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.

by Alexander Coggin
Nov 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.

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.

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."

Aws, 30, from Homs, Syria, and Steven, 24, from Aleppo, Syria
Days since arriving in Berlin: 30

"When we got to Berlin, we looked for a place to sleep but were kept in a camp that had more than 60 people in one room. We stayed there three nights and there wasn't enough food. We went back to LaGeSo and I met one German girl. I told her I was with my boyfriend and that we didn't want to go back to the camp because they will notice [that we are gay] and it is dangerous. She introduced me to another girl who prepared for us a place to stay near LaGeSo. We told them about being harassed once for holding hands during our journey to Berlin and said we were still afraid of being hurt. She helped us find a place and gave us money for shoes. She also helped us buy bus passes and looked over our documents.

We are now living with a guy in his apartment and we are taken care of. LGBT people are helping us. They feel responsible for us. Now we're still waiting for our number to be called at LaGeSo. After we are residents we would like to get married. It's a free country so now we can kiss each other and be openly gay in front of other people. We'd like to work and learn—we didn't just come here to get money from the government. We'd like to be in a free country because we can't be ourselves in Arab countries."

Joud, 24, from Damascus, Syria
Days since arriving in Berlin: 30

"I was on the national Syrian soccer team and decided to leave after my girlfriend got murdered. I left Syria by walking, which took me 22 days. I ended up traveling from Turkey to Greece in a small boat, filled with 37 other people. The waves were so intense that the boat was very rocky and water came in and swept out a child. He was two, maybe three. And the boat wouldn't stop. If they were to stop and turn around, 37 people could die. So I jumped into the water and I grabbed the child. I saw an island called Samos and swam for one hour with the child in my arms. I was struggling to swim because I was wearing jeans and was only able to use my two legs and my right hand. The water was so freezing and I thought the child was dead because he took in a lot of water.

When I got to the beach, I started pumping on the child's chest and the water came out and he started coughing. I took off my shirt and wrapped him up in it to try and give him some warmth. I realized that there was nothing on the island, it was empty. I ate whatever I could get off the trees. I took some water from the sea and soaked my clothes and then laid it out to dry so the salt evaporated and we could drink it. After we were both stable, I carried the child and began to cross the island. I climbed over nine mountains, following paths that animals made. When I finally arrived to the police station on the other side of the Island, they took me to the hospital and I found the child's parents. I went to Athens and then walked to Macedonia. And then to Serbia. And then to Hungary.

On the way to Hungary I went with a smuggler in a truck. There were a lot of people squeezed into the back, but I sat in the front with the driver. The police pulled us over and the driver put his knife up to my neck and put his phone into my pocket. When the police approached the car, he threw the knife. When they saw the phone, they thought I was the smuggler because it was full of numbers from Serbia. They arrested me for one week and continuously beat me, even whipping my back as I was tied up. I eventually paid them 50 euros to leave and they gave me Hungarian paperwork. I went to Budapest and checked into a hotel.

The next day, preparing to leave, I opened my door and there were the police. I was so happy to show them that I had my papers, but they told me they were expired. The papers I was given expired after one day! They arrested me again for two days. When they let me go, I went to Austria. Then I found a smuggler who took me to Germany. When I arrived, the police arrested the smuggler, who was Italian, and took us to the police station. The German police were so good and so different. They even told us, "You are in Germany now. You are safe." I lost many things on the way here, but I will start again. I can do it. Even if it's hard for me. Nothing is impossible. After all this is done, I will start German courses and try to get my Masters in Finance. I can do it."

Ali Ahmad, 37, from Afghanistan.
Days since arriving in Berlin: 10

"I left Afghanistan 28 days ago. I came with a smuggler, first on a kayak, then a larger boat, and then by foot. I'm not sure exactly when I arrived in the EU. I've been in Berlin for 10 days, though. I have relatives who have an apartment here, so we are staying with them. I came with my wife and my two sons. We paid the smuggler eight thousand dollars for me, eight thousand dollars for my wife, and four thousand dollars for each of my sons. We also had to pay for our own food because the smugglers did not feed us. We brought some food, but it was not enough for 28 days of traveling. I could go without eating, but my children could not, so we fed them first. I come to LaGeSo every day and wait in line from 8 AM to 7 PM. If I leave here for even 5 minutes, I'm afraid that my number will be called and I will miss our chance to be processed by the government."

Kathem and Wijdan Selim and their children—Muemel, 15, Ahmed, 13, and Abrar and Anwar, 8—from Basra, Iraq.
Days since arriving in Berlin: Approximately 60

Kathem Selim: I worked at a hospital and a clinic as a nurse in Iraq. Before we left, a group of militiamen came to my clinic and asked to be treated for their wounds without reporting it. That scared me so I said no. If they were official they could go straight to a normal hospital. They hit me on the head, beat me up, and I had to quit my clinic job because I received so many threats. Two weeks later, they kidnapped my daughter. They took her right in front of our house. We tried to see if she was with her other friends but could not find her. Three hours later I received a call from a blocked number. A man told me that they had my daughter and it would be $5,000 USD to get her back. We did not have the money.

I begged them not to hurt her because she's just a child! They told me that since I didn't want to treat them as patients they were going to take her. My wife was pregnant and she had a miscarriage due to the shock. My daughter was gone for three days. Then they called me and told me that I would find my daughter's body outside our front door. They thought they were leaving her dead but she was only unconscious and badly burnt on her body. They also stuck things in her. She was barely breathing but we brought her back to life. I was too scared to take her to the hospital. I thought they would find us there again. I took her to my brother-in-law's house and treated her there privately. It took her six months to recover and she went blind for a while when she was dealing with the trauma.

