A year ago, right after German chancellor Angela Merkel made the historic decision to open Germany’s border for unregistered refugees stuck in Hungary and Austria, thousands of ordinary Germans stood at train stations all over the country to welcome them to the end of their very long journeys to escape the carnage of war in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
“We can do this!,” Merkel had said.
But in the United States, it seems to me, many people are skeptical of that. Since coming to Miami in August, I frequently get asked these two questions: “Has Merkel done the right thing?” and “What about all the Muslims coming into the country?” Germany has almost become synonymous with a perceived security risk attached to migration.
The only risk for me was gaining two new friends.
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Yara and Houmam, a young couple from Salamia in central Syria, moved into our home in October 2015. A friend introduced the couple to me and my housemate Michael. Before they stepped into our flat in an old Berliner building on a cold Tuesday night, we knew very little about them. We worried if they would find it OK to share a flat with a single man and a single woman who were just friends? And what about the left-over alcohol in the kitchen from the housewarming party?
Houmam had long loose hair and tired eyes; Yara wore a red bandana wrapped around her dyed curly hair that was pulled into a pony tail and bright lipstick. They had arrived in Berlin a few weeks earlier.
Houmam, 25, a tourism student, had walked the infamous Balkan route first; Yara, 21, who studied economics, had followed. They were atheists and had organized peaceful protests in their hometown, but after Houmam had been imprisoned for a fourth time, they decided it was time to leave.
Michael and I were enthusiastic about helping them make Berlin their home. We invited them to tag along to parties and offered to introduce them to people who might help them find a job, but they usually declined our offers. Houmam barely spoke any other language than Arabic; Yara translated most of our exchanges in simple English. From what she said, I figured they needed time to settle in.
Living with this Syrian couple taught me a lot about the trauma of fleeing one’s country. It took them several months to process that Germany would be the place where they would now have to rebuild their lives, as it is not likely that they will be able to return to Syria in the near future. Here were two activists who had spent the past four years fighting peacefully for a democratic Syria. But all they had envisioned for their own country — freedom of expression, equal rights — was buried under the rubble of a terrible war.
Whenever there are loud noises, Houmam still cringes. Same thing when he sees uniformed policemen. I had to tell them that the police in Germany can actually be called for protection.
The morning after ISIL’s Paris attacks in November 2015, I remember thinking: How will I talk about such a a horrible attack at the breakfast table with someone whose country is ravaged by the same breed of terrorists everyday?
Yara and Houmam responded to the atrocity by bringing flowers to the French embassy. They knew life in Germany would get more difficult for them.
Indeed, a year after German chancellor Merkel’s announcement, the enthusiasm of many Germans to welcome refugees has waned and instead, deeply entrenched racism and islamophobia has led to the extraordinary surge of a new right-wing party and a record number of arson attacks on refugee shelters.
There is still no comprehensive process in place to vet every refugee and provide them with swift asylum decisions. Shortcomings exist with regards to proper housing, language classes and, of course, jobs. Two terrorist acts have been committed by refugees in Germany in the year after Merkel’s historic decision.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed with the war and the suffering that has moved in together with Yara and Houmam. I am overwhelmed with being a guide through German bureaucracy, a coach for German daily life and it’s frequent rudeness, and sometimes being something like a big sister for them. I had to learn that housing two Syrians means having at least 10 Syrians over on weekends. Sometimes we argue about our no-smoking policy in the flat or about the dishes that are left dirty in the kitchen. But that’s what housemates do.
As a German citizen, I get upset by the way refugees are often portrayed in the U.S. After all, many are fleeing because of the political turmoil and security chaos left behind by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I am astonished, that more than 70 years after the Holocaust, Germany is almost being reproached for taking responsibility in a humanitarian crisis.
It is a privilege to share a home with Houmam and Yara. I'm impressed how they take care of their Syrian friends and how they try to provide for their relatives left behind in war-torn Syria.
They taught me a lot about the essence of community.
Yara has learned German and can now entertain a simple conversation. Last month, Houmam finally received his German residence permit. As a journalist, it is my job to ask questions about how we will do this. As a citizen, I am convinced, that, indeed: We can.
Lena Kampf is an investigative journalist with the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and the public television stations NDR and WDR. She is in Miami as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship program.