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Seeking Asylum and Finding Love

Germany opened its borders to more than 1 million refugees last year—some of whom are now finding love and starting families with locals.

av Meredith Hoffman
2016 09 07, 3:20pm

Luise Audersch and Karam Skaf with their baby, Valentina. All photos by Meredith Hoffman

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Valentina came as a surprise. Two months after Luise Audersch, a young German actress and aspiring puppeteer, met Karam Skaf, a Syrian musician living in a nearby refugee camp, she was pregnant.

"We met in this kitchen," Audersch, 27, told me as she stirred a pot of vegetables in her apartment in Leipzig, two hours southeast of Berlin. "My friend who was coming over asked me, 'Is it OK if I bring a Syrian with a guitar?' I said sure.'"

Skaf—who had just arrived in Leipzig that day, having transferred from a camp farther north—came over wearing his only pair of jeans, his guitar in tow, joining a group of jammers in the kitchen. They played and talked all night long.

Now, just 15 months after that first encounter, Audersch and Skaf are raising one of the first Syrian German babies born after Germany opened its doors to more than 1 million refugees last year. Their child is the forefront of a whole new generation here, as more couples form across the two nationalities.

Valentina, a boisterous three-month-old, is already absorbing this ethnic fusion, most obviously through language: Her mother speaks to her in German; her father in Arabic. But Audersch and Skaf insist that their cultural differences are negligible, and that Valentina is just a normal infant.

"This idea is very funny, of humans having to integrate with other humans," Skaf told me, his long ringlets falling in his face. "Why do they have to integrate? I believe they're all the same: humans."

Skaf always felt like an outsider in Syria. He grew up nonreligious, following in the footsteps of his parents, who were both atheists.

"If I could adapt in Syria, of course I could adapt here in Germany, because in Syria there's a strong ideology that grew up under dictators," said Skaf, who is just 5'2" but dominates the room. "Here, it's a more individualistic society, so you can do what you want."

In Syria, Skaf studied business management in a university outside Damascus. Then, when the revolution began in 2011, he started organizing protests and worked as a paramedic in a civil hospital. He says he was arrested twice—once by the regime during the revolution, and once by Islamists who put a gun to his head when he admitted he was "secular," not Muslim.

"I was wanted by the regime when I left Syria, but I didn't leave to protect my life. I left because I was thinking differently from people there," Skaf told me, claiming the combat was fruitless. "Imagine if everyone were educated—no one would fight."

So he fled alone to Turkey in 2014, where he found work as a translator and set design assistant for a German film company. In early 2015, a friend convinced him to head for Germany. Skaf was sent to a refugee shelter in the town of Gorlitz, but when he broke one of the shelter's rules by getting drunk, they sent him packing. He wound up transferred to a new camp, three hours away.

When a German friend called that day, Skaf told him he was in Leipzig.

"He said he had a friend here who was looking for a guitarist," Skaf told me. That night he met Audersch, who was wearing a bright floral dress he can't forget.

Audersch was also new to Leipzig, trying out freelance acting work after leaving a drama troupe in Frankfurt that she found too constricting. Leipzig, formerly part of East Germany, had been rebuilt after large-scale World War II bombing and then spent decades as one of the poorest cities in the country. But with a major university and affordable rents, Leipzig had recently become a popular place for young creative types like Audersch. She and her friends found a large flat to rent, where they set up a puppet and sewing studio and scattered plants by the tall windows.

At their first encounter, Skaf and Audersch immediately connected. They started playing music together every day as friends but didn't become romantic until two months later.

"It took me time to get to know her a bit more," Skaf said of his growing desire for Audersch. "When I talk, she listens and I'm thinking I'm so smart, and then something comes out of her mouth and shocks me, and I have to go to another level. That's something I love about her."

Audersch, meanwhile, fell for Skaf's "love for life and craziness and going out but also his intelligence."

Immediately, she got pregnant. She told Skaf one day as they sat by Lake Cospuden outside Leipzig, and he was flooded with happiness. They both felt ready to start a family.

