© UNICEF/UN026305/Gilbertson VII Photo

The fairytale family

By Ashley Gilbertson, VII Photo for UNICEF

PART ONE — SID, SERBIA — December 2015

It’s dusk at abandoned roadside hotel in Sid, Serbia, and almost a thousand refugees are milling about, waiting for a signal that the buses idling out front will be loading up and departing for a train station where they will continue their journey to central Europe by train.

There’s a long line of people in the car park waiting to use the temporary toilets that have been installed. A neon sign above the entrance that once advertised the hotel is no longer illuminated, and some of the cyrillic letters smashed. Men are gathered outside the building, chain-smoking as they pace in the frozen mud. The men keep one eye on the buses in the lot, and another eye on the hotels lobby, where their phones are plugged into a huge charging station along with smartphones of hundreds of other refugees.

Smart phones are the refugees map, their lifeline. On the Balkan route, as it’s come to be known, there’s no centralized hub for information, which at the best of times is infinitely difficult to come across. Authorities are unhelpful, and the smugglers only have very limited contact with the people they’re moving, so more often than not, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.

“Where am I?” was a question I heard over and over.

Occasionally, the refugees are able to pick up a Wi-Fi signal, and this old hotel is one such place. On their phones, they’re using Whatsapp and Facebook to compare notes with other people making the journey, finding out what borders are open, which borders have been shut down, and above all, they are able to check in with family back home.

Among the crowd at the phone charging station, I watch a man move through the crowd with his young son searching for an available outlet to replenish his phone’s waning battery. I’m drawn to him because he’s behaving differently from the group–his movements are respectful, polite even. It’s unexpected and refreshing.

© UNICEF/UN05623/Gilbertson VII Photo

Only two months ago when I was last here, it was far less organized, even chaotic at times. The border crossing then was an informal, unmarked dirt road between fields. I remember watching as women paused to change their babies on trampled stems of corn and then gathered themselves before moving in single file through lines of fierce looking Croatian police officers in riot gear standing beneath a hastily erected European Union flag.

This new arrangement shows a progression in the handling of the crisis by the Serbian authorities, which is certainly not the case for all the transit countries involved.

Inside the abandoned hotel, the heaters are on and it’s warm. Medecin Sans Frontiers is providing emergency care in an old office that had been turned into a surgery, there’s a counter out front providing basic information, and another larger room that has been turned into a dedicated space by UNICEF for children and their parents to play in. There are seats and tables in the lobby, and while it’s by no means nice place, it’s far better than the alternative.

The man I had seen earlier was with his family now, in a dimly lit corner at the rear of the lobby. Their three kids were scampering around nearby, being careful not to disturb a few old men and women sleeping under tables and pressed up against heaters. I move toward the mother and father.

“Khaled Raslan,” says the man.

“Amira Raslan,” says the woman, placing her hand over her heart, as is customary in Arabic culture upon greeting, “we’re from Homs, Syria.”

The family is remarkably upbeat given they’ve spent the last week on a virtually non stop trek from Turkey by land and sea. The kids squeal and laugh as they chase one other, and Amira, 24, is an ocean of serenity–she smiles as she watches her children, and her smile is the warmest and most honest expression I’ve ever come across. Her eyes could tame a wild beast — totally serene. Khaled, 33, sits next to Amira. He has an air of strength and fairness that’s immediately reassuring.

© UNICEF/UN05619/Gilbertson VII Photo

Their outward appearance betrays nothing of what they’re experiencing internally: “It’s normal for parents to be anxious and worry about all of the challenges. Our kids don’t know how hard life can be, because we don’t tell them or let them see. We protect them, so they can play.”

“They were afraid of the trip,” says Amira, “and the scariest part was the water crossing. We managed to get all three kids to sleep before the boat left, and we put them in the middle of the boat. We used our bodies as shields between them and the sea, so they couldn’t see the water. There were other mothers on the boat crying, but we had to master our emotions so we didn’t transmit our fear to the kids.”

