Until recently, Thair Orfahli, a convivial Syrian just shy of his 27th birthday, had little to worry about save a tough exam or the travails of young love. Then, war eroded his safety, displaced him, and obstructed his collegiate and professional trajectory. Each turn of the screw triggered greater despondency, eventually motivating him to risk his life riding a flimsy boat across the Mediterranean and make his way to Germany.
Today, while waiting out the lengthy asylum process, he lives in a dormitory for refugees, but exists mainly a liminal space between the nightmare he has survived and the bright future he is determined, but not yet able, to forge.
The war that has so far claimed over a quarter million Syrian lives, including those of 30,000 children, has also displaced Thair and his entire family, disrupted his studies, and left the recent university graduate feeling squeezed out of the successful future he had long imagined and work hard to achieve. He has legitimate reason to fear for his life if he returns to Syria, having evaded his mandatory military service. If he were to return, he would find a dilapidated shell where his family home once stood, and all of his family members and most of his friends gone.
And yet, Thair’s is not the straightforward tale of a paradigmatic refugee, which by the internationally accepted definition, is someone fleeing persecution. He left Syria before the outbreak of violence to study in Lebanon and then in Egypt. There, he faced a series of administrative hurdles that rendered his professional prospects bleak. So, when he saw an opportunity for a better life in Europe, he bravely seized it. As an educated, cosmopolitan, and digitally connected young man jockeying to find his professional footing, in some ways he shares more in common with the stereotypicalmillennial than he does with the millions of Syrians subsisting in poorly provisioned camps along the country’s borders or flee the violence or unable to flee the violence all together.
The truth neither trivializes Thair’s plight nor undermines his right to seek asylum in Europe. If it casts a shadow of doubt over anything, it is rather the sense of creating a false dichotomy between “migrant” and “refugee” in the context of the largest migration crisis since the Second World War.
Over 750,000 people seeking refuge have made it to the shores of Europe by sea this year, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and several war-torn nations in Africa. It is hardly by choice that they surrendered their dignity and savings to smugglers and carried their children aboard “floating caskets,” as the Mayor of the Greek island of Lesvos has taken to calling the ramshackle boats. Whether they are fleeing violence, persecution, or economic hardship is immaterial in the face of such desperation. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees António Guterres has warned against politicizing these humanitarian questions because it risks undermining our ability to protect and assist the people who need it.
Underlying the statistics and politics are deeply human stories like Thair’s, remarkable because they resonate across cultures. The nuances and complexities of Thair’s experience illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing between “refugees” and “migrants” and the absurdity of the media’s ongoing debate over semantics.
CITY OF JASMINE
The youngest child of an army general named Tayser and his wife Yusra, Thair grew up like any other kid from a middle class family. On a typical day during his adolescence he might be found indulging his passions for soccer and archery, hanging out with friends after school, or picking up some spices at the souk for the dinner his mother was preparing. Sometimes he helped out his at brother’s car dealership, dreaming of the day he would be old enough drive off in one of the them. Until a bomb befell it in 2012, he lived with his family lived in a typically-Syrian styled house built around a central courtyard in Joubar, a suburb of Damascus. Jasmine abounded in his neighborhood and he adored how its scent sweetened the air during his early morning walks to school. In those days, he had yet to determine the course of his future, but had confidence it would be bright.
At present, home for Thair is an overcrowded room in a banal dormitory for refugees that feels “a bit like prison.” It certainly beats the noisy and chaotic gymnasium outfitted with roll-away cots where he spent his first month in Germany, but is a far cry from the comforts he is accustomed to.
Thair left home at the age of 19 to attend The Beirut Arab University, a well-respected private institution in Lebanon. In doing so, he put himself on a track to gratify his mother’s wish that he become a lawyer. He wanted to study international human rights law and use that knowledge to investigate his government's longstanding human rights abuses.
“I felt a little nervous,” Thair admits with respect to setting out on his own. He shared a tight bond with his mother and eight older siblings, which had grown even stronger after his father died of a heart attack when Thair was 13. Away from his family for the first time, he missed them intensely, but made good use of the cheap taxis that could get him home to his “beloved city of jasmine” in about two hours. On weekends he often met his family at their house in Madaya, a mountainous area near the Lebanese border, where he reveled in watching the sun rise over the cypress-covered mountains while drinking coffee on the balcony.
