Editorial note: All names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Syria is hemorrhaging. Every day, its people are dying or fleeing their country to escape the horrors of war. They risk their lives by crossing the sea in leaky boats, many perishing at sea. They continue their exhausting journey on foot through unknown terrain or in over-crowded vehicles, catching some sleep in makeshift camps. Rich or poor, the people of Syria flee as far as they can from the war. The blank eyes of the survivors and the wail of the children tell stories of unspeakable hardship and horror.
One such survivor who refuses to give up is 35-year-old Imraan. He paid a tout $5,000 — his life savings — to escape Syria on a trawler to Sicily. There were women with children in their arms praying for the lord’s mercy, while the men strained to get a glimpse of the land on the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Crammed in the trawler, people were sick and frightened and hardly thought of food, but Imraan attentively sipped on fetid water, as his wife had cautioned him against dehydration. He had wrapped his phone and a small amount of money in a plastic folder for safety, a decision that helped him later to stay in contact with his family left behind in Syria.
For six days, Imraan and his fellow passengers talked about games and films, keeping themselves distracted from thoughts of their families and the war they had left behind. With each passing wave they shuddered in fear, but mercifully the boat held together, and they finally made a safe landing. As Imraan scrambled ashore in Sicily, weeping and thanking the lord, he was already plotting his next move: the route to Germany that held the promise of security and a job. He travelled by bus, train and on foot to reach Leipzig (in the province of Saxony), and in January 2015, registered himself as an asylum seeker.
Many refugees had to trudge through at least six countries — Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria − braving immense hardship, hunger, hostile governments and populations. Many, like Imraan, made it to their favoured destination — Germany — seeking asylum. “I didn’t bring my wife and two children. The journey is too hazardous,” Imraan says simply. “Once I get my asylum card, the government promised to allow my family to join me.”
Imraan’s large eyes always brim with hope. His escape from the ravages of war in his hometown of Damascus, the capital city of Syria, and his experience at sea have only toughened his resolve. A trained hair stylist, he hopes to find employment once he has learned to speak German. Like other refugees, what frustrates him most is having to hang around the whole day without any work. My efforts to “corrupt” him fail; he refuses to give me a hair cut for an under-the-table fee. “I can’t accept money from you, Raju, its illegal. And I cannot work until I speak German well. You will be my first client,” he promised.
With each passing day, Imraan’s German gets better, his smile gets brighter and there is a spring in his stride as he returns from his frequent visit to the Home Office in Berlin, two hours by bus from Leipzig. “The officers have assured me that my family will join me soon,” he says happily. He shows me photographs on a mobile phone of his two school-going children with sparkling smiles, and his wife, a beautiful woman with long, swinging hair, wearing a bright top. He left his family with his sister in a coastal town where there is no bombing, and speaks to them every weekend from his neighbour’s computer via Skype. “My wife is a hair dresser too,” says Imraan proudly. “We can both earn and begin a new life here. But we will return to Syria once the war is over,” he says confidently. “My country is beautiful. Like your India?”
Many wars, many goals
Imraan, however, was speaking of a Syria long before the economic and political reforms in March 2011 escalated into an internal conflict and spread across the country like a prairie fire. President Assad responded to the protests for change, popularly known as the Arab Spring, with force that in turn hardened the opposition’s resolve to arm and defend themselves from the security forces. By 2012, the peaceful protests that started in the small town of Deraa in the south had reached Damascus and the second largest city, Aleppo. Said Imraan, “Like thousands of others, I was reluctant to leave my country, hoping every year that the war would end. Now everyone is fighting each other; there are so many wars going on in Syria, not one.”
Like Imraan, Samiha too was forced to leave Iraq. In 2003, the USA and its allies invaded Iraq to disarm the country from President Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and to “free the Iraqi people.” The war based on lies left in its wake, as a domino effect, a destroyed country and a population of broken communities, giving birth to the feared ISIS and destabilizing the entire Middle East. Syria is one of the most bitter fallouts. Samiha and her family fled Iraq when her father was murdered under mysterious circumstances. A trained designer, she talks proudly of women enjoying employment and freedom in her home country. “It was beautiful, my Iraq! But we cannot dream of returning,” she says softly, sadly. Today, 37-year-old Samiha is a helper in a restaurant kitchen in Leipzig, and also takes care of her autistic child and her mother. She continues to make pottery — her passion — but has no outlet to exhibit or sell, and is embarrassed at my excitement and insistence on seeing her artwork.
Imraan has been lucky. More than a quarter of a million people in Syria did not make it to safety, and died in the conflict. According to the UN, the death toll continues to rise. Since 2011, more than 11 million people have been displaced, and neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are struggling to cope with one of the largest exodus of refugees in recent times. The refugees today continue to face the threat of hunger and disease as critical funds to the UNCHR dry up, endangering their health and causing further instability and tension in host countries.
It was only in 2015 that Europe woke up to the refugee crisis when millions of refugees “overwhelmed” its towns and cities. Europe’s fragmented attempts to confront the worst ever migration crisis disintegrated quickly into a slanging match among the European countries. Instead of a concerted approach, the response was reduced to a clash between Eastern and Western Europe bickering over sheltering the refugees and sharing the financial burden. Hungary, for instance, did not only roll out wire fencing across its 175 km border with Serbia to bar refugees, it also passed a new law making border crossings illegal and punishable with three years in jail. Germany was the only country to open up to more than one million refugees belonging to populations that neither shared its borders nor had any social or cultural affinity. By taking the moral high ground, it drew global admiration with its decisiveness and generosity. “We will cope,” said the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Otherwise,” she argued, “it would not be my country.”
