Archive for October 22nd, 2015

Now in Germany, a Syrian doctor wrestles with war memories

October 22, 2015

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — By any measure, Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman has been a success among the tens of thousands of Syrians who have streamed into Europe. He received asylum in Germany. He’s taking lessons in the language, is getting help from the state in finding a job and was able to bring wife and kids to join him.

But the 33-year-old surgeon is haunted by doubt over whether he made the right decision for his family in immigrating to such a different world. He’s also burdened by memories of his country’s civil war and the way in which his two young sons were branded by its horrors before they fled his home city of Aleppo in northern Syria more than a year ago.

“Everything around me, I feel, is temporary. Until now, I find it really hard to write my home address as anywhere other than Aleppo,” he said on a rainy afternoon in September in Saarlouis. In 2012, Osman was the senior doctor at a front-line hospital in a rebel-held district of Aleppo under siege by Syrian government forces. Round the clock, casualties flowed into the Dar al-Shifaa hospital, civilians and rebels, wounded or dying in the intense urban warfare and heavy bombardment by Syrian forces.

Looking constantly exhausted, Osman hardly ever took off his often blood-stained, green surgery scrubs as he and the overwhelmed staff tried to deal with the wounded. “I have to make a choice between a child with a 10 percent chance of survival and one with a 25 percent chance,” he told the AP at the time. When a wounded rebel died, often his comrades would burst into rage at the staff, convinced more could have been done.

Osman’s wife and two young sons were living in the hospital with him. His older boy, Omar, who was 4 at the time, would walk among the maimed or dying, passing the pools of blood on the floor and the occasional severed limb. He would play in the hospital hallways or make joke announcements on the hospital PA system.

Now looking back, Osman said he regrets bringing his family into the hospital. He’d wanted his wife and children near him, but he said he hadn’t realized until it was too late the trauma he had inflicted on his children. The boys now draw pictures of tanks, warplanes, wounded people and wrecked houses.

Omar still has nightmares. Osman recalled running errands in the streets of Aleppo with the boy, who, whenever a plane passed overhead, would ask his father if it was about to bomb them. Osman recalled another question Omar asked him once. “Papa, who created the world? The person who created it, can’t he see what’s happening to it?”

Dar al-Shifaa closed in November 2012 after a government airstrike hit a neighboring building, heavily damaging the hospital and killing four inside. Osman eventually worked at a clinic with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, trying to lay low as Islamic militants gained increasing power in the rebel-held districts of the city.

In August 2013, the militants arrested him, and he was questioned by an Egyptian militant who told him that MSF was headed by a “kafir,” an infidel. Later in detention, he heard the Egyptian talking to other militants, telling them they would eventually have to kill him — but not now, they had other priorities. So they let him go. He left MSF three months later.

Finally in early 2014, he fled with his family to Turkey. After months of looking for work, he decided to head for Europe. His wife had resisted the idea of coming to Germany. Still, she and their kids — Omar, now 7 years old, and Rushd, 5 — arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He shares her doubts about life in a different culture. “Many young Syrians abandon their identity soon after they arrive here,” he said, speaking as he was reunited with Mohammed al-Haj, a 26-year-old Syrian who had volunteered in the same Aleppo hospital. Al-Haj had just arrived after a 14-day journey from Turkey across Greece and the Balkans, sneaking across borders.

Now living in the state of Saarland, Osman has applied to two hospitals for jobs. He takes German lessons in the town of Saarlouis, not far from the town he lives in. With asylum, he gets a stipend of around 1,000 Euros ($1,100) a month.

“The situation in Germany is now good for Syrians,” he said. “But there are no guarantees it will continue to be the same. What if a terror attack happens and is blamed on Muslims? I must have a Plan B.”

Osman believes the danger of Islamic terror on German soil doesn’t necessarily stem from the possibility militants have slipped in with the refugees streaming into Europe. He said militant ideas are already here in Germany.

He recounted an incident in the nearby town of Merzig in July when a Syrian man harshly berated a 12-year-old Syrian boy for wearing shorts in the mosque, accusing him of disrespecting the place, leading to a fight with others trying to calm the man down.

Regardless of what may happen, Osman is filled with gratitude for Germany. “I have a debt to repay to Germany, the country that helped me when no one else did,” he said. The stipend, he said, he’ll pay back quickly through income tax once he starts working. “But I can never repay the moral debt I owe to Germany.”

Racism, insomnia plague Syrian refugee family in Germany

October 16, 2015

HEIDENAU, Germany (AP) — For the Syrian refugee family, one reprieve from crushing boredom in the asylum center is short walks to a lake. But in a town teeming with neo-Nazis, the excursions can bring more distress than relief: A man recently stormed out of a coffee shop and screamed at two women of the Habashieh family to take off their hijabs “because we’re in Europe!” Another time, people inside a car yelled: “Auslaender raus!!” — Foreigners out!!

