A Day in Life of Refugees in Germany: Riham, Riim and Rana
Sometimes life can be scary for immigrants who live in the countryside in Brandenburg. A family of three Syrian girls live with Anke and Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Fürstenberg/Havel. My story is about these girls — Rana, Riham and Riim — and how they have turned a whole village upside down.
The e-mail arrives on March 8. The house with its terrace facing the street is very quiet. An old tree stands unnoticed in the garden. Daniel Domscheit-Berg always needs a moment to shift between one activity and the next. His home office — full of circuit boards and soldering irons — consists of many tables and computers. The email is from a woman. She is asking for help. She says she is a member of an immigration initiative. She refers to a shelter in Hennigsdorf. It is a mass email.
There is a family with three little girls, having to share a room with unfamiliar men. And another problem: they are recognized refugees; the current accommodation was only intended for immigrants whose status was unclear. The situation is serious; the family must leave the shelter as soon as possible. Can someone can be found who is willing to host them? Who can help?
Daniel Domscheit-Berg (hacker, former Wikileaks-activist, full beard, in looks and personality always a bit Fidel Castro and his jungle guerrilla) doesn’t hesitate. He goes up to the attic and makes the beds.
Of course he knows it will be hard. Of course he knows there will be differences. He is a realist. Daniel and his partner Anke Domscheit-Berg, who is a feminist and a politician, have had good and bad experiences. They had problems once with a family from Iraq.
What Daniel doesn’t realize — while arranging the bed covers and putting the pillows in fresh pillowcases, installing the little stove in the corner, passing the picturesque round window that looks like a doll’s house — is how everything will change.
In a moment, when the doors open, there will be a new family waiting for him. He doesn’t think about how he, a night owl, will have to get up early in the morning and ride the girls to school with his bike. How he’ll say: “Enough, kids! Come in, take off your shoes.” That this year he will be — in a way — a father again. He couldn’t have guessed any of it.
Integration is not just a matter for refugees
This story starts over 2,600 kilometers away in Hass, a suburb of Idlib, south-west of Aleppo. Bombs fall from the sky. Along the roads, sheep are standing behind low walls, pomegranate and olive trees grow and bear fruit. It is the time for Halima to start the harvest in her husband’s olive grove.
This is the story of a family that leaves, that arrives, that has lost everything, and of a family in Germany which becomes something new. It demonstrates how integration can work. Even if it is hard. There are concerns in the town about whether refugees can really integrate, but integration doesn’t depend only on the refugees.
Meanwhile, it is already dark in Fürstenberg an der Havel. Anke is still on her way back from a meeting; the train takes an hour from Berlin. The doorbell rings.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg needs a minute to get out of his study and to the door. Through the window the outline of a family can be seen: worn-out clothes, barely any luggage, tired, exhausted, helpless. He opens the door. On the doorstep are Halima, her husband and their three daughters — Riham, five, Rana, eight, Riim, nine. A new life begins.
Escaping bombs by bus and plane
“Come on, please,” Daniel says resolutely, a black woolen hat pulled over his head. It is shortly after seven, frost is laying on the street. Trucks are barreling by, carrying flowers and goods into town. Daniel waits in front of the house while Rana and Riim shoulder their backpacks and say goodbye to Halima, their mother. He hurries them: “It’s a long way, you know, and school doesn’t wait.”
“Riim, look! I´m a kettle!”
Rana is spinning, tripping, tapping her sister, blowing out to see her breath, forgetting the trip to school — and is laughing the way Rana laughs — mostly with her eyes. She points at the frost: “Snow!”
Riim tells her younger sister that she’s crazy. There´s not much snow in Syria but she would recognize the first snow in her life. “That´s not snow, Rana, snow falls from the sky.”
“By the way, your jacket is very thin,” Daniel says and adjusts Rana´s backpack. “You really need a new one.” He stops the girls at a busy street. The trucks aren’t paying them any attention.
Rana frowns. “Why do I need a new one?”
“Because it´ll get even colder.”
“It´s not thin, it´s good as it is”, Rana responds, and closes the coat like a small vampire. Why should she put it away? This coat has come a long way: on her escape from Syria, lasting months; months in reception camps in Turkey. Waiting for weeks with relatives in Ankara for a seat on a plane. Then the plane, of course. The kids literally jumped out of their mother´s arms in excitement, above the clouds for the first time. And for the first time in Germany: Berlin-Tegel.
Then came the “Heim,” that’s what they call it — the refugee camp in Hennigsdorf. They couldn´t have stayed, says Riim. Wouldn´t have stayed, says Rana.
