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Tim Stafford

Listening to Refugees' Stories

Relief, Hope, and Numbing Sadness

Editor's note: The May/June issue of Books & Culture will be a special theme issue on international migration, broadly construed, past as well as present. The anchor piece of that issue will combine reporting by Tim Stafford with photographs by Gary Gnidovic. Here's a second interim report from Tim. You can find the first report here.

Almost a week ago, Gary Gnidovic and I sat in a Munich cafe with four boisterous, laughing Syrian refugees. One of them, Ahmad, claimed to be literally the first to come to Germany as a result of the Syrian war. The other three arrived about 15 months ago. None of them knew each other before coming; their homes were in different parts of Syria.

Ahmad arrived by jet plane, unconscious. He and his sister had been in their house in Homs when it was blown up by a Syrian tank. Badly burned, he was taken to a Free Syrian Army clinic, then to Beirut, where he was photographed by a German journalist. The extraordinary photographs attracted attention. Eventually charitable organizations flew him to Munich, where he was kept in an induced coma for six weeks. He finally awoke like a character in a fairy tale, having gone to sleep in Syria and awakened in Germany.

Two brothers, Mohammed and Ameen, had fled their home in a city in northern Syria, along with their extended family. They began working for NGOs researching refugee needs, with regular reporting trips over the border to Turkey. During one such trip their former refuge was overrun by ISIS; two of their friends were caught and murdered, one by beheading. Naturally, the two brothers stayed in Turkey, applying for emigration in other countries. They had no success, and Mohammed got death threats from ISIS on his Facebook account. After months of uncertainty, they decided to take the Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Austria-Germany route, paying a smuggler. It took them two months of walking and hiding in the forest, wrangling with smugglers who led them into the woods and then, having collected their money, called the police, multiple incarcerations, and a huge amount of stress before they reached Germany—two young men whose families still live under ISIS.

Khaled, on the other hand, never made a decision to leave Syria. It was made for him by his father, who saw the inevitability that his son would either fight for Assad, fight for one of the anti-Assad factions, or be imprisoned or killed. He got his son a passport and plane ticket to Algeria. Traveling with an uncle and his family, Khaled went by car to Tunisia and then Libya. There he was put on a 50-foot wooden boat overloaded with refugees. They were five days crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and their boat stopped functioning somewhere offshore. Rescued by the Italian navy, Khaled was put on a train for northern Italy, where he went off on his own to complete the journey to Germany.

All four have been accepted as genuine refugees, through a bureaucratic process that takes months or even years. Only as certified refugees are they allowed to take German classes and look for work, which all of them are doing. Khaled had done three semesters of mechanical design in a Syrian university; he has an apprenticeship with a company manufacturing hydraulic instruments. Ahmad, who has already mastered a high level of German, has a three-year apprenticeship to become a nurse. Ameen, who was studying English literature at the university before the war overran his life, plans to finish his degree studying Middle Eastern culture; he wants to be a journalist and is already working for a radio station. Mohammed, who has his master's degree in IT, has begun working part-time in his field and can look for full-time employment as soon as he passes his German exam. He has brought his wife from Turkey, and they are expecting a child.

"I am quite happy here," Ameen says. "The government has treated us in a very good way. Most of my friends are Germans." His brother Mohammed says the stress of their journey has put him in the hospital twice, but nevertheless he is very positive about his new life. "We had a future before. But now we can reconstruct a future."

These four certainly do not represent all refugees. Many others find it difficult to discover their place in a new culture; some lack skills or education to find jobs.

On the other hand, their experiences are not rare. Hundreds of thousands can tell parallel stories of war and suffering, of dramatic routes to freedom. They represent the hopeful side of the refugee crisis.

Ahmad, who has long, glossy black hair and movie-star looks, stresses his gratefulness. He understands how much his long hospital stay and the many operations cost. "It is a gift. I don't know how to thank the Germans. They saved my life."

This weekend, Gary Gnidovic and I will return to the US after two weeks in Europe. During our time here, we've interviewed quite a few refugees. We had our mouths gaping open in the beginning, because nearly all have dramatic stories of risk and suffering, arrest and imprisonment, and of course, vast uncertainty. I hate to say it, but by the end of our stay we could almost check things off the list: deprivation in Turkey, terror in the boat crossing to Greece, walking in the woods for days, running from police, lack of food, lack of shelter, and above all the terrible not-knowing what's coming next.

Near the end of our visit, however, we were at a refugee processing center near Sid, Serbia, with World Vision staff, watching as the buses rolled in and unloaded. They came from the Macedonian border, only a few days walk from Greece. I began talking to people as they got off the bus, especially those who spoke English. (World Vision provided Arabic and Farsi translation, but it's always easier to talk directly.) I walked up to one young man—30 or so, I would guess—and began asking him about himself. Where was he from? Afghanistan. What city? Herat. Why did he leave? The Taliban made life and work impossible. How was his crossing from Turkey to Greece?

At that his face fell, and he told me that from his boat of 90 people, 24 were drowned.

He could hardly speak. Nor could I. Later he showed me a printed list that he kept in an inside pocket of his jacket, listing the names of the 24 lost.

We can get used to hearing anything, but occasionally we get jerked back to reality. These people, many of them, are victims of incredible tragedy, which they will never forget even if we do.

Tim Stafford is the author of more than 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (InterVarsity Press).

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