“I gathered all of the power I had to protect them,” Khaled said, stretching his arms as from as far away from his body as possible and then pulling them back in slowly towards his heart. “We saw boats capsize, and that people were drowning. Four kids died, in another boat, who were part of the larger group we were crossing with. I wouldn’t do it again. It was traumatizing.”

The Raslan family escaped Homs in 2012, as the frontline moved into their neighborhood. Tanks rolled down their street, followed by infantry soldiers who began searching houses.

“They were going house to house and killing people. Girls were raped in front of their families on the street.” Amira says, “We left immediately, without our clothes, without anything. We escaped by crawling. When we saw a light, we would lie down in the street, because we didn’t want the soldiers to see us escaping.”

While Amira and Khaled were focused on survival, the entire family was devastated at having to leave brothers, sisters, and parents behind.

“I loved living in Homs,” says Jannat, seven years old, “I loved my grandmother who lived there. She gave me a lot of gifts, and I got to have sleepovers with her.”

Shortly after the family left, the grandmother died of heart failure during a bombing campaign.

“I miss her very much.” Says Jannat.

© UNICEF/UN05622/Gilbertson VII Photo
© UNICEF/UN05624/Gilbertson VII Photo

After they managed to get out of Syria, the family lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Their children were not permitted to attend local schools, conditions in the camp were awful, and the Lebanese treated the Syrian refugees badly, Khaled said. So the family took action–they built a school for Syrian refugees that Khaled managed, and where Amira, a qualified schoolteacher, taught kids math, art and religious studies. Their three kids–the twins Jannat and Amr, both seven years old, and Karam, four–attended their parents school with other refugee children for two years when the government forced Amira and Khaled to close it down. It was at that moment they decided they needed to travel to Germany.

Once there, Khaled, who was a sports coach in Homs, plans to learn German and find a job.

“I’d like to continue working in the sports field. I’d really like to volunteer to help other refugees.” He explains, “I can’t bear to see people in need.”

Amira aspires to finding work that will help create change in her new community of refugees.

“I’ve seen Syrian women going through so many hardships, and when I get to Germany, I want to become a women’s rights advocate.” She says, ”The priority is to learn the language, because it’s a prerequisite to be a part of their society, and then, realize my ambition.”

There’s suddenly a rush of activity in the old hotel. In a second, the place has gone from being a somewhat relaxed waiting spot to madness. People are streaming out the door while they put on backpacks. The buses are leaving. This happened everywhere I went — there would be no indication of something about to happen, buses leaving, train approaching, food delivery, but everytime, the refugees knew ahead of time. It’s as though there was a silent radio that only they could hear.

Amira had gone to the child friendly space with another mother and their kids, so Khaled ran in and told them all to get moving. They moved to their bus, and boarded, and as I went to follow them aboard, Khaled was rushing back down the bus steps.

“Wait, wait” he said coolly, followed moments later by Amira.

The pair rushed from bus to bus, boarding and searching the rows of passengers as they shouted. It’s loud, and over the din of bus engines and shouts of conductors, it takes me a few minutes to make out what they’re shouting:

“Jannat! Jannat!”

The seven year old had gotten caught up in the confusion talking with her new friend, and had rushed to a bus with the wrong family. The Raslans manage to hold up the convoy of a thousand people for long enough to find their daughter after searching half a dozen buses in the freezing night air — it can take months to reunite families after losing a child or a loved one on a journey like this, and they knew it.

© UNICEF/UN05626/Gilbertson VII Photo

Even under this enormous pressure, the family maintains their calm demeanor. Jannat is upset, on the verge of tears, but not so her parents. They each take one of her hands and hold tight as they walk back to their own bus. They board the bus, and it’s jam packed at this point. The crowd parts –families get priority on this journey– to give them space to settle tightly into a row of seats with Jannat’s twin Amr, and her little brother Karam.

The family is complete again. Amira hugs her daughter tightly and then hugs the rest of her children. The bus pulls out and they’re on their way to Croatia.

