Straight outta Bischofswerda

The road to asylum is harder than the flight from Syria, two young men explain. Their experiences show why its impossible to estimate how many refugees are in Germany.


“This is a sign of god”, Ameen says with an opera-like tremolo in his voice. He’s standing on top of an apartment house in Hamburg. With two outstretched arms he holds a 1 Euro-coin he found on the roof’s edge into the autumnal sun. “Now things will turn for the better.”

Ameen is hungover from the party last night and amused about his little “Hallelujah” moment. “You know, I try to stay positive”, he explains and puts the coin in his pocket. The 25-year-old Syrian arrived in Hamburg six weeks ago. He registered as a refugee but until today he didn’t get a chance to apply for asylum. That means no money, no legal status, no permission to work or travel.

Khaled is 22 and also from Syria. He arrived in Germany the same day as Ameen. Back then people applauded as he got off the train in Munich’s main station. Two weeks later people threw bottles at the bus that brings him to an emergency accommodation. But, unlike Ameen, Khaled received an appointment with the administration to apply for asylum. It’s in April 2016. But he won’t go. His plans they are a-changin’.

The German government estimates that about one million refugees will have arrived until the end of this year. It’s a rough guess. Some decide not to turn themselves in to the authorities. Others do it several times. Many wait patiently on what asylum will be like. Others escape the refugee camps, searching for the life of a regular citizen.


Berlin or Chemnitz — what would you recommend to Khaled?, Stefan Mako asked me about a month ago. For a reportage he had followed the Syrian during his flight from war across Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria to Germany. He gives me Khaled’s phone number and I tell him: come to Berlin.

At this point Khaled had been bouncing across Germany since two weeks. Searching for the best place to turn in his asylum-request he worked through a long list of friends and relatives from Syria that arrived before him. From Munich he went to Stuttgart, then to Dortmund, Senftenberg, Berlin, Leipzig. Everywhere he finds chaos, makeshift shelters, lousy food and endless queues at the registration spots. “I need the fucking Ausweis (ID, C.G.)”, he says.

The Ausweis means the light at the end of the tunnel that the asylum process is. Several examinations and interviews need to be passed, never knowing how far the exit is. It can take months and even years to pass it.

The police puts an abrupt end to Khaled’s second attempt to get to Berlin. They take him in for a night because he “entered the country illegally” and then transfer him by bus to an emergency accommodation in Bischofswerda, a small town in Saxony — a region infamous for its hostile attitude towards refugees.

A mob of about 100 locals welcome the bus. “Fuck off!”, they yell. Bottles are thrown, the Nazi salute shown. The protests last for two days, then the police erects a fringe area around the place. This year more than 400 attacks on refugee homes in Germany have been reported.

Also in Berlin the situation escalates. In front of the Lageso (short for Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales) — the agency where refugees have to register — more than 3.000 people wait in the pouring rain, poorly supplied with food. “Treat us like humans”, they chant in choruses. Volunteers and media call it the “place of shame.” Trouble regularly deflates into fights, security staff deal with queue numbers, Salafists browbeat, fraudsters take money for non-existing rooms. A 4-year-old boy from Bosnia loses his mother’s hand and is reported missing.

Not having entered the actual asylum process the refugees at Lageso are not entitled to receive social welfare, language courses or appropriate accommodation. That’s why they keep standing in the rain.

Actually you’re arrest was a blessing in disguise, I tell Khaled on the phone. In Berlin you’d be off way worse than in Saxony. The more people, the longer the asylum process takes. “It’s cold here”, he replies, “we freeze like shit and nobody tells us what will happen next. Can you come pick me up?”


For Ameen Hamburg should have been just a stopover on his way to Sweden where he initially planned to finish his studies of marine engineering. He almost held the degree in his hands when war interrupted the university routines. “When I saw Hamburg’s harbour I fell in love with the city”, he says.

We have climbed down the roof and now sit in the kitchen of the huge flat he shares with eight young people. It’s about noon when Thorben, a 24-year-old musician, apparently just woken up, comes in to prepare a coffee. He asks if we want some too. “Let me do it”, says Ameen, standing up. “No, no”, Thorben answers indicating him to sit down again with a police-like gesture. “You can’t do that. You don’t have a working permission here, refugee.” They both laugh.

Ameen got himself registered in Hamburg right after he arrived six weeks ago. In the beginning he stays in a hall that is normally used for trade fairs and temporarily becomes home to 900 refugees. Soon he volunteers as a guide for newbies and met Thorben and his flatmates who work as helpers.

On Tinder he gets to know a girl. They play a round of pool and end up at her place. He stays for a week. When she wants to introduce him to her mother he returns to the trade fair hall. “Wasn’t exactly my type anyway”, he says, “but isn’t it better to wake up in a warm bed next to a woman than sleeping next to twenty bearded guys in a cold hall?”

After a few days in the trade fair hall he gets transferred to another emergency accommodation at the edge of the town. For days there is no information about what’s happening next. Then he is told to board a bus. “I took a seat and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to know where they take me”, he says. Much to his surprise the trip is a short one, he stays in Hamburg. And continues his work as a volunteer, meeting Thorben and his flatmates again who eventually invite him to a party at their place. Since that night he is living with them and only goes to the refugee home to see if there is mail for him.

Ameen: “I’d like to go to Tomorrowland some time. You know it? It’s a huge electronic music festival in Belgium.”

Thorben: “Naw, better come to Fusion festival with us. Rather hard to get tickets but we’ll arrange it. One has to register to get into the draw for tickets.”

