FRIEDLAND — “Germany is a country where rules matter,” declares Martin Steinberg.
The pastor in this central German city is standing before a group of people who've just fled a country where the only rule that mattered was that of survival. “Here the most aggressive driver with the biggest car doesn’t automatically have the right of way," Steinberg continues. "And the driver in the Porsche isn’t more important than the young mother with a stroller. He has to stop for her at the crosswalk.”
Sanaa Ali Mustafa, a 25-year-old in a black headscarf, offers a knowing smile. That is what surprised her most during her first few days in Germany. “In Syria, we jump backwards when a car comes. Here, the cars stop for us.”
Mustafa comes from Amuda, a small town in northern Syria. She, her husband Imad Yousef and their two young children have been refugees for almost two years. The family lived in a deserted house in Beirut for 18 months. They were only allowed to stay there because Mustafa’s husband was, in the interpreter’s translation, “volunteering” for the house owner. Their 5-year-old son Yousef, who was born prematurely, uses a wheelchair and still requires medical care. “That was one reason why were able to come here,” says Mustafa. Another reason was that they have relatives in the northwest German town of Meschede. That was how the family made it onto the UN’s refugee list and was allowed to come to Germany.
Germany is planning to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees in the next few weeks, in addition to asylum seekers. Priority will be given to those in need of protection: women, children and the wounded. Intellectuals too, Syrians who could play an important role in rebuilding the country. The first plane arrived in Hanover last Wednesday, carrying 69 adults and 38 children. This week they have been taking a crash course at the Friedland immigration camp: Germany for Beginners. In addition to language classes, they are learning about their host country. How does the German state work? What do I do if I’m ill? How do I find work? And, the last class on Friday: How do I approach the German authorities?
“Kissing German soil”
Martin Steinberg, a pastor working with an evangelical charity in Friedland, is proud of what is being achieved at 18 Heimkehrerstraße (Homecomer Street). The camp was founded by the British government in 1945 and initially was a “gate to freedom” for millions of displaced people and prisoners of war returning home.A camp bed in a corrugated iron hut serves as a reminder of those years. Black-and-white photos show emaciated figures kneeling on the ground, while the sign underneath reads, “Kissing German soil.” Two children examine the photos of military vehicles crammed with refugees, people carrying huge bundles. These are familiar scenes for them.
Today the Friedland camp still has 700 places. Dormitories have been turned into classrooms or family rooms for four to six people. Friedland is home to migrants and asylum seekers from the Near East, Eritrea and Chechnya. The 107 new arrivals from Syria have a special status: They were flown in by charter aircraft and greeted by the interior minister. More importantly, their legal status is clear. They have the right to work or claim benefits, are given language and integration classes and are allowed to stay at least two years.
Thomas Heek, director of Caritas Friedland, which advises and supports immigrants here, says the situation is complex. “We have a three-tiered system for Syrian refugees, although they are all coming from the same situation,” he says. While the 5,000 refugees covered by the quota can take control of their own lives, Syrians who are already registered in another EU state have to wait months before their situation becomes secure. There are also Syrian asylum seekers in Friedland, but their journey was not financed by the German government and many incurred heavy debts to pay their way here.
Two million Syrians have become refugees abroad and another four million are displaced within Syria. Refugee organizations have criticised the German government for accepting only a few thousand refugees, dismissing it as a PR move and a drop in the bucket. Heek is pleased that Germany is helping, but worries that the country’s need for skilled labor could turn out to be the decisive factor. That will become clear when all 5,000 refugees are here. “In my classes, I see lots of members of the elite,” says Steinberg. Interpreter Saman Schuani agrees. “These classes go a lot more smoothly than normal asylum seeker classes. There are lots of academics, and it shows.”
One of Schuani’s students is 48-year-old William Kyriakos from Aleppo. He, his wife and two children have been refugees for a year. His family is scattered around the world — his parents in Aleppo, siblings in other countries near Syria and one sister in Sweden. Unlike many others in the class, Kyriakos speaks fluent English. He praises the German government’s approach to the Syrian crisis. “They are trying to bring both sides together and work toward a peaceful solution,” he says. “They know what war is like and how terrible it is for a country to be divided.”
Challenges ahead for refugees
Normally refugees stay in Friedland for about two months, but these 107 Syrians will move on more quickly. Early next week they will be spread across the country, the Kyriakos family in Münster and the Mustafas with relatives in Meschede.
Among the new realities of life in Germany that annoys the refugees the most is that a driving license is so expensive, says Steinberg. “And that they can’t just buy one.” Jens Pflüger, one of the Friedland teaches, sees other challenges ahead. Many of these refugees will not be able to continue working in their chosen profession because they couldn’t bring references with them or because their qualifications are not valid in Germany.
But Imad Yousef Mustafa believes the future is bright. A car mechanic, his eyes shine at the prospect of BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens. William Kyriakos, an electrician, hopes to be earning good money soon. “We’re not happy,” he tells us. “But we’re doing well.”