Refugees from Syria have been promised a speedy asylum process in Germany. But some have been in limbo for as long as eight months. Fed up with waiting, a group of Syrians has organized a protest camp in Dortmund.
The weather is finally cooperating. Not too hot but also not too cold to lie on the foam mats under the tents. There are folding chairs and small camping tables. A hookah stands in the corner of the tent. It could be any vacationer's tent, but it's been setup in the German city of Dortmund for a more serious reason.
Syrian refugees in the city have been protesting day and night for over a month. After waiting for as long as eight months, they want their asylum applications finally to be processed. Officials said they would have their paperwork finished within three months.
"We have to save the lives of our wives and children," said Fadi Khatib, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, and the camp's spokesman. Similar statements have been hand-painted on the banners stretching between the trees and streetlights next to the camp to make passersby aware of why they have established the protest camp.
All the Syrians in the camp are men between the ages of 30 and 50. They fled their country in order to bring their family members to Germany in a safe, legal manner. But since completing the arduous journey, many have received bad news from home.
"Since we've been protesting here, three families have been killed," said Khatib. His sister's house was hit by a bomb, but luckily, she wasn't home when it happened. However, his cousin and her daughters drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to cross to Europe.
Caught between 'IS' and Assad
That's why many of the men at the camp are glued to their smart phones, searching for news from their embattled country.
"Every single one of us is scared of getting bad news from Syria," said Sakher al-Mohamad, a Syrian journalist who fled because the Syrian secret service was searching for him. "Everything's okay right now, but who knows what's going to happen tomorrow?"
The families of most of the refugees in the protest camp lived in parts of Syria caught between territory claimed by "Islamic State" and the front lines of Syrian government troops.
"I'm the best off," said Khatib. His family has made it to Turkey, near the Syrian border, and his asylum application was finally approved after an eight-month wait. But he said he continues to protest in the name of other refugees still stuck in legal limbo.
Khatib is careful to emphasize how much better his situation is compared to others - men like Fadi Jabbour. He and his sick brother made it from Turkey to Greece in a rubber boat with 50 others, only to end up in a Hungarian prison. Many of the other demonstrators also have terrible stories of their flight. On their phones, they show visitors videos of refugees who were beaten in Hungary because they didn't want to be fingerprinted.
Recalling such incidents puts a pall on the atmosphere at the camp. Because despite all the bad experiences, the 50 men who occupy the camp each night are generally in a good mood. A routine has settled in, and that helps to distract the men. There's a coffee machine in frequent use and two of the men prepare hummus in small bowls. The camp is cleaned every day: They sweep the area in front of the tents and the sleeping mats.
The Syrians' peaceful protest has gathered more than 3,000 signatures for their petition. The Facebook page "Syrians sit-in Dortmund" has accumulated more than 5,000 likes. There have also been talks with politicians from the city of Dortmund and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Police presence around the clock
In mid-June, the Syrians demonstrated in front of the Dortmund branch of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Then moved their camp to near the more centrally located main train station in Dortmund. People are constantly passing by: Travelers coming to and from the train station and shoppers headed for the nearby pedestrian zone. Police guard the refugee camp around the clock as Dortmund has an active right-wing scene and frequent neo-Nazi demonstrations.
'We just want justice'
But more than a few neo-Nazis, the Syrians say they've been impressed by the kindness of many of the city's residents. The blankets, sleeping mats, and chairs were all donated by locals. Volunteers have been using social media to organize their efforts. Using the #protestbamfdo hashtag, there have been calls on Twitter for locals to donate items the camp needs, such as a new kettle.
The Syrians have received plenty of support for speeding up the processing times for their asylum applications. The federal office in charge has reported it is doing it utmost to process applications as quickly as promised and that only "in certain cases" has the process taken longer than it should. BAMF spokesman Mehmet Ata said the especially high number of applicants from Kosovo forced the office to prioritize these applications.
"We can't favor protesting refugees in the processing of asylum applications," said Ata.
Khatib said the Syrians aren't asking for preferential treatment, "We should actually be prioritized because for us, it is a matter of life and death, but that's not what we want." He said the Syrians only want to be treated justly, and not have to wait eight months for asylum. If the process takes much longer, the next step has already been planned: The protest camp could be headed to Berlin.