There are 500 Syrian refugees in Stade (40 miles from Hamburg, Germany) and 300 more in Harsefeld, where one of our engineers lives – his children no longer have a gym at their school, because it’s full of refugees. Last Wednesday, I was able to arrange a meeting with four Syrian refugees and one from Sudan—all of whom speak reasonably good English. My host was the person who is in charge of refugee assistance in Harsefeld. And in this holiday season, I want to tell you some of what I learned.
The Sudanese man fled Sudan years ago and lived in Libya for 10 years. After Quaddaffi was assassinated, he decided to get out. He said things became much more chaotic and dangerous after Quaddaffi died. He said it would have been better to leave Quaddaffi alone, because as cruel as he was, at least the rules of the game were clear when he was in charge, and the hospitals and schools were open. Now, it’s all chaos.
Two of the Syrians escaped through Turkey and then to Greece by boat. I didn’t realize this, but the boats are so dangerously weighed down with people (one had 425 people in a boat less than 100’ long) that usually the boat owners refuse to go with them. They hand the wheel to some unsuspecting refugee and point – “go that way”. One boat made it safely. The other boat made it, but 25-30 people were swept overboard in a storm. The boat owners charged 1200 euros per person, so they made about $500,000 for one boatload. They didn’t care what happened to the boat. A few of the refugees “bought” the rights to the boat from the rest of the passengers and are now using it to fish off of Italy.
One man had a friend in Nepal. The friend got him a fake passport into Nepal. He was caught at the border and thrown into jail in Kathmandu. He was in jail when the big earthquake hit in April. Part of the jail collapsed including the outside wall nearest his cell. He was able to get out and run for it while the earthquake was still happening. He wound up in India, where family back home sent him money and another fake passport, and he was able to fly to Germany and apply for refugee status.
Another took buses thru Turkey and Bulgaria and then hitchhiked to Macedonia. There he worked for a store owner for a couple weeks in return for food and a bicycle. Then he literally pedaled from Macedonia to Hamburg – over 800 miles.
The scariest thing is how calmly they told their stories – as if I was describing how I got from Boston to Stade. Very matter-of-fact. I mentioned that, and they said it was because their stories are “normal” – everyone who’s left Syria has undergone these same kind of hardships. All of them are smart, ambitious people. Three have some university, and all want to go to school in Germany. German public universities are now free, per a law passed last year, and once they get their papers in order, the refugees will be able to attend. One has two years towards his medical degree, which won’t be accepted in Germany, so he has to start over. Two are studying engineering. The Sudanese is studying film animation—he showed me some of his work on his phone—and wants to work for Disney. All learned some English in their home countries and studied more on their own using Youtube videos and such.
All eventually want to return to their homelands. They don’t care who is in charge. They just want peace. If ever there is peace and some sense of order, they will return. All left family behind. The big decision is whether the rest of the families will stay or leave themselves. There is a serious brain-drain going on in Syria, because it is the youngest and smartest who are leaving. They don’t care about politics or religious disputes – in fact two are Shia, two are Sunni, one is Alewite, and they made a point to show me that they are all good friends now, though their respective sects have been fighting for hundreds of years.
I asked them about conditions back home. None even wanted to talk about it. I think they just couldn’t. They are happy to be in Germany.
The vast majority of German people support Merkel’s decision to let in so many refugees –although for logistical reasons—the systems are overwhelmed–, she’s pulled back a bit recently. The refugees don’t care about Pegidah (Germany’s small, violent, right-wing—more or less their version of our Tea Party or France’s Front Nationale) as long as they can steer clear. Most of the Pegidah are far away, in what used to be East Germany. There was a confrontation last week in Leipzig.
They had many questions about America. I asked them their impressions. Universally, they see America as a paradox – on the one hand, the land of opportunity (they really do believe this, as I certainly do, too), where anyone can get where they want through education and hard work. On the other hand, a mean and violent place. They had questions about Donald Trump –it seems everyone, including Germans, know about him – and I tried to assure them that it is a very small minority of Americans who really support his ideas, but frankly, I was embarrassed. One guy asked about guns , he had heard of all the mass shootings here, and wanted to know why we were so worried about ISIS when 10,000 Americans are killed in gun homicides every year (his figure is roughly correct)… I couldn’t explain it. Who could? How much do universities cost? Are Americans friendly? Where is a good place to live? What is the weather? How did I raise my boys? Questions, questions. We talked for 2 ½ hours. I would not be surprised if some try to come here, but there already a large community of Turks and Syrians in Germany and so most will stay there.
What good people. Smart, tough, educated, hard working. Exactly what our country or any country needs. Because of Germany’s falling population and strong economy, they will have no problem to find jobs once they learn German. They share German newspapers and help each other translate. They’ll be fluent in months.
I wonder how many of the blowhard GOP candidates have ever met a true refugee and actually listened to their story. Probably none. If they had, they’d think differently about their stance on immigration — or, they’d confirm just how mean they are.