Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Silent Night: Christmas for refugees in Berlin

Though now safely ensconced in Berlin's bright lights and Christmas carols, Syrian refugees speak wistfully of their homes and lives left behind, possibly forever

Published: Jan 11, 2016 06:11:19 AM IST
Updated: Jan 6, 2016 04:25:06 PM IST
Silent Night: Christmas for refugees in Berlin
Image: Getty Images
Refugees on their way to Greece from Turkey in October. Germany has received the largest number of asylum applicants in Europe

Hiraeth: Homesickness for a place you cannot return to or that never was.

A cold wind blows across Berlin. It makes the fir trees, all decorated with Christmas baubles, sway back and forth gently. The people walking through the Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas Market, in Alexanderplatz clutch their jackets closer, tighten the mufflers around their necks, and pull their woolen caps down over their ears. The sound of carols and singing and laughter is intermittently interrupted by the chattering of teeth. It isn’t Berlin’s coldest winter—there are no snowflakes drifting down from the skies to coat the top of the Fernsehturm or caress the backs of the galloping stone horses atop the Brandenburg Gate—but it is cold enough. Both literally and metaphorically. For some more so than the others.

“The day my uncles and aunts and cousins back in Syria begin to think of hope, that is the day, believe me, I will be happy.”

We’re sitting in a small café nestled in the south of Berlin. It’s 8 am and the sun has decided to briefly peek out from behind ominous grey clouds. It does little to warm us, for the café door is open, and the menacing wind reaches in there too. To restore some feeling in my fingers, I hold on to a cup of strong coffee. The young man sitting across the table has been too busy talking to me of Syria to sip from the glass of hot chocolate he’s ordered. It’s far from hot now; in fact, it’s cold. Just like everything else. His feeling of Christmas cheer seems to have faded while speaking to me. I’ve asked too many questions, brought up too many memories. There have been wry smiles; queries, the answers to which are impossible; and long periods of silence. Like the one that follows after he makes this statement about hope. We both look at the table for a long time before he begins to speak again.

“I’m not speaking of hope itself. I’m speaking about just the thought of hope as a possibility,” he says. And as he utters these words, I think back to a similar, recent meeting.

It’s two days to Christmas and I’m being ushered into a cubicle. It’s a small space, with three bunk beds piled high with bedding, bedclothes, laundry, luggage and toys. There are children playing on the floor and I can’t tell if the older ones are worrying the little ones or entertaining them. But amidst the howling, screaming, and shrieking, Christmas presents from volunteers and NGOs are being unwrapped. The women who have invited me into their cubicle within the refugee camp in Berlin try to hastily clean up a little, but it’s far too chaotic. It’s the sort of mess you expect when a space this size has to house three families. But it will have to do. Because it is far away from the guns and firing that kept the little ones awake at night; far away from the bombs that brought their houses down. It is, as one of the women tells me uttering the word emphatically, her eyes shining bright, “safe”.

As she says this, she cradles her belly. It’s the only thing that’s worried the 33-year-old since she arrived at this camp. She’s one month away from having a baby. It’s not the ideal environment in which to deliver a child, but, then, neither was the place she left behind. She’s not been eating much because she can’t stomach the food being served here. So she’s been restricting herself to eating fruit—an apple or a banana in the morning and the same in the evening. Back in Syria, before the school came down in an explosion that shook Aleppo, she used to be a teacher. Then everything changed: Her husband, she and their three children, with a fourth on the way, fled. The pregnancy is taking too heavy a toll on her for her to attend the German lessons that have been organised for asylum seekers. But her husband, who was a geography teacher in Syria, is studying hard every evening. It’s the only way to be granted ‘refugee’ status and get a job in Germany quickly. The children’s studies must resume soon too, she says. Which is really why they’re here: With the situation in Syria worsening every single day, effectively putting an end to all hopes of education, there seemed to be no choice but to flee. On the one hand, it seemed foolish to abandon everything that they had known, but, on the other, it would have been more foolish to stay on.

Silent Night: Christmas for refugees in Berlin
Image: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Migrants seeking asylum in Germany are accommodated at a shelter inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin

While she’s telling me her story, another couple, also from Aleppo, enter the cubicle. They’ve been at the camp for close to two months now and look tired, almost defeated. They speak to me of how life in Syria had once been—of the comfortable home they’d had, of their car dealership that was doing well. But then the civil war started and the economy, along with the bombs, began falling. Their future began to look increasingly bleak, and they watched their country’s second-largest city that they called home reduced slowly to rubble. Friends and family died, but they escaped with their lives. It was a coincidence that the day their house was bombed, they were out getting their passports made. And so they left their homeland with just these passports in their hands and some money in their pockets; money that helped them buy seats on what they were told would be a “ship” that would bring them to a country where they could seek asylum.

The man tells me of the scary, week-long journey they made on, not a ship, but a rubber boat, with the children terrified and the water stretching on endlessly. They’d eventually made it to safety though, after being shunted from one boat to another in the middle of the ocean. But now it’s the grownups who are terrified of the uncertainty. At 48, the man is not sure if he can manage to start all over again—a new life, a new business, a new home. Thoughts of going back to Syria still float through his mind. But what is there to go back to? No home. No semblance of the life they once knew. No semblance of the peace they once valued.