In Lebanon, Thair’s life was just like that of any other student, attending classes, enjoying unprecedented freedom to party to his heart’s content, and making new, mostly Syrian, friends. At the ice cream parlor where he worked for extra spending money, his honesty and work ethic earned him the owner’s respect and before long he was managing the store. Overall, he was happy. “It was a good university,” he says, “the classes were challenging, but I did well."
Meanwhile, back at home, a pro-democracy movement brewed as the wave of youth-led demands for a life of greater dignity and liberty known as the “Arab spring” spread across the region. The peaceful demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad resonated with Thair, who describes the movement as, “a demand for justice and fair treatment, a demand for freedom, without which we lose our humanity.” Still, he refrained from taking any political action because as he bluntly phrased it, “many people who complained about the regime were disappearing quickly."
The summer between his sophomore and junior years, in 2011, violence erupted across Syria as the pro-democracy protesters began to take up arms in response to the regime’s use of overwhelming force to quell their dissent.
Initially led by a group of defected armed forces members known as the Free Syrian Army, the uprising quickly grew in complexity as well as barbarity as the opposition fractured mainly along sectarian lines into competing militias united only by their hunger for Assad’s demise. Early hopes for a smooth transition of power to a less authoritarian government petered out once Assad unleashed a ruthless, retaliatory campaign of barrel bombing and sieges with cavalier disregard for civilian safety. Meanwhile, maniacal zealots subscribing to a radical interpretation of Islam and a seventh century worldview exploited the chaos to gain a frighteningly strong foothold on power. Today Daesh, or ISIL, controls one-third of Syrian territory, including a considerable amount of its oil. Various outside states with opposing agendas have meddled on behalf of all sides since the early stages of conflict, rendering it all the more intractable. The United Nations accuses all parties to the conflict of targeting civilians, using chemical weapons, and committing rape, torture, and other heinous acts globally outlawed as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Against this backdrop, Thair’s family grew increasingly unsettled, but throughout the first year of violence they remained relatively safe on the outskirts of Damascus.
Home for summer break as usual, Thair’s daily life carried on in familiar fashion the summer of 2012. When he wasn’t helping his brother run the car dealership, he enjoyed reconnecting with old friends over nargileh at cafes in town or playing with his nieces and nephews in the pool at their father’s house.
But one afternoon in July the war became real when a bomb exploded very close to his home blowing out the windows and damaging the its structural integrity. He happened to be home with his mother and sister, the only of his siblings still living there. “I took them to hide in an underground garage while the attack on our neighborhood continued for five days,” Thair says. When the coast finally cleared, the three of them emerged traumatized but physically unscathed and fled to Beirut, where his mother found an apartment to rent. He regrets not having grabbed a few of the framed family photographs that adorned the mantel and a record or two from his father’s beloved music collection, but it never occurred to him in the moment that he would never see his home again.
WALLS CLOSING IN
In September, Thair resumed classes at The Beirut Arab University as expected, but by that time Syria’s troubles were following its citizens across borders. He says that Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia group backed by Iran and closely aligned with the Assad regime, has long been cooperating with the Syrian secret service. They reportedly carry out attacks on behalf of the Syrian government against anyone suspected of anti-Assad sympathies, especially young men like Thair who evaded their compulsory military service.
To assuage his mother’s concern for his safety, Under pressure from Yusra,Thair moved to Alexandria a few weeks into the semester to finish his degree at the university there. Egypt, they reasoned, was not too far away and its universities were not only good, but also affordable--crucial for a family with limited financial means.
Thair found Alexandria University inferior to his old one, but “not bad.” He admits to letting his grades slip a little, preoccupied as he was with the daily reports of human, cultural, and material devastation coming out of Syria. He grew increasingly concerned for his family back home. Being farther away from them distressed him, as did missing the friends he had made in Beirut, but he persevered.
To his unexpected delight, he discovered that a fiery Italian friend of his named Sara had recently moved to Cairo to work for the Italian embassy. Several years earlier, the two had clicked instantly upon meeting in Damascus, where Sara took classes one summer as an exchange student. Their mutual exuberance somehow transcended the language barrier.
