From Syria to Germany: Building a new life under the shadow of trauma
Leah Carter, a 2017 recipient of the Ross Hazeltine Travel Scholarship, traveled to Germany to report on refugees in German refugee camps with a focus on migrant children.
Carter tells the stories of Asad, a Syrian refugee, and Sidiki, a 17-year-old from Guinea, and their transitions to Germany. She examines the realities of translation, psychological support and integration services for the refugees.
From Syria to Germany: Building a new life under the shadow of trauma
In 2012 at the start of the still-ongoing Syrian civil war that has so far displaced millions of people, Asad was studying economics and working as an intern in an engineer’s office.
One day, police came to his office. He had been going to anti-regime demonstrations, and the officers had a list with his name on it, they said. They showed him photos of himself and his brother. He denied that he was ever there, but the officers took him anyway.
He found himself in a prison, where he was interrogated and tortured for three consecutive months — torture that left scars all over his body. He didn’t speak the entire time that he was there. When others made a sound, they were killed. So he knew, even when he was hung in handcuffs by his wrists for three days with his feet dangling above the ground, not to speak. No one in his family knew where he was.
He knew the only way out of the prison was to profess his allegiance to the Assad regime and join the military. He knew there he might be tortured again, but that he had a chance to build trust with officials and find a way to contact his family.
“I could make some contact to do something, I can run away,” he said. “I will be in a big prison with this army but I would have a chance. Maybe 1 or 5 percent to just leave.”
So he was made a commander and transferred to a city on the border with Iraq and Turkey. When his family was able to make contact with the military and find Asad, his father paid a hefty sum to pay for a three day holiday so that Asad could visit his family.
When he arrived, after not seeing his family for five months, he had just a few minutes to say goodbye to his parents, his siblings and his sister’s newborn baby. He and his younger brother Mohammed left together and went to Turkey, where he spent three years working thirteen hours a day on construction projects.
From there, they went from Greece to Serbia, where he and his brother went to both jail and immigration detention centres, and lost money to fraudulent smugglers who promised to help them leave the country. Then to Bosnia and through Croatia.
When he arrived in the city of Osnabrück with his brother, neither of them spoke German. But they had German friends who helped them make it across the border. He knew, other asylum seekers’ stories, that Berlin was where he wanted to be. He thought he’d have the best chance at asylum and building a new life.
Because he had documents to prove that he was in the army and in prison in Syria, he was able to gain asylum status within 71 days, and received a three-year residence permit. It took his brother, on the other hand, five months to have his asylum approved and he was only given a one-year residence permit.
Difficulty depending on translators
He believes that the asylum process depended on more than just his documents, however. The day that he had his final asylum interview, he was met with what he felt was an exasperated translator, who he said misinterpreted what he was saying.
“I really believe it depends on the person you speak with, and more how the translator is feeling about your story,” he said. “How is the translator’s mood? If he’s happy, he’s going to help you a lot.”
Over the course of his five hour interview, he was assigned two separate translators. For the first two hours of the interview, he was satisfied.
“Two hours later, the first translator said okay I am so tired and my time to finish is now and I need to go.”
So the immigration officials brought a new translator. This time, a woman from Iraq. He said she didn’t fully translate what he was saying.
“You see, I spoke a lot and she translates just two hours two sentences.” he said. “I speak for ten minutes, and she spoke for two or three minutes then stopped. It’s not enough for me and I decided to speak in English.”
So he asked the translator if he could take over.
“Please, you do your job, it is just job for you.” he said. “After you work two or three hours you go to your home. You’ll sleep. But for me, it’s my life. My life depends on your job. But you didn’t do good. I didn’t see you speak a lot.”
So he and the immigration officer continued without the help of the translator. At one point, the officer asked him what he would do if Germany sent him back to Syria.
“That’s a hard question for me.” he said. “If the humanitarian country of Germany wants to send me back to die, I will have no other choice. I will die. I was born again in Germany now.”
A few weeks later, he got a letter in the mail notifying him that his asylum was granted. The next step was to learn German. Although he is qualified as an engineer and had assistance from the German job centers, the only work that he could find was in cafes or menial labor because he did not speak German.
German was not only a requirement of his asylum, but also a requirement to get any job in Germany.
For his brother, who was only initially granted one year of asylum, the pressure to learn the language was even more intense. Despite housing and job assistance from the immigration bureau, he was obligated to reach the B2 level of German before the end of his first year in Germany, or risk not being accepted for an extension.
“He must finish the language. He is fighting with the court to get three years. He can’t go back to Syria again because of me.” Asad said. “If you don’t work, if you don’t finish the language, what can you do in Germany? Germany needs people to work, people to know the language; people to do, not to sleep.”
