By Claas Relotius
The Muatis are one of hundreds of thousands of refugee families who have come to Germany from Syria since the war broke out. They desperately want to fit in and contribute to society, but even as the children relish their newfound freedoms, the parents worry about their future.
On a morning in May, as Yusra Muati was lying down in a German doctor’s office and holding her husband Adel’s hand, the couple learned there could be problems with their unborn child. The doctor, a woman in a white blouse, passed an ultrasound device across the mother’s abdomen, and marked a tiny head, two hands and two feet on a screen. After a while, she used words that Adel and Yusra Muati had never heard in Germany before: chromosomes, trisomy and heart defect.
The parents looked at the monitor and understood the doctor was talking about abnormalities. Then she explained to them, in slow, simple German sentences, that their child might be disabled or sick. She said that even if they decided to continue the pregnancy, the child might not be strong enough to survive the birth.
On an evening in July, two months later, Adel, a portly 44-year-old, and 38-year-old Yusra, who wears a headscarf and has alert blue eyes, sit on a sofa in their living room in the Billstedt neighborhood of Hamburg. They explain that the doctor advised them to have the amniotic fluid tested, but they don’t see any point. Yusra is now in her sixth month of pregnancy, and she is beginning to show under her clothing. She strokes her stomach and says that she has heard that many German women don’t want a disabled child, but that she would definitely give birth to hers. “We survived the war,” the mother says. “How can we not allow it to live here, in safety?”
Her four children, Russlan, 20, Amir, 17, Ghofran, 13 and Youssef, 7, are sitting next to her on the sofa. A news report about bombing attacks in Syria plays on the television. The parents see burning buildings and images from Damascus, images from their past. They speak quietly about their future, first in Arabic and then in German, and about their fifth child, which they want to grow up without bombs.
The Muatis — asylum application number 03301 A 2014, case file 587729 — are one of hundreds of thousands of refugee families in Germany. They are Muslims from Syria, like most of the asylum-seekers. And they have a limited right to stay in the country, like most of the others. Until recently, they lived in a container, but now they have their own apartment. And although they are recognized as refugees, they no longer want to be just people with numbers and reference numbers, they want to have children in Germany, pay taxes and be a normal part of society.
“This has to be our home until our child is born,” says Adel. But they wonder whether they will make it.
More German than Germans
The Muatis’ apartment is on the ground floor of an eight-story apartment building on the city’s outskirts, in a neighborhood of brick row houses. They moved into the apartment six months ago, taking over the furniture from an older German woman. Although there are only three and a half rooms for the family of six, they’ve managed to make it work.
They eat and pray in the living room — a Syrian family, sitting barefoot in front of a tiled table with a lace tablecloth, and a wall shelf unit dating from Germany’s postwar economic miracle era. There is a worn oriental rug on the floor, crocheted curtains in front of the windows and six umbrellas, one for each member of the family, under the wardrobe in the foyer. The Muatis say that they sometimes go for a walk around the neighborhood with their six umbrellas when it’s rainy and stormy out — the only ones in the neighborhood to do so, as if to prove how much they like rough weather.
There is a small veranda with white garden chairs in front of their living-room window. Sometimes upstairs neighbors bend over their balconies, looking down at the Muatis as if they were inspecting them, and see an aviary and rectangular flowerbeds, and the father trimming the beech hedge, mowing the lawn and, on Sundays, lighting the barbecue.
The Muatis are the only refugees in the apartment building. But their German upstairs neighbors say that the Syrian family, which lives on the ground floor, is more German than all the neighbors combined.
“Germany isn’t going to give us all the time in the world,” says Adel. He believes the Germans will give the refugees no more than three years to settle in. In those three years, he says, the refugees will receive help from all over the place — from neighbors, employment offices and the government. As a family with four children, the Muatis receive a monthly subsidy of €1,800 ($2,135). The Germans don’t ask for much in return, except that the refugees learn the language, obey the law and find work. “Three years,” says Adel Muati. “We have to make it by then, or we’ll never make it.”
The Long Path to Safety
He and Russlan, the oldest son, were the first to arrive, two years and seven months ago. They left Damascus, without their family, in the fall of 2014, so that Russlan, who was still a teenager at the time, wouldn’t have to go to war for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
They fled through much of North Africa, and wandered through the Sahara for 15 days before reaching Algeria, where they paid traffickers and crossed the Mediterranean in a wooden boat filled with 500 people. They talk about the ordeal the way Germans talk about a vacation they took many years ago, as if it no longer feels as dramatic to them as it did at the time. They have never talked about the trip in Germany, says Russlan, a soft-spoken young man wearing a baseball cap, in part because no one in Germany has ever asked them about it.
When they came across the border and reached Hamburg, they were housed in repurposed shipping containers in the middle of nowhere, next to the autobahn and near a waste incineration plant. They didn’t speak a word of German, in part because they never encountered any Germans.