He began visiting her often. Cairo’s horrendous pollution aggravated his asthma, but the city redeemed itself by offering the company of an old friend and the chance to make new ones. Through Sara, Thair met many other Europeans, including a German girl he dated. Interacting with this cosmopolitan coterie helped him improve his English. More importantly, it exposed him to European culture and lifestyle and inspired a pipedream to one day pursue graduate studies in Germany. For the time being though, he was content just to spend as much time with them as possible.
The summer before his final semester, he moved into the spare room in Sara’s flat and volunteered for the refugee solidarity network she had established, independent from her work at the embassy. The NGO supported refugees from all over living in Egypt, but Thair worked specifically with Syrians, witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of the war on compatriots worse off than he. “It made me realize how lucky I was,” he recalls.
After graduating in January 2014, Thair needed to find a job that would sponsor a work permit so he could stay in Egypt beyond the six months left on his student visa. With his degree, he would have been able to practice law if he were Egyptian, but because we was a foreigner, the lawyer’s association in Cairo (somewhat akin to the bar association) demanded documentation from the Syrian equivalent stating that he was a licensed lawyer. It was impossible to return to Damascus to obtain such documentation and there was no way to do so remotely. So, he applied to several international human rights and humanitarian assistance NGOs as a plan B, but none panned out. Truth be told, by then he felt burnt out and depressed by the discrimination he faced as a Syrian. In hindsight, he admits he didn’t try as hard as he could have to find a job, because deep down he had already given up on the chance to create the life he wanted Egypt. When his student visa expired, he took odd jobs under-the-table, but grew increasingly stressed about his future. With the war dragging Syria down to ever greater depths of hell, going home was not an option, and neither apparently, was staying in Egypt.
Still, the thought of moving to Europe never crossed his mind until after a pickpocket stole his passport in February 2015, hurling him into an administrative black hole. (Syrian passports fetch about $500-$2,000 on the black market these days because asylum seekers from other countries believe Syrian refugees get preferential treatment.)
Though Syrians fleeing the war refugees had previously found Egypt welcoming, Thair says, they became subject to “discrimination, abuse, violence, and [arbitrary] deportation” after General Sisi assumed the presidency in June 2014. So when Thair reported the theft to the police, rather than logging and investigating it, they excoriated him for overstaying his visa and threatened to deport him if they caught him again without valid papers.
“They accused me of lying about the passport being stolen,” says Thair, “and started screaming about Syrians overrunning Egypt and stealing their jobs.” To his insistence that he faced almost certain death if they sent him back to Syria, the police retorted, “Sorry, it’s the law.”
“I explained to them that I studied the law and have great respect for it, but some things [like not getting killed] are just more important,” he tells me, voice cracking with emotion, The police threatened to arrest him if he persisted arguing. “I couldn’t believe they didn’t care if I died,” he says. “We all speak the same language, we all pray to the same God, I thought the Egyptians were my brothers …”
More problematic still, the Syrian embassy in Cairo refused to issue him a new passport, saying he must first return to Syria and enroll in the military. Without a passport, he could never obtain a visa so all hope of staying Egypt vanished. (In April, the regime recognized that many Syrians were trapped in neighboring countries with lost --some intentionally so for security reasons -- or expired passports and announced a new policy letting them apply for renewals abroad - even if they had left the country illegally or skirted their military service. Thair says that even if had heard about it in time, he would have feared reprisal despite their promises, reported in a pro-government newspaper, not to arrest opponents of the regime.)
Not knowing what else to do, he appealed to the UN Refugee Agency. The refugee status they conferred on him gave him the right to stay in Egypt, but not to work. Thair knew he couldn’t live like that for long on the $30/month stipend provided by UNHCR. He would have to leave.
The four million Syrians already seeking refuge in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon had long exhausted the limited resources available in those countries. The camps hardly provided enough food, let alone the chance to build a life and work permits in those countries are no easier to come by than in Egypt. For years he had dreamed of trying life in Berlin. Now it seemed not like a student’s fantasy, but his best chance for survival.
LOST AT SEA
He knew many people like him had drowned at sea because the smuggler’s ramshackle boats are dangerously unfit to ferry people across the Mediterranean (the figure currently stands at 3,440). But, given his predicament, it seemed a risk worth taking and he spent the next three months saving the $2,000 smugglers’ fee with help from family and friends.
