In Berlin, an overwhelmed asylum system tests the bonds of family and the mental health of young refugees
Every day last fall, Ahmed helped newly arrived Syrians in Berlin apply for asylum. On a cold and overcast morning, he set out to help Mustapha, a middle-aged man who had arrived from Greece ten days before.
They had little in common other than that they were both Syrians in Germany. A self-confident businessman, Mustapha boasted about the excellent arak he made every year from the grapes in his village, which he said was known for its “intellect and inebriation.” Meanwhile, Ahmed, a 17-year-old who had the thinness of someone still growing, said he didn’t drink.
Their mission that day was a failure. As soon as they got to the front of the line, the purple-haired employee at the municipal office told them to leave. Jabbing her finger at a hand-written address on Mustapha’s papers, she said they had to go to another office, located in “the asshole of East Berlin” as Ahmed described it.
A tram ride, a two-mile walk, and many questions later they arrived at their destination, which was in fact located at a different address. By then, the office had closed for the day meaning Mustapha would have to return to request permission to sleep at a temporary camp for asylum seekers. “I’m so pissed off right now,” Ahmed said. “Normally, they can send us to another place, but they cannot give us a whole wrong address.”
On the long ride back into the city, Mustapha, who had once owned factories, farms and real estate in Syria, tried to give Ahmed money. He refused to take it, saying later, “Even if we were ten above zero before, now we are all zeros.” As refugees, Ahmed thought they had an obligation to help each other.
He was in a unique position. A year earlier, Ahmed had arrived alone on the Italian coast and found his way to Berlin. An unaccompanied minor from Syria, he was registered as a refugee and enrolled in German language classes largely without delay. A year later, familiar with the bureaucracy and functional in German, he spent all his time helping new arrivals from his country. But he should have been enrolled in a high school.
I pressed him to explain why he wasn’t. He had said he wanted to be a social worker. He had already demonstrated an aptitude for languages, and eventually, he would need to complete his degree in order to work or go to college. But no one was paying attention. A court had appointed a guardian to be in charge of his case, but she rarely contacted him. His parents were far away in Egypt. The administrators of the supervised housing for minors where he lived did not seem to care.
Ahmed said he would enroll next year, and it was not until later that I understood he had tried to sign up and was told there was no space — an administrative hurdle that might have been overcome but wasn’t. But there seemed to be another explanation as well: he was waiting for some sort of normal.
Even though the Berlin city government gave him an apartment and some money to live on, Ahmed was still living in a temporary world. It had been three years – an age for a teenager – since he fled with his family from their home within the historic city walls of Damascus to Cairo. Life never got off the ground for them there. His father had contacts in Egypt from his previous business, but the family was still spending more than they were making.
In an attempt to make the best of things, Ahmed’s parents paid a huge sum - 2,000 Egyptian pounds a year -around $650- for Ahmed and his sister to attend a private school, but the education was poor. “He used to correct his English teacher’s pronunciation,” his mother would tell me later. Ahmed complained all the time to his parents that they were ruining his life, and eventually, he insisted on making the dangerous journey to Europe.
It was the summer of 2014 when Ahmed crossed the Mediterranean, before the death of Alan Kurdi –the three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body on a beach sparked outrage and compassion— and before Angela Merkel promised, “Wir schaffen das” –her declaration that Germany will “manage” the arrival of hundreds of thousands. It was not just the war or the crowded pollution of Cairo that drove him to Europe. Rather, Ahmed held a sense that just as other people live a good life, he could one day also. Given their dim prospects in Cairo, his father said he felt helpless to stop him. He reluctantly took Ahmed to one of the city’s informal microbus stations and bought him a ticket. As Ahmed drove away, his father pressed his tear-streaked face to the window to see him one last time.
Ahmed spent ten days in Alexandria until smugglers pushed him and a dozen others off the shore in a leaking boat. They endured six or seven days on the water with essentially no supplies, eating rotten bread and drinking filthy water. The seas were rough, and as the waves rose high above the boat, Ahmed said he almost welcomed death. Eventually, they landed in Italy, and when his parents got through to him, he said only, “We are alive.”
While it’s hard to say he was lucky, Ahmed at least arrived in Berlin in the fall of 2014, a year before the number of asylum seekers peaked. When I met him in the fall of 2015, some 700 people were arriving each day in Berlin, and the city was not prepared despite the steady increase in arrivals over the previous year. In a matter of weeks, city officials set up emergency shelters in gyms, abandoned barracks, neglected office buildings and in one case a “bubble” erected in the middle of a soccer field.
