Article

Tim Stafford


Cities of Refuge

The migrant crisis.

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Their troubles had only begun. They found another smuggler to take them on to Belgrade. After a long walk over the border into Serbia, he left them, saying he was going to get a car. Instead, the police arrived, and treated them roughly. When Mohammed told them not to put their hands on the children, and to stop waving guns in their faces, the police threatened him. In a moment's confusion he switched jackets with Ameen. The police, to whom perhaps all refugees look alike, took Ameen instead and sent the rest of the party back to the Macedonian border. But all Mohammed's and Ameen's documents, along with the password for their money, were in the jacket.

Ameen was thrown into prison. He found 30 Syrian refugees already there: four doctors, one PhD, one MA, and all the rest university students. "It was amazing to be like that, mixed in with a group of criminals." To occupy themselves, they took turns telling the story of their first love.

They didn't get to finish all the stories, however; after ten days they were taken to the Macedonian border and released. When Ameen telephoned his brother, Mohammed did not even ask how he was. His first question was, "What is our password?" With it, they had access to money to hire another smuggler.

Three times, Ameen followed a smuggler into Serbia. Each time, after three days of walking, the police caught him.

After three times failing with the same smuggler, his brother Mohammed—who had reached Belgrade—advised him by phone to go off alone on a different route. With five new-made friends Ameen reached a small Serbian city near the border. They purchased new clothes, and then one by one went to the bus station. Ameen was the first: he bought two tickets to Belgrade, then telephoned the others to come do the same. Thus they finally reached the capital.

Once again the brothers searched for a trustworthy smuggler, and this time found one. He took them by car over the border and on to Vienna, where they caught a taxi to Munich. "The police caught us just over the border in Germany. They dealt with us as human beings. Since it was night, we asked them if we could sleep in the prison. And in the morning, we went to register."

"So," I say, "the story ended there."

"No," Mohammed answers. "The story starts there. Now we can reconstruct a future."

They are learning German, and making plans. "German," Mohammed confides in me, "is the most difficult language in the world." He has twice been in the hospital for stress. "We are always thinking of our families," he says, those in Turkey and especially those left behind in Syria, under the eye of ISIS and vulnerable to Russian bombs.

Munich.
Image: Gary Gnidovic

Munich.

One night in Munich I join a group from the YMCA that regularly visits a refugee camp. In a small park a block from a hastily converted office building, eleven Germans old and young bow in the dark to pray together. In Germany, the YMCA has retained its Christian heritage.

In the camp they have been given access to a preschool room, hung with hand-made paper decorations. As soon as Joachim Schmutz starts playing his guitar, refugees begin arriving: grandmothers in headscarves, little children and babies, teenagers, young men. Very shortly the room is full, and raucous with singing. "Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah, Praise ye the Lord," we sing with hilarious enthusiasm. Most of the refugees are from Afghanistan, and have been in Germany only a short time. A few speak some English; none seems to speak any German. One of the volunteers, Simone Breischaft, learned Dari imperfectly during time in Tajikistan; she keeps asking for help with words and is eagerly assisted. She gives a little talk about God, and has volunteers read aloud verses from the Bible in their own languages. Each one is applauded.

I manage to ask a group of teenagers how they reached Germany from Afghanistan. They look at me as though I am an idiot. "We walked."

A young man who was a translator for NATO forces in Afghanistan tells me that these teenage boys have never been to school; they can't read or write. Breischaft has taught underage refugees for the last three years. She says those who have never been to school may be unable to learn to read and write German. She is doubtful how such teenagers will fare in modern Germany.

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