Fear and frustration, however, have been tempered by kindness. A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria’s civil war and are now living in a temporary facility in the eastern town of Heidenau after arriving in Germany last month, following a perilous journey from Damascus.

Julius Roennebeck helps the family — Khawla Kareem, 44; her 19-year-old daughter Reem; sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — with practical things such as getting warm blankets, juice and aspirin, and has bought them German-language books. More than anything, the family appreciates how Roennebeck, who plays French horn at Dresden’s famed Semper Opera house, has driven the family to outings in Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.

“Julius is just wonderful,” Reem says of the tall German musician. “He has been so kind to us.” For Roennebeck, the kindness doesn’t feel like a chore: “I just really like this family so much, they’re great people.”

The outings with Roennebeck are an oasis in a desert of misery that has left the family — except for little Raghad — depressed and listless. Most of the family gets up late in the morning, because they hardly sleep at night in the hall crammed with 700 other asylum seekers. Next to them is a new family with a little baby screaming for hours. Sometimes the young men get cabin fever so badly they start playing soccer inside the former home improvement center in the middle of the night. The officials turn off the light at 11 p.m., but the sounds of hundreds of people whispering in countless foreign languages echo through the building, creating a deafening buzz.

When it finally quiets down in the early morning hours, most of the family drifts into a deep slumber. But for Khawla Kareem, it’s time to get up. Facing Mecca, she kneels down for the dawn prayer, and spends her day agonizing about their situation. Sitting on her narrow cot in their little curtained-off space, she often regrets taking her children away from their familiar life in Damascus. Desperate to shield them from the war, Khawla Kareem handed the family savings to traffickers who took them across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, guided them on hidden trails across the Balkans, and eventually sped them in a minibus to Berlin.

Back home in Syria, Khawla Kareem, whose husband died three years ago, was the boss of the household. Now she feels powerless. “She had to make all the decisions herself, she worked as an elementary teacher, raised us kids, cleaned the house every day,” says Reem. It was a tough life, especially keeping the children safe from war — but here, Khawla Kareem’s inability to speak German makes her feel as if she’s lost control of her destiny.

She can’t send her kids to school, giving her a sense that they’re wasting their lives. It upsets her to watch Raghad spend her days running around with other refugee kids, while her boys play cards with Syrian men all night long. The bathrooms are so dirty, she doesn’t even want to use them.

It’s the limbo that’s the hardest on the mother. After two weeks in Berlin and a month in Heidenau, the Habashiehs still haven’t been able to file their asylum application. On Tuesday, Khawla Kareem checked the center’s blackboard for their names in vain. Again, the family had not been called up for any of the procedures, not even the initial health check. The examination, which includes an X-ray for tuberculosis and checks for itching and lice, is also a precondition to collecting weekly pocket money of about 30 euros per person.

The reason for the months-long delay in processing the asylum applications is the huge crush of people seeking refugee status. In September alone, some 164,000 people were pre-registered as asylum seekers; for all of 2015 the German government is expecting about a million newcomers. Despite the cold autumn weather, thousands are still trekking across the Balkans and entering Germany via the Austrian border.

German authorities are hiring additional staff to speed up the procedures. Still there’s a backlog. Some experts estimate it may take up to a year for Syrian refugees to receive asylum status. Syrians will most certainly be allowed to stay in Germany — in contrast to many applicants from countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albania, which the government considers safe. But there’s not much they can do while awaiting a decision. They’re not allowed to work for their first three months in Germany, and they are not allowed to leave the county they are placed in until they are granted asylum. Often schools are too far away for children to attend on a regular basis.

Reem has been shouldering much of the responsibility for the family since arriving in Germany. She keeps up a brave face, knocking on officials’ doors every other week to make sure the family’s papers didn’t get lost, and talking to medical staff if one of them falls ill.

The pretty young woman with big hazel eyes rarely allows herself a weak moment, but she, too, is sinking under the strain. “Since last week, I’m not my active self anymore,” she admits. “I even couldn’t make myself get out of bed in the morning.”

Only little Raghad stays in high spirits. She gives her mom hugs and kisses when she cries, and spends hours roller-blading in front of the shelter. She seems to be mastering German better than the rest of the family.

And she has made lots of new friends, especially among security staff. “There are Kevin and Frank, and there’s a female guard with blue eyes and another one who recently dyed her hair pink, but now it’s black again — they all are my friends,” she chatters away, waving to a grim-looking guard. He breaks into a smile.

“I’ve made two more friends, a Kurdish girl and another Syrian, and we ride bicycles or play hopscotch,” Raghad says, pulling a big gray hat with silver sparkles down her head, shivering on a gray October day. “But really, I miss studying and school more than anything.”

Suddenly, she runs over to her guard friends to show off the new German words she has learned: “Es ist sehr kalt in Deutschland!” It’s very cold in Germany.