This was a year ago. We were very afraid to stay in the area so we moved around a lot in Iraq after that. Eventually, we paid smugglers $20,000 USD for our entire family to be brought to Germany. We didn't know where to go so we decided to go to the capital. We gave ourselves over to the police once we arrived in Berlin. Since then, we've registered at LaGeSo, but we haven't received any money or German IDs or medical assistance yet. We had our date set for further processing, but it keeps getting postponed. We have to go back to the LaGeSo again tomorrow.

We want to have stability and safety for our children. We want our children to have an education and a future. I would like to work as a medical profession and help people again. I want to say thank you to Germany. They deserve a lot of respect for the amount of humanity they are showing in this crisis. Germany is a respectful government coming from a respectful people."

Siwar Rasho, 19, from Aleppo, Syria.
Days since arriving in Berlin: Approximately 60

"I'm from Aleppo and I just turned 19. I left because there was pressure for me to go and join the army [Assad's Syrian Armed Forces] and I wasn't doing that. I went to Turkey to try and work, but it was difficult because Syrians get really exploited in Turkey. I didn't have any money to get on the boat to Greece, and when you don't have any money they offer for you to be the driver of the boat in exchange for a free ride. They gave me drugs to make me unafraid to drive. They were some pills—I don't know what they were. The boat had a small motor and there were 48 people on the boat. Normally it should be for 20 people. Each person had to pay $1,200 USD to cross the sea. We left at midnight and they told me to follow where the light of the moon shines in the distance, and after four hours I would see two islands. One would have a red light on it and one would have no light on it. They said to go to the one with the red light. There were no problems with the boat on the way.

Once we got to the island, we stayed at a camp, and then I got a card to get on a boat that would take us to Athens. We got to the Greek capital and then walked to the border of Macedonia by following train tracks. We kept traveling, and eventually made it to Hungary where we got caught and sent to a camp. A couple of days later we were sent to have our fingerprints taken. They were beating everyone, including women, because we refused to have our fingerprints taken. When it was my turn, I took the fingerprint machine and broke it by throwing it off the table. They beat me and 10 of my friends and put us all in jail for three days. They gave us no food and no water. They fingerprinted us and let us go, but I didn't have any money.

I took the trains to Austria and Munich and Berlin and I hid in the bathrooms the entire time. I got caught between Munich and Berlin and got a 450 euro fine. I haven't paid it yet. I also have a medical bill because I got bit by a bee and my arm swelled and I didn't know what to do. I went to the hospital and now have a bill for that. It took me a month and a half to get granted asylum in Berlin. I want to work again. I also would love to start a rap group. Eventually get married and have a life."

Inana Alassar, 20, from Syria
Days since arriving in Berlin: Approximately 60

"I've been here almost two months and I'm from Syria. It took me 25 days to get here. Berlin was always where I wanted to go. My cousin has been here for six years and he has his own place, so I knew I'd have somewhere to stay while I waited to get asylum. Getting into the country was a disgusting process, though. A nerve-wracking and patience-breaking process. It was crazy and you feel like you're lost and you have no good ground under your feet. It's crazy because you feel like your life has been put on pause, you know? It's horrible. Right now, I'm staying with a 49-year-old lady who offered up the extra room in her flat. My mom is staying with my cousin and my sister got housing through [LaGeSo] very fast because she is a minor.

When I got here, it was the first time in my life where I felt blessed because I am a lesbian. It's illegal to be gay in Syria. You get imprisoned. You feel doomed and down your whole life, like you're cursed because you're gay. It almost feels like you've been buried alive for your whole life there and the paranoia makes you always watch your back, which becomes suffocating.

Here, I feel so damned blessed. It's overwhelming because it feels like a little dream, almost too good to be true. Just being able to be who you are is incredibly amazing. After this is all over I would like to study singing and become a professional singer and have my own flat, hopefully with someone. I'm really looking forward to the someone part."

Ahmed Almasri, 24, from Aleppo, Syria.
Days since arriving in Berlin: 60

"I slept for a week outside of the LaGeSo building where refugees get registered before they can apply for asylum. They gave me a voucher for a hotel to stay at while I waited, but it had to be under 50 euros a night because the cost would be reimbursed by the German government. I went looking for a hotel by myself and every place said no. They said no because the hotel doesn't get reimbursed for two years, if at all. Every place said no. I went and told LaGeSo that there was no place to stay and they told me it was my problem: I had the voucher and now it was my responsibility to find a hotel. Outside of LaGeSo there are people, like smugglers, who know the hotels that will take refugees and take you there for a fee of 20 or 30 euros per person.

I continued sleeping in front of LaGeSo and the number of people outside kept growing. The media started paying attention and once journalists started taking photos, they finally got buses and brought more people to the camps. Now, I want to know how to bring members of my family over. But my family in Syria needs to have a passport. The LaGeSo has Arabs helping with the paperwork, but they slow the process down. I would prefer that Germans do the paperwork so there is less discrimination."

Ahmed Kanaan, 19, from Kobani, Syria.
Days since arriving in Berlin: 60

"Everyone used to think that as soon as you get to Germany everything would be OK and change would happen really quickly. We thought things would be set up for you. I thought it was supposed to be paradise: that you get an apartment, get 390 euros per month, and then are allowed to work. None of that has happened. I just want to finish my high school degree."

For more of Alexander's work, visit his website here.