Tim Stafford

Cities of Refuge

The migrant crisis.

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Munich is a different world from the north-German cities: brash, comfortable, and—judging by skin-tone on the street—far more affected by immigration.

In the late summer and early fall of 2015, Munich's train station was overrun by immigrants. Today the station is back to normal, though numerous kebab joints on nearby streets tell the tale of earlier waves of immigration. In one such establishment I sit with four young Syrian men, joking and laughing through a long afternoon of telling stories.

Munich: Ahmad Abbas from Homs, Syria. In the early part of Syrian civil war, his home was bombed. He and his sister were left unconscious  and burned over 70% of their bodies. Thanks to a Western journalist, they were taken to Munich where they were given treatment.
Image: Gary Gnidovic

Munich: Ahmad Abbas from Homs, Syria. In the early part of Syrian civil war, his home was bombed. He and his sister were left unconscious and burned over 70% of their bodies. Thanks to a Western journalist, they were taken to Munich where they were given treatment.

Ahmad Abbas, with glossy black hair flowing over his collar, claims to be the first Syrian to arrive in Germany as a result of the civil war. Asleep in his family home when it was blown up by a tank shell, he was taken to a Free Syrian Army clinic and then to Beirut. Horribly burned, he was photographed by a German journalist, whose extraordinary pictures attracted attention. Charitable organizations flew Abbas 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.

The day we meet is his 21st birthday; he will celebrate by visiting the doctors and nurses who saved his life. At the hospital, his friends and supporters crowd around him. Abbas is entering a three-year apprenticeship to become a nurse.

His friend Khaled Alhussein has a Duck-Dynasty black beard and a mischievous smile. When I ask why he left Syria he says his parents insisted on it, because they knew if he stayed in Syria he would have to fight for one army or another. His father somehow got him a passport and put him on a plane to Algeria; from there smugglers carried him by car to Libya and put him on a 60-foot wooden boat carrying 404 people. They were on the Mediterranean for five days before the overloaded engine stopped. Having no engineer on board, they drifted until rescued by the Italian navy. Alhussein made his way to Germany where, after living nine months in various camps, he was accepted as a refugee. Before leaving Syria he had done three semesters of university training in mechanical design; he is now doing an apprenticeship with a hydraulic company.

Mohammed Nasir, 24, studied English literature at Ebla University. He participated in protest marches against an increasingly violent government response. "Many of my friends were killed"—over 100 whose names he recognized, including several first cousins.

When the opposition began to fight back against Assad's army, Mohammed and his entire extended family fled their home in Deir ez-Zur for a small town controlled by the Free Syrian Army. There he and his younger brother Ameen began to work for Global Communities, a humanitarian organization run from over the Turkish border. Once a month the brothers traveled into Turkey to file reports on their research into refugee conditions. It was while they were on such a trip that ISIS forces took control of the town where they were living. ISIS caught and killed two of their friends, one by beheading.

Unable to return to Syria, Mohammed and Ameen stayed eight months in Turkey unsuccessfully seeking legal immigration. Mohammed found work doing IT; Ameen worked temporarily for a Syrian radio station. There were a quarter million refugees in Urfa, the Turkish city where they found refuge.

For months they argued about fleeing to Europe. Mohammed was reluctant; Ameen pushed him to go, and so did their mother. Fearful her sons would be murdered by ISIS, she came over the border carrying her gold jewelry and sold it to fund the journey. When Mohammed received a death threat from ISIS through his Facebook account, he decided that the time had come.

For 2,000 euros each, a small boat carried them in the dead of night to the Greek island of Symi. Swimmers on the beach welcomed them and gave them water to drink. "People were very kind."

The brothers reached Athens by ferry—an astonishingly beautiful trip, says Mohammed, who had never been on the sea—and began to search for another smuggler. This one wanted $5,600 to get them to Belgrade in Serbia.

Rather than pay a smuggler directly, they deposited money with a money handler who gave them a secret password. Only after they had safely arrived at their destination would they telephone to release the money to the smuggler.

In this case, the smuggler proved a cheat. From the Macedonian border he took a group of about 30 refugees wandering through the forest for three days in the rain. Ameen got sick. Wet, cold, and hungry, he said he couldn't stand any more. With eight others from the group the brothers slipped away and found a remote village. Mohammed, who speaks some Russian, was able to communicate that they needed the police. "There are no police here," the villagers said, but they offered food and a place to sleep. In the morning, a knock came at the door. Someone offered to drive the refugees to Scopje, the Macedonian capital, for pay.

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