"Food tastes better when you eat together," according to an organization in Bonn that strives to bring together locals and refugees. Welcome to an evening of lasagna, beer and many questions.
The cheese crust is already slightly dry and the mushrooms between the pasta sheets are no longer steaming. The big lasagna pieces on the plates haven't been touched. Although Nidal from Syria met with his hostess Nina and her friends today for dinner through the organization "Ich lade dich ein" (roughly: I'm having you over at my place), the food is not the focus. After all, it's hard to talk with a mouth full of food.
Nina and her friends have many questions and Nidal, who has been living in Germany for a year and half, is happy to answer them - in German, of course. "I am glad to help," he says and pulls a small map of Europe out of his backpack: it's from the German Agency for Civic Education. He spreads the map out on the table. His home country is close enough to Europe that it's on the map.
To kill or be killed
"Here's Homs, that is where I was studying."
When "the problem" - that's what Nidal calls the bloody conflict in Syria - reached the city, he first moved to Aleppo. But when the end of his studies drew near, he feared being drafted by the military.
"I knew if I joined military, I would have either been killed or I would have had to kill people," Nidal says. "I did not want that."
Then Nidal tells a long story about an even longer journey - the one he undertook to reach Europe. First he went to Turkey, then he flew to Algeria and from there he traveled over twelve hours through the desert to Libya, where he initially hid with a group of Syrians.
"We had almost nothing to eat, only cheese; for 13 days we ate cheese." Then he and other members of his group were captured and were put in a Libyan jail. An acquaintance helped them get out two weeks later.
While the lasagna on the plates slowly disappears, Nidal continues to talk about things people at "regular" dinner parties don't usually get to hear. On a large ship, he crossed the Mediterranean Sea to get to Italy. For nearly 17 hours he had to stay in the dark engine room with the other men traveling on the boat.
"I thought, okay, I'm dead," he says.
He reached Germany about a month after he had left Aleppo. And luckily he ended up in Bonn, Nidal says and laughs again.
An active volunteer
His hosts quickly find out why he is glad to be in Bonn. Although all work with refugees - whether in sports clubs or at school - Nidal is better informed than the four of them together. He is active in several different organizations and also helps out as a translator for St. Thomas More, a Catholic church in Bonn.
He can also recommend a café where refugees meet up. The others laugh. No one expected a 29-year-old English teacher from Syria to know his way around Bonn better than they do.
Nidal has often noticed in everyday life that not all refugees are able or willing to integrate as quickly as he has. He helps out as an interpreter every day.
"Some only speak Arabic," says Nidal,"and structures for refugees are not as good everywhere as they are in Bonn." At the moment, he is learning medical vocabulary so he can help out more in medical matters as well.
He says he is able to help out so much because of his mentor, a volunteer who supported him when he first arrived: "I would not know anything without him." As soon as Nidal arrived in Germany, a refugee initiative introduced him to this person, who ended up helping him a lot. The two are still in touch almost every day, and Nidal's mentor even assisted him with his apartment search.
And for dessert: more questions
The dessert - small raspberry tartes with vanilla ice cream – has been served. Minute by minute, the mood becomes more relaxed. The dinner guests only remember to eat their dessert just as the ice scream is about to melt. There are still too many questions.
Why is there a war in Syria, of all places? Should the German military intervene? Why does Assad not give up? Will the people who leave the country today be able to return one day and help rebuild it? Nidal has no answers to offer. But after this dinner, the questions have become even more urgent for Nina and her friends.