Only months later, after the mother had arrived with the rest of the children, did they move to newly constructed housing, a container village in Othmarschen, a residential neighborhood in the city located near the Elbe River. There were no nearby highways, only local residents who complained about noise on their doorsteps.
At that time, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were fleeing to Germany — in Munich, Germans greeted them with teddy bears, while others set a refugee hostel on fire in Dresden — and a journalist visited the Muatis, asking if she could shoot a film about them. The Muatis said they felt honored.
The documentary film was released in theaters this year. It was shown in Munich and Dresden, and at film festivals in Germany, other European countries and the United States. It depicts a Syrian family during their first few months in Hamburg, six people fighting to belong. A father who makes phone calls day and night in order to find a job and an apartment, a hijab-wearing mother who seems lost next to mothers in short shirts, and three sons and a daughter attending school without understanding the language.
The film is called “Alles Gut” (Everything is Fine). Thing’s weren’t really fine, but “alles gut” and “kein problem” (no problem) were the first expressions the Muatis learned in Germany. Adel Muati used them constantly at first: as a salutation, to say goodbye, to apologize and to thank people. He said them when landlords hung up the phone as soon as they heard his name, when he applied for jobs but received no responses, and when social workers working with asylum-seekers told him he needed to be more patient.
He still says these words today. The family has an apartment now, but he still hasn’t landed a job. And it’s becoming more and more difficult to be patient.
A Struggle to Find Work
The family sits in the living room. Ghofran, who wears a white headscarf, serves sweet tea while her father thumbs through six heavy binders. Each of the binders bears the name of a family member on the front. They contain documents from their Syrian and German life, but only the German documents are truly worth anything here, says Adel.
Ghofran’s binder contains her school report card from Damascus, which includes a photo of Assad, the country’s dictator. Almost all of her grades were A’s. “Before the war began, I wanted to become a doctor,” says Ghofran. Now she has a German report card, with no photo of Assad, but with grades that aren’t good enough to attend a university in Germany.
Her father’s binder contains master craftsman’s certificates and craftsman’s diplomas, stamped by the Syrian regime. In Damascus, he was a metal caster and owned his own factory, with more than 20 employees. His wife Yusra, who worked as a seamstress, had all of her certificates notarized and sent from the war-torn country, but they are not readily accepted in Germany, where she has to start all over again.
Adel Muati waited one and a half years for his work permit. He attended training programs offered by the local chamber of trade, and an integration course provided by the Federal Office of Migration. He completed an unpaid internship with an aluminum company, which gave him a glowing reference, but not a job offer.
He now wants to complete a traineeship and then an advanced training program. He attends a four-hour language course four times a week. To improve his German, he watches German cooking shows on TV, like “The Kitchen Battle” and “The Perfect Dinner,” instead of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. He gets up every morning at 6 a.m. to make breakfast for his wife and children. Then he calls the employment office, but all he hears are words like “soon,” “unfortunately” and “impossible.” Sometimes, when the children are in school, Adel sits in his living room as if he were in a waiting room. “I don’t want to take from Germany anymore,” he says. “I want to give something back to Germany.”
Muati believes that refugees should be thankful and happy to be living in a country like Germany. He looks up at the ceiling. Music is playing in the apartment above. The neighbors are listening to a song by Herbert Grönemeyer, one of Germany’s most famous singers, called “Mensch,” or “human,” which they listen to all the time: “It’s all OK / Take it day by day / This is summer time / Nothing across my mind.”
Sometimes, when Muati is writing applications or watching cooking shows, he reads WhatsApp messages from friends who are still in Syria. They write about people starving and dying, about shells falling from the sky. His brother was killed in the war. His mother, says Muati, is still trapped in Damascus. She was too sick to leave with the rest of the family. He calls her every day, and he doesn’t know if he will ever see her again.
The Germans Like Rules
Yusra says the family had a small party in their living room a few weeks ago, during Ramadan. They decorated the tiled table and grilled ground beef kebabs, eggplant and potatoes on the terrace. After sundown, they took half a dozen plates to their neighbors upstairs. The neighbors thanked them and then closed the door again.
The Muatis would like to talk to Germans a lot more. The parents say they would like to try something truly German, like a real German meal, but no one has ever invited them over. They don’t believe that the Germans are bad hosts, just that they are very busy and rarely cook.
Sometimes, when Muati calls his mother in Syria, she asks: Adel, what are the Germans like?
The Germans, he replies, are generous to strangers but tough on themselves. They separate their garbage, sorting out glass, plastic and paper, and walk their dogs on a leash, like camels. They love cleanliness and rules, they prefer to make their lives difficult instead of easy, and they like to obey rules. “In fact,” Adel Muati says, “they would make the better Muslims.”
He heard Chancellor Angela Merkel say that Islam is now firmly a part of Germany. He doesn’t believe that many Arabs would be in favor of someone saying that Christianity is now firmly a part of the Arab world, but he admires Merkel for her courage. He pronounces chancellor with the French spelling, “chancelière,” and the way he says it doesn’t make a person think about transit zones and quotas, but rather of refinement and warmth.