Human traffickers swarm around Alexandria like vultures these days, preying on the influx of refugees desperate to reach Europe. Thair had no trouble finding one with a decent reputation.Then, he deposited his laptop, books, clothes and other prized possessions with Jakob, a German friend living in Cairo, for safekeeping with instructions to send them to his family if he didn’t make it.
On May 17, Thair made his way to Rashid (Rosetta in English), the fabled port city 40 miles east of Alexandria, and from there traveled to a decaying old farm near the coast. Some 100-odd other refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia, were already waiting there and were anxiously waiting to start were gathering for the journe,y. They stayein a barn so squalid, Thair says the stench will stay with him forever. “I had never known until the moment I walked in and saw families sleeping amongst the animals what it felt like to be dehumanized,” he says. Many of the refugees had been waiting there for days or even weeks, waiting for the journey to begin, but Thair, who had been tipped off, knew exactly when to arrive and only had to wait a few hours. Shortly after midnight, their overseer ordered them to pack into the back of a putrid truck normally used to transport farm animals and drove them to a nearby beach.
It was Thair’s second attempt at leaving. A month earlier he had wound up in jail for two nights after the police intercepted that same truck en route.
This time, the truck made it to the beach as planned. From the shore, he squinted in the feeble moonlight to make out the silhouette of the 40-foot wooden skiff that would supposedly deliver him to Sicily in five days. The smuggler barked orders at the travelers to wade thigh-deep into the dark sea, hoisting their possessions and any small children on their shoulders, and silently climb aboard.
Thair contemplated how this deceptively benign sea had swallowed so many souls attempting the same voyage he was about to undertake. To quell the fear welling in his gut as he removed his shoes and stepped into the cool water, he focused on anything but the present moment. He recalled the juiciness of the wild blackberries he used to pick in the mountains of Madaya and conjured visions of his family safely reunited in the near future. He also prayed to god for protection.
A piercing scream punctured his reverie. ItThe scream emanated from a Sudanese man named Khaled who had banged his foot against the boat’s engine as he tried to climb aboard. The trafficker in charge beat Khaled to silence him, but the injured man only howled louder. Thair, who had boarded the boat and was looking for a place to sit, rushed over to help. The trafficker now directed his blows at Thair too. Language barriers and the darkness of night made communication very difficult and it took a few moments before anyone understood what had happened. When the screen of someone’s mobile phone illuminated Khaled’s gory foot, Thair gasped in horror and the trafficker withdrew his fist.
"The gash was so bad, I could see white inside,” recalls Thair, who tended to the wound as best he could with alcohol wipes, ointment, and a spare shirt for a bandage. “I couldn’t believe [the trafficker’s] inhumane treatment of someone in so much pain.”
Exhaustion and fear subdued the other 153 travelers, who barely uttered a sound as they toweled themselves off and settled in on the floor of the open boat. The damp clothes clinging to his body made Thair shiver, but no physical discomfort could detract from the relief and joy of finally being on his way to the safety and comforts of Europe.
The first day passed without major calamity as the travelers made tepid attempts to distract themselves from worry by playing cards or making up games for the children. At nightfall, the temperature plummeted. Children clustered around Thair, trying to warm their arms in his sleeping bag, which he alone had brought thanks to a tipster in Alexandria. At least the seas were relatively calm.
On the second morning, Thair awoke at the light of dawn and noticed something amiss. The sun was rising on the “wrong” side of the boat, meaning either they were off course or the sun had defied the laws of nature. Persistent inquiries eventually led the captain to admit they had turned around to pick up more people. The skiff dropped anchor on the line between international and Egyptian territorial waters and waited two days for another boat to arrive from Libya with 80 additional asylum seekers.
By this time, the wind had picked up and sea had grown rough. Seasickness spread, especially among the children. Thair gave their mothers all the medicine he had brought with him, although he could have used some himself. He formed a bond with one little Somali girl in particular. “I held her in my arms trying to keep her warm as she wailed through the night,” he recalls.
When the refugees coming from Libya finally arrived, they had great difficulties jumping from one boat to the other, but they all made it, with a few injuries. Now carrying 234 passengers, the skiff sat low in the water, flailing about as the waves heaved, drenching and churning the stomachs of everyone on board. Overburdening the small boat with so much extra weight risked everyone’s lives, but the traffickers’ greed trumped their safety concerns. They instructed the passengers to toss their belongings overboard to lighten the load, but it made little difference.