The conflict in Syria has become extremely complex. It has taken on sectarian overtones between Assad’s minority Alawite sect against the Sunni majority, with hardline religious and ideological groups like ISIS fishing in troubled waters and jostling for power, and proxy wars by regional as well as world powers like the USA and Russia pitted against each other, making a peaceful solution even more difficult as they pursue their different goals. “Civilians are suffering the unimaginable, as the world stands witness,” said the UN Commission in 2015. “Without stronger efforts to bring parties to the peace table, ready to compromise, current trends suggest that the Syrian conflict – and the killing and destruction it wreaks – will carry on for the foreseeable future.” Most refugees agree that the wars for control make it impossible for Syria to seek peace.
A friend who witnessed the scene at the Munich railway station in the summer of 2015 says it was a like a race to the finishing line. Huge crowds cheered and waved as the refugees disembarked from the train compartments. They were handed water and food, and toys for the children. The men and women, exhausted and fearful, were bewildered at the hearty reception after the hostilities they had faced in other countries. There were colourful festoons proclaiming “Refugees Welcome.”
People in Germany opened up their hearts and homes to the refugees — doctors provided treatment, teachers worked over time to teach German classes, while thousands of aid workers spent exhausting hours to provide food and shelter. Both friends and strangers recalled the sufferings of their own families decades ago when they escaped from different parts of Eastern Europe during World War II, fleeing persecution and death to rebuild their lives and homes in “alien lands.” For many, there was a hint of exorcising a deep sense of guilt over the brutalities Nazi Germany had inflicted on an entire generation of people. Perhaps it was time for the young and new generations to atone for a shameful past and repay old debts to humanity, to reach out to complete strangers who did not speak their language or pray to their gods, and who were fleeing from home countries, like their parents in similar circumstances, from a tangled war that was not of their making.
Refugees Go Back
Then, with the winter closing in, Germany began to close its doors to the refugees. Angela Merkel’s open-door policy was thrown into confusion after her popularity hit a low as growing criticism was expressed across the political landscape. There was “rebellion” from the conservative ranks of her own party, within the government coalition, from bureaucrats and from the people of Germany. Berlin announced that Syrians would only be allowed for one year, would be barred from having family members join them, would only enjoy “subsidiary protection” limiting their rights as refugees, and would have no rights to any kind of family reunification. Until now, Syrians (as well as Iraqis and Eritreans) entering Germany had been virtually guaranteed full refugee status: the rights bestowed on people fleeing war and persecution; the right to stay for at least three years; entitlement for family members to join them; and welfare benefits. That appears to have ended abruptly as the enormity of the challenge became a reality. Complaints by local municipalities of being overextended stoked resentment against “foreigners.”
As in many parts of the world, the virulent attack against asylum seekers is closely associated with aggressive nationalism and xenophobia. One of the triggers was the large number of sexual attacks on women during the New Year’s Day celebration in Cologne, allegedly by men of African or Arab appearance, speaking a foreign language. The scale and nature of the crimes further fanned the debate about Germany’s policy regarding asylum seekers. Serious doubts began to be raised, questioning the integration of this new “conservative population” with “strict moral and religious codes” and “women lacking freedom.”
Others argued that the Cologne incident was depicted and discussed in a way that did not consider the overall unfortunate incidence of sexual violence in Germany. According to a media report, rape and sexual assaults occur every year at big events such as Oktoberfest, an event our friends discouraged us from attending because of its “extreme rowdyism” during beer drinking. An average of ten reported rapes take place each year at Oktoberfest; the estimated number of unreported cases is 200.
For over a year, discussions about foreigners have coarsened, leading to refugees’ homes being torched, work establishments being attacked and targeted with abusive language, and demonstrations being held against foreigners by right wing groups. The fear of being “swamped” by Muslims and the accompanying Islamophobia is binding the New Right in Europe and drawing more “concerned citizens” into their ranks. The group LEGIDA, in short for “Leipzig Against the Islamicization of the West,” hopes to follow the success of the anti-immigrant protests that began in nearby Dresden (PEGIDA) and have muddied German politics since late 2014. The group exhorts Germany to discard multiculturalism and strengthen “national culture,” a rhetoric that is rooted in neo-Nazi politics. “Stop Asylum cheaters. Each one is one too many,” proclaims one of the posters. But they do not go unchallenged. Every demonstration is matched by equal numbers and by more spirited pro-refugee support groups.
Racism is not new in Germany, insists Indian-born Biplab Basu of Berlin-based Reach Out, which has been working since 2001 for victims of racist, right-wing and anti-Semitic violence. “The refugee crisis has only magnified people’s frustration and made racism more visible,” he points out. Like casteism in India, racism has thrived on the twin sanctions of privilege and power, and is widespread, with frequent manifestations in everyday life. Moreover, with globalization primarily favouring big corporations and the elites and depriving ordinary people of benefits, the soft target is the alien migrant worker and the asylum seeker. Racism takes an uglier face with right-wing violent attacks, as suppressed fears of unemployment, loss of welfare benefit, etc., make scapegoats of refugees, who are doubly victimized.
Imraan’s hope has paid off, and his wife and children are joining him in Leipzig this February. But the larger question still remains — which Germany will ultimately prevail? Will it be the arrogant, racist nation basking in the glow of incredible prosperity, or a benevolent country that is willing to shelter the homeless who have risked their lives to seek refuge from death, violence and starvation?
A banner hanging from the facade of the 17th-century Oper Leipzig, which itself has survived a chequered history, arrests attention as it reads: Diversity, Tolerance, Openness, and conjures up a possibility of immense hope.