“What makes our family special is that we’re ambitious and always able to find the positives.” Amira says, “My daughter, Jannat, no matter the conditions, is always wanting to go to school, to do well, and one day become a doctor. We really believe there is hope, despite all of the problems, and we all feel that way — especially the kids though. They were born into and grew up in terrible conditions, in war, but still…” Amira pauses, “they dream.”


PART TWO — BERLIN, GERMANY — December 2015

© UNICEF/UN05637/Gilbertson VII Photo

“When we first walked in here, we were shocked,” Khaled says, “in our culture, there is always a sense of intimacy. Here, there is no privacy, and we can never get a good night’s sleep knowing we’re in the same room as hundreds of other people and families. It’s just not how we were brought up. Everyone here agrees with that, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The Raslans arrived in Germany a few days ago and immediately travelled to Berlin, where they registered with the LaGeSo for asylum. Amira’s sister and brother already live here, she says, and she hopes they can stay close them, and that they might be able to help her own family a little.

© UNICEF/UN05642/Gilbertson VII Photo

“We see our family that’s already here so well integrated after only a year and a half.” Says Amira hopefully. “They learned German and are fluent now, they have even performed a theatre piece in front of Angela Merkel! We know the first month or two are going to be hard, but after that, things are going to get better.”

However, the city, like the rest of Germany, is in the throes of a massive crisis to accommodate the influx of over 1,000,000 people that have arrived this year. I recalled a few months back when I was sitting at Schonefeld train station awaiting a fresh train load of refugees to arrive. A man approached me, he wore a wrinkled suit, his tie was loose, and he had deep bags under his eyes. He asked me where I was from.

© UNICEF/UNI199994/Gilbertson VII Photo

“I’m a photographer, from New York City on assignment for UNICEF.” I said. “You?”

The man explained he was from the city of Berlin, and was responsible for finding housing for all of the newcomers. He’d been up all night, and at the eleventh hour had found housing for the thousand refugees arriving on this next train.

“So you’re from America. I read you guys are accepting 25,000 refugees. Is that true?” He asked.

“I’m embarrassed to say I think it is,” I replied.

“Well,” he sighed, “In Berlin, I take that many in one week.”

The Raslans arrived at the height of the influx, and have been allocated a bunk bed for the five of them inside a gymnasium at the Jane Adams School on the cities southern fringes. There are 150 refugees living in the space, and the sound of constant conversation echoes off the high ceilings. There’s one toilet and shower for men and another for women.

It’s not as bad as Templehof was, where thousands of refugees were sheltered in United Nations tents and had to be bussed weekly to showers at public pools around Berlin, but it’s a long shot from being comfortable.

“We don’t have a sense of home at the moment because we keep being moved from camp to camp.” Amira says, sitting on the edge of her bunk matress, “There are no shortcuts to this process, even with family already here, so we need to go through the whole process, which is taking longer than ever before because the numbers of refugees are always increasing, slowing down the process. I’ve been asking if we can expedite it a bit, to get our kids into school, but so far we’ve got no response.”

“At first, I was surprised at being treated like a number,” Khaled says, “but then I realized these processes were necessary to make the journey work efficiently for so many people.”

“It’s nothing compared to the difficulties we left behind,” adds Amira, “and the objective we’re looking for is so much better and bigger than that. So, being treated like a number for a while is fine, because our goals are so important. We’re very determined–all of us–to go to school and master German.”

© UNICEF/UN05635/Gilbertson VII Photo

Seeing the three kids at the emergency shelter among other refugee children, many of whom are severely traumatized, it’s clear they’ve fared better than many others in their age group who made the same journey. They smile easily, follow directions, and interact with Arabs and European adults with maturity beyond their years. Photography was key in making the journey more positive their mother says.

“Our two boys are afraid of policemen and soldiers, because of Syria,” Amira says quietly, out of earshot of Amr and Karam, “so when we would see them on the trip, we told the boys they were there to protect us, and we’d take photos of the kids in front of them.”

