Syrian family finds sanctuary in German church | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.05.2013
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Syrian family finds sanctuary in German church

A Syrian family of six fled to Hamburg when civil war broke out and found refuge in a Protestant church in Hamburg. But even after reaching relatives in Germany, authorities could deport them at any time.

"I want to be left alone," Samira Yonata said as she brushed her hair out of her face. The walls outside of the youth club in Hamburg are covered in graffiti. Curtains cover the narrow windows, preventing sunshine to brighten up the room. This is Samira's new home - she's living here with her sick husband, Djamal, and their four children.

The Syrian family found refuge in a church in Hamburg over a year ago - Yonata's name has been changed in order to protect her; the location of her home as well as the name of the church and its officials have also been changed. Though her church is in one of Hamburg's multi-cultural neighborhoods, pastor Petra Meyer said she was initially afraid of right-wing extremist attacks when people found out she was offering sanctuary to a Muslim family from Syria.

"I was worried that some people in my church would say: 'We as Christians are a minority here. Why do you take in a Muslim family?'" But things turned out quite differently.

It was older women in the neighborhood - the people who remembered suffering during World War II - who were the first to ask if the family needed warm clothes, food or blankets. "Now, they want to know: 'How is our family doing?' - That's a very positive experience for me, as this neighborhood's pastor," Meyer said.

It was Yonata's brother who turned to Germany's Protestant church a year ago. The national organization in turn helped the family find a church in Hamburg. "The parish council was quick to decide that we wanted to take them in," the pastor said. "Especially since everyone knew about the dire situation in Syria."

Syria, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany

At first, Yonata's family managed to escape the chaotic situation in Syria and fled to Saudi Arabia where they earned enough to get by. Djamal sold chocolate bars, and Samira took care of the kids. But Djamal fell sick and developed multiple sclerosis. Samira couldn't take over his job since women are not allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. They decided to move again - this time to Samira's grandmother in Hamburg.

Syrian men walk at a street between destroyed buildings (photo: AP Photo/SANA)

The situation in Syria is dangerous - that's why Samira's family fled to Saudi Arabia

They spent four days on a boat, risking their lives while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. They landed in Italy and continued to travel on to Germany. They ran into the police in Bavaria and ended up in a refugee camp. After a period of six month, they face deportation to Italy. According to the EU's asylum policy, they have to apply for asylum in the first EU member state they enter.

It's a system that doesn't make sense, said Günter Burkhardt, managing director of the human rights organization Pro Asyl, who said it doesn't make sense for a Syrian family to apply for asylum in Italy when there are relatives in Germany.

Yet, Yonata's family managed to make it to Hamburg, where Djamal's health situation worsened. He cannot walk more than 20 meters (70 feet). He frequently falls down; he needs to see doctors and get proper medication. Samira wants their children to attend school. 

The most recent horror from Syria

The pool table in the church's youth center has been pushed to one wall. A table and sofa fit in the room and there are some toys for the kids. The television and laptop are always - showing news reports from Syria.

"They follow all the news on Syria," the pastor said. "They cry a lot."

Samira and her family know the places broadcast in the news reports and the people who still live there - and they remember what those areas used to look like in the past.

"Civil war destroys the culture, the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians," the pastor said.

Fanny Dethloff, a small and energetic woman, is the Protestant churches of norther Germany's commissioner for refugees. According to her, the Church gave sanctuary to 69 people in 2011 - 16 of those asylum seekers were allowed to stay. There was one deportation so far.

Günter Burkhardt Photo: S. Dege

Burkhardt's group has criticized German and European asylum procedures

"Many people, like Syrian refugees who flee civil car, have good reasons why they have fled their countries," Dethloff said. "But upon arrival, they realize that people don't believe them."

However, the Church can't help all of them. The northern German Protestant churches pay for Dethloff's job, rent apartments for people to go into hiding. They pay lawyers who give advice to refugees and who can represent them in court. "We'd rather deal with officials quietly," she said.

What's next?

Whether asylum seekers get a residence permit in Germany "depends on whether church officials can convince those in charge of a humanitarian solution," said Pro Aysl's Burkhardt. His organization has repeatedly criticized Germany's asylum policy. He said it was made to deter refugees who are being isolated and do not receive German language or integration classes.

"Germany is graying, it needs migration," Burkhardt said. "It can't be the case that Europe wants to do business on a global scale, that Germany is the biggest exporting nation, but when it comes to human beings, it battens down the hatches, puts up barriers and gives them the cold shoulder."

According to Pro Asyl, about 1.4 million Syrian refugees have fled to Syria's neighboring countries. About 40,000 of them have relatives in Germany.

Helping those in need

Gaining time without breaking the law, that's what those hosting the Yonata family aim for.

"If a human being needs help in order to survive, it's only ethical to take responsibility for that person," pastor Meyer said.

But every day, the police could knock on their door and take Samira, Djamal and their children into custody.

"We have started to trust God and have trust in the situation, and we trust that it will all end well," Samira said. "I want to sleep without being scared, let my children go to school, have medicine for my husband and work for myself. I just want peace."

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