A young Syrian refugee is clutching his arms as he approaches the bus stop, his melon-colored T-shirt not warm enough for this rainy day. A homeless German man sees him, smiles, says “Hello” in English. He then unslings his well-worn backpack, digging out a long-sleeved shirt.
“Here,” he says, handing the shirt to the young Syrian.
“I can’t take this,” the young man responds quietly.
“Please, I have another, and it’s cold for short sleeves.”
Germany made it official this week: Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war, the Islamic State and their shattered lives back home are welcome here.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first European head of state to say “welcome” succinctly. She was addressing a migrant and refugee crisis that has seen thousands drown in the Mediterranean and is now expected to bring more than 800,000 people to Germany in 2015.
During a press conference Thursday in Bern, Switzerland, Merkel said it was both an honor and a moral obligation for Germany to take in “die Fluechtlinge,” the refugees.
Because of that, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday proclaimed them “Germany’s problem,” adding: “Nobody wants to stay in Hungary. All of them would like to go to Germany.”
He said this on Thursday in Brussels, speaking of the tens of thousands who had flooded in to the Keleti train station in Budapest and whom his country had allowed to trickle out toward Austria and Germany only in recent days.
In Berlin, trains arriving Thursday morning from Budapest were almost empty. Refugees were allowed to board trains Thursday, but those trains only traveled a short distance into the countryside before Hungarian authorities stopped them and moved people to refugee camps.
Still, on a rainy Thursday, German press reports were predicting a record number of arrivals, 14,000 within 24 hours.
Words on fans’ banners at German soccer games
The lucky ones – the ones already here, those who have survived the boats, the dangerous “taxis” and the long hikes through the wild mountains – are gathered in the crowded courtyard of the Office for Health and Social Affairs in Berlin, seated on the ground, surrounded by the plastic triangles of sandwich containers.
Zaid, 44, is one, and while he can’t speak German or much English, he punctuates his mostly Arabic sentences with “Germany is good. Germany is very good.”
The welcome is far from universal in Germany. Opinion polls indicate a deeply divided nation; just more than half are in favor of welcoming refugees. There are anti-refugee protests in Dresden, and buildings intended to house asylum seekers have been firebombed around the country.
Still, at soccer games, fans raise banners noting “Refugees welcome.” In Munich, city officials had to ask residents to please hold off on donations of clothes and food for a while, as the city was overwhelmed by what it already had received and needed to hand out more before taking in new offerings.
It is nothing but death there now. There is no life left.
Zaid, 44, a Syrian refugee
Until a few months ago, Zaid, who refuses to give his last name because he fears for the safety of the members of his family who have not fled Syria, was a construction worker in Damascus.
In particular, he said, in the past couple years he’d been working for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on the destruction of the infrastructure that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government used to build bombs using sarin and mustard gases.
“It is nothing but death there now,” he said through the translation of a friend who speaks better English. “There is no life left.”
Assad’s men killed his brother, and Zaid realized he had to leave. That meant fleeing Syria, getting into Turkey and making his way to the coast. There, and he isn’t sure exactly where he left from, he found a man with a small boat who sold him passage for “very much money” to Greece.
On his smartphone, he shows a video of that trip, an inflatable raft with a plywood floor and an outboard motor. Forty-eight men crammed into a space that was never meant for more than 20. But it was sunny skies, and the men were smiling and happy and the ride went well.
In Greece, they had to register. Macedonia meant finding rides. Then hiking through the mountains of Serbia, and finding two trucks in Budapest hauling migrants inside.
In Greece, they had to register and got documents to pass on through that country. He notes they all began the journey with thousands of dollars, and all hoped it would be enough to get them into Europe. Traveling with a few friends and many more strangers, Zaid walked and hitchhiked to the Macedonian border, where guards trying to stop them used tear gas as he and others crossed over. He remembers the police batons came out, and one man fell with a broken leg.
Macedonia meant finding rides, and walking, to the Serbian border, a full day’s hike through the mountains, just to cross into Serbia and find more mountains waiting for him. Another full day of hiking through mountains, then arranging for rides into Hungary, in the backs of trucks or on buses.
In Budapest, Zaid and a friend found four men with two trucks willing to drive them into Austria. His friend got into the back truck, but Zaid questioned the “Honest Chicken”-decorated container and worried that the 71 people in that truck were too many, so he climbed into the other.
He would arrive safely in Vienna. His friend, he said, was found dead with the other passengers days later and in a “serious level of decay” on the side of an Austrian highway.
In Austria, Zaid got a document allowing him to come to Berlin. Here, he sits in the courtyard and waits for his number to appear on a screen, or to be called over the loudspeakers, so that he officially becomes an “asylum seeker.” As an asylum seeker, Zaid is allowed to work after three months in the country, during the months- or even years-long process of asylum consideration. The typical wait time for an asylum application is seven months.
His friend got into the back truck, but Zaid worried that the 71 people in that truck were too many for the ride to Austria, so he climbed into the other.
In the next few days, or at most weeks, Zaid will be assigned to a city while his application is considered.
It’s a crisis that has been building for more than a decade and has reached record levels this year. In July 2014, Germany had 16,000 asylum applications. In July 2015, the number of applications was 34,000. The most common country of origin is Syria, representing more than 20 percent this year. Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan combined represent another 15 percent.
Each of Germany’s 16 states is required to take its fair share of refugees, based on the percentage that state makes up of the national population and the available tax revenue. The largest and most prosperous states will receive more refugees. North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and home to four of its 10 largest cities, will eventually have 21 percent. Bavaria will get 15 percent, Berlin 5 percent and Bremen will receive 0.9 percent of the arriving refugees.
Merkel said Thursday that those not fleeing danger were less likely to be granted asylum. “Those from safe countries will have to return,” she said, referring to the high numbers from the Balkan states. Thus far this year, 50,000 applications have been approved and 52,000 applications have been rejected.
Zaid hopes it won’t be too long before he’s working in construction again. There are always construction jobs in a prosperous country, he reasons.
Around Zaid, in the courtyard of the Berlin Office for Health and Social Affairs, are hundreds of people with similar hopes and stories.
What do I hope for here? To be normal and have a normal life.
Issam, 20, a Syrian refugee
They’ve been waiting for assignments for days, and sometimes for more than a week, though they note they have food and shelter at night. They come from Syrian cities with names that today are the stuff of nightmares, Aleppo and Homs.
Issam, 20, (who also refused to give his last name for fears for his family back home), admits that in an ideal world he would return to Syria.
“I love Syria,” he said. “But you can’t live there right now. Sometimes you think you are used to it, the bombs and the gunfire. A bomb goes off down the street and you keep walking because one went off just up the street as well, and what else can you do?”
But, he said, he woke one morning and realized it was too much. It was too much danger, too much constant worry and stress. So he left. His journey lasted 11 days, a lot of walking, but he says he didn’t feel in danger, just exhausted. He was a university student back home, studying aeronautical engineering.
“What do I hope for here?” he asked. “To go to school. To work. To be normal and have a normal life. To live like a human being should live. These are my dreams.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews