“No Stranger Place” — Photography Project Follows Refugees Finding Home in Europe

By Nadine Alfa

Families across Europe are opening their homes and giving refugees a warm welcome. No Stranger Place is a series of stories profiling refugees and their hosts across Europe, developed by photographer Aubrey Wade.

One year on from the tragic death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, thousands of people in Europe have come together to bridge cultural divides and language barriers, embracing compassion, hope and humanity — even as some European governments continue to build obstacles.

When photographer Aubrey Wade and writer Nadine Alfa went to meet some of the hosts, they encountered an architect helping Syrians in Sweden, a Jewish family opening their Berlin home to Muslim refugees and an Austrian mother introducing a Syrian refugee as her son. Throughout their travels, they saw that generosity is helping to transform lives.

Architect helps Syrian trio build new life in Sweden

Architect Lars Asklund hosts Syrian refugee Farah Hilal, her husband, Waleed Lababidi and her brother Milad Hilal, in Malmö, Sweden.

MALMO, Sweden — Architect Lars Asklund was deeply moved by the images on television of thousands of people arriving in Sweden in 2015. He wanted to help, but did not know how.

First, he went to the migration authorities in Malmö and told them he had two empty guest rooms. Nothing happened. Then he went to a nearby asylum centre where new arrivals were being processed and housed temporarily.

He approached a young man who had a small child, but was reluctant to take on the responsibility of housing a child. So he turned to the man standing behind, Waleed Lababidi, who had been translating.

“I asked him three questions: ‘Are you married?’ He said yes. ‘Do you have kids?’ He said no. I looked him straight in the eye and asked: ‘Are you a fundamentalist?’ He said no. I told him ‘Okay, I have a good proposal for you’.”

Waleed, 29, and his wife, Farah Hilal, 25, are refugees from Syria. They and Farah’s 22-year-old brother, Milad Hilal, now share Lars’s apartment.

Waleed remembers their first night at Lars’s place.

“We were exhausted,” he said. “We had dinner and didn’t talk much. He gave us a set of keys. The minute we closed the door to our room we were so relieved — Farah started crying from joy. We could finally settle some place.”

“It’s fantastic — I have new friends and I really like them.”

A month after they moved in, Lars invited Farah’s brother, Milad, to join them for Christmas. The four had an enjoyable time and got along well. Milad was still living at the asylum centre. When Lars drove him back there afterwards, he saw the “depressing” conditions at the centre, where 580 young men were crammed in.

“I just couldn’t leave him there. I told him to pack his belongings,” Lars said. “He was coming back with me.”

Farah, Milad and Waleed were displaced inside Syria long before they left the country. They fled their home in 2012, first staying in hotels, or with relatives or friends. Eventually, during a family dinner, a missile landed across the street, burning everything, and they decided they had to go. “The minute we saw daylight we packed whatever we could and ran,” Waleed said.

“We are so lucky to have met him.”

The four always have breakfast together, and sometimes dinner. Waleed, Farah, Milad and some other refugees gather each week at Lars’s big kitchen table for a two-hour Swedish language class.

One of the neighbors, a retired teacher, also provides an additional hour of language instruction per week. Another friend takes them grocery shopping.

“For me it’s fun,” said Lars. “It’s fantastic — I have new friends and I really like them.”

“They help me out a lot. Sometimes they walk the dog. They started to clean more and more, and so my cleaning lady got upset and left.”

Lars is constantly throwing parties to try to introduce them to people in the community and help them network.

“He cares so much,” said Milad. “He studies with me, even when he comes late at night. He is always discussing with his friends how to help us with our career. We are so lucky to have met him.”

Jewish family opens their Berlin home to Muslim refugees

The Jellineks family host Syrian Muslim Kinan (28) from Damascus, in Berlin, Germany. (L-R) Rosa, Bela, Kinan, Kyra, Chaim, Joshy and Lilli.

BERLIN, Germany — Every Friday evening, the Jellinek family gathers for a Shabbat dinner at their home in central Berlin. Chaim, his wife Kyra and three of their four children sit around a candlelit table to recite blessings over wine and good food.

This year, their weekly tradition has included an unlikely guest. Twenty-eight-year-old Kinan, a Syrian Muslim, has been living with the Jellineks since November 2015. He joins them for Shabbat most Fridays and often cooks Syrian meals that he has learned to make by watching videos on YouTube.