“We made everyplace special, by taking photographs. Like when we passed over a border, we’d say ‘Oh great! We made it into Serbia! Picture! Picture!” Amira said, gesturing for the family to group together, “We didn’t want it to be like a refugee journey, but like a family trip.”

The family is ambitious. Sitting here in this ‘basketball hall’, as they call it, with no concept of how long it will take to be granted proper housing or school, or if their application for asylum is even going to be approved, they’re making plans to be exceptional examples, to their children and to the world.

“Twenty years from now,” says Amira, “I hope that people around the world will talk about our family, the challenges that we faced and the successes we achieved.”


PART THREE — BERLIN, GERMANY — May, June 2016

“The process is a lot slower than we expected,” Khaled says. He has spent weeks and weeks queuing up at different government offices trying to understand the system for asylum, and push through his family’s application papers. “I spend so long there, at the different offices. Some days, at the LaGeSo, I arrive at 4 am, and leave at 8 pm, and still haven’t had my number called. If the process was faster, We’d all be speaking German by now.”

After six months of waiting and lobbying, the twins, Amr and Jannat, were just admitted into the local primary school. The kids are taught German there, and she is assisted a teenage German student. It’s a style of integration being introduced by the government.

© UNICEF/UN026319/Gilbertson VII Photo
© UNICEF/UN026330/Gilbertson VII Photo

Khaled has been attending language course for the past three months, and according to Jan-Phillip Gack, his teacher, is “very determined”. He’s studying a lot independently, Mr. Gack says, “he wants to learn things that are relevant to him as quickly as possible.”

Until recently, Amira was looking after the three kids full time, but now she’s only got Karam, the four year old, she hopes to find placement in a language school if she can find day care for him.

“We’re not living in an emergency situation anymore,” he continues, “we’re now living more normally. Here we have privacy, so it’s a little more comfortable, and two of our kids are at school. Now it’s better than before, and the next stage will be better still.”

The Raslan’s are in an eight-story office tower that’s been converted into a shelter inside an industrial park near the velodrome in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Opposite the entrance, maintenance workers from the Vattenfall energy company are learning how to rappel on model wind turbine blades in a large warehouse while kids and their parents play in the courtyard. Behind the office building is a residential neighborhood that has stand alone houses, a sprawling park on a hill, and a school. It’s a rarity in the city, and it feels like a section of the German countryside has been picked up and dropped into central Berlin.

© UNICEF/UN026304/Gilbertson VII Photo
© UNICEF/UN026365/Gilbertson VII Photo

These shelters built from converted buildings are all over Berlin, though a visitor wouldn’t know it unless they knew what to look for — shoes and clothes drying on window sills, men sitting on steps outside smoking. They’re everywhere–in office buildings, converted hotels, abandoned schools, public housing projects, gymnasiums, airports, even at the old Olympic stadium on the cities outskirts. One school that was converted still had chalk notes on the blackboard from East German teachers before the fall of the Berlin wall. There are so many of them throughout Berlin at this point it’s virtually impossible to walk more than ten minutes anywhere and not pass by at least one shelter of some sort.

At Volkspark, where the Raslans live, there are two hundred people in the shelter. Alternating floors have designated men’s and women’s toilets and there are showers on the ground floor. Men travelling alone live in shared spaces, though families here are given private space — a luxury for the Raslans who endured four months living on the high school basketball court.

© UNICEF/UN026364/Gilbertson VII Photo

“It was so difficult there,” Khaled says, “we couldn’t start German integration courses at the time, Jannat and Amr couldn’t go to school, and we couldn’t have a normal life. It was so noisy, and we were with everyone, so we couldn’t relax. The kids dropped to an unhealthy weight because they wouldn’t eat the food.”

“The refugees like the German breakfasts,” says Amira, “it’s cheese and milk and bread, like back in Syria.” However, lunch is usually pasta, she explains, and dinner is something Amira describes as “boiled, that doesn’t smell good, and doesn’t have much taste.”