The maelstrom of the asylum application process was the main registration center, known by the abbreviation LaGeSo. The muddy ground inside the brick complex was the starting point and destination of last resort for both asylum seekers who had arrived hours before and those who had already spent months in the country. In the fall of 2015, hundreds of people lined up against the walls of the complex in the middle of the night in the hopes of getting an appointment. Each morning, security guards doled out numbers on slips of paper, which were good for that day. Often there were too many people, and so some returned night after night until the happy moment when their number appeared on a digital screen summoning them upstairs.
Ahmed never went with asylum seekers there. Unlike the municipal offices, LaGeSo had translators, and there was nothing to do but wait. But he made an exception that day and came with me as I interviewed harried Syrians and Iraqis. Some were unwilling to talk at all, but others unburdened themselves in torrents: appointments delayed for weeks, misunderstandings about where to register children in school, documents lost.
One day Ahmed got extraordinary news. We were walking through the wet, yellow leaves toward a group of women taking shelter under a tree when Ahmed’s phone rang and then rang again. “I have to answer this,” he said. “Ayeiwa Baba”— Hey Dad. Then, he folded in on himself, covering his eyes with his hand. “No way,” he said. He looked at me and I saw tears in his eyes. “They got the visa,” he whispered.
Ahmed and his parents had submitted a request for family reunification to the German embassy in Cairo over a year previous, and it had been approved just in time. Ahmed’s mother was eight months pregnant, and a child born in Egypt would require a new asylum application.
“I thought this could never work,” Ahmed said looking around. He was dressed all in black, and with his red eyes and sagging shoulders, he looked like the lost teenager that he was. I asked if he wanted to stay with me. He nodded. “I just have to push this down,” he said, and I watched him close his eyes briefly, burying hope and relief below the surface.
“Ahmed is lazy,” his father told me a little over a week later, about his son who had crossed the turbulent Mediterranean in a smuggler’s boat. He wasn’t joking. We were sitting in an asylum shelter that they weren’t supposed to be in. “He should have been in contact with his guardian, but the last time he called her was four months ago.” Ahmed just looked at the ground. He was sitting at his mother’s feet, as she rested on her side on the single bed. They had arrived at Schönefeld airport from Cairo along with their teenage daughter three days earlier. Ahmed greeted them alone. It had been over a year since they had seen each other, and they had no place to go.
Usually, the Youth Welfare Office arranges in advance to meet the families of unaccompanied minors and provides them a place to stay during their first days in Germany. “It’s not written in the law that you have to do it,” said Ulrike Schwarz, a legal advisor at the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees, a German nonprofit organization. “But it is what would be required to ensure child protection.” While Schwartz’s organization did not serve Ahmed, she listened to the details of his case with frustration. Ahmed couldn’t reach the guardian in charge of his case. He called over and over to no response, and so the family went to the police. The guardian picked up their call immediately, but then told Ahmed she could not meet until Monday, four days later. She offered no guidance as to what to do in the meantime.
His family stayed their first night in Berlin in a room rented by Ahmed’s uncle. The uncle was also a refugee and said he might lose his housing if the family continued to sleep there. Ahmed lived in an apartment with two other minors under the protection of the state, and it would be illegal for his parents join him. Not knowing what else to do, Ahmed and his father went to a mosque that Friday morning. As the prayers ended and the crowd began to disperse, his father broke into tears. Kneeling on the carpets under the hanging lights, he told Ahmed that even when they left Syria, even after they lost their home and their business, he did not feel as helpless as he did then.
Having seen their distress, a man from the mosque approached them outside and gave them the phone number of an administrator at a refugee shelter. That evening, the family took the S Bahn to the end of the line and then rode a bus to get to the shelter. Seeing Ahmed’s mother was so pregnant, the administrator told them they could stay for the weekend. Technically, they did not qualify for any services meant for asylum seekers because they already had a residency visa. The family required new housing.
Their meeting with the guardian was the next day, and Ahmed left the refugee shelter with me to return to his apartment to shower in advance. I asked him if he felt relieved now that his family was here. He shook his head. There were so many problems. At their meeting, the guardian handed Ahmed a court document that officially ended the state’s responsibility for him.
When I called Ahmed that evening, he did not answer. He texted saying he was crying. He would go in a couple of hours to wait in line at LaGeSo because he did not know what else to do.
