Refugees Tell Us What Their Lives Are Like After They Make It to Germany

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Refugees Tell Us What Their Lives Are Like After They Make It to Germany

We spoke with a number of migrants stuck in various stages of the asylum-seeking process in Berlin.
November 1, 2015, 4:30pm

All photos by the author

"I thought Germany was supposed to be paradise. Everyone used to think that as soon as you got to Berlin, everything would be OK," says Ahmed Kanaan. The 19-year-old Syrian migrant is one of nearly 1.5 million new refugees who are expected to enter Germany by the end of the year. Though the young man feels fortunate to have even made it to Berlin—around 3,000 have died crossing the Mediterranean this year—now that he's there he's asking the same question as countless other migrants: Now what?

The EU Migrant Crisis has been one of the most problematic and complicated global issues of 2015, with millions of people leaving war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, thousands dying in the flight to safer lands, and countries like Germany and Austria grappling with how to handle the influx of displaced people.

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But as the political leaders deliberate about who should be allowed in and how they should expedite the procedures, innumerable people who spent weeks risking their lives and abandoning their homes just trying to get to Berlin are continuing to suffer in a Kafka-esque nightmare as they drudge through a complex, erratic system of German bureaucracy in order to gain asylum. And they still might get deported.

No two refugees share the same story about getting to Berlin, and no two refugees share the same purgatorial experience while they they wait to actually start a new life in Europe. It takes days for some, and months for others.

Each person, however, starts by making his or her way through the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (LaGeSo), or the State Office for Health and Social Affairs. LaGeSo handles refugee issues related to housing, health insurance, and BVG passes. The organization also lets individuals know when they can officially apply for asylum and German residency through Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, or the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees—a status that's needed before they can get an apartment or a job. If the multiple office set-up sounds confusing to you, imagine being a shell-shocked refugee who doesn't speak German or English. Essentially, LaGeSo is the first of multiple bureaucratic checkpoints that refugees need to hit before they can legally stay in the country.

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Outside the LaGeSo office, refugees are given a number and are told to wait in lines from early in the morning to past sundown in hopes of getting called to be registered so they can gain access to slightly better accommodation at overcrowded camps in the suburbs of Berlin that the organization manages. But their number might not get called for weeks, forcing refugees to wait outside the LaGeSo building for hours on end as it gets colder and colder by the day. Once at the camps, the refugees must wait and live there until LaGeSo helps them apply for residency with the Federal Office for Migration and Residency—which could add months to the migrants' displacement.

But even the waiting game is high stress. The amount of people who are called each day fluctuates, and if you leave line for even five minutes, there's the possibility of missing the chance to get moved to the suburban camps. Plus, language barriers, racial biases, and extreme stress among the migrants, government workers, and volunteers combine into a ticking time bomb of emotional distress and confusion.

On weekends, LaGeSo is closed, so instead of waiting in line to be processed and hopefully get moved to nicer housing, the refugees are often left without options. To compensate for a lack of governmental infrastructure, ordinary citizens of Berlin have begun multiple grassroots organizations in order to provide more reliable housing, food, and other donations for refugees.

As they anxiously waited to gain official entry to Berlin, photographer Alexander Coggin and translators Qudsija Ansary and Yasmine Jamal spoke with a variety of migrants stuck in various stages of the asylum-seeking process. Some had made it through LaGeSo and were living in the refugee camps, others had been staying outside the government building for days waiting for their numbers to be called so they could get into the camps, and a few extremely lucky ones had made it out of purgatory and were just beginning to start their new lives. These are the stories they told us about their journeys to Berlin and what's happened to them since arriving.

Sarah Kohestani (right), 38, from Afghanistan
Days since arriving in Berlin: 14

"On our way out of Afghanistan, there was an accident. We were traveling in a truck with 40 people, my leg got burned by the motor of the truck. I was sitting on the motor and it got hotter and hotter, but I could not move because it was so overcrowded and my leg got burned for almost two hours. This was at the border of Iran and Turkey, so there were no options for a doctor for the rest of the journey. I was not really able to walk and the wound got bigger and bigger, but no one cared. Everyone told me to go immediately to Germany because there were a lot of doctors, but no one is helping me and we've been here two weeks. There isn't even medicine for us. I just want to have a place where I can really sleep and see a doctor."