"I always wanted kids but then worked so much, you know, you get plans for a career that stop you from making a kid," she told me. "But when I was freelancing that moment was the perfect moment to make a child, because everything is possible."

Skaf, who by then was living with a commune of vegans in an abandoned building, moved in with Audersch. Audersch's flatmate was also expecting a child, so his girlfriend moved in as well. The foursome created a whimsical babies' room with mattresses on the floor and homemade mobiles tacked to the weathered beige walls. And Skaf designated another room for instruments, which he builds and repairs.

Their liberal parents celebrated Valentina, too: The day she was born, Skaf's father planted an olive tree to symbolize her outside his house, with a sign beside the tree displaying her name and birthdate. And Audersch's mother moved to Leipzig, where she visits her grandchild regularly.

Now, Skaf and Audersch say they are in it for the long run, but they have no plans to marry, especially since Skaf was recently granted asylum by the German government and doesn't need marriage to stay in the country.

Audersch and Skaf are among a small group of German/Syrian couples to form since last year's refugee influx. Skaf's cousin Nour Betar, who lives in Hamburg, told me it was "normal" to see mixed couples there.

Other young Germans and Syrians told me the phenomenon was not yet commonplace, but certainly growing. Skaf and Audersch knew one other mixed couple, and I heard of several others when I asked around, mainly in Berlin. One was married; the rest were dating or living together. All of these individuals declined to speak with me, most of them claiming they did not feel comfortable broadcasting their stories to the public, since dating between a refugee and a German is "still a delicate subject," as one Syrian man told me.

There is no data yet tracking these relationships, but most seem to be between left-leaning German women and highly educated Syrian men, like Audersch and Skaf. There are more Syrian males to go around: The vast majority of refugees who entered Germany last year were young males, according to a report from Germany's Federal Service for Migration and Refugees.

But male refugees face significant barriers in reaching German women. Not only is language a blockade—most refugees don't speak English, and hardly any speak German—but so are cultural stereotypes. After foreigners were blamed for a spate of sexual assaults in Cologne, many German women I spoke to told me they have put their guards up against male refugees.

Research shows that other recent migrant groups to Germany have increasingly formed mixed couples. The first-generation migrants—predominantly Turks, Italians, and other southern Europeans who came as guest workers post-World War II—married ethnic Germans at low rates, Migration Policy Institute's Olga Niemeyer noted in an article in 2009, which used information from Germany's microcensus. Their children, however, were far more likely to intermarry.

The increase happened predominantly with males: While 17.2 percent of first-generation immigrant males in Germany married an ethnic German, the rate increased to 29.6 percent for second-generation immigrant males, according to the census. More educated immigrants were also more likely to intermarry, according to Niemeyer.

As for the current wave of Syrians, more than one-fourth of Syrian refugees have arrived with university degrees. These highly educated refugees may be more likely to marry Germans, but most Syrian men will likely struggle to find a partner in Germany, due to language barriers, cultural prejudices against them, and the lack of Syrian women here.

Education helped bridge the gap between Skaf and Audersch: Both were fluent in English, and Skaf started the federal government's free German classes for refugees soon after arriving in the country.

Skaf has thrived here, starting a Balkan beat band and collaborating with new musicians. When I visited the couple, Skaf played his guitar, belting out Arabic lyrics with a Syrian girl as Germans accompanied them with a clarinet, drums, and xylophone.

He told me he feels welcome in this city, even though it's in the heart of Germany's most right-wing region. Just last December, he witnessed anti-immigrant hysteria in a neo-Nazi march, but found it was out-rivaled by thousands of counter-protesters.

Still, he hesitates to call this place—or any place—his home. "What does home mean?" he asked me. "Is it where you're born, where your freedom is, where your safety is?"

In the dimly lit cocoon of Valentina's bedroom, as he and Audersch held their baby cheek-to-cheek, home seemed right there.

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