Firas and his family fled to Germany from Syria. Their arduous journey lasted 40 days. Now they are staying with a relative in the Rhineland. But according to German law they are here illegally.
It's crowded in Fuad's* shared apartment. Since Sunday, seven people have been sleeping in his tiny flat in the ground floor of an apartment building in the German Rhineland. Fuad has taken in his sister Maysoun and her family, who were forced to flee Damascus.
Fuad himself has refugee status in Germany. Yet Maysoun, her three children, her husband Firas and her mother, are here illegally. After arriving, they failed to register with police or local authorities so that they could officially begin the asylum application process. They say that they were too scared to do so, after hearing reports from fellow countrymen about their experiences at reception centers. And since their journey to Germany cost them so much energy, Fuad says somewhat apologetically, "They need to rest a bit first."
Marked by a long journey
Both parents look exhausted as they sit next to each other on Fuad's little bed. The family had to travel for 40 days. They have gotten very little sleep over the past several weeks, and Firas, who is almost 1 meter 90 tall (6'2"), says that his back is giving him problems. His broad shoulders are slightly slumped. Add to the physical stress, his concern for his family. The 36-year-old points to his wife, his mother-in-law and his three children, all between the ages of six and 10.
Maysoun shyly shows me a few strands of grey - barely perceptible among her thick black hair. "I didn't have these before," she says with a tired smile as she strokes son Rami's head. The eight-year-old has laid himself down on her lap and closed his eyes. His brothers Said and Kalil are sitting on the floor and painting. Tracks, a train and trees under a clear blue sky. Above, the bright flags of several different countries.
'We couldn't stay'
They knew they would have to leave Syria, but it became crystal clear on the day that a car bomb exploded outside of their Damascus apartment. That was about a year ago. The parents tell me that the children had been playing right next to the car just a few minutes before the bomb went off. The fact that Maysoun called them in early for dinner saved their lives. Firas shows me a picture that he took from the kitchen window with his cell phone. The car's roof is completely blown off, and a charred corpse sits in the front seat.
Fuad says the civil war has become a part of life for the children. The thunder of artillery in the mountains around the city, the air raid sirens, the house searches conducted by the Syrian army on suspicion of oppositional forces. A few months ago a bomb hit the children's school. Thankfully, school was not in session when it fell. But the violence has left its marks. Maysoun says that Kalil, the youngest of the boys, often wakes up scared in the middle of the night. The six-year-old still sleeps in diapers.
"We couldn't stay in Syria any longer," says Firas, as his kisses Kalil who has nestled himself between his parents. He says that he was forced to sell the family home - for which he had worked for years to buy - for well less than what it was worth. His family needed money for the flight to Europe. The journey is expensive. Firas knew that from Faud, who had already made the long trek.
From Damascus to the Rhineland
Firas is visibly embarrassed by the fact that he is sitting on the edge of the bed in a threadbare grey track suit. Maysoun also excuses her appearance repeatedly. They had little more than the clothes on their backs by the time they finally set foot in Europe. They were not even allowed to take their backpacks onboard the boat that shuttled them from the Aegean coast of Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.
Their relief after safe arrival was immense. "We threw ourselves onto the sand and kissed the ground," says Firas, as he shows me a photo that he shot in Kos. Refugees smile into the camera on the beach; in the background the black inflatable boot that carried them across the Mediterranean. Firas says adults have to pay human traffickers $1,300 (1,150 euros) per person for the crossing, the cost for children is half of that. That adds up to nearly $6,000 (5,300 euro) for the three-and-a-half-hour trip from Turkish Bodrum to Greece. In a tiny boat with more than thirty-five other people.
Adults have to pay human traffickers $1,300 (1,150 euros) per person for the crossing; the cost for children is half of that
From Kos, the family took a ferry to Athens. Traffickers then took them on to Macedonia. From there, they traveled by train to the Serbian border. Although they had to cover the last few kilometers on foot. From Serbia they travelled until just shy of the Hungarian border, after that, to Croatia. Because taxi drivers were supposedly demanding 30 euro ($34) per person and per kilometer, the exhausted family decided to walk across the border. Then they traversed Slovenia, and finally arrived in Vienna. The family was often left with no choice but to sleep outside. For several days the only thing that they had to eat was a bit of bread, a few cookies and a little water.
In Austria, Firas purchased ICE tickets to Germany. No conductor ever checked them along the way. They know that they were supposed to immediately report to police or other authorities upon arrival. Fuad told them that. But Faud's experiences and those of Maysoun's father, who is currently stuck in a reception center in Schweinfurt in Lower Franconia awaiting permission to continue his travels, scared them. They decided not to go straight to the authorities. Maysoun and her husband assure me, "We will report to the police in the next day or two."
Firas and Maysoun don't know whether they and their family will ever be able to return home. They say the prospects of lasting peace become less likely with each day. Too much blood has been spilled there. Too many people have died. Their children sit together on the red mattress in front of the sofa and stare intensely into a cell phone. An oriental song is coming from the speaker. It's called "Mawtini," explains Faud. It is a well known folk song in the Arab speaking world. It was written by the Palestinian nationalist poet Ibrahim Touqan.
A sad male voice sings, "Mawtini, Mawtini / Al-Jalalu wa-s-sana'u wa-l-baha'u." Faud translates as it plays, "My homeland, my homeland / Glory and beauty, sublimity and splendor."
"Fi rubak fi rubak / Wa-l-hayat wa-n-najatu, wal-hana'u wa-r-raja'u / Fi hawk fi hawak / Hal arak hal arak" - Are in your hills, are in your hills / life and deliverance, pleasure and hope / Are in your air, are in your air / Will I see you, will I see you?"
Firas and Maysoun close their eyes. Maysoun's mother sways her head slowly. The children sing along softly, "Mawtini, Mawtini."
The names of all individuals in this story have been changed at their request in order to protect their identities.