Now, four days later, sitting in that coffee shop, the young man from Al-Tal stirs his hot chocolate thoughtfully. Then, very deliberately, he puts down his spoon, pushes the glass away, and asks: “You want to know about Syria before the war? I’ll tell you.” And he tells me of a beautiful country that was once known to be a seat of knowledge and learning. He tells me of the ancient buildings, monuments, archaeological wonders that you’d find hiding around every other corner in cities big and small. He speaks of religious tolerance, where churches and mosques shared a common wall, and friends of different religions would, after praying, walk to the same café, sit at the same table, and exchange ideas about life and the world. But he also tells me that the semblance of peace that they once knew, was just that—a semblance.

“When I was growing up, and when I went to school, I was told, ‘Shut up and don’t say anything, because even the walls are listening’,” he says. To ask questions, to want to speak up for what one believed was right, was to ask for trouble. And so, for the many long years since the ascent to power of Hafez al-Assad, and subsequently Bashar al-Assad, people remained quiet. “We were like animals on Assad’s farm,” he says, “but people thought, ‘We might be animals, but at least we’re alive’,” he smiles wistfully. However, as the youth of his generation got restless in Syria, graffiti surfaced on walls, people took to the streets and that veneer of peace was shattered. Four long years later, things have escalated to a point where it looks like there’s no end in sight.

The café has begun to get crowded and all this talk about guns and bombs is causing fellow diners to throw us sidelong glances. Berlin, and Germany as a whole, has done a terrific job so far: Refugees have been granted asylum, freedom of movement, access to the job market, and the opportunity to start afresh. But, at the same time, there is some amount of resentment about the sheer numbers that the country is playing host to. Being an Ausländer (meaning ‘foreigner’, which literally translates to ‘alien’) is bad enough; being a flüchtling (‘refugee’) is worse. And like so many flüchtlings, this young man tells me that he didn’t want to leave his country either.

Why did he, then?

Silent Night: Christmas for refugees in Berlin
Image: Corbis
Refugees and volunteers at a Christmas-themed supper at the Berlin-Wannsee Baptist church in Germany on December 11, 2015

With a sheepish smile, he says, “I was wanted in Syria three times.” I’m not quite sure whether I’ve heard right, so I ask him to repeat it. “I was wanted in Syria three times because I worked very closely with the Revolution,” he says, amused as I nearly choke on my coffee. With his pleasant smile, and frank brown eyes, he looks like he ought to have spent the last five years playing FIFA on a PS4. He’s only just turned 22! But, there’s no escaping the harsh realities of war. Like he puts it, “It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you want to be a part of the Revolution, you will be a part of the Revolution.”

The first time he was arrested, he managed to get out on bail after a day in prison. The second time, too, he bought his freedom. The third time he was about to get arrested, he got wind of it beforehand and although he had argued bitterly with his family to let him go into hiding and join the Free Army in Syria, they wouldn’t hear of it. So he found himself in a taxi to Lebanon. Then on a flight to Libya. Then on an expensive sea passage to Italy. And finally to Germany, where his asylum procedure was started. After seven months in a refugee camp in Hamburg, he was granted ‘refugee’ status. Today, three years after he left Syria, the peace and quiet that Berlin offers him allows him to make choices that are rather like the choices any 20-something Berliner would make. A far cry from the “one bomb per second” norm he’d grown used to in Syria in times of extreme strife and the “five bombings per week,” that marked times of relative peace.

But this peace and quiet and freedom weighs heavily on him. “How can I post photos on Facebook of me in the fine weather, or me at a McDonald’s when I know that some of the people seeing it will not have eaten food that day? How will they feel? Should they see it and die from sadness? Or from the bombings?” he asks.

And even as he yearns for home and family, he’s come to the realisation that perhaps Syria didn’t really leave him with the option of a future. “If I was in Syria, I’d have two choices,” he says. “I’d either be in the army—fighting—or in prison.” He pauses for a moment and then declares that it’s the same plight for any other Syrian man or woman his age. They’d end up in either the government army, or the Free Army, or perhaps even as a part of the Islamic State (IS). “Depends on what you believe in,” he tells me. Then he thinks a little more and laughs, “Or if you end up in prison—whether it’s the government prison, Free Army prison or IS prison, also depends on what you believe.”

Which is why, even though the odds are against him, and even though the feelings of sorrow of leaving behind home, family and friends sometimes begin to weigh him down, he tells me he’s determined to complete his education. It’s the only legitimate way he can see himself living in Europe and contributing to the world at the same time. Even if he isn’t repaying his debt of freedom by purchasing the freedom of others, which is what ‘The Escapist’ in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay advocates.

“When people ask me how they can help the refugees, I say to them, ‘Don’t help the refugees’.” He continues to talk of how the refugees are in a zone of peace and safety at last. That they now can think of a future. And that they now have the resources to make that future they dream of come true. They are allowed the privilege of having hope again. It’s far worse for the refugees within Syria, those who have fled to other cities within the country. There, hope has been lost. It’s an abstract concept that people can no longer grasp. It’s quite simply an impossible thought. Perhaps this is why even with freedom outside of Syria, there’s still a profound sadness among the asylum seekers. After all, it will be a future without their culture, without their language, without the knowledge that their ancestors had of their heritage.

“I often wonder how my own children will grow up…,” he says, stopping mid-sentence, leaving another heavy silence in the air.

Somehow this silence is even more powerful than words. I can’t help but wish it was more powerful than guns, bombs, missiles and chemical weapons too.

(This story appears in the 22 January, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)