Ismael, a 25-year-old from Amuda, Syria, is one many tens of thousands who have fled the country's brutal civil war in search of a new life in Europe. He filmed his perilous journey to Germany for a new VICE News film — My Escape From Syria: Europe or Die.
It was a long and tiring trek. He crossed by boat from Turkey to Greece, traveled overground through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, then finally turned himself into authorities in the Bavarian border town of Passau on arrival.
From there, Ismael was taken to Metten, a nearby municipality with a main street consisting of little more than a pizza restaurant and gelato shop, and given a bed in a temporary shelter set up in school gymnasium there. He was one of 130 men and boys there, all Syrian. Women and families are housed elsewhere in the region, while authorities try and keep different nationalities apart.
The gymnasium was full to capacity, but airy and clean. Security and administrative staff joked with the new arrivals, with the burly shaven-headed guards amiably fending off attempts to play-wrestle from boisterous youngsters.
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Wi-Fi and multiple adaptors to charge phones had been set up, allowing contact with families back home, while sustenance was provided by a kitchen in the nearby town of Deggendorf producing 3,000 meals every day for this camp and others. Each person gets a hot breakfast and a shoebox-sized container of cold food and drinks.
No one's way there has been easy. Most, like Ismael, made the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey (often paying thousands of dollars to smugglers in order to do so) and then continued overland. Ali, a chef and father of three originally from war-ravaged Homs, made a 27-day journey from Lebanon and now wants to bring his family to join him. "I love Germany," he told VICE News.
"I want to spend my life here, there's nothing in Syria, my house, two shops, big garden, all gone. In Homs there is nothing." He hoped to employ his skills in cooking Italian and French food, as well as a variety of Arabic cuisines in a new home.
The shelter was administered by Thomas Kindel, a director with the district's public order and safety bureau. A tall jovial man, the bulk of his work until this year was dealing with floods and storms. "One part of [my job] is to protect everyone against catastrophes, it's a special job," he said." The problem now is that there are so many refugees in Germany that the government says we can't handle it in the usual way, [so] we have to say, this is a kind of catastrophe,"
Kindel got a call from the government in June calling him to action. "They said 'listen Mr Catastrophe, it's your part to help organize things for the refugees,'" he recalled. "It's gone from natural disasters to humanitarian disasters."
He was given just a day to lay on accommodation, washrooms, security, food, drink, and medical care for 200 refugees. But by the next evening when the buses started to arrive, Kindel and his team had covered the local ice rink — drained and shuttered for summer — with plastic sheeting and beds, and arranged for a local hotel to provide catering.
They stayed there for around seven weeks, before the rink needed to be refrozen for the upcoming hockey season. The school gymnasium came next, but only until term started when they had to relocate again. Now, Kindel said, they were thinking of bringing in a couple of large inflatable tents with a total capacity of 500.
The problem is that the same number of refugees is arriving every day in Deggendorf, he added, due to the town's proximity to the Austrian border. Smugglers usually pack refugees into the back of vans, cross into Germany, then drop them by the side of the road and speed off. Only a small minority of the drivers are caught, but the volumes are such that in Passau, the town nearest to the frontier, the prisons are full of smugglers — normally Romanians and a few Turks paid a few hundred dollars to drive over by the operation leaders — and the impound lots are packed with their vehicles.
The refugees don't stay in Metten long. Most are sent to Deggendorf for medical checks and more paperwork, then on to a different part of the country. Names of those scheduled to move are pinned up inside the gymnasium the night before minibuses arrive to move them on.
The morning Ismael left, two bus loads of men packed up their possessions — many using bags from a local sports shop or the boxes their food came in — and moved outside. Ismael carried only a few plastic bags, having shedded much of the luggage he set out with over the course of the journey to save weight. They milled around in the gray morning light smoking, taking last group pictures, thanking and embracing security guards and other staff, then crowding forward when the first bus arrived and their names were called.
They were taken first to Deggendorf, a sleepy picturesque town which was once the site of a post-World War II displaced persons camp housing around 2,000 Jewish refugees.
Ismael and the others were directed to a warehouse adjacent to a kitchen studio, where they queued up for medical checks and to find out their next destination. Families and children were housed here too. Youngsters played, while mothers did laundry and hung it over the barriers rigged up around portable washrooms to provide some level of privacy. On the other side of the building, a steady stream of those who had been provided with papers for yet more travel made their way to the train station or waited for buses.
Ismael was part of a group dispatched to Kempten, a three-hour drive away and their final destination for now. They were given more permanent accommodation, and officially registered for a 325 euros ($360) per month food and clothing allowance, as well as essential healthcare.
Andreas Guggemoos and his small team of health and social officers welcomed them. Guggemoos — an unrelentingly cheery young man with spiked blonde hair and an office fridge full of energy drinks — described how he and his colleagues had struggled to cope with the influx of refugees, which has now seen more than 150 people settled in the town on a semi-permanent basis, including at least 70 unaccompanied minors.
He opened a cupboard full of files detailing his new wards, to illustrate the magnitude of the task. "All of southern Germany is full of refugees and we are looking for rooms for them," he said. "But we don't want people to have bad conditions, because they've had a hard journey to Germany. We want that they have the best we can do."
But it isn't easy. Kempten is a university town and Guggemoos and his team compete with students searching for flats. Those that they have secured were not initially furnished, so he almost singlehandedly put them together over a period of two months last year, working his desk shifts, then building beds, wardrobes, kitchens until the early hours of the morning.
"I'm just an office worker, I'm not very good at these things," he said ruefully. A local housing company has been brought in to help. It's still difficult, he added, but he loves the job.
Ismael arrived to an empty spot in a bunk bed-filled room shared with several others and set to work unpacking new plastic-wrapped sheets. His roommates were all Syrian, in keeping with Guggemoos's attempts to keep those from similar backgrounds together.
"How long are we going to be here?" a 19-year-old asked, clarifying that he wasn't complaining but just wanted to know if it was somewhere he could settle in.
A young Somali man who has been in a neighboring flat since December helped the new arrivals settle in, directing observant Muslims where to find Halal meat and the others to cheaper shops where their monthly allowance will go furthest.
"We were treated very well [in Kempten]," Ismael said. "The people and some civil organizations here have visited us giving us advice and information about the lifestyle and traditions here, they even told us about the different traffic signs."
But he added that he's heard of some anti-immigration sentiment in the country and of attacks by extreme right-wing groups on refugees.
Guggemoos is aware of this too, and of the reaction that a rush of non-Germans could provoke in a town like Kempten, which he describes as friendly but reserved and so unused to outsiders that he'd even had issues when moving village.
But many locals have made real efforts to welcome their new neighbors, he added, especially the older generations that still remember the humanitarian upheaval of World War II. Others have taken groups ice skating, hiking, or swimming in the nearby lakes.
And the Syrians in particular have settled in well, he said happily. "The guys from Syria... are all very friendly, helpful, peaceful, and very accurate and clean. You may notice that with we Germans, everything has to be clean and perfect, and they are nearly [like] Germans. When the first Syrian guys came I thought it was like Germans, just a different language."