Kinan, who prefers to be known only by his first name, used to work in marketing and pharmaceuticals in Damascus. He left Syria in July 2015 to avoid military service because, he said, he did not want to take up arms against his own people.

“Hosting a refugee is a win-win situation.”

He went first to Turkey and then Greece. After arriving in Germany in August 2015, he initially stayed in motels and an accommodation centre for asylum-seekers. Then he met Chaim through an organization called Freedomus, co-founded by Chaim, 59, a general practitioner with his own clinic.

The organization publishes an informational handbook and offers some basic services for people seeking asylum, such as accompanying them to the immigration office or helping with translations.

“Integration is not something that we should only ask from people coming into our country. We should ask this of ourselves too.”

The two met just as the Jellineks’ 20-year-old son, Bela, moved out to pursue a career in acting. They offered his room to Kinan.

Kyra, 51, said their family set-up had hardly changed since Kinan moved in. “Everyone does what they feel like doing. Hosting a refugee is a win-win situation. Integration is much easier.”

The experience has been smooth so far. Kinan studies German every day. Daughters Rosa, 18, and Lilli, 8, help him with his homework. Kinan’s only frustration is that he wishes he was learning the language more quickly so he can start working.

“Integration is not one-sided work,” Chaim said. “Integration is not something that we should only ask from people coming into our country. We should ask this of ourselves too. We must accept different food, different culture, behaviour. It’s a process from both sides.”

Kinan now introduces himself as a Berliner. He said he loves Germany and believes his fellow Syrians need to look forward more.

“People I meet are always comparing life in Germany to life in Syria. You cannot compare,” he said. “If people just forget the past a bit and only look forward, I think integration will be faster and better.”

Austrian couple make Syrian guest “part of the family”

Martina Schamberger, with husband Engelbert, son Laurenz, and Lea, host Syrian refugee, and former national basketball player, Nawras Ahmadook in Bad Schallerbach, Austria.

BAD SCHALLERBACH, Austria — When they go shopping in the small Austrian town of Bad Schallerbach, Martina Schamberger introduces Nawras Ahmadook as her son.

The arguments they have in the grocery store are typical of those between a parent and child. Nawras heads straight for the junk food, and Martina tries to restrain him.

“That’s probably the only time Martina wanted to raise her voice at me,” said Nawras, a 26- year-old refugee from Syria, who is just under two metres tall.

Despite their differences over nutrition, their bond is tight.

“I feel like he is my son,” said Martina with pride. “He accepts me, a bit different than his mother. He opens up to me a lot, like a friend too. We have been together seven months now and never had a big fight.”

Their connection dates back to 2006, when Martina’s daughter, Valerie, was studying Arabic in Aleppo, Syria. Nawras’s family took her in and looked after her. When Valerie found out in November 2015 that Nawras had fled Syria and was near the Austrian border, she called her parents.

“I got the call from Valerie at 9 pm on Tuesday saying Nawras was at the border, asking if I would take him in,” Martina recalled. “The next day at 9 am I picked him up.”

They clicked as soon as they met, she said.

“I feel like he is my son. He accepts me, a bit different than his mother. He opens up to me a lot, like a friend too.”

Nawras played for the Syrian national basketball team but fled the country in 2014 to avoid the military draft. He went first to Lebanon, where for nearly two years he worked 14-hour days and could barely make ends meet. He shared a run-down flat with five other Syrians.

“I went from holding a basketball in my hand and playing in tournaments around the world to having a mop in my hand.”

However, the end of his residency in Lebanon loomed and he knew he had to leave.

“After everything I went through and everything I lost — my family, my friends, my country, my home — I really had nothing more to lose. I was not afraid of getting on that dinghy boat and crossing the sea. Leaving Syria is not a choice.”

He is taking German language classes and trying to decide on a possible career in Austria. “I just want to live in safety and security and hope I can build a future here. As beautiful as it is, there is no home like home.”

Martina said she was certain he would do well in Austria. “He will always be a part of our family, no matter where he goes after this.”

The Schambergers said their experience had inspired another friend to host a refugee. “People are looking at us closely. Everyone who meets Nawras, loves Nawras. Maybe we are setting a good example.”

Meet more refugees and their hosts.

Here’s how you can help refugees find shelter