German in the kindergarten and at school
The two girls didn’t speak German when they arrived and would quickly have been left behind, if they had joined their own age groups. So the local kindergarten and school found a non-bureaucratic solution: both older girls went with their younger sister Riham to the kindergarten. There they learned German, and prepared to join their peers. Today they are among the most eager students. Rana is in first grade, Riim in third. In kindergarten, Riham chases kids over the lawn.
At first, the teachers had to find out for themselves what it meant to care for the first refugee children in town. And they found the problem an engaging one. Quickly they looked into the new culture. What is Eid al-Fitr? What is happening right now in Syria? Some local parents came to the school to raise objections to the refugees’ presence, and say that they would by no means put their children in the same classes. The school headmaster told the parents that in that case they would have to look for another school. But there are no other schools in Fürstenberg.
Unimpeded by the complex adult world, Riim, Rana and Riham quickly make friends with the other kids. The three of them are exotic. They dress differently. They speak differently. For the other kids they are something special. Those kids don’t care about nations or the refugee crisis. “They don’t make distinctions about that sort of thing,” a kindergarten teacher says.
One day two older kids approach the nursery fence as Riim, Rana and Riham are playing. “You foreigners!” they shout, and they rant and rave at the three in front of all the others. The kindergarten teachers intervene. “Kids who say these things are not to blame,” they say. “It´s the parents. Kids only parrot what they hear at home.”
House opened, time and energy invested
“It was very significant to us, because it supports our work”, says Marion Poltier, headmaster at the Drei Seen primary school, “that the Domscheit-Bergs made their house, time and energy available. Not only for the girls but for all children in town. They bought a trampoline and put it in their garden.” Suddenly there were other kids there as well. Playing. Eventually those children invited the girls to their homes. The reservations of the parents disappeared. It´s hard to talk your own kid out of their friends.
“The Domscheit-Bergs made a clever move,” says Miss Poltier. “Because in drawing children together they especially helped the socially deprived people in town.” She fondly calls Daniel and Anke’s house a “multi-coloured villa.”
The school headmaster knows that integration has been easy for these girls “But this will also help us in the future when conflicts arise. There´s always a need for role models,” she says. “And now we have them.” She means both the girls and the Domscheit-Bergs.
Ramadan, headscarves, and individual freedom
One day the kindergarten calls. It´s Ramadan. The kindergarten teachers say that the girls won’t drink and eat from morning to night. So Anke visits Halima, after reading up on the interpretation in the Koran. She says: “Halima, the kindergarten won´t look after your children if they don´t eat and drink. In Germany, the sun sets later — after almost 16 hours.” Halima is irritated: how could a non-Muslim know this so well? “So I asked a son of an imam,” Anke says. “He explained to her that children don’t have to fast.”
But it´s not only the fasting — the headscarf was and is also an issue. “I´m concerned about the personal liberty of the children,” Anke says. “I think they should wear a headscarf only when they are old enough to decide for themselves — without any pressure.” The Domscheit-Bergs hope that the three girls will qualify for university one day and maybe keep studying. They have what it takes to do it, Anke says.
German as favorite subject
“Which lesson do you have?” Rana asks as they reach school, strolling along hand in hand with her sister to the entrance.
“German,” Riim answers.
Rana smiles at the thought of her favorite subject.
“Hello,” she says and stands in front of her sister: “My name is Rana, I come from Syria and I´m in first grade.”
“Hello. How are you?” Riim asks back and pretends to offer her hand. “I´m Riim: Good morning!”
Rana offers her hand: “Good bye!”
Riim is annoyed: “You have to say `Good morning.´ Not ‘good bye.’ That´s what you say when you’re leaving, Rana.”
“Yes, I know.”
There’s the sound of the bell. And that of children yelling.
Memories at the dinner table
Riham sits, her face resting in her hands, at the dinner table in front of a steaming meal of pasta without tomato sauce. The table is long. Anke, her son Jacob, Daniel, Halima, Rana and Riim and Riham.
“I don’t want this,” says Riham and points at the sauce.
“You want to eat pasta without sauce?” asks Anke, who earlier spent an hour discussing applications and the upcoming parent-teacher conference with Halima. Hands and feet and an interpreter were necessary.
Riham shakes her head.
“Hey Riham,” says Daniel, “If you close your eyes and think of Syria, what do you see?”
“Riham,” Anke tries to dig deeper.
Rana, Riim and Riham remain silent and stare into their food.