Worse, that day marked Thair's fourth of a trip expected to take five, but because they had backtracked and wait for other boat, he had progressed less than a quarter of the way. It became clear that he and the others would soon run out of food and bottled water. He cursed himself for obeying the instructions to bring as little as possible, but there was nothing he could now do except conserve his remaining rations even more stringently.
Thair’s spirits were buoyed by his obstinate optimism even as he swallowed his last morsel and learned to make do with the stale, yellow-tinged water offered by the captain as emergency provisions. He had gone three days without food when the motor died on their ninth evening at sea. At that moment, hope abandoned him. “We were in gods hands,” says Thair.
A few hours later, an Italian coast guard vessel appeared on the horizon like a guardian angel. It picked them up and whisked them to Sicily within 12 hours (it would have taken at least two more days with a working motor on their little boat). On arrival, Thair stumbled off the boat, unaccustomed to walking on solid ground, and numbly followed the woman who greeted them to a facility where he could eat, shower, and rest.
“I’d been wearing the same wet clothes for 10 days and it felt so unbelievably good to get clean,” he remembers, grateful for the fresh clothes someone had donated.
The sense of relief was short-lived however. Thair knew the Italian authorities would register them as refugees the next morning, which according to E.U. law would only make them eligible for asylum in Italy. Like most refugees arriving in economically encumbered Greece and Italy, Thair was determined to continue northward. (N.B. Germany has since suspended application of this law, known as the Dublin rule, recognizing the additional hardship it places on refugees.)
So, after sleeping a few hours, he and a few fellow passengers, snuck out of the camp in the middle of the night. When they had walked far enough away, he sat down on the side of the road and withdrew from his pocket his only remaining possession in the world, a Samsung Galaxy.
The first person Thair called was Sara, his old Cairo flatmate now living in New York. Aside from considering her a dear friend, he trusted her to navigate him to safety, knowing she could enlist people to help him both in Italy, where she had grown up, and in Germany, where she had attended university. Moments later his phone started buzzing furiously as What’s App messages poured in from Sara’s Italian friends with maps and bus routes and words of encouragement and advice.
Meanwhile from New York, Sara booked him a train from Sicily to Milan and arranged for her parents to pick him up there and drive him to their home in Modena, near Bologna. They also gave him some money, since, without a passport he could not retrieve the funds a brother in Lebanon had wired him through Western Union.
“She’s my angel,” Thair says of Sara.
When Thair arrived in Modena, he was weak and coughing badly. He refused to go to the hospital fearing they might turn him over to the police, so Sara’s parents found a doctor to treat his bronchitis at home. Little by little their home cooking and familial affection nourished his health and his spirits. Twice they took him on day trips to the beach and the bright sunshine proved restorative. Grateful as he was, Thair agitated to start his new life in Germany and pressed to leave after three weeks.
Fearing that on his own, Thair would be detained and the border and forcibly fingerprinted in Italy, Sara hopped on a plane to Italy to pick him up and escort him to Germany herself. She never balked at putting most of her vacation days toward this trip nor thought twice about the hoops her boss at United Nations made her jump through to take time off on such short notice.
Forty-eight hours later she arrived in Modena and the joyful reunion with Thair and her family offered everyone a welcome respite from the stress. It was short-lived however, and on the second evening the time had already come for the whole family to assemble over a festive meal prepared by her grandmother to bid Thair and Sara farewell and good luck. The following morning, they set out for Germany by car, which seemed safest considering the proliferation of undocumented passengers had recently prompted the authorities to begin combing the trains regularly. Coincidentally, it was World Refugee Day (June 20th).
Sara recognized but ignored the considerable legal risks of human trafficking, not to mention how awkward it would look, as a U.N. employee, if she were caught.
