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The Aimless Purgatory of Being a Teen Refugee

More than 42,000 minors entered Germany alone last year seeking protection from conflict zones. Most of them are teens, hoping to adapt to a new culture on their own.

Basel, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee, who has been living alone in Berlin for the past year. Photo by Meredith Hoffman

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Although Madani, a 15-year-old Iraqi refugee, attends German school and romps through Berlin with his friends, a hidden war rages in the recesses of his mind: memories of bombed-out Baghdad, Islamic militants, his missing brother. Most days, he conceals the pain, skyping his parents in Iraq and cooking the traditional chicken and rice he ate at home. He has been here for nine months, alone.


"I love to go out everywhere here—Berlin is beautiful," Madani told me when we first met in bustling Alexanderplatz square. (His name has been changed to protect his identity.) He is stocky, buoyant, with black hair gelled up like a rooster's crest, apple cheeks, and umber eyes.

Lately, though, his gaze has fallen inward, to the war. His mother recently had a heart attack, and he spends most of his time sequestered in his room in a small youth shelter.

"I want my family," he told me.

Madani is one of 42,300 minors who entered Germany alone last year seeking protection from conflict zones and danger, most notably from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Most of them are teens. The record number of solo youths—an increase of 263 percent from the previous year—was part of an influx of 1.2 million displaced people as Germany opened its borders last August, responding more actively than any other Western government to the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

But Madani, like half of the unaccompanied minors who arrived, still hasn't had the chance to apply for asylum, a legal status that could afford him more rights, including the right to petition for his parents to join him in Germany. The German courts are overloaded with cases, creating a long backlog, and Madani isn't sure when his turn will come.

The asylum process is just one facet of unaccompanied minors' immense challenge to forge new lives in Germany. Each day for Madani and his peers is a delicate push-pull: As they soak up the foreign culture, learning rapidly, they must confront the constant absence of their loved ones and overcome years of trauma. And while the German system offers housing, schooling, and care, the influx of solo youth has made it difficult to keep track of everyone, sometimes causing individuals to wait months for services or slip through the cracks entirely.


Birgit Zeller, a representative of Germany's Federal Youth Welfare Offices, told me that refugee youths receive all the same protections and rights as citizens their own age, including free schooling in the country and accommodations with certified supervision. But she noted that during the height of the influx last year, the offices temporarily lowered their minimum standards of care for minors.

"Normally one person lives in one room, and we had to let two, or four, or eight people live in a room—but only for a few weeks," Zeller said in a phone interview, giving one example of how the standards were adapted. "You must understand this is a very difficult and complicated situation."

Still, refugee advocates told me they frequently encounter minors who have not received their promised services for months at a time.

"We have youths who have spent nearly one year in Berlin, and nothing has happened. They wait months to go to school, but by law, immediately, they must start school. They stay in temporary accommodations with 140 people, where they're only supposed to stay for 14 days," Daniel Jasch, a social worker for Berlin's Committee for Migrants and Refugees, told me in his office. "Our main struggle is that youths don't know their rights, so their rights are violated all the time."

For Madani, his lack of legal status preoccupies him constantly, since it is the only possible route to connect with his parents. But he, like most youths, believes the best—and only—option is to take what he can get here.


"I won't go back to Iraq," Madani told me, explaining that right before he left militants stormed his father's tire shop, kidnapping his brother and threatening to take him as well. Recently, they've begun visiting the family's house, shooting their guns through walls and windows. "I go back to Iraq, I'm dead."

Madani fled Iraq last fall with his 28-year-old sister and her husband, traveling by foot to Turkey, then by boat to Greece, and then walking hundreds of miles to Germany. But when they arrived together, Madani claims the federal government separated him from his sister, keeping him in Berlin while sending her four hours southeast to the town of Zittau.

"They said she didn't have papers to prove she was my guardian," Madani told me. "I keep telling staff in the shelter I want to be with her again."

Zeller told me Madani's case was not typical, since the government tries to keep refugee families intact.

"They should be kept together if they have family," Zeller said. "The principle is they should let the family stay together or come together, but there are difficulties on the way."

But youths often wait months to be placed with relatives who already live in the country, according to Niels Espenhorst, program director of the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees. That's because there is no central federal system for matching up families.

