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Syrian refugees aid US student

Dagmar Breitenbach, Brandon ConradisJanuary 17, 2016

An American student and a Syrian man have described their harrowing experience in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. After the student was assaulted by several men, the Syrian and his friends protected her.

Hauptbahnhof Köln Sylvester Ausschreitungen Menschenmassen
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Böhm

When Caitlin Duncan, a 27-year-old American living in the southern German town Tübingen, got separated from her boyfriend at the central train station in Cologne on New Year's Eve, she didn't think much of it at first.

"As soon as we were going through the main entrance, there was kind of a big crowd and we just kind of got separated immediately," she told DW. "You think, OK yeah, so you get pushed off a little bit, but like you find each other a couple of minutes later. So it's like OK, it's no problem."

A student of neuroscience who hails from Seattle and has been living in Germany for more than a year, Duncan said she'd gone to Cologne with her German boyfriend to celebrate. But she soon found herself alone in a terrifying situation when, shortly after being separated from him, someone grabbed her hat from her head, while others started touching her inappropriately.

After pushing the men off her, Duncan attempted to find help. "I was kind of a bit shaken up, so I just tried to get away from the entrance because that seemed to be the most crowded," she said.

'Pretty scared'

But the police outside weren't much use. Overwhelmed by the mass of people in the main square in front of the station and trying to keep the situation under control, the authorities ended up forcing Duncan back into the crowd. From there, she found herself surrounded by another group of young men who started grabbing her body, pulling her hair and trying to push her down.

Köln Pegida Demonstration Polizei
The Cologne attacks have sparked huge protests in GermanyImage: Reuters/I.Fassbender

"At that point I was pretty stressed-out, and pretty scared, " she said.

Unbeknownst to the American at the time, she was caught up in an event that would make headlines around the world and throw intense scrutiny on Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies in Germany. Hundreds of women reported being assaulted around the train station that night, mostly by men who appeared to be of North African or Arab descent. Since then, concern has grown in some circles about the possibility of truly integrating Middle Eastern refugees into Germany, and Merkel's government has ramped up efforts to deport many of them back to their home countries.

While the media coverage of that night shed light on many horrifying episodes, it also had the effect of obscuring some of the more positive developments. Duncan's experience is one such example.

After she managed to break away from the crowd, the American once again talked to the police – who, once again, seemed incapable of helping her. Desperate to find her boyfriend, who had her wallet and her phone, she hung around the edges of the crowd, scared and frustrated.

Around that time, a young Middle Eastern man came up to her and asked, in German, if he could help her. Since she didn't speak German and he didn't speak English, the man called over one of his friends, Hesham Ahmad Mohammad, who did speak English.

'We can help you'

A 32-year-old former teacher, Ahmad Mohammad had, along with his four friends, braved an arduous journey from his native Syria to reach Germany, where he had been living for six months. The trek had taken the group to Turkey, then to Greece by boat, then through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, until finally they reached the Bavarian city of Passau.

Köln Pegida rechte Demonstranten
Despite the fallout from the events, Ahmad Mohammad says he's not afraidImage: Reuters/W.Rattay

The five men, all of whom now lived in different parts of western Germany and had therefore not seen each other since their arrival, had chosen to reunite in Cologne for New Year's Eve. But what they saw when they arrived at the central station shocked them. The people were extremely rowdy, Ahmad Mohammad said, and he even witnessed an attempted robbery.

"We knew [shortly after we arrived] that that's a dangerous place for us, because we saw that many people were drinking and they lost their minds," he told DW.

When he and his friends came across Duncan, he said the American was crying and clearly "afraid of all men."

After a while he convinced Duncan to let them help her. "At that time she said to me, ‘I've lost my friend and I am alone. I am American. I am here alone.' I said to her, ‘You must stop crying. We can help you.'"

As she set out once more to find her boyfriend, Ahmad Mohammad accompanied her. He said ten other men attempted to harass her, but he shielded her from them. Soon, his other friends also came to her aid, forming a circle around her.

Deutschland Ahmad Mohammad und Caitlin Duncan
From right to left: Caitlin Duncan, Hesham Ahmad Mohammad and Caitlin Duncan's boyfriend on New Year's EveImage: Privat

'Something good on that bad night'

Finally, Ahmad Mohammad said he spotted Duncan's boyfriend, who was carrying a distinctive white bag. The Syrian approached the young man and said, "We have something for you. It's your girlfriend."

The subsequent reunion between Duncan and her boyfriend was joyous, he said. The Syrian men cried.

Duncan credits the men for assisting her as she searched for her boyfriend. "They said, ‘We were so happy that we could help you' and obviously I was extremely thankful," the American said. She continues to keep in touch with all of them.

Ahmad Mohammad said he and his friends were shocked the next morning when they found out about the mass sexual assaults. But he's not afraid about the fallout from the events, because he knows he didn't do anything wrong. "We did something good on that bad night," he said.

The Syrian said people like him are generally grateful for being given the chance to live in Germany, and that he wanted Germans to understand that most refugees didn't come all the way to Europe to break their laws. Nonetheless, he also said that sometimes the cultural adjustment could be difficult for migrants. That's why he hopes to educate new arrivals about the way of life here.

"I think that life in Germany is a good life, but we must respect that life," he said.