Jump directly to the content

Tim Stafford

Cities of Refuge

The migrant crisis.

2 of 10view all

Indeed, refugees in Germany do a great deal of waiting. Somebody gives me a diagram, "How to Become a German," that shows the bureaucratic process, as complicated as an electrical schematic. The system has its own sense of order, which at the moment is overwhelmed by huge numbers and the extraordinary task of making sense of a case like Goraya's.

Berlin : Pro-refugee march around the Templehof Airport. Since September 2015 Templehof has been used as an emergency refugee camp.
Image: Gary Gnidovic

Berlin : Pro-refugee march around the Templehof Airport. Since September 2015 Templehof has been used as an emergency refugee camp.

It is late January, and I am traveling with photographer Gary Gnidovic, following the route of the refugees through Europe, but backwards—from Germany, where nearly all refugees aim to arrive, back through Austria, Croatia, Serbia, and finally Greece. Our goal is not to ponder political solutions but to witness what is happening on the ground. We want to talk with refugees and hear their stories; we want to see what their conditions are like, meet those who are helping them, and take the temperature of the countries along the route. Of course this can change very quickly, as it did after New Year's Eve.

Refugees come from many countries—not just Syria, the epicenter of war, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. Tarek, whom I meet in a pizza restaurant on our second day in Berlin, is as different from Goraya as can be. He comes from Aleppo, Syria, and wears a customized t-shirt that he got that day from six German friends who share his birthday. The shirt says "Peace" in Arabic. With his light skin, his short beard, and his stocking cap, Tarek could pass for a German. He is writing a play to be performed by refugees; he is a singer who shows me a video on his phone of his most recent performance singing Coldplay in a church, in front of a huge cross. Having won his refugee status two months before, after eight months of waiting, he has a job cleaning apartments and looks forward to starting school. (He finished high school in Syria.) "I really respect this country," he says. "They are not treating us like criminals. I feel safe here. Many people want to help."

Yet stress recently made him drop out of school. He thinks constantly of his family. He has a wife and a son (whom he has never seen) in Turkey, and he is not altogether confident that he will ever get permission for them to join him in Germany. Three married sisters remain in Aleppo, their lives at risk. Tarek comes from an educated, middle-class family. One brother is a dentist, another graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, both parents worked for the Syrian government. He is proud of his Syrian culture, which he sees as creative and welcoming. But "there is no Syria any more."

Tarek says that many friends died or disappeared in the anti-government protests that kicked off the civil war. He was working in Qatar, so isolated and anxious he was unable to function. He flew to Turkey, where his parents, his fiancée, and several siblings joined him. For a time Tarek produced and sold olive-oil soap in Istanbul. He married his fiancée, who was soon pregnant. Ironically, this was the impetus for him to try to reach Europe. He saw no future for his family in Turkey, where he could not legally work.

The journey he describes to me began with a smuggler leading him and four others across the Turkish border into Bulgarian forests. A series of cheating smugglers led to repeated arrests and mistreatments by border guards. He was beaten by Bulgarian police and shackled to a wall, standing, for 24 hours. He paid smugglers thousands of dollars to reach Germany.

Tarek comes across as articulate, forthright, and capable. Culturally, he seems likely to fit well into German society. Still, his anxiety leaks out at times, especially when he talks about his future (as yet unknown) and his family.

(Since our trip, I have heard from Wallmeyer that Tarek returned to Turkey to try to bring his wife and son to Germany. Failing to get the proper papers, some of which must come from Syria, he is considering using smugglers to get his family to Greece. Wallmeyer is urging against that; he might be arrested for trafficking.)

icon2 of 10view all

Most ReadMost Shared