Newcomers face obstacles to attending classes
In addition to being overwhelmed with the need for Arabic to German translators, the state-funded language programs that all asylum seekers and migrants in Germany are required to take only have a fifty percent passing rate.
Even with state assistance, many newcomers still struggle with the integration and language-learning process. With long commutes, hefty hours, and some minimal fees, even just showing up to the course can be difficult for someone who is also building a new life in a country and manage certain traumas.
In order to learn German, Asad would take an hour-long U-Bahn ride from his camp at Spandau, the end of the U7 line in Berlin, to Neukölln where he studied German with other migrants. Even with committed attendance at the language school, it took Asad more than a year in Germany to reach the target B1 level for migrants.
Language was not only a critical part of his asylum process, but also a critical part of building his life in Berlin. Despite having a 520 euro a month stipend from the immigration bureau for housing, it still took him over eight months to secure a housing contract.
The journey from Guinea to Germany
Meanwhile, Sidiki, an 17-year-old from Guinea, struggled to learn German during his first year following arrival in the country. Sidiki was living in a home for young boys in Troisdorf, a German city just outside of Cologne.
During the interview, Mouna Fakhir, the director of the home, sat next to Sidiki in case he needed assistance with translation.
On his way to Germany, Sidiki only spoke French. Because he couldn’t communicate with officials in German or English, he was mostly dependent on other French speakers to help him get to the next steps of his journey.
He didn’t initially intend to go to Germany. He first set out to go to Mali, then got the idea to go to Europe. When he got to Europe, other people told him to go to Germany. There, he would be able to go to school and find housing.
Sidiki’s favorite thing to do is play soccer, which he played with his father, who died of ebola in 2014. After his father’s death he moved in with his last living relative, his uncle. But his uncle beat him and forced him to work, and barely fed him, he said.
“My uncle didn’t do anything for me,” Sidiki said. “Sometimes there was food, sometimes there wasn’t,” He no longer has contact with anyone from Guinea. His home, he said, is in Germany now. He also says he doesn’t miss Guinea.
However, he has struggled to learn the language. “My favorite subject is mathematics because it is not as difficult as German,” Sidiki said. “With German, you have to learn articles. This is difficult. But for me math is not as difficult as reading.”
He added that he experienced anxiety when talking with other people due to the language barrier.
Eleven other boys under 18, many of whom were also from Guinea, lived there at the time.
Fakhir added that the camps that Sidiki and others had to stay in on the long journey to Germany are often brutal places. “In such camps, everyone fights for themselves. Everyone has to think for themselves and fight for themselves,” said Fakhir, the director of the home in Troisdorf.
Language plays key role in starting life in Germany
Language is not only a major key in integrating into Germany, with the majority of employment requiring some measure of German knowledge, but it also makes finding counseling and trauma assistance significantly easier.
The shortage of translators and Arabic-speaking social workers and therapists combined with the high hourly cost of hiring a translator leaves non-German speakers with very few opportunities to discuss potential mental health issues or even see a doctor for a basic medical issue.
Although Germany’s medical institutions are state-funded, there is no legal requirement for that institution to fund a translator for a patient, even in emergency rooms.
“In every district of Berlin you have a regional hospital, and if you send them to the regional hospital, some hospitals plainly refuse to care for the patient if there is no translator,” said Dr. Andreas Heinz, the medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the largest university clinic in Europe, Charite — Universitätsmedizin Berlin.
In most cases, there is no opportunity for hospitals to be reimbursed for hiring translators, and even under circumstances where there is the possibility of getting some money back from the state, the process can be extremely time-consuming and complex, according to Dr. Heinz.
Even when the hospital is willing to fund or provide a translator, that person may not always be available, resulting in longer emergency room waits for patients who can’t communicate in German.
“They essentially have no translation services in the emergency units,” he said. “Essentially, all of them end up in hospital beds in the wards. But again there is no translation service, so the hospitals then get a translator to work with them, but most of the time they just sit and wait. It’s a very bad situation.”
The long waits also put a significant burden of cost on the state and hospitals due to the high cost of housing someone in the hospital. Some patients may wait hours — or even an entire day for a translator to arrive.
The daily cost of housing in-patient, he said, can be upward of one thousand euros.
Some patients might then choose to bring their own translator, or a person who speaks German to a clinic, but the shortage still serves to isolate people with particularly private or complex traumas, beyond basic medical issues.
“You know, if this is about rape or traumatization or any humiliating experience you don’t want to have a family member or somebody from your refugee home or living situation with you,” he said. “You need somebody professional.”
Even in the case of speaking German, many people may still have difficulty expressing their traumatic experiences in a second language.
“People learn German, but if you talk in a foreign language it’s much more difficult to express emotions, much more difficult to describe your experience and what you feel,” said Heinz. “Makes things much more complicated.”