He explained that the nation's 600 individual districts handle family reunification, each in a slightly different way, without properly coordinating paperwork or information.


"What we need is a mechanism to tell 600 communities what to do," Espenhorst told me. Zeller also admitted that it could be "difficult to impossible" to connect minors with their relatives under the current federal system.

When he was separated from his sister, Madani was placed in a hostel-turned-shelter where he slept with 14 other teen boys in one room, and where he said three adults supervised the whole group of about 80 kids.

He stayed there for eight months, as he began taking German classes, and recently moved to a smaller accommodation with three other teens, which he prefers. "I wanted to study, but I couldn't learn or concentrate there," he said. "It was always noisy."

Related: What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Makes It to Germany, In Photos

Many hostels were converted into large youth camps last year at the height of the refugee influx, and not all of them were capable of handling their residents, according to Jasch, Espenhorst, and Tanja Funkenberg, children's advocate for the youth rights organization Terre des Hommes.

Zeller countered that all organizations running the shelters were qualified to handle youth, and that the large camps were designed to hold residents for a few weeks only, but she admitted that at the height of the crisis last year there were exceptions. She added that standards have "mostly been brought back to normal" now, since there are not as many unaccompanied minors.


But this month, when I visited a shelter tucked on a residential street in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, residents told me that 200 teen boys lived there and most of them had been there since last year. Staff would not let me enter past the lobby and declined my requests for an interview, claiming that they could not give me any access because they must protect the youths.

Fahim, a scruffy 16-year-old from Iran, told me he shared his room with seven other people, but that he didn't mind the hostel. As we strolled to a nearby park, Fahim explained that in Iran he had no identity papers or right to school or work, and that he was often abused by police—all because he was born with one Afghan parent, and the Iranian government affords no rights to those of Afghan descent.

"I've been here for nine months, and I don't know what's happening next," Fahim told me in broken English, using an app on his phone to translate from Persian. But he knows one thing: "I came here for a new life."

"Our main struggle is that youths don't know their rights so their rights are violated all the time." —Daniel Jasch

Soon after he arrived, Madani started German language class. He did so well that within months, he transferred to a German school. The German government has emphasized education as part of its open door policy and recruited more than 8,500 teachers to teach child refugees German last year.

Education was the key for Madani to begin making local friends—but others like Fahim had to wait eight months before enrolling in class. Fahim told me he simply didn't know what to do, and no one told him how to enroll.


Karim, a 17-year-old from Damacus, Syria, also had to wait several months to begin school, but as soon as he arrived in Berlin, he met a woman who decided to take him under her wing, paying for him to take intensive private German classes.

"The language is the most important," Karim, a wiry boy with a curtain of curly bangs, told me as he sat in the packed waiting room for Berlin's Committee for Migrants and Refugees, where he prepared to meet with Jasch. "I wanted to learn it—and now I have friends from here, from everywhere."

Karim fled Syria before the Assad regime drafted him into the military, which is required of all 18-year-old males. He arrived in Germany exactly a year ago and was just granted asylum.

"I like Berlin, because here you can do whatever you like," he told me. "I like to go to techno parties here." Damascus, he said, had been similar to Berlin before the war turned everything upside down.

"I had a younger brother who was nine years old. He was playing with his friends outside our house, when he was hit by a bomb. Killed."

His eyes welled up. Karim, like Madani, now has one wish: to bring his family here.

"My parents say they're OK, but I don't believe them because I know my mother," he said, "when she speaks with me, I can hear something else in her voice."

Basel, near his home in Berlin. Photo by Meredith Hoffman

Minors who have asylum can apply for their parents to enter the country with a family reunification visa, but the rate of acceptance has been very low and the process can take years—a wait that Basel, another Syrian teen who visited Jasch's office, got a taste of firsthand.

"I was working eight months to get my parents to come [to Germany]. They're so important for me. In Syria, the family is everything," Basel told me as we walked away from the office down a West Berlin avenue lined with muted stucco buildings and falafel shops.


Basel, a self-assured 18-year-old with a thin beard and hair slicked up, left Aleppo for Germany during his final year of high school in 2014, both to escape the war and to avoid the Islamic State's growing presence since he is an Orthodox Christian.