A friend picked them up and drove them to a town near the Austrian border. From there, Sara took a train to Innsbruck, Austria, but secured Thair a ride through BlaBlaCar, a service that connects travelers to drivers with a free seat in their car. If the driver, who had been told Thair was an Egyptian tourist, got caught towing an undocumented Syrian he had plausible deniability and would not be held accountable, whereas under Austrian law Sara could have faced 5 years in prison. The BlaBlaCar crossed the border without incident and Thair rejoined Sara in Innsbruck as planned, where Jakob picked them up and drove them to his home in Munich. He had flown back from Cairo to help Thair and return his belongings. At the German border Sara and Jakob faced a €200,000 fine, but no prison time. They took the chance and sailed through the checkpoint. To Thair, the highlight of that rode trip was riding in a BMW. When his friend let him drive for a bit, Sara delighted in watching him “squeal like a child from excitement.”
They arrived in Berlin several days later, having spent a night in Munich and two in Bonn to break up the trip and visit several friends from their Cairo days. “I wanted to give Thair a bit of time to relax and enjoy his freedom,” Sara tells me, “so we hung out for a few days at a friend’s place before I took him to register for asylum.” During those few days in Berlin, Thair was introduced to several helpful people including a family who offered to let him live with them for as long as he needed. Their offer relieved Thair, who had heard conditions at some German refugee camps are abysmal. “I was so lucky to meet these wonderful people who wanted me stay in their nice home,” he says. Thair, who had heard how abysmal some German refugee camps are was grateful for the offer to stay in a nice home. He also sought out Syrians who had successfully established themselves already in hopes that one might offer him a job in their business or at the very least, welcome him into their community. By night, he partook of city’s storied party scene, relishing his first taste of German beer.
On the day Sara took him to the immigration center, Thair encountered a throng of other refugees and had to wait five hours in line to register. By the end of the day, he walked out holding a certificate granting him the right to stay in Germany while his asylum case was being processed. He also held a train ticket to Bielefeld, an industrial town 6 hours west of Berlin where his assigned refugee reception center was located. Alas, he could not accept the family’s offer to host him in Berlin because the protocols required to report to Bielefeld within 24 hours and stay there throughout the lengthy asylum procedure.
SAFETY AND STAGNATION
From today’s vantage point, the future looks brighter for Thair than it has in years, but continues to lie, at least for a few more months, out of grasp. Six months after arriving in Germany, he remains confined to a refugee camp and can neither enroll in school nor look for a job, under the dictates of his provisional visa.
Once in awhile, his friends sign him out from the camp for a weekend in Berlin where he can “pretend life is normal,” but the rules only allow him to spend a total of 14 nights away (and only under the responsibility of a German national).
He describes daily life at the moment as “Okay, but boring. Really boring.” With some books and a laptop donated by a Munich-based association that provides technology to refugees, he has been trying to teach himself German, but complains of little chance to practice because everyone in the camp speaks Arabic. The highlight of his day is when his friends call to check on him. “They call me everyday,” he boasts, “and when they smile at me [through Skype], it makes me forget the bad part." Otherwise, to overcome the monotony he often rides the bus into town, where he seeks out decent wifi to entertain himself and keep up with world through Facebook etc (the camp offers internet, but the connection is frustratingly spotty). Occasionally he treats himself to a shawarma at one of the Turkish cafes, but at €7-10, they are expensive on his €150 monthly government stipend, so more often he satisfies his hunger with a cheaper cheese sandwich (the camp only provides breakfast and dinner). As for German food, “uuuhhh, I like it,” he says, though I get the sense he is just being polite. He hopes to soon sample dishes besides the bland meat and potatoes perpetually served at the camp and looks forward to the day he has a kitchen so he can cook himself shakriya, a yogurt-based dish made with beef, lamb, or chicken.
“I’m sad, I’m lost,” he confided to me during one of our conversations. Unaccustomed to idleness, he struggles to bide the his time until he can put his education and youthful ambition to use.
Sometime his thoughts turn dark, especially when he has trouble reaching family members, who are now scattered across Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and as of a few weeks ago, a refugee camp in a small village on Germany’s Baltic coast. Thair’s brother Wael arrived from Syria with his wife and two young children by way of Tripoli, Lebanon, Izmir, Turkey and finally Lesvos, the Greek Island a stone’s throw across the Aegean. Riding on a rubber dinghy, their journey was mercifully shorter than Thair’s, but precarious nonetheless. Wael’s little daughter still quakes with fear at the sight of airplanes because she associates them with explosions.
