Almost six years after arriving in Germany, Ahmad Shakib Pouya is preparing for the biggest night of his life.
On Saturday, the Afghan will play a lead role in a Mozart opera in Munich. A few hours later, his permission to stay in Germany will expire, and he faces the stark choice of deportation or of returning voluntarily to his war-shattered homeland.
The German government is ramping up pressure on failed asylum seekers from Afghanistan and elsewhere to leave as public fear over Islamist terror attacks boosts right-wing political groups ahead of federal elections this year. Germany’s first deportation flight to Afghanistan last month was highly controversial, however, and it deeply alarmed Afghans who are scared to return to a country where fighting killed and injured an estimated 60,000 people last year.
For the many thousands of Germans who have rallied to help refugees, Pouya has become a cause celebre: the country’s media flocked to final rehearsals of Mozart’s “Zaide” in Munich this week and a fervent online campaign has seen almost 23,000 people sign a petition calling for him not to be sent back to Afghanistan.
For Afghans in Germany Pouya’s plight is bewildering, and they wonder what chance they have of staying here if such a prominent and deeply integrated person is being forced to leave. The 33-year-old from Herat speaks excellent German (and five other languages), has a German partner and a job in Frankfurt with IG Metall, the largest trade union in Europe.
As a musician and singer, he has performed for thousands of people around Germany, including German President Joachim Gauck at his Bellevue Palace residence in Berlin.
“I don’t know what else I could do to stay here,” Pouya said in Augsburg, a historic city in the southern Bavaria region where he settled after first arriving in Germany in 2011. “The Taliban don’t like people like me. I play music. I have lived in Europe for several years, and they can find articles and films about me on many websites,” he explained, wearily running a hand over his face.
“It’s not funny to talk to the Taliban. They say, ‘Our court has decided you must die because you didn’t follow our rules.’ They don’t joke around—they just kill you.”
Pouya says he fled Afghanistan in 2009, after the Taliban repeatedly threatened him for working with western medics and then threw a grenade into his home. He escaped the blast, but a heart attack killed his father three days later. He made his way through Iran and Turkey to Greece where he spent almost two years and was twice jailed over his illegal status before crossing to Italy by ferry, hidden in the back of a truck carrying cotton.
Pouya finally reached Germany in March 2011. The authorities agreed to review his request for asylum and sent him to wait for a verdict in Augsburg—a fateful decision that led to him helping local artists launch a remarkable project.
They were turning a former senior care home into the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, which now combines artist-designed bedrooms for paying guests and asylum seekers with a vibrant cafe and concert venue where Augsburg residents, visitors, and refugees mingle.
Grandhotel Cosmopolis became an artistic hub in Augsburg, a city founded more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans, which still possesses a grandeur bequeathed by its long and rich history as a banking and trading center in Bavaria.
When the Stuttgart-based Zuflucht Kultur (“Arts Refuge”) opera group came to Augsburg to stage “Zaide” in August 2015, the Grandhotel Cosmopolis was the obvious place to find migrants and refugees to take part in the production.
Pouya joined Zuflucht Kultur for performances the following month at the presidential palace in Berlin and the Frankfurt headquarters of the 2.3 million-member IG Metall trade union just as Europe’s refugee crisis was reaching its zenith.
This was when hundreds of thousands of people were making their way from the Middle East, through Turkey, across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, and then trekking through the Balkans towards western Europe, with Germany the main destination. Amid fears of a humanitarian crisis in Balkan states and Hungary, German Chancellor Angela Merkel froze regular asylum rules and introduced an “open arms” policy to ease the pressure further east; at the end of September 2015, officials said that some 280,000 asylum seekers had arrived in Germany that month.
Pouya, gregarious and charming, appealed to President Gauck after the Bellevue Palace concert for help with his asylum request. At IG Metall he made a strong impression on Bianka Huber, a project manager for the metalworkers’ union.
“A few weeks later I was in a car going back to Augsburg when I got an email from the president’s office saying he couldn’t help. Then, after a few minutes, Bianka called to talk about a job at IG Metall—bad news and good news came together.”
Huber had run language classes for asylum seekers for some time but wanted to expand them to include advice on practicalities like finding a job, opening a bank account and enrolling children in school. The result is a friendly and accessible drop-in center funded by IG Metall called Der Laden, which means “The Shop.”
“When I talked to Pouya after the concert I realized he was exactly what we needed at Der Laden,” Huber recalled. “Not only because of his language skills, but because he knows the German system so well. Now, when I wonder how we would fill his position if he has to leave, it seems almost impossible.”
Pouya’s asylum request had been rejected, but he hoped a job with IG Metall and all his cultural projects would convince the authorities to let him stay on the grounds of successful integration—something Germany has long allowed. But politics and the public mood had turned and were now working against him. Merkel was under fire for letting almost one million asylum seekers enter Germany in 2015, Islamist terror attacks around Europe were fueling fear of foreigners and some EU states flatly refused to take part in refugee resettlement.