"I'd be sleeping and wake up to a sound and all the windows would be open because a bomb blew them open," Basel recalled. "And if I had ever passed an ISIS checkpoint, they'd check my ID and see from my last name that I'm Christian, and they'd kill me."

So Basel, the son of an affluent businessman and a French teacher, took a bus 20 hours to the coast of Turkey and then stowed away on a ship for 30 hours, which was turned back by Turkish police. He immediately tried again and arrived in Greece, taking a flight into Berlin, where he went to a police station for help in requesting asylum. Basel arrived before the 2015 influx, so he said the process was less clear than it is now.

"I didn't speak German, and I didn't understand the policeman when he spoke to me, and then he made me leave. I couldn't just stay on the street—it was freezing cold, snowing and I didn't have any money left," Basel recalled. So he took a risk.

"I saw there was a pay phone, and I called the police station, and I said, 'I have a bomb, come take me.' They came out with their big car and their guns pointing at me, and I told them I didn't have anything, I'm just a refugee from Syria, please help," he recounted. They patted him down, found he was indeed unarmed, and took him to register with the federal government.


He got asylum a year ago and immediately applied for his parents to join him in Germany. His parents, who recently fled to Lebanon, are still waiting for their interview with the embassy in Beirut. Now it could be even more difficult for them to get visas, since Basel has turned 18 and minors have priority in family reunification requests.

When I asked if he worried about them, he snapped back quickly. "What am I going to do, cry about it? Should I cry? I cannot change the future."

Plus, here in Berlin, Basel has a life.

"I'm so German, I even have a German girlfriend," he boasted to me as strolled in his black hoodie and jeans, hugging several German friends he saw on the sidewalk. "I'm young, I learn fast."

Basel, who now takes advanced German classes and hopes to start university soon, insisted that his displaced peers would also adjust over time. "Syria was an amazing country, but now it's like the Titanic. I know people who say they want to go back to Syria when the war's over, but no one will ever go back to our Syria—our Syria was ruined."

Related: Photographing the Sadness and Camaraderie of Teenage Refugees in Germany

Basel's ideal of adaptation hasn't worked for plenty of youths. Last year, 6,000 underage refugees went "missing," meaning they left the communities or shelters where they were registered without giving notice. They journeyed elsewhere in Europe, Germany, and even back to the Middle East, advocates told me.


Espenhorst said many children went looking for relatives since there is no central family reunification system, and Jasch said the wait for services pushed some to relocate.

"I know a lot of youths who left because of the situation in Berlin," Jasch said. "And I know a lot who want to go back to Syria. They miss their parents. They can't get work here and have to support their families. And their parents think they've done something wrong since they haven't gotten asylum yet."

Andrea Petzenhammer, a volunteer teacher who's given weekly German lessons in a youth shelter for the past year, witnessed this exodus firsthand. She said her students, like Fahim, the Iranian refugee, "didn't know how to go to school" and that they were receiving no information about their legal status or how to maneuver the country. "They weren't getting perspective—no education, no language. I was really shocked by it."

Soon, three of her 25 students tried to return to their home countries.

"My students told me they went back to Afghanistan," she told me. "One of them ended up dead."

Zeller dismissed the problem, suggesting that most of the disappeared youths just "tried to take their lives in their own hands" but remained in Germany and registered again in another community for services.

But some advocates say this missing youth phenomenon is a huge problem—if only because it's an indicator that refugee youth are slipping through the cracks, and no one is checking on them.

"They can be displaced, abused, and nobody cares," said Jasch.

Madani has no desire to leave Berlin, but he has already been forgotten: The government never assigned him a legal guardian, which is required for every minor who arrives in Germany. That's a problem, because while minors and adults have the right to apply for asylum as soon as they enter the country, every minor must have a legal guardian to help guide him or her through the process.

"You must be able to go through the legal process. And you have to have a guardian, that's the law. You should get one within three days, but we accept up to seven days," Zeller told me. A guardian has all the legal rights of a parent, but no financial responsibilities to the child.

But Madani has no guardian, and no clue how to get one.

"I don't know why I can't get papers, it makes me feel so sad," Madani told me in Alexanderplatz, a few days after his mother's heart attack. He scowled, sealed off to the buzz of food stands, spray painters, and the harsh wind lashing his bare limbs.

"I love Berlin, but I am alone."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.