, deepened his depression. He would love to work but, with no leave to remain, he cannot. “No one wants to take money to stay at home,” he says. “We want to work. Any kind of work will do.”
This limbo paralyses everything. Recently, Ehsan decided to join a gym; he thought a bit of swimming might help. But in his depressed state, even a swim seems too tough a task. It’s the same with Flemish: he’s downloaded 40 hours of lessons on his phone, but every time he starts them, he gives up. He can’t focus on anything but the thought of getting asylum. “It’s not because we’re not passionate,” he says. “It’s because our brains are not free.”
Above all, he misses his family, whom he hasn’t seen for more than a year. Mohammad, his son, is now eight, Lina, his daughter, has turned five; he missed both their birthdays. He speaks daily with them on WhatsApp, but it is never enough. “I miss everything about Syria,” he says, “but if I had to say one thing, I miss my family. We are all disappointed here. We are near the point of breaking down.”
The post gives his day a semblance of structure. The mail arrives at the Tournai centre at around 5pm and the place fizzes briefly into life. This is the moment when a tiny number of residents will receive a letter telling them when they can expect to be interviewed about their asylum claim. “Everyone is waiting, passing the time until the mail comes,” Ehsan says. “And if it doesn’t, we go back to our room again, and we wait.”
It’s hard for Zahraa Daoud to pinpoint exactly what she finds most exciting about Germany. Maybe it’s the buildings, which seem so big and grand. Maybe it’s the nightlife, which had all but vanished back home in Syria. Or maybe it’s the tattoos. “The drawings on people’s bodies!” she marvels. “We had those in Syria, but only a few.”
Zahraa remembers crossing the border in late September and thinking, “My dream has come true.” The 23-year-old had set off two weeks earlier with her mother Nada, a former teacher, and 13 friends from her hometown in Salimiyeh, western Syria. Then came a nervous journey through regime-held territory to Lebanon, before a plane to Turkey, a smuggler’s boat to Greece and a series of trains through the Balkans to Bavaria.
Zahraa Daoud and her mother, Nada, are living in a refugee centre in Stralsund, Germany. Photograph: Michael Danner for the Guardian
Over the next six weeks, they were bounced from Trier to Hamburg to Berlin, Horst, Güstrow, Schwerin and finally Stralsund. But despite the chaos of the asylum system, they managed not to lose any of the original group along the way. Zahraa was one of the youngest, but the natural leader. “She’s very funny,” one friend told me when I met the group on their journey through the Balkans. “Everyone likes her.”
It was around 3am in the same tiny station in Croatia where I had met Mohammad, and they had just walked through the night from Serbia. They then spent a trying day and a half waiting for a train, with nowhere to sleep and nowhere to shelter from the 40-degree heat, apart from the shade of a few trees. Every hour or so, a rumour would spread among the waiting crowds. “Qitar,” someone would shout – the Syrian word for train – and, within a few seconds, hundreds of people would hurry towards the platform. “Rumours,” one of Zahraa’s friends would usually sigh. “Always rumours.”
But once they made it on to a train, it was just a couple of days before they reached Germany. Unlike Belgium, the German asylum system is relatively swift. Zahraa’s one and only interview with a caseworker took place little more than a month after her arrival. The questions were straightforward. Why had she come to Germany? Did she know any terrorists? Zahraa doesn’t know any terrorists; she’s in Germany to get away from them.
The authorities were convinced, and within a month Zahraa had her asylum claim upheld. She jumped for joy when she found out, and hugged her mother, who had won asylum just a few days earlier. But it is just the beginning of a long slog towards assimilation.
Zahraa and Nada now live in a refugee centre in an old hotel in Stralsund. It’s pretty enough, an old port filled with Gothic architecture from the Hanseatic era, but quiet. There are no jobs and little spare housing. One by one Zahraa’s friends have drifted away to larger towns to find work. The group of 15 has dwindled to four. Zahraa struggles to stay positive.
By April, I find that Zahraa has regained her resolve. She has started college, and with school comes structure: lessons from 11am to 3pm. She has German friends and goes to a gym every day after class. She and her mother are looking for a new home, but in the meantime they are trying to make their temporary accommodation a bit more homely. Every evening, mother and daughter cook a meal in a shared kitchen. “We make anything Syrian,” Zahraa smiles: molokhia soup one night, bazella wa riz (pea and rice stew) the next. “I have tried,” she says, “to find a way to enjoy this life.”
