Ahlam, twenty-seven, was visiting Germany for a conference in the spring of 2015 when war broke out in Yemen, her home country. Her family urged her to stay, so she applied for asylum. “For me, it’s a new life,” she said. “This is what I really want. Most of us, we just came for a safe place, a place we can really do something that we can’t do in our countries—maybe because of the war, maybe because of society, maybe because we don’t have freedoms. I never felt freedom and I never knew what independence meant until I came to this country. As a woman in Yemen, we can’t do anything. Independence is for the men.”
In Germany, “I am free. I can do whatever I want. I can study what I want. I can wear hijab or not wear hijab. At the same time, we came from a war. We see people close to us dying—our family, our friends…” She trailed off with this thought.
Was it strange to think of herself as a refugee?
“It’s very difficult because you have a lot of new stuff you have to deal with. First, you can’t work. You can’t study at university. You can’t go from one city to another city, even if you have friends there.” She was referring to Germany’s policy of restricting asylum seekers’ travel during their first three months in the country—a different kind of limitation on freedom, but one that Ahlam was willing to tolerate.
“I understand,” she said. “The process is really slow. But they try to help. Yes, it’s difficult for us, but at the same time, if we really want this new life and new start, we have to be patient.”
More than a year after her arrival in Berlin, Ahlam is still waiting on her residency to be processed. Meanwhile, the war in Yemen drags on.
Roshak, a journalist, was living in Damascus, Syria, just a year and a half ago. She arrived in Berlin for graduate school and, by the time we met, was preparing to move to Hamburg to continue her studies. Roshak already had a visa in hand when she came to Germany by plane, along with a two-year residence permit. Was it appropriate to refer to her as a refugee?
“Of course I am a refugee, but I am still not recognized as one.” What brought her to Germany was, as she put it, “one story out of thousands of others. It differs in details, but shares the motivation to migrate. Some flee for political reasons, others for economical and health reasons. We all choose to come here because in our country we are endangering our lives on a daily basis, either with imprisonment or getting killed. So we are refugees—and that doesn’t have another meaning.”
But she insisted: “My name is Roshak, not Refugee. I mean, it’s good that there are a lot of projects in different towns for refugees, and we appreciate it. It is actually a very good chance for us to start over. For example, it is a good chance for those who want to study school, university, or even those who seek jobs. But if people keep on looking at us like refugees and not normal human beings, it will have a negative effect on us in the future. We all share the word. But at the same time, we differ. There are the successful and the unsuccessful. There are good, just like there are bad people. There are the educated, the illiterates, the religious, the extremists, and the nonbelievers.”
Ehab was standing outside Berlin’s refugee reception center one cold morning in early 2016. He’d been in Germany for about six months and was overwhelmed with having to navigate the country’s complex and overburdened residency process for asylum seekers. I asked what being labeled a “refugee” meant to him.
“Agony,” he said. “First of all, look at our situation in this country. I have been here for six months. Plus the office here lost my passport. Then they put me under an unknown status.”
Asylum seekers have had to wait endless hours, even days, just to schedule an appointment at Berlin’s State Office for Health and Social Affairs, known as LaGeSo. (A Syrian man died of a heart attack after waiting outside LaGeSo last winter, increasing refugees’ angst over the waiting.) If Ehab’s passport was indeed lost, that would only compound his troubles, since he would have to prove that he’s from Syria: There are many Arabs from other countries, such as Morocco or Egypt, who try to fake Syrian nationality. The worse your nation’s suffering, the more better your chances in seeking asylum.
How did Ehab feel when he heard international media reporting on the refugee crisis?
“It is insulting,” he said. Then he explained further: “I came here against my will. My kids wanted me to come [to Germany], and then bring them here through a family reunification visa.” When that will happen, Ehab doesn’t know. Family reunification for refugees has been backed up for months. “My kids want to study and improve themselves—nothing more. But I didn’t want to come. I came to Germany back in 1987, for nine days. I didn’t like it.”
Having survived two years in prison, and fearing for his life, Ahmed fled Mogadishu, Somalia, leaving his family behind. In Berlin, his daily routine involved navigating the maze of German laws he hoped would lead to official refugee status and a residency permit. “Somali people, we don’t get the [residency/asylum] documents like Syria, like Eritrea,” he complained. “In Eritrea they have a peace, but they are talking about the dictatorship. But in Somalia, how many people died every day, every fucking day?”
Somalia is among dozens of places of conflict around the world that are not officially recognized by Germany of being prerequisites for asylum, an irony that makes the granting of refugee status seems arbitrary, even rigged.
His official status notwithstanding, did the label of refugee offend him?
“I like it, to tell you the truth. I like it because I am a refugee. That’s why I stay here. If I am not a refugee, I’m like any German person. I sleep and take my car and work. Right? So I’m a refugee. Of course, I accept it. When I left my home, I accept that I am a refugee.”
“Anytime in Berlin, I tell people I’m a student, because when you say ‘refugee’ they look at you differently,” said Farhad, an engineer from Iran. He speaks six languages (Farsi, English, German, Turkish, Russian, and Ukrainian) and, when we met, was still looking for work. The refugee shelter where he was staying was far outside the city, far from public transportation. But he still made the effort to come in regularly to look for work and to study.
“Our German class, we are all refugees from different countries, a lot from African countries. We had a conversation with German students and the first thing a German girl told us was, ‘You refugees are coming here and we have to pay for you. You are not working here and taking money. We have to work for you.’ We all started to talk about it. Maybe now we need help. We are not working until we learn the language, and until we find the job. Of course, we will work and pay taxes.”
Farhad follows coverage of the migration crisis closely, he said, for his own good. “I am reading about it to learn about my life. I heard in Germany that the laws are changing frequently, and you have to be up to date with all these laws and all these changes.” For now, he lives in this tension between feeling boxed in as an asylum seeker and having patience that, with time, doors will open.
“I have to get used to this word and that kind of life.”
I saw Farhad a few months after our first meeting. He’d been volunteering at a Red Cross summer camp, and he was hopeful that he’d soon have an appointment for his residency permit. He’d also befriended a German couple living near his shelter. He still didn’t have a job, nor was he able to enroll in a university. But he hadn’t given up trying.
Reporting for this project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.