Germany made a highly publicised offer to take in 5000 refugees from Syria. But who are they? Where are they? And why might some Syrian Berliners be forced to move back?
Milo might not fit our idea of the average refugee from the Middle East, either on paper or in person. A Syrian national, he came here legally via Dubai two years ago. He is just finishing up his master’s degree and has a contract for a well-paying IT job. Sounds ideal for many of us Ausländer. Yet even as Germany accepts its second batch of 5000 asylum seekers from Syria, Milo may get sent in the other direction.
I could have never made this song or video in Damascus now.
I first met Milo last year at a dinner party in Prenzlauer Berg. A softly contoured young man who keeps his hair untraditionally long and curly, Milo’s interjection into the conversation I was having about human rights abuses in Mali was surprisingly brash. While I was busy complaining about the world’s apathy to West Africa, Milo suddenly reached out to touch my shoulder and, looking me dead-cold in the eyes, asked, “And what about Syria? Why should the world help Mali and not Syria?”
At the time I had in my mind a justifiable answer. But now the war in Syria is hitting its two-year mark, one-third of its population has fled, and given the recent refugee rights movements here in Berlin, I wondered what was happening. Germany just recently made a media splash with its offer to take in 5000 additional Syrian refugees, and surely there must be more here. So where are they? And how are they?
To get some answers, I tracked down this impolite dinner guest I so clearly remembered. With such fire in his belly over a year ago, I was sure Milo would have some updates and connections for me. Yet Milo had surprisingly few connections to Syrian refugees and little insight on where to find them or those assisting them.
He had been unable to successfully rally the other Syrians living in Berlin to help organise for their incoming patriots, and was equally unsuccessful in finding any existing Syrian groups with which to work.
Assuaging his anger and fear, in typical Berlin fashion this computer programmer by day managed to write controversial music by night. “Song For Syria”, the first song he has ever recorded, attacks leaders on both “sides” of the Syrian tragedy (sample lyric: “In Syria babies die/ before they’re even born”). The accompanying black-and-white video, made with the help of a few expat friends, has racked up nearly 16,000 YouTube views since its January release. “I could have never made this song or video in Damascus now,” says Milo.
Indeed, his first professional work may be enough to get him a bounty on his head in Syria, while not being enough to get him asylum or refugee status here in Germany.
Milo was technically never a refugee. Yet, he cannot be expected to go back home right now – though it looks as though he risks being sent there. His student visa is expiring, but his new job contract should be enough to land him a freelance visa. For this to happen he needs a new passport, and the Syrian embassy in Berlin is refusing him one. Part of his passive resistance to Syria before fleeing several years ago was to dodge the military service. So, the embassy will not issue him a passport unless he flies back to join the war.
German law states that the government must grant any foreign national an “emergency passport” if their own embassy is denying them one. But so far, the “fucking Ausländerbehörde” is giving Milo the run-around. On his last visit, he told an official that he needed a passport to see his family, whom he hasn’t seen since 2010 – to which she replied, “Too bad. All of the students here miss their families, why are you so special?” A flippant response, especially considering that if Milo is sent back to Syria, he’ll be forced to serve in the same war from which Germany is currently ‘saving’ 5000 Syrian refugees.
And just who are these refugees? A five-day scavenger hunt through the various Behörden and Ämter of Berlin yielded little information. Yet most everyone knew all about the 5000 Syrian refugee rescue programme in great detail. The second batch of them came in from Lebanon in mid-October, and at the moment, 250 of these refugees are slowly arriving in Berlin via the refugee transit camp in Friedland near Göttingen, where they first receive six weeks of language and culture training. And, rather than experience months of ostracisation in refugee homes, they may arrive as your next-door neighbours.
The refugees are each screened based on: 1) their humanitarian need or life status (e.g., single women with children), 2) any previous connections to Germany and 3) their qualifications for being able to help rebuild Syria later. Once in Germany, they are each granted a permit to stay for two years, permission to work, free counselling, and some different housing and insurance options. While Milo is happy that Germany is providing any relief to his compatriots, he and many officials I spoke to had doubts about the selection process. Who performs the screening? What makes these particular people worthy of asylum?
Outside of this programme, the number of Syrian applicants for asylum in Germany has been skyrocketing. In 2013 so far, there were 7846 applications, 1273 of these received in September alone. The website for the Bundesamt for Migration and Refugees reports a “disproportionally high” acceptance of applicants from Syria, with a rate of 95 percent. The press representative emails me that thus far in 2013, there are 407 applications from Syrians in Berlin – so, assuming the 95 percent rate, Berlin will welcome 386 new asylum seekers from Syria, double as many as in all of 2012. Should Milo’s freelance visa application fall through, he may have no choice but to join them.
Although the acceptance rate is high, Germany’s other government offices seem to be offering no further official help to Syrian refugees or asylum seekers. And it looks like no government is stepping in to stop the military actions which endanger the life of Milo’s father as he walks down the street to the bakery each day.
Meeting with Milo over coffee, I remind him that when I first met him about 18 months ago, he was angry that the world was not doing enough for Syria. Does he still feel the same way? “Of course I am still angry. But now I understand, it is not just my problem, or just Syria’s problem. It’s going to reflect on the whole world. Everyone will suffer.”
Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.