“Pomegranates,” Rana says shortly.
Halima makes a motion with her hand like an apple falling from a tree. But there are no apples. They could be bombs. She spreads her fingers jerkily out of her fist — explosions.
Riim, the oldest, pushes back her chair and disappears without a word.
Mayor for supporters as well as opponents
The mayor of the city, the independent Robert Philipp, has encouraged patience and the long view. He has remained neutral. He’s supported the initiatives collecting donations and clothes, and provided rooms and time. And he has listened to those who protest and raise concerns. They organized an “evening march.” Philipp stood on the side of the counter-demonstrators.
“I am not only the mayor of those supporting refugees. I am also the mayor of those who protest,” he said.
“You should give the people enough time to adjust to the new situation,” he said. “For the refugees to orient themselves, and also for the citizens to build trust. Time,” he said, “and not just a few months.”
Listening to concerns is important, as long as they’re expressed peacefully. “So far, the refugees stay very much amongst themselves on the streets,” says the mayor. “That makes sense, because they are closest to their own culture.” But Philipps expects that to change. “We will see interconnections emerge. People will invite each other, become closer, learn to understand each other, when you give them space.” Fürstenberg, so it seems, moves slowly — and yet a wind of change and growth are desperately needed in a city that loses more people each year through demographic changes than it gains.
“Riim, we are still sitting and eating,” Daniel shouts after her.
“I’m going,” I say.
“The dead are coming”
The nine-year-old is sitting in Daniel’s office. The lights have been turned off. The screen flickers. A video is playing, showing Anke and Daniel at the “The Dead Are Coming” demo. They heaped up graves in the government district and planted wooden crosses in the ground to commemorate the people who had died during the escape. The police interfered, with force. Anke fell to the ground, a red hat in the mass of black and khaki protective suits, a bouquet of flowers in her hand.
Riim watches it over and over again. When it stops, she winds it back, and watches the pictures once again. Daniel planting a wooden cross into the ground. And she knows the police will be there in a second. “Quick, quick,” she says under her breath, as if Daniel could hear her. She sees Anke’s face. “Anke is scared,” she whispers to herself.
“What kind of people are those who are against us?” she asks.
“I don’t know, Riim. No one really knows. They are not against you or Riham. They are scared, I suppose. Just like you might be as well.”
“I am not scared.”
“Do you still want to stay here? Or go back home again?”
“Stay here,” she says, not looking up. “I just want to stay here, please.”
A handshake for all at the train station
“It is funny, isn’t it?” says Daniel. “When they first arrived, Anke had to drop a bag of Lego on the floor to get them to play. And now? Look.” He stands with his hat and a rake in the garden. Autumn has placed many leaves over the railings and taken special care to fill every corner. “Everything feels so familiar. I can’t imagine this place being without the girls anymore.”
He reflects. “Of course they make it very easy for us. One day Anke came home from work and they were standing on the street near the train station greeting everybody arriving in Fürstenberg with a handshake. They introduced themselves. Wished them a good day. It is much easier than if they loitered and made a mess. It somehow touched the people.”
A few days later an elderly lady visited. She offered help. The girls were too sweet. “I didn’t know the lady,” says Daniel. “Nobody knew her here. A whole city didn’t notice her — but Rana, Rihman and Riim did.” Daniel believes that as newcomers, the girls are not saturated like German kids with wealth and consumption. They connect with people.
Daniel leans a rake against the tree. Riham, Riim and Rana rake the leaves on the trampoline.
“It is too cold,” says Daniel. “For today we are done with the trampoline. The net breaks when it is frozen.”
“Wait,” Riim shouts and lifts her hand.
“You should help me sweep the leaves,” Daniel says. “But you are just raking them in the middle of the trampoline.”
“Wait,” Riim calls again.
Then they all jump up simultaneously. Leaves are gliding through the air. Up to the old tree bending its branches over the girls.
They jump. Laugh. Jump., It’s only a short while since they heard the news from their relatives in Syria: people have been injured, again.
“What are you up to?” Daniel asks and scratches his head.
“We are giving the leaves back to the tree they belong to,” Rana cries out. “Maybe it wants them back and already misses them.”
Photos: Jörg Singer
Author on Twitter: @paulk3mp
Translation: Many Thanks to the Members of Krautreporter Adrienne, Bene, Jessica, Kathrin, Patrizia, Sarah, Simone Lackerbauer, Susann Buchhorn, Tom, Vera, Wolfram, Yara Ohrtt and Nina Littman-Sharp.