That morning, Ahmed packed in with the other petitioners behind metal barricades in the dark. After ten hours, the guards told them there would be no more appointments that day and to come back tomorrow. In front of him in the line, a German man, the only one in the crowd, had waited all day too. He was there with two other Syrian young men. Alex, a middle-aged German who works in IT, remembered that Ahmed approached him and asked in English, “Are you a journalist?” He could barely speak he was so cold and so Alex brought him back to his apartment to hear his story.
“Either way this will change you,” Alex said of the choice he faced when meeting Ahmed. “Either because you will experience something new that you had not before, or because you refused.” He felt he could not just walk away. He had come somewhat reluctantly to LaGeSo in the first place. Alex’s teenage son had met the other young Syrian men on the street and had taken them home. Alex figured it would take a couple hours to help them out, but was shocked by what he found: it was like a wall, he recalled of LaGeSo.
But the effort he would make with Ahmed would reach a different scale. Alex took a week off work to help with a myriad of tasks: opening a bank account, finding a temporary room, and then registering the address. Even though the German government had given Ahmed’s family a visa, they had to eke out each next step at the overwhelmed city agencies, a process that both Alex and Ahmed acknowledged was made easier when Alex was there. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to lie. When there’s a German guy, it’s going to be a whole different thing,” Ahmed said.
Many of these steps have to happen in a certain order, which means they usually take weeks. To open a bank account, you need an address. To get an apartment, the family would need proof of income, which the unemployment office had to process. In an effort to speed things up, Alex argued his way up the chain of command, occasionally finding success, and other times, intransigence. Once, a merciful employee stayed late, waiting for a fax to come through with a signature from Ahmed’s mother, who at the time was in the hospital having given birth to a baby girl. Another time, a bank employee decided they could not open an account for the family because of the sanctions against the Syrian government.
Ideally, the guardian in charge of Ahmed’s case as an unaccompanied minor would at least have helped them find housing and registered them with the unemployment office, which manages people who have refugee status until they can earn enough to support themselves. Instead, when Schwarz, the legal advisor, heard the details of Ahmed’s case, she said, “In every area, voluntary work is actually doing some kind of state work.” In her view, the problem was that the city, which has an insufficient tax base and receives supplementary funding from other German states, had underfunded many of its social services for years. The tens of thousands of new asylum seekers simply exacerbated an existing problem.
“I finished the hardest parts because of him,” Ahmed said. “When I met Alex, I felt really safe. This guy’s a life saver.” Alex let Ahmed store his stuff at his apartment. His wife put Ahmed’s most treasured possession, the drumsticks he had caught at a concert by his favorite band, in her underwear drawer. One time waiting in a line, Ahmed said Alex’s boss called him to ask where he was. He recalls Alex said, “Well, I have some important stuff to do.” It was unbelievable even for Ahmed that someone would spend so much effort to help a stranger.
His mother had a different theory. “She told me, ‘You helped a lot of people, so God sent you someone to help you,’” Ahmed said. “I told her, ‘Nah, come on, it’s a coincidence.’”
“You know when you meet someone who makes you feel like you have a soul?” Ahmed said as I spoke with him on the phone. His baby sister Amena was born a couple days before, and he was in love. “Not just with babies, but I also feel that with puppies and kittens and everything,” he said.
Ahmed sent me pictures over WhatsApp showing him holding his baby sister. She was a bright spot in the middle of chaos. His family of five was sharing a studio apartment - a difficult arrangement, but the best they could find. Alex’s wife found an international school that would let Ahmed start in the middle of the year if he could pass an English entrance exam. He did, and despite having missed months of classes, he finished the semester.
Over the next eight months, I checked in with Ahmed by text and phone. He sent me a message when kids from school invited him out for the first time, and he said that the teachers were really encouraging him even though he had so much to make up. The months went by, and I next saw him at the end of the summer, a week or two before classes started again in the fall. He was taller and thinner. He had become a vegan and an atheist, both of which rankled his parents. “They tell me, ‘We hope there is still some good left in you,’” Ahmed said as we ate grape leaves and hummus with his uncle.
Even though I had tried to keep up with him, the passing time had incubated a new pessimism in Ahmed. He said he was struggling in school. It wasn’t just that he had a lot to catch up on, but that he just wasn’t good at the work. He said he had to forget college and instead, get an apprenticeship after graduating, which in Germany is a structured path into certain professions. The employees at the unemployment office had laughed at him when he said he wanted to take the university entrance exam. Everyone and everything seemed to be telling him that he was not good enough.
And even though his family had arrived almost a year prior, their situation was still unstable. