Yermi Brenner

Refugees struggle to assimilate in Germany

Germany has seen hundreds of hate crimes this year amid a sharp uptick in asylum applications

BERLIN — Throughout their journey from Syria to Europe, Ahmed Khuzami and his little brother Abdul-Rahman viewed Germany’s capital as the shining light at the end of the tunnel.

As they crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece on a dangerously overcrowded rubber boat and as they sprinted across fenced borders in Macedonia and Serbia and hid in dense forests to avoid Hungarian police, 19-year-old Ahmed and baby-faced Abdul-Rahman, 14, always focused on the plan to reunite in Berlin with their older brother Sayf and have a chance to live a normal life again.

They finally arrived in Berlin two weeks ago and reunited with Sayf, 21, who fled Syria for Germany a year earlier. But even though they had reached the heart of Europe’s wealthiest country, Ahmed and Abdul-Rahman are still experiencing the same overwhelming and sometimes unwelcoming atmosphere tens of thousands of other refugees have seen this summer — in Italy, Greece, the Balkans and other European destinations deeper into the continent.

“Everybody said Germany is freedom,” Ahmed said, “But the system here is very bad. We are waiting for 12 days. It’s frustrating.”

Ahmed and Abdul-Rahman spoke to Al Jazeera while waiting in a chaotic, seemingly endless line in front of the offices of the Berlin State Office of Health and Welfare, the authority responsible for registering asylum seekers. With them in line were hundreds of other recent arrivals, mostly from Syria, including large families with children.

Refugees seeking asylum in Germany at the Central Registration Office for Asylum Seekers, Aug. 27, 2015, in Berlin.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

These newcomers to Europe are part of an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing to the continent (107,500 entered in July alone), with most coming from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the refugee crisis, which began in 2012 and has intensified with every passing year, Germany has received the most asylum applications by far. Last week the German government announced it is expecting to register 800,000 asylum applications in 2015 — quadruple the number of applications processed last year.

Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has added 650 staff members in the past year, and supplementary budgets to deal with the increase were recently approved on a national level by the German government and on a state level by the Berlin Senate, enabling 1,000 additional new staff members to be hired in the coming months.

Nevertheless, with every passing day, the line at the Health and Welfare office keeps getting longer.

“Every application takes a long time to be registered,” said Silvia Kostner, a Health and Welfare spokeswoman. “We have 50 people in our staff, and we try to register about 100 to 150 people a day, so all the others have to wait until we have a solution for them.”

She explained that Berlin in particular is overwhelmed with asylum applications. As of Aug. 20, Berlin has registered 19,000 refugees this year — already more than 2013 and 2014 combined.

The federal state of Berlin is legally obliged to accommodate only 5 percent of Germany’s asylum seekers, according to a law that stipulates asylum applicants should be divided among the 16 states, on the basis of population. However, according to Kostner, about 15 percent of those seeking protection in Germany apply for asylum in Berlin, so many will have to be assigned to other states.

Asylum Seekers entering the EU and Germany

Note: Projections are based on German government forecast for country and rest of EU.
Sources: Eurostat, Germany’s Federal Office of Migration and Refugees, Reuters.

For Ahmed and Abdul-Rahman, the motivation to stay in Berlin is to be with Sayf. The Khuzami brothers are hoping their parents, who are still in Aleppo, along with their youngest brother, will join them soon.

But they fear they might soon be separated once more. Ahmed and Abdul-Rahman are afraid they will be sent to rural Germany, where xenophobic prejudices — particularly toward Muslims — are much more common than they are in the cosmopolitan capital.

That is what happened to Mohamad Dugmush, a restaurant manager in Damascus who fled his country and arrived in Germany in February 2014. He applied for asylum in Hamburg but was assigned to Brandenburg, a state in the eastern part of Germany where there have been more than 800 racially motivated crimes since 2012, including 142 in the first five months of this year. On Tuesday there was a suspected arson attack in Nauen against a temporary shelter that was due to host refugees.

Dugmush spent more than a year in Brandenburg. First he waited for his asylum application to be approved, and then after he was granted refugee status, he waited for German authorities to authorize family reunification visas to his wife and five children, who had been waiting in Jordan. As soon as he secured a visa and plane tickets for his family, he relocated from Müncheberg — the small town where he had been living — to Berlin. He said that he did not experience overt racism in Müncheberg but that it was not a suitable place for his family because it didn’t have many opportunities.

“Here in Berlin, near my house I have a mosque,” he said. “Arabic food is near me. My wife is Muslim, wearing a veil. When she goes [out], nobody would speak bad to her.”

After a year and a half, the Dugmush family from Aleppo, Syria, was reunited last month in Germany.
Yermi Brenner

On July 20, Amani Dugmush, Mohamad’s wife, landed in Berlin with her daughter Ragda, 12, and four sons — Abdul-Salam, Abdullah, Marwan and Yusouf, ranging from 13 to 2 years old. The family reunited after nearly 18 months apart. Mohamad said when he tried to hug the youngest, Yusouf, in the airport, the toddler cried because he did not recognize him.

The family’s Berlin home is a recently renovated a three-room apartment, provided by German welfare authorities. The apartment is located in Neukölln, an area of Berlin where some 40 percent of the population is of non-German origin.

“This street is named Sonnenallee, but Arab people call it Arab Strasse,” Mohamad said of the large avenue, 100 feet from his front door. “When I go outside and everyone speaks Arabic, I smile.”

Mohamad, now a full-time student in a government-run integration program that includes language and culture studies, has several Syrian and Turkish neighbors, including a family he knows from Damascus. His kids are starting school next month. He plans to look for a job at a restaurant as soon as he completes his language classes.

“Damascus is my city, but Berlin is very good,” he said, sitting in a fully furnished living room. "I feel thankful for Germany. Vielen Dank, Deutschland!

Meanwhile, the Khuzami brothers still do not know whether they will get to stay in Berlin. For them and many other refugees who have gone to Germany this summer, the expectation of reaching a country that would immediately accommodate every need proved exaggerated. They may not be stuck in a war zone, but they have yet to find peace of mind.

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