It is a great comfort to Thair that his relatives arrived safely in Germany, also with financial and logistical help from Sara, but they have been assigned to a different camp several hours away, so he is hardly nearer to their embrace. It astounded him that the authorities would not even let him in to their camp to greet them the day they arrived and they could only speak through a fence. “What kind of system is this?” he asks me, not waiting for an answer.
Nonetheless, Thair feels tremendously thankful to Germany for giving him and some of his relatives the chance to rebuild their lives. “The German people are too kind,” he has told me repeatedly, once adding “So many have showed me love and made me feel welcome.” He credits their kindness for keeping his hope alive during the dark moments when he misses his family.
Thair expects to complete the final step of his asylum procedures by February and receive permanent residency and a three-year work permit that will enable him to get on with his life. “Then, I will be free. Now, I can’t do anything,” he says with a frustration in his voice.
Well, he can do almost nothing. Recently, he discovered a dance studio near the dormitory and began availing himself of the free salsa classes they offer. Dancing releases his stress even if he is a bit disappointed that most of the others are over the age of 60. “I was hoping to meet cute girls,” he admits, but adds “I still like dancing with the old ladies.” And since he got his provisional visa a few weeks ago he has been able to take German classes.
Moreover, for the first time since graduating college, Thair is making professional headway. On his latest visit to Berlin, a lawyer introduced to him by a friend promised to help him find a job as soon as he had the necessary paperwork in hand. “He even offered to let me live in his home to teach me German and help me prepare for a master’s in International law,” Thair gushed to me the last time we spoke. He sounded nearly incredulous of his luck.
Once he has the educational qualifications and language skills he needs to succeed in Germany, he plans to start working for an international organization or civil society group helping other refugees understand the asylum process and adjust a little more easily to life in their adopted homeland. He is even contemplating starting his own NGO. “I know what they go through to get here and how lonely they feel and I want to help them the way Sara and Jakob helped me,” he says, recognizing the rarity of the support and guidance he received from his European friends.
WHEN STAYING IS NOT AN OPTION
Like the vast majority of people who seek a new life abroad, Thair never wanted to leave home. "I had a good life in Syria,” he says. He would have been happy to stay in Egypt too, he tells me, “if they had let me.” Speaking for all who have attempted the perilous crossing to Europe, he stresses that no one can, or should be expected to, live in a state of despair forever. “That is what drives us to put our lives in gods’ hands,” he explains.
Intensified fighting in Syria since late summer impelled 218,394 new arrivals in October alone (the most recent month as of this writing), breaking all previous monthly records. Desperation and anxiety will continue to drive an average of about 50,000 people into Europe every week (over half from Syria) for the foreseeable future according to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees António Guterres. Despite winter weather, his agency predicts another 600,000 to cross from Turkey to Greece between now and February.
This places the European Union and bordering countries under considerable logistical and economic pressure (Germany alone expects around one million by the year’s end) and raises tricky ethical and legal questions for a block of nations still struggling to forge a common European identity, let alone common policies. As a result, outpours of solidarity by ordinary citizens and government leaders coexist with xenophobic impulses to erect walls. The Images of citizens welcoming refugees and with cheerful banners and contrast starkly with those of police holding them back at border crossings with tear gas. With adequate political will however, these challenges are surmountable.
The international community has risen to the occasion before. Austria provided refuge to 188,000 Hungarians in the wake of the 1956 revolution, of whom 35,000 were eventually granted asylum in the U.S.. Additionally, in 1980 the U.S. welcomed one million out of the three million boat people fleeing persecution in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia when communist regimes came to power in those countries. In spite of objections raised on economic and racial grounds by congressmen across the political spectrum, the U.S. accepted about 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees per month. By comparison, President Obama recently promised to accept that many Syrian asylum seekers over the course of the entire 2016.
During the Kosovo War too, one million people fled to Western Europe and United States, but as their President Atifete Jahjaga explained at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in September, the vast majority returned home within two weeks of the peace agreement. “Even the 40,000 Kosovars who had legal status in America chose to come back because there is no place like home,” she said.
The vast majority of the four million Syrian refugees would rather go home than to Europe too, according to Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrant. But she says, also speaking at CGI, after idly sitting in camps near Syria for years “they are giving up on the conflict ending anytime soon.” More and more are venturing to Europe because, as Thair knows all too well, “they can’t live in limbo forever.”