Refugees in Kos in August 2015 Photograph: Getty
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
el-Haiba is now living in Berlin with his boyfriend, Youssef. Photograph:
Michael Danner for the Guardian
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.
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.
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.
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
everything about Syria. We are all disappointed here. We are near the point of
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
studies German and hopes to take a master’s in 2017. A year ago, he was living
in a war zone
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.