When Pouya asked to change his official place of residence to Frankfurt, the Augsburg migration authorities refused; without the right documents, IG Metall cannot pay him, so Huber and a colleague have been supporting him financially. Last April, Pouya married a German citizen in a Muslim ceremony. He says that when he obtained a new Afghan passport to formalize the marriage under German law, the registrar refused to wed them and confiscated the passport, which German authorities needed at that time to deport people to Afghanistan.
Migration officials did not respond to a request for information about Pouya’s case, but no one disputes that pressure is mounting on Afghans—154,000 of whom sought asylum in Germany in 2015, the second largest group of asylum-seekers after Syrians. The rate of successful Afghan asylum applications is steadily falling in Germany, and the government is launching a new €150 million ($158 million) program of incentives for migrants who go home voluntarily.
Last year, the bleak outlook prompted almost 55,000 migrants to leave Germany of their own volition, about 18,000 more than in 2015.
It is also now far easier to deport failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan, under controversial deals that Germany and the EU struck with the Afghan government last October. The EU denied any link to a new, international $15 billion aid package for Afghanistan, but Amnesty International called the agreement “an absolute disgrace.”
“We are completely convinced that Afghanistan is not a safe country,” said Bernd Mesovic, deputy director of German refugee advocacy group Pro Asyl. “The situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan, and especially during the last two years after most allied forces left. There is also a developing economic crisis, a rising number of internally displaced persons and newly arrived ex-refugees forced out of Pakistan. It is worse now than at any time since early this century.”
Militants loyal to Islamic State are now active in Afghanistan and deadly attacks are a near-daily occurrence—in November, a Taliban raid on Germany’s consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif killed six people and injured more than 100. “Two guys I know who went back were forced to join a militia. People have to join a warlord’s gang for their own protection,” said Mohammad Sharifi, a friend of Pouya and fellow refugee, who is from Kunduz, one of the most volatile cities in Afghanistan.
“If I go back they will give me a gun and make me kill people. I don’t want that,” added Sharifi, who is known to everyone at the Grandhotel Cosmopolis as Sia and sports a tattoo of the word “Freedom” on his neck—something that would be abhorred by conservative Muslims greeting him on his return to Afghanistan.
His friend Haseb Selab, from Kabul, has permission to remain in Germany only until February 2. But he could be deported at any time, and the next returnee flight to Kabul is expected in the coming days.
“Afghanistan is dangerous for me—I used to be a bodyguard for a politician there,” Selab said. “I will try to go to France or Italy rather than going back there. I will sleep on the streets if I have to.”
The Grandhotel Cosmopolis and other gathering spots for Afghans in southern Germany have become marked with desperation. One asylum seeker pulled a razor blade from his shoe and told me that he would slash his wrists if German police tried to deport him. In southern Germany this month, an Afghan doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight; his motivation is not known, but anxiety among Afghans is clearly rising.
On December 14, Germany’s first deportation flight to Afghanistan took off from Frankfurt bound for Kabul, carrying 34 Afghans rather than the scheduled 50 passengers. “When someone doesn’t have a right to international protection and is deportable, then he must leave Germany unless there are concrete obstacles to that deportation,” said Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maziere. “These deportations are right and necessary to keep the asylum system functional.”
The morning of the flight, police in Frankfurt came for Pouya.
He had felt safe from deportation because he was still waiting for a ruling from Bavaria’s “hardship case” commission, which can recommend that a failed asylum seeker be allowed to stay in Germany on humanitarian grounds. But this kind of gentleman’s agreement no longer stands in a Germany reeling from recent atrocities like the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market and other violent crimes committed by asylum seekers. The nation is also bracing for a bruising, polarizing national elections in September.
The police failed to find Pouya, but the close call caused him to decide to leave voluntarily to avoid the multi-year ban on returning to Germany that comes with deportation. Bianka Huber, his boss at IG Metall, paid for his return ticket to Kabul.
A reprieve came when he was already at Frankfurt airport on December 22. Friends of Cornelia Lanz, the founder of Zuflucht Kultur, managed to persuade top Bavarian officials to allow Pouya to stay for the company’s production of “Zaide” in Munich. Their appeal was backed by an online petition supporting Pouya, which quickly garnered more than 20,000 signatures.
Pouya received permission to remain in Germany only until January 15—the day after his final performance of “Zaide.” His last hope seems to rest with the hard case commission, which is due to convene later this month.
“Somehow, a lot of Germans have the impression that only criminal Afghans are being sent back. This is simply not the case, which we could perfectly demonstrate with Pouya’s example,” explained Lanz, the Zuflucht Kultur founder and a German mezzo-soprano.
“Our production of Mozart’s ‘Zaide’ is written around Pouya’s story and the threat of being sent away,” she said. “Our opera nightmare—that Pouya would be sent back—almost became reality. We hope that will never happen.”