ROTHLEIN, Germany – It has been nearly a year since the al-Habab family from Damascus was resettled in rural Germany and, after years on the run, life is starting to look up.
Each morning, Sara, 12, and Sidra, 11, rise at 6 a.m. to catch the bus to school. Their father Abdul Rahman, 40, a former X-ray technician, goes to a nearby city for his German class. Their mother, 30-year-old Henan, stays in the cramped, two-bedroom apartment caring for their siblings, 3-year-old Hassan and 6-month-old Jenna.
All Abdul Rahman ever wanted was a safe space for his family – and for now, he’s found that in Rothlein, a sleepy village of fewer than 5,000 people. The family used to spend evenings in Syria visiting friends or the market; here in Bavaria, there’s not much to do after dark, so the family plays cards and studies German.
Yet looming over their new life is uncertainty over whether they’ll be able to stay in Germany – and for how long.
When the al-Habab family arrived in Germany in February 2017, they were given subsidiary protection rather than full refugee status. While refugee protection is for three years – with a procedure to make residency permanent after that – subsidiary protection is designed to be temporary.
Germany, like the U.N., does not consider it safe for refugees to go back to Syria. But since March 2016, the country has provided most Syrians with this temporary form of protection and renewed it annually. Refugees must show they’re individually at risk of persecution, while subsidiary protection is for those generally at risk of harm in their countries.
Just 0.6 percent of Syrians received subsidiary protection in 2015. That rose in 2016 to 41 percent and last year to 55 percent, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Abdul Rahman, like most Syrians, wants to return home when it’s safe. But for him, safety means President Bashar al-Assad leaving office.
‘We Didn’t Choose to Be Refugees’
The al-Habab family regard German chancellor Angela Merkel as a hero for welcoming over a million migrants and asylum seekers since 2015.
The family’s own path to Germany took years. When anti-government protests broke out in Damascus in 2011, the family tried to maintain normality. Abdul Rahman was working in a hospital, and Henan watched the girls and kept the household together. Then one of Abdul Rahman’s brothers was maimed when police fired on demonstrators. Chaos soon consumed the family. They lived in terror of death and arrests, and of Abdul Rahman being captured for forced military conscription.
So they fled in 2015, first to Lebanon and Turkey, and then surviving a dinghy crossing to Greece – only to find Europe’s borders closing. For four months they squatted in the squalid refugee camp in Idomeni on Greece’s border with Macedonia. I first met them there in April 2016 when Sara, seeing that I spoke Arabic, grabbed my hand and led me to her family’s corner of a communal tent.
“The hardest thing is not to have a goal,” Abdul Rahman told me at the time. After Idomeni was disbanded in May 2016, they moved from tents to tentative stays in apartments in Athens. There, after a period living on the streets, Abdul Rahman found a more permanent apartment and ran a school for Syrians with a group of volunteers.
“We didn’t choose to be refugees,” Abdul Rahman said. “I hate this word.” To Abdul Rahman, being a refugee means being weak, or dangerous, or exploitable, and constantly under scrutiny – and not just a person deserving a chance.
In February 2017, the al-Habab family had a breakthrough. Abdul Rahman’s wounded brother had already reached Germany and received refugee status, so he was able to apply for family reunification. The family spent two months in a camp in rural Germany before being sent to Rothlein, a few towns away from Abdul Rahman’s brother.
‘Temporary’ Refugees in Search of Jobs
Because the al-Habab family received subsidiary protection, they can’t currently bring relatives to Germany themselves. But their status provides them with the same right to work and benefits as refugees, including money for accommodation, medical treatment and food.
Abdul Rahman loves Germany for its laws and democracy and is trying hard to learn German, pass a language proficiency test and find work.
Yet despite his persistence, Abdul Rahman is worried that the language classes won’t provide him with the skills or qualifications that employers want. Meanwhile, the family’s temporary status hangs over them.
Despite Germany’s efforts to integrate a large refugee labor force, families like the al-Hababs caught up in the instability of annual renewals can’t shake the fear that they are being set up to fail.
The challenges are immense. Only 45 percent of Syrian refugees in Germany have a school certificate, according to the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). Refugees are disproportionately placed in areas already facing high unemployment, and just 17 percent are employed, according to the Federal Labur Agency. Up to three-quarters of refugees will likely remain unemployed in five years, Germany’s refugee commissioner warned last summer.
Some refugee advocates worry that the election of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the German parliament last September signals a growing backlash against refugees. The election set in motion months of wrangling over refugee policy, including whether people with subsidiary protection should be able to bring over relatives, as the parties try to form a coalition government.
Abdul Rahman isn’t that fazed by the AfD; in Syria, after all, they faced far worse. But Katya Ganser, a friendly 39-year-old German volunteer who has become a lifeline for the family, fears an impending crisis over the integration of refugees in Germany.
“People are not nice to them,” Ganser said of the family, whom she helps with homework, filling out labor office forms and finding furniture, lawyers and doctors. “And people are not nice to me for helping them.”
Meanwhile, potential employers are reluctant to hire refugees who require much paperwork, may not be able to prove their Syrian qualifications and, because of their temporary status, ultimately might have to leave.
One morning, in Abdul Rahman’s class of 13 Syrians, he’s the only one with his homework completed correctly. He modestly accepts his teacher’s praise. But privately he worries for his peers who don’t have a supportive family or a friend like Ganser. “It just takes one bad Syrian or refugee to give us all a bad name,” he laments. “There are bad people in every community.”
And he faces a world of unknowns: Will the family’s status be renewed for one year or three? Will he find a job – any job? What will happen when bookish Sara and playful Sidra grow up and need more space? What will Henan do when the babies are older? She had not completed high school in Syria; can she go to school in Germany now? Will the family go back to Syria one day? Will they have a choice over whether to stay or go?
Abdul Rahman is keeping his faith in Germany: The country is based on rules, he reasons, so no one can just kick him out. His family at least has their dignity and humanity back, he says, and that’s a start.