Alaa Houd came to Germany as a refugee in late 2014, when the massive influx of asylum seekers into Europe had not yet begun. Nearly three years later, he is not quite settled yet, but returning to Syria is impossible.
When Deutsche Welle first met Alaa in 2015, the young father was still waiting for his wife and child to be able to come Germany. Since then, his family, including his father and sister have joined him and he is the proud father of another boy.
But the memories of leaving his country for Europe are still fresh. "I needed to go because there was a war going on. They wanted me to fight –either way, on the side of the military or the rebels, who were fighting against Assad," he told DW. "But I didn't want to shoot at someone or kill somebody. There are many bad things happening there and people suffer even if they are completely innocent. I cannot fight against civilians," he added.
"Before the war began in Syria, my life there was better than it is here now," Alaa told DW. "I was employed, I had my own house and car, I did not need any financial help from the state. I was not rich, but I had money. Right now, life is tough here, but it's better than what's happening in Syria, with the war going on," he added.
Alaa lived in the capital Damascus, where he ran a car dealership. He was given permission to go to Lebanon, from where he flew to Turkey and crossed over to Greece. In Greece, he received a fake passport that enabled him to travel to Frankfurt. Once in Germany, he told the authorities that he was from Syria and was seeking asylum in Germany.
"I still have friends in Syria. Three or four of them passed away because of the war and there are others who have just disappeared," he explained. Many of his friends want to leave Syria, but leaving the country has become impossible now. There is no way people can go to Lebanon and even that would cost a lot of money. The trip from Turkey to Greece has gone up many times, Alaa says. Earlier, it was around 6,000 dollars, now it costs around 11-12,000 dollars. Legal ways of coming to Europe are restricted for Syrians, with an educational visa being the only option, he adds.
Getting settled in Germany
Alaa's asylum application in Germany took longer than usual. In 2014, when the number of refugees was relatively low, Alaa's compatriots received their legal status within three to four months. Alaa's case was different. "Three months after having received my application, the officials said they had lost my documents. They asked me to reapply. It was crazy and I don't know why they said that after three months. It was strange, because I continued receiving state aid, I had identification papers, they knew my name," he said.
Initially, Alaa was housed in a school that had been converted into a refugee shelter. After that, when over 800,000 refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, he was moved to a container camp. "When my sister and father came two years ago, there were many more refugees and they had to wait for over a year to get their asylum status. My father only got subsidiary protection for a year," Alaa said.
Settling in Germany has not been without obstacles. Aside, from the bureaucratic quagmire Alaa had to navigate, his father fell sick earlier this year and had to undergo open heart surgery. "I spent a lot of time at the hospital and then in the rehab clinic… Three or four months were really tough. I had to go to the hospital in the mornings and then at 12 I had to go to German class. After four hours of class, I had to go back to the hospital and I only got home at 8 in the evening. That was around March this year."
Right now, Alaa is looking for training positions as a car mechanic. "My wife took the B1 exam two months ago and passed. The she had our second child, a month ago. Now she is taking care of the baby, but she is planning to study to be a librarian. She wants to work with books because she likes reading,” Alaa says.
"I think life in Germany is good," he says. "It is safe here, compared to Syria after the war," he adds. "People are nice and we have many friends. We have never had a problem with anyone. We have enough and we are satisfied."
But one thing he does not like is the bureaucracy, "It is very very difficult. It's not easy…In Syria it's easier and there are other ways of getting things done. Families in Syria are together. Here, everyone is alone. Parents are, for example, in Munich and the children are in Hamburg or Dortmund, and they see each other once or twice a year. I don't think it is normal." Alaa finds this difficult because his family was always together in Damascus. "It is really beautiful." Alaa's wife finds it harder, he says, with most of her family still in the Syrian capital.
"My children have no future in Syria, but here, they can study and do what they want. It's easier for them. My elder son, who is now five, wants to play all the time. He does not care whether people are German or Algerian. He does not miss anything. He belongs to Germany."