MUNICH — Dima Alkhatib arrived in Munich's central station along with hundreds of other refugees, dressed in a coat and neat headscarf, holding her young daughter by the hand. In fluent English she said she was from Syria, had a degree in banking and financial management, and was hoping to work in that sector in Germany once she was settled.
Asked how she had learned fluent English she replied, surprised, “we're educated.” The crowd moved towards the buses that would take them to emergency shelters. As they walked on, her daughter turned, smiled politely and said, “Nice to meet you.”
Many of the thousands of Syrians who have arrived in Germany are from the urban, middle and upper classes. The passage to Europe became a lot cheaper when Hungary and Austria effectively waved refugees through, as the price is partly based on every closed border that must be crossed in stealth, hiding in trucks or bribing officials. But it still costs around 3,000 euros, or $3,375, placing it out of reach for Syria's poorest.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's warm welcome of Syrian refugees was even seen as a bit of a demographic coup, inviting motivated, educated and healthy people to join an aging society in need of a youthful boost. Many of the newly arrived Syrians in Munich were in their 20s and 30s and displayed an impressive range of qualifications and aspirations, and often, competence in European languages. Yet being a refugee is also a dramatic social leveler, eroding status and educational achievements like few other experiences.
Feras, 33, was waiting at the train station to meet his brother-in-law and two nephews, who had just arrived after making the risky journey by boat from Turkey to Greece, then overland via Hungary and Austria. The 33-year-old, like many refugees, did not give his surname for fear of reprisals against other relatives still in Syria. Feras had been studying business administration in Damascus when he was arrested for taking part in a demonstration against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. He said he was imprisoned for four months, and tortured.
“It was the hardest part of my life,” he said.
His family scraped together 6,000 euros, about $6,750, to send him to Germany, where he arrived two years ago. In the long term, he would like to continue his studies. His English is very good, his German improving. But for now, his priority is to earn as much money as he can, as quickly as he can, to pay for the rest of his family to come over. That means working as a cleaner in a hospital and a restaurant.
He already managed to put enough money aside to pay for the brother-in-law and the small nephews, who ran into his arms as soon as they spotted him in the crowd, kissing and hugging him. Next on the list is his sister, and her other two children. Asked how long his effort might take, and when he thought he would go back to college, he said:
“All that's for later. The first thing is safety — once they are in Germany, they're OK. The rest is detail.”
Eighteen of Feras' cousins have died in the war in Syria, which has killed more than 300,000 people.
In some cases, being middle or upper-class can even be a disadvantage on the refugee trail. A rescue worker said one patient treated in Munich was an anaesthetist who carried his two children much of the way from Greece to Germany. He was treated for exhaustion due to his body being unused to such physical strain.
But even if doctors may be less prepared for the journey than a laborer, they may have a good shot of working in their chosen profession. While there are a record number of doctors in Germany, the requirements of its aging population are outpacing that boom, with more foreign workers making up the gap, according to a German industry magazine.
Many in Syria have not been able to work for years due to the violence and breakdown of society. Late one night at the train station, a group of Syrian Kurds were chanting “thank you, Germany” and holding hand-painted signs with messages of gratitude. One of them was Mustafa Buzan, an archaeologist from Kobane in northern Syria who fled after ISIS launched a second assault on the city. He said he was asked to help the attackers loot ancient treasures, to be sold to antiques smugglers, but he refused. On television, he saw that ISIS had destroyed a 2,000-year-old temple in Palmyra.
“I was devastated to see these old treasures destroyed, so much older than people, yet destroyed in minutes. It was very hard to see,” he said through an interpreter.
Even worse for him was hearing that ISIS had killed a fellow archaeologist in Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, who apparently refused to reveal where ancient artifacts had been hidden to protect them from the attackers.
Buzan said he did not know whether he would be able to work in his chosen field again, and that for now his priority was simply to claim asylum.
Despite the obstacles, most of the refugees who streamed out of the station and towards rescue tents expressed high hopes and ambitions for their new life.
Those traveling without their families, mostly young men, reeled off their plans for degrees in engineering, business administration or language studies. They were keen to contribute to their host country's economy, make the most of their fresh start in a better place, help their relatives to safety and put their troubles behind them. After years of seeing their lives and education interrupted by war, they saw this as a chance to build a better future. The most fortunate had already studied German literature in Damascus, giving them a head start in terms of integration, communication and career prospects.
Meanwhile, a popular Internet meme reminded the world that Apple founder Steve Jobs' father was a Syrian immigrant — evidence that ambitious aspiration often bear fruit, if not immediately, then in the next generation.