A never-ending stream of refugees have angered many Europeans, who ask why their countries should bear the burden of wars elsewhere. But who are these fleeing people and what have they put at stake to escape violence?
"Milk, butter, flour, vanilla and sugar," says Amin Zalukh, describing the ingredients in her cookies, the first thing she offers to any guest visiting her new home. Zalukh and her husband (pictured above), Syrian Kurds who fled from violence in Damascus, have just moved into a proper apartment from the temporary shelter for refugees in Bonn.
Fleeing a troubled home
The elderly couple does not speak English or German, but 28-year-old Nidal, also a Syrian Kurd refugee, has agreed to act as our interpreter for the evening.
"How was your experience in the shelter?" I ask Hussein. The elderly couple was the first to move into the 10-meter-wide container shelters on the outskirts of Bonn around six months ago. It was nice, until "we had neighbors who drank a lot of alcohol and made a ruckus," Hussein says, laughing.
"We had a nice life in Damascus and I drove a taxi," he says. "Then, the bombings began and there were regular raids by the police in private homes." Hussein soon moved away with his family to Afreen, northwest of Aleppo, Syria's northern city and once a major commercial hub.
"We are Kurds and therefore do not have many rights in Syria," Hussein explains, adding that his people have been caught in the crossfire between Syrian rebels, "Islamic State" and President Assad's forces. Some Kurds have organized themselves into militias to stave off all the forces disturbing their lives.
"I love freedom," Hussein says bluntly, answersing a question on why he decided to leave his home country. His family had to make do with very little food, water and practically no work until some relatives helped him get a so-called "contract" with the German government allowing himto leave the warzone.
The status of a refugee
The contracts offered by the German government are legal agreements in which "the relative agrees, for the rest of his life, to take over the entire financial responsibility for the family member coming from the conflict area," volunteer Wedig von Heyden explains. The 71-year-old is a volunteer helping the Husseins adjust to life in Germany.
Hussein is lucky. He and his wife have been officially recognized as asylum seekers and can live here legally, said von Heyden. But their son Mohammed has a different story to tell.
"It took me five months and 8,000 euros to travel from Syria to this place," Mohammed says. He slipped illegally from Syria into Turkey where he took a boat to Greece and crossed over to Serbia, passing through Bulgaria and Hungary before he was caught by the Austrian police while trying to go to Munich. He was caught and beaten by the Serbian border guards when he was crossing over. "They are as bad as the police in Syria," he says matter-of-factly.
Mohammed can now stay in Munich while his application for asylum is processed, but obtaining permission to live in Germany may be difficult because of the 2014 Dublin Regulation for refugees. According to these rules, asylum is usually given by the country where the applicant first entered the European Union. This could take a lot of time and if EU authorities cannot decide, Mohammed could be sent back to Syria.
Planning a future is tough
Germany has accepted more than 200,000 applications for asylum, with the public and the media still debating whether the country can handle such an influx. The Husseins, however, have met only friendly people here, they say, adding that they are "thankful to Germany" for letting them in.
For someone in Mohammed's situation, there is no time to think of such social issues. His sole aim now is to earn a legal status allowing him to live and work in Europe. "I only want to secure the future of my children," the father of three says.
A secure future is something which our 28-year-old interpreter Nidal Rashow has worked hard for. An English literature student in the Syrian city of Homs, Nidal decided to leave home when his only choices were either to flee or be conscripted into Syria's army for a brutal war.
"On May 1, 2014, I decided to travel illegally to Turkey. Then I went to Algeria, then to Libya and then took the boat from there to Sicily. It had about 450 people, mostly families. We were at sea for three days. Some Italian coastguards were with us," Nidal explains. Authorities in Italy did not register him there, opting instead to send him to Germany last July.
"I want to learn German and find a job," Nidal says. He has been taking intensive German classes so he can get back on his feet as soon as possible.
Nadal, like Hussein and Zalukh, is unwilling to reveal any personal trauma following his harrowing journey on the rickety boat across the Mediterranean. As their caregiver Wedig von Heyden says, they have been through unspeakable horrors and it is all still too fresh for them to talk about it.