When Mohammad first crossed the German border in September, he couldn’t quite believe his journey was over. After the chaos at the station in Croatia, he became stuck again in Hungary, trapped in a packed train for 14 hours without access to water or a bathroom. In Germany, he feared more of the same. “I was thinking: am I in Germany? Or is there another border I have to cross? I was so exhausted. Everyone was very ill.”
He was surprised to be treated with a bit of kindness. He was first taken to Dortmund, far from the Bavarian town where his boyfriend Youssef was living; but a kind security guard let him head back south to be closer to Youssef. At the station, a friendly young woman booked him his ticket. The second camp that Mohammad reached was in chaos. As Germany struggled to find room, refugees were being sent to virtually any empty public building. He initially found himself in a converted sports hall, where 300 refugees slept on the floor an arm’s length from their neighbour. But at least he was now in the same part of the country as Youssef, even if they were in different camps. A few days later, they agreed to meet outside the station in Landshut. Finally, they were reunited.
It was a strange feeling for both of them. In Syria, they loved each other in secret, never showing affection in public. As a graduate, Youssef was due to be conscripted into Bashar al-Assad’s army; instead, he lived in hiding for months to evade security services, and met Mohammad indoors. “He spent three years in his apartment,” Mohammad remembers. “The security services would go to his parents and ask where he was. So he hid. For three years he was like that.” Mohammad and Youssef’s reunion lasted just a few hours: by the end of the afternoon, both had to return to their centres. They were in the same country, finally – and in a country where they can be open about their love – but they couldn’t yet live together.
They tried all avenues. One official was receptive to the idea, but explained that the German state would need an official Syrian document that proved the two were partners. “How could I have this paper if it’s illegal in Syria?” Mohammad asked him. “That’s one of the reasons I came here.”
They were forced to give up. Mohammad was moved to Drachselsried, a village of 3,000 residents in the Bavarian forest, where he was billeted in a block of eight flats, each filled with eight asylum-seekers. His flatmates were an eclectic mix, among them a maths lecturer, an oil engineer, a web designer, a supermarket owner and a nurse.
Mohammad studies German and hopes to take a master’s in 2017. A year ago, he was living in a war zone
Thrown together in an isolated German village, they didn’t all get along. Mohammad found it easier to sleep by day and wake at night, in order to get some privacy. But after a week, the group started to bond, debating all kinds of philosophical and political issues ranging from women’s rights to homosexuality.
Mohammad found the local people astonishingly warm. Villagers were always offering to help with transport and translation. Language lessons were offered from the first day. And, to his relief, Mohammad’s interview came just a few days after his arrival. As with Zahraa, the questions were straightforward.
There was just one week when Mohammad felt a flash of xenophobia. It was January, a few days after the New Year, and he was pottering towards a supermarket with his friend, Kotaiba. A mother and daughter walked towards them. The pair spotted the Syrians, and quickly turned around.
“Why did she do that?” Mohammad wondered out loud to Kotaiba. “Everyone knows us here.” “No idea!” Kotaiba replied. The two Syrians walked on. Another woman approached, spotted the young men – and turned around. It all seemed very strange, until the pair returned home and checked the latest news. Hundreds of women had been assaulted and robbed during New Year celebrations in several cities, including Cologne. The attacks had been blamed on refugees.
Like many Syrians, Mohammad was shocked, but wonders if it was fair to scapegoat Syrians. “First they said it was refugees,” he recalls. “Then they said it wasn’t Syrians, it was the Afghans and Iraqis. And then they said it wasn’t refugees, but North Africans.”
The backlash, at any rate, was short-lived. In time, the people of Drachselsried went back to greeting Mohammad in the street. Youssef won asylum in November, Mohammad in January. They are now living together in Berlin, in the spare room of a German family – a child psychologist, an insurance broker and their four-year-old. Mohammad studies German every day and hopes to take a master’s in biomedical engineering in 2017. Less than a year ago, he was living in a war zone, in love with a man who could rarely leave his house.
Now he has a future – as does Youssef: he plans to resume his career as a fashion designer. They also have their dog, a fluffy white bichon called Patty, who ran into Youssef’s flat in Damascus on the day Assad was re-elected president in 2014. She found it far easier to reach Germany than her owners. A friend of Youssef’s, who had a scholarship to a German university, brought Patty with him on the plane. “She got to Germany before we did,” Mohammad says, laughing at the irony.
He worries about his brother, still stuck in Syria, and his friends, still in Turkey. He still finds it unfamiliar, being affectionate with Youssef in public. But, finally, they can be open and plan a future together. “We are spending every single minute together: cooking, studying, going out,” Mohammad says. “We don’t want to lose each other. We can start life again.”
• Ehsan, Karim and Youssef’s names have been changed to protect their families in Syria.