Ameen: “Register?” (he jumps the chair)

Thorben: “Yes, but you don’t need an Ausweis (ID, C.G.) this time.”


The bus that Khaled has to board after one week in the Saxonian fringe area takes him to Harz, a remote mountainous region about 300 Kilometers away. He gets his registration done and is then accommodated in a former holiday camp made of wooden cabins at the foot of a medieval fortress. About 100 refugees stay there, families and single travelling persons from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Macedonia.

Khaled shares a room with seven men, all from the Damascus region. Also a cousin of him is there. The 30-year-old wears the face of a much older man like a mask of equanimity and questions better not asked. He prepares tea for everyone and offers cigarettes.

At the holiday camp’s website one can still make reservations. They offer “splendid recreational leisures for the whole family.” In Khaled’s room twelve beds — four times three stashed above another — occupy most of the space. Recreation is the last thing on the men’s mind. “When we arrived in Germany people applauded. Now, all we hear is: If you have a problem you can always go back to Syria.”

To make calls or browse the internet the residents have to walk up a hill behind the camp. You’ll get a connection with Vodafone at its lower part. More uphill Lyca works. “But O2” is Oh no”, says Khaled as we pass a young man staring at his smartphone bleakly. “Can you take me to Berlin?”, Khaled asks. His backpack is already prepared.

It’s only on the highway when I ask him how long he intends to stay, and where. “I’m not going back anymore. Can I stay at your place for one night m-a-y-be?”, he asks, the “maybe” turning into the long and high pitching voice of a kid that wants to stay up longer.

I’m pleased to help, but the question is if that’s a good decision. He gave his name to the authorities already, so he’s filed in their database. Ultimately he can get sanctioned, if he tries registration in a different city, even sent back. There is not much patience these days with insubordinate refugees.

Khaled says: “It’ll work. It’s a dummy system.” He knows Syrians that registered three or four times when they were transferred to places they didn’t like. Besides, he adds, they misspelled his name on the documents.

Khaled’s flight continues. He continues traveling on the ticket of tolerated lawlessness he was given during his hard slog across Europe. He doesn’t want to exchange the fool’s freedom with the folly of German bureaucracy.

I wonder why he didn’t say farewell to any of his camp’s roommates but his cousin and a 17-year-old came to hug him at the gate. “They shouldn’t know”, he says. If you asked him “Mama Merkel” could close the borders now. Maybe, he estimates, his registration in Berlin will work faster then.

His plans are put together around a set of rumors and information he gathered from the internet or friends. One says that chances to stay in Berlin are best if he registers on a wednesday.


Ameen beats the boredom by working as a volunteer. In a huge store house he sorts donated clothes and prepares them for distribution. It looks like a refugee Amazon — clothes pile up in ten of thousands of card boxes with QR-codes attached.

Ameen walks through the hall, high fives guys, hugs the girls, is greeted as “our favourite refugee.” At the eatery of the place he informs a girl who’s serving her first day: “You better get used to this face ’cause I’m here all day everyday.”

In the afternoon a youth-aid organization pays a visit. The social worker knows Ameen and had asked him to report about his flight from Syria. Escaping, he explains to the youngsters who stand in a circle around him, was actually a nice adventure.

His problem was that his flight is over now. But he remains the refugee. He’s not a student. Not a single. Not hipster, rocker or whatever. He’s the refugee. Doesn’t make it much better to be the favourite refugee. “People seem to think that in Syria we lived in tents and rode to town on camels”, he says. You had a PS 4? You like Elton John? What?!

Ameen wears a basecap, sneakers, a hoodie and baggy jeans. All looking brand new, all picked from the stack of donations. Volunteers put the best stuff aside for him. “Let’s prepare a package of winter clothes for Khaled”, he suggests before we leave the hall in the evening, “what’s his size?”


Khaled wears a stained white C&A down jacket he got from a cousin. He hates it. “I look like an astronaut in it”, he complains. It would be more accurate to say he looks like a 8-year-old at a skiing course. Whereas without the jacket, dressed in jeans and a second-hand v-neck pullover, he could pass for a Berlin hipster.

It’s somehow ironic that the same clothes that help organizations distribute to refugees are being sold in Berlin’s fashion district for more money than new clothes. The second-hand trend becomes an equalizing factor based on capitalist absurdity. It makes the poor look rich and the rich look poor.

He’d like to go to the Tomorrowland festival in Belgium some day, Khaled tells me during dinner one evening. His meal just having finished he gets up to clean the dishes. You don’t have to do that, I say. “But I have to do something”, he replies.

He couldn’t just spend his time waiting like his cousin that remained in the Harz, he says. What kind of occupation he could take up in Germany he has no certain idea of yet. Since he studied English Literature he thinks about working as an interpreter. “At least, here in Berlin, I don’t feel like an alien anymore. There’s Turks and Arabians everywhere, I could just be a normal guy”, he says in the metro, confidently looking through the train car.

When I take Khaled to Lageso he doesn’t have to wait outside in a queue but can take a seat in a heated tent. The city also employed more staff now and with the registration process being speeded up it takes only a couple of hours for him to receive new, temporarily documents, though he doesn’t understand what’s written in them. He gets accommodated in a former school building where he shares a room with ten other men. A few days later he holds 107 Euro of social welfare and a new interview-appointment to apply for asylum: march 2016.


Last week Khaled went to Lageso again. This time to mourn. The 4-year-old boy from Bosnia that got lost a month before has been found. A 32-year-old German has confessed to have abducted, raped and killed the boy. About two hundred people take part in the solemn vigil and light candles in front of a framed passport picture that was taken just a few meters away in one of the authority’s offices.