“It’s rare that we eat the food here,” she emphasizes. She is not alone.

Food is a central, major issue to most of the refugees in Germany, and further abroad in places like Austria and Sweden. It’s a theme that arises in every conversation I have with asylum seekers. Food, we might think, should be the last of the concerns of people fleeing mortal danger.

Not so. It’s the consistency of the issue: for over a year, three meals a day are provided by private caterers to hundreds of thousands of refugees a day. Refugees are keen to integrate into society and join the work force, and cultural differences are things that can be overcome — in Syria, for example, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, and here it’s Saturday and Sunday. “That was strange,” Khaled says, “we’re used to it now, we just feel like Saturday is Friday.”

But trying to stomach food they don’t like for lunch and dinner, every day for months on end, is incredibly trying.

Compounding the problem is that the families cannot opt out of the program — the government provides the Raslan family, five people, a €1340 monthly allowance, and the management company takes €900 of that budget to provide food.

“In this shelter, we’re not even allowed to cook,” Khaled says, “if a guard even smells something, they come in and check.”

To the delight of his children, Khaled stands up and puts on a serious, gruff expression. He’s impersonating a fire warden, who are stationed on every floor of the shelter. He walks around their room, leaning down at the doors, pretending to smell for the scent of food being cooked through the crack and keyhole. His stern faces turns into a mischievous grin as he approaches a closet, and then outright laughter as he digs into the back of a pile of clothes to produce an electric hot plate.

© UNICEF/UN026349/Gilbertson VII Photo

Every night, Amira says, smiling, the families here wait for dark and then open windows and cook small plates of Arabic food for their kids. The hot plates are stashed when not in use behind piles clothes, in the ceiling, to avoid detection and confiscation during surprise spot checks that happen with some regularity.

Today though, the style of the food is a secondary issue to camp administrators around Germany — more pressing are their plans for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month in which Muslims fast during daylight hours, and eat at irregular hours late at night and very early in the morning. The month also calls for acts of charity by Muslims, and Amira, as always, is thinking about her fellow Syrians who remain in that country.

“People in Syria can’t have Eid,” she says, referring to the feast at the end of Ramadan, “they have no food. And there’s nothing we can do to help them.”

In Amira’s mind, the thousands of miles separating her family from their homeland, feels far closer. One night, I watched as her and her husband put the kids to bed. As a family, they prayed for the safety of people left behind in Syria, and in particular, their living relatives.

Prayer is all they’ve really got: just last week, Amira discovered on Facebook that her uncle had been killed in an airstrike. It’s the second uncle she’s lost since the war began. Silently, she showed me a photograph of a mangled human corpse amid building rubble. At the very same time, Khaled’s brother was imprisoned for no discernable reason. The couple suspect it’s because their own family made it to Germany, and as a result, his brother is being punished.

© UNICEF/UN026358/Gilbertson VII Photo

“We left from a land that was at war,” she continues, “And our aim was to come here, to feel peace and feel safe. We’re thankful that the German authorities opened their doors; the Arab countries all closed their doors, so this effort was a great one. All of these problems we’re having are really small, because the act of bringing refugees itself is so big.”

“We came here as a family, to have a new life, to learn German culture” Amira says. The children are asleep in the next room, and she’s crying now, “We don’t want to be a problem in society. We want to be a part of it.”

© UNICEF/UN026360/Gilbertson VII Photo
© UNICEF/UN026299/Gilbertson VII Photo

This story was first published in Die Zeit. Ashley Gilbertson is an award winning Australian photographer and journalist with the VII Photo agency. Gilbertson contributes to various outlets including the New York Times (Magazine and Opinion Pages), The New Yorker, and NGO clients including UNICEF and MSF. Gilbertson has received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for courage, and a National Magazine Award. He has published two books, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Bedrooms of The Fallen. He lives in New York City.


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