Hanan and Huda Othman have made it. Despite dealing with prejudice in Syria for their different religions, the couple is now enjoying the freedom and independence it always dreamed of — in northern Germany.
It's a love story that begins in Damascus and ends in Lübeck. It is a story of a love that transcends customs, traditions and faiths, only to find happiness in a place that neither of its protagonists would ever have imagined possible — a place that provides safety and security.
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The story began more than 30 years ago, when young Hanan Othman, a Kurdish Yazidi, left his hometown of Bafliun, outside Aleppo, to find work in Damascus. It was there that he met Huda, a young Arab Muslim from outside the Syrian capital, who would change the course of his life forever.
The two fell in love and decided to marry — even though they knew what difficulties that decision would bring. In Syria's conservative rural villages, Muslims and Yazidis simply don't marry. When Huda discovered that her parents were doing everything in their power to keep the wedding from taking place, she was undeterred and opted to marry Hanan anyway.
Their suffering began shortly afterward. The two settled down in Hanan's hometown, but neither his family nor the rest of the Yazidi community there wanted to have anything to do with them. It was a difficult time, Hanan recalls: "First my family and friends literally disowned me. My parents were the only ones who didn't wash their hands of me entirely. They visited every six months or so — even if it was just to reproach me, insult my wife and show their contempt." Despite his parents' disapproval, he held his ground. "I defended my life and our marriage," he told DW. "I forbade them attacking my wife. And I ignored all their attempts to split us up. Over the years the hostility subsided."
The couple went on to have four children; three sons and one daughter. Other than the grumblings of neighbors who called their marriage "forbidden," they led a largely peaceful existence. Hanan says he and his wife have a strong marriage, which is why they were able to fend off every attempt to break it up. He says that Huda's peaceful, creative and patient character had a lot to do with that fact: "Patience, wisdom and the grace of god made it possible for us to overcome all enmity."
Respecting the other's faith
But one thing that helped the couple more than anything was a respect for each other's religion. "My Muslim wife freely practices her faith," says Hanan. "In 2009, I sent her to Mecca on the hajj pilgrimage with her sisters. Our children were also free to choose their own religion — some took their mother's religion, some took mine."
Hanan is convinced that every human should honor god as he or she sees fit: "The relationship is only between that individual and god. Everyone else should keep out."
Hanan's job as a police officer meant he had an extra bit of security. No one dared to seriously harm his family. "That was very helpful," he says. "Our life would have been much more difficult had I not enjoyed that authority."
As the civil war in Syria raged on, the fragile balance of Hanan and Huda's life suddenly came under threat. Militants from the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) moved ever closer to Bafliun and engaged in firefights with the locals. In that tense time, villagers once again turned on the family. At a certain point, the only option open to the Othmans was to flee to Turkey. Less than a month later, IS commandeered their house.
In Turkey, life became increasingly difficult. "My children have university degrees," says Hanan, "but when we arrived in Turkey they had to work as seamstresses and construction workers. We suffered racial prejudice wherever we went. Employers refused to pay family members for work done. When my children complained, their bosses threatened to fire them."
Ultimately, Hanan, who had put aside some money, decided to flee across the Mediterranean to Greece with two of his sons. They intended to continue on to Germany from there. "We only ate once a day in order to save money," he says. "We wanted to help my wife and the other children financially while they waited in Turkey."
A new home
Two months after arriving in Germany, Hanan borrowed some money to pay for the rest of the family to join him. Shortly thereafter, they were reunited.
The Othmans quickly became a poster family for successful integration. The eldest son, who has a degree in computer sciences from Damascus University, found work at an educational institute in Hamburg. The second son is studying engineering and robotics at the University of Lübeck. His sister is also there, studying medical technology. The youngest son, meanwhile, has applied to study at the university's information technology department.
Both parents enrolled in language classes in Germany, and Hanan is currently employed in an office in Lübeck. The only bit of sad news is that Huda has been weakened by illness and now struggles to take care of the household. Hanan has taken over those duties for her. Still, he says: "We are happy that we have found our new home here. Germany offers us the safety and stability that we always dreamed of."