The Muatis are also familiar with AfD (the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party) and a woman with short hair who talked about shooting at refugees. As the Muatis understood it, this woman’s party is afraid that even more Arabs will come to Germany, that Muslims like them will reproduce and that German families will eventually become extinct.
The Muatis also understand that a traditional German AfD family includes a father who is willing to work honestly, a mother who takes care of the household and raises the children and many children who are well-behaved and respect their parents. The typical AfD family, as the Muatis understand it, is one that loves Germany above all else. In fact, it would also love a family like theirs, if it weren’t for their religion and place of origin.
“The children are becoming German more quickly,” says Yusra Muati, as she looks out the window at the terrace, where seven-year-old Youssef is playing with a black, red and gold soccer ball. He constantly forgets what the word imam means, but remembers words like church, rocket engine and Mercedes. “The child we are now expecting,” her husband says, “will be even more German than we can ever become here in Germany.”
Learning How To Ride a Bike
When asked if they would return to Syria as soon as the war is over, the parents speak about the past, and about their life in Damascus, which they say is still their home. When the children are asked whether they would accompany their parents, they speak about tomorrow, and about their life in Hamburg, where they now have friends, hobbies and dreams.
Ghofran, the girl, says that she never sat on a bicycle in Damascus because girls aren’t supposed to ride bicycles in Syria. She only learned to ride one in Germany. She was afraid at first, but then “I felt light and free,” she says.
She is learning to play the violin in her music class at school, and discovering that boys do not have different rights than her just because they aren’t girls. In Hamburg, she sees girls everywhere swimming, dancing and generally doing as they please. “I don’t know if I want that, either,” says Ghofran, “but I still want to be a doctor.”
Her brother Russlan is doing an internship at ThyssenKrupp and will soon begin a training program as an industrial mechanic. He wants to move into his own apartment as soon as he starts making money. He likes German cars and blonde girls. He can understand why some Germans are afraid of young men like him. In Billstedt, he often sees young Syrians, Albanians and Turks sitting in front of the gambling hall. Although their grandparents came to Germany decades ago, they themselves hardly speak any German.
Russlan has never heard anything about the incident that took place in Cologne on New Years Eve at the end of 2015, during which men, believed to be primarily from North Africa, sexually assaulted numerous women. He knows nothing about so-called “Antänzer,” a racially loaded term for pick-pockets who dance to distract their victims, and “Nafris,” a German police abbreviation meaning “North African Intensive offenders,” but he believes that men with nothing to do are likely to cause problems.
After work each day, Russlan goes to a language course or his table tennis club, and he works out five days a week at McFit, a German gym chain. He opens the door for his female teacher. He does his own laundry, irons, cooks, cleans and offers his seat to women on the bus. He behaved the same way in Syria, he says. “Good behavior is not necessarily German,” says Russlan, “it’s just good behavior.”
In five months, he and his father will have been in Germany for three years. And in a few months, the Muatis will have a new child whose place of birth will be Hamburg.
Their residence permit expires next March, but their right of residency will probably be extended by two to three years. To test how integrated they are, Adel Muati took the naturalization test at the Federal Office of Migration, a test that immigrants normally take after eight years.
The test is called “Life in Germany,” and consists of 33 of a total of 310 questions that German officials apparently believe are important for a life in Germany: What is the name of the festival where Germans wear colorful costumes and masks? What happened on May 8, 1945? Can two men get married? Could a 25-year-old named Tim live together as a couple with a 13-year-old named Anne? What is the Schengen Agreement? What does a year of separation mean? Who wrote the lyrics for the German national anthem?
Adel passed the test, answering 24 of the 33 questions correctly. Now he knows when Carnival is, who governed Alsace-Lorraine and who Hoffmann von Fallersleben was. According to Section 3, Paragraph 1 of the Ordinance on Integration Courses, he has demonstrated strong knowledge of life in Germany. He added the result to his resume, as if to prove that his family can make it here.
Still, Muati says he feels tightness in his chest when he thinks of his unborn child — not because the child will be born disabled, but because the war could still drag on for years, because their child will not be able to play in the Damascus bazaar and taste Syrian ice cream, because his grandmother may never be able to hold the baby in her arms. And finally, he says, it’s because Germany would be a home without roots for the child, just as it is for all refugees and new arrivals.
The parents returned for another checkup a few days ago. Once again, Yusra lay in the doctor’s office while her husband held her hand. They looked at the ultrasound images of their child. It will probably be a girl, said the doctor. It probably has a trisomy and, the doctor added, it will likely have a hole in its heart after birth.
The Muatis looked at each other, remaining completely calm. “Inshallah,” said Yusra, or “God willing.”
“Everything is fine,” said Adel. No problem.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan