Emdad speaks German. He goes to school and volunteers at the Federal Agency for Technical Relief. He will also help build refugee centers. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the Afghan refugee can remain in Germany.
"We are not going to let go of our Emdad." Ruth Müller-Albrecht puts her arm around the young man and pulls him close. Her voice sounds defiant, as if she wants to convince him, and herself, that things will really be as she says - that Emdad will be allowed to stay in Germany, in Saarland and at the Technical Relief Agency (THW) in Neuenkirchen - where he currently trains once a week as a disaster relief worker.
Nevertheless, whether he will really be able to stay is anything but certain. Despite the fact that he has been living here for four and a half years. Until now, Emdadullah Mohamand has only had the status of someone who is "tolerated" under German law, that means he could be deported back to Afghanistan at any time. That is where he came from in 2011, as an unaccompanied minor, he was 14 at the time. He was a scared teenager that could neither read nor write, had never been to school, and couldn't speak German or English, only his mother tongue of Pashto.
Preparing for a worst-case scenario at the THW
That has long since changed. In any case there are no communication barriers during Saturday morning training at the THW grounds in Neuenkirchen, where Emdad and the rest of his team follow local THW instructor Ruth Müller-Albrecht's directions. They are practicing a rescue deployment: They must free a person trapped at the end of a tunnel full of obstacles. Emdad, outfitted in full THW gear, removes rocks from his path as he crawls through the tunnel to reach a trapped mannequin. Every move must be correct. He is completely focused as he lifts the "injured person" into the rescue basket and gives his colleagues the signal to pull it out. Then he crawls backwards out of the tunnel until he himself is once again in safety.
Emdad is proud of what he is doing here. "I have been coming here since last year, and I am happy to do so. I like the work, I am constantly learning. And my colleagues are all very nice to me." He is not the only refugee that is receiving training at the Technical Relief Agency. Michael Walsdorf, the THW's spokesman for Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, says that some 30 refugees are currently in training, including people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The program has been in place since 2015, and Walsdorf says that the THW sees itself as an integration assistant in that regard. "Many refugees are thankful for the opportunity. They can work with technology and at the same time they get a chance to meet people." He is convinced that both sides profit from the situation. The THW gets new helpers, and the refugees can easily build contacts to German society.
Refugees become helpers
Walsdorf admits that there are language problems. But English helps to clarify misunderstandings. However, that is just a stopgap measure. "The goal is for refugees to learn German so that they can receive their orders in our native tongue." Many refugees are quickly able to articulate what they need to in German, and can then help by translating for others. At some point while working with the THW they will be dealing with other refugees. "They will be busy with the construction or outfitting of refugee shelters, in areas where they do not need special technical training," says Walsdorf. So far, the project has been a complete success from his point of view. He says that he has yet to witness integration problems.
Helping Emdad is also the responsibility of Peter Recktenwald. He is an educator and the deputy director of the youth residency group where Emdad lives. He was the person that suggested to Emdad that he get disaster relief training at the THW. Not least, to help him gain some self-confidence. "As a refugee one is initially dependent upon the help of others. One needs help with bureaucratic affairs, one gets clothes, a place to live." That weighs heavily on many refugees after a while. By working with the THW, refugees get the chance to give something back to the community. "Now Emdad can say: You helped me, and now I am doing something for others who need help. That is something that makes a person proud."
A big wish - for more than four years
"Emdad is a very friendly person, always willing to help," says Ruth Müller-Albrecht, "he is really a part of the team." Emdad seems almost proud when she says that. He smiles. But that smile isn't in his eyes. They seem sad, resigned. Because Emdad doesn't fully belong. He still doesn't know how long he will be allowed to remain in the team. His right of residency expires this summer, when his vocational training is complete. What comes after that? Emdad shrugs his shoulders. If he cannot present an internship position, things will not look very good for him. He dreams of becoming an auto mechanic - or a roofer.
Or something completely different, "Street cleaning, or working on a construction site - whatever," he says. "I'm just fighting to be able to work and pay taxes. But I still haven't gotten asylum, even though I've been here so long." He adds that this is why he often doesn't feel so well. Educator Recktenwald is more direct: "Emdad has done everything to prove that he wants to integrate. He has taken literacy and language courses." He attends vocational school and is a volunteer at the THW. "But the threat of being deported always hangs over him like a sword. That is driving him mad. I can't blame him for that."
Growing frustration and demoralizing uncertainty
Emdad cannot understand why he still hasn't been granted asylum. Peter Recktenwald says that he has changed a lot over time. Initially the teen was wary, but then it became possible to win his trust. "He was a nice kid, he was quick with a joke and was very polite. But he has become bitter since then - and is once again suspicious of us. Since we are his main communication partners, he unloads his frustration on us." Emdad asks himself why Syrian refugees are granted the asylum that he has been working toward for years within a few short months.
Emdad's colleagues at the THW also know about his concerns. "I talk with him often," says instructor Müller-Albrecht. "He has told me quite a bit about himself. I know he has fears, no wonder he does. And he has experienced a lot of awful things."
Traveling the world alone
Emdad grew up in a village near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. He has four siblings, and is the family's eldest son. His father worked the countryside and also had contact with the Taliban, says Emdad. "One day there was a military operation in the village. His father was shot dead," explains Recktenwald. After that, Taliban representatives showed up at the door of the family home. They said that they wanted to take Emdad with them, that they would send him to school. "I was happy, because I could never go to school," he says. His mother was skeptical but let him go.
Emdad never ended up in school, instead he landed in a training camp for future fighters. "They gave me a jacket to train with. I had to learn how to put it on and wear it. There were wires and a bomb in it." Emdad was wearing a suicide vest. He got scared and ran away. His flight was successful, and he returned home to his mother. She explained to him that he couldn't stay because the Taliban would come looking for him. She took her son to an uncle. The family then sold a piece of property to finance his escape. Emdad says that his escape cost around $15,000 (13,500 euros).
Still a child, the 14-year-old traveled by himself for more than nine months, utterly dependent upon human traffickers. His flight led him across Iran and Turkey, then he took a boat to Greece. In France, Emdad boarded a bus that was supposed to take him to Germany. "The police stopped the bus in Saarland and checked everyone's papers. They wanted to see passports. But all I could say was: No passport, no passport." He spent his first night in Germany at a police station. An officer brought him a cheeseburger from Burger King to eat.
Lost in bureaucracy
After spending three months in a so-called clearing house Emdad finally landed in the care of Recktenwald and his colleagues. The educator says that he has lost track of how many times he has tried to secure asylum for the young man. He says that he has two very thick binders full of letters written to authorities. All to no avail. Emdad does not have an Afghan passport, he never had one. The consulate general of Afghanistan in Bonn refuses to issue him one since his nationality cannot be definitively established.
Recktenwald is pinning his hopes on paragraph 25a of Germany's residency law. According to the statute, a foreign youth can be granted residency if his or her stay has been tolerated by German authorities for four years, they have attended school or have attained a recognized school or vocational degree, and are under the age of 21 when they submit their application. Further, it should "appear guaranteed" that the applicant has integrated into German society and "freely accepts the basic democratic order of the Federal Republic of Germany."
Plea to authorities
Emdad's colleagues at the Technical Relief Agency are convinced that he fulfills all of those requirements. Peter Recktenwald is as well. "We want to show authorities everything that he has done to establish himself in Germany. We want to emphasize all of his activities - especially those at the THW - as proof that it is high time that he be granted asylum. He has earned it." Emdad stands next to the educator and listens to what he is saying. He smiles again. Appreciative, but, at the same time, apprehensive.