For Charite’s clinic, they don’t turn anyone away, regardless of their language abilities. This creates a significant financial and staffing burden on the clinic.
“We don’t turn people away but we need to pay for the translators,” he said. “And if you have biweekly sessions or something like that, even in an outpatient setting, it creates costs.”
To hire a translator in the clinic, the cost is typically around 30 euro per hour.
In Bettina Laske’s family social work office in Berlin, Arabic skills are extremely rare, meaning that in order to interpret the words of a non-German speaker, her team has to find a social worker in their circle who does speak the language and may already be overworked, or seek out a volunteer interpreter.
“Many people who have been in Germany for several years will volunteer their services as interpreters,” Laske said. “There are many interpreters but there are still not enough.”
She also believes that trust is one of the most major components to her work; whether she is working with German or foreign families, she knows that it will be difficult to discuss intimate details of her clients’ personal lives without first establishing that element in the relationship — which tends to take multiple meetings to do.
The most overworked social workers, she says, work in the shelters.
“The social workers that work in these places are really overwhelmed,” Laske said. “There are not enough.”
Many Arabic-speaking social workers didn’t realize that they would be assigned to work in shelters and dealing with exclusively migration-based issues, as opposed to working typical social offices that deal with the entire population.
“I met a social worker who came from an Arabic speaking country and so naturally she could already speak Arabic,” Laske said. “But it was not advantageous. She was a young woman, very competent…They are chronically understaffed.”
The magnitude of the problems that workers assigned to shelters experience can also be more challenging to manage than the problems in the general centers that they were trained to manage, due to underfunding, overcrowding and the traumas that many migrant residents have faced both in their home countries and in Germany.
“Sometimes there is violence there — conflicts because maybe they expected something else and now they [asylum seekers living in gymnasiums] are aggressive, and on the other hand now they [the social workers] must counsel them,” she said.
She also believes that the number of social workers and counselors placed in each camp is too low, contributing to the exhaustion that she says many workers face.
“I think that you must have at least four or five psychologists there,” Laske said. “When you only have two social workers there, it’s already programmed so that after one or two years they just cannot anymore.”
Training refugees to counsel one another
One of the solutions that clinics like Charite have come up with is a program to train refugees themselves to counsel each other.
A peer counseling program would remove the financial and logistical hurdle of having to find a translator for every session. It could also have the added impact of decreasing a sense of isolation commonly found among new migrants, particularly those who do not yet speak the language.
In May, Heinz’s clinic began a pilot program in Berlin, Munich and Aachen to train eight initial peer counselors. The first of its kind in Germany, Charite sees the first phase as somewhat experimental phase.
“There has been a lot of paper noise or a lot of discussion about peer programs … but often it has been portrayed as if it is very clear how to do this or that it is effective but it is not that clear,” he said. “These peer programs have only been used in developing countries.”
What Heinz envisions for the program is a snowball effect in which peer counselors will train other peer counselors, effectively causing a snowball effect in which migrants who speak languages other than German can sustain some of their own mental healthcare.
One of his concerns, however, is that if the program is successful in fulfilling patients’ basic therapeutic needs, it will create a system in which refugees are treated differently within the mental healthcare system than other residents.
“These projects are largely good but you have to do it in a way in which you do not get a two class system in which refugees get different treatment than the rest of the population,” he said. “In the short run this could be good, but in the long run it could force divisions.”
Although the German-language skills of the wave of refugees who came over between 2015-2016 have largely improved, Germany still sees asylum seekers flowing into the country not just from war-torn countries like Syria, but also from the Balkans and African countries like Guinea and Nigeria.
The need for translators in the healthcare system remains just as steady, but funding has not budged. Heinz believes that increasing translation funding is the solution.
“The main block that hasn’t been changed in the regular system in the long run is the payment for translators,” he said. “And this will be the key thing to change and it’s not changing.”
‘I started to have a normal life’
Now 27 years old, Asad feels that he has a new lease on life in Germany.
In spring, he passed the B1 language exam and received the certificate. He also passed his political exam, another component to establishing permanent German residency.
“I think now I start to feel lucky,” he said. “I started to have a normal life, somehow.”
In April, he found a place to live and a full-time job.
“I moved to the flat, and since I moved there, my whole life changed,” he said.
He now works for a nursing home as a caretaker.
“For me, it’s like social work because the people there, nobody comes to visit them,” he said. “They were spending all their life working. My job is to make them to change their bad mood when they have it. I take them to coffee sometimes, walk in the park.”
He also married a German woman in the same month — Unofficially, he said, because there is no longer any need to legally register his marriage with the state now that he has five more years of asylum due to passing his exams.
“I think I found my new life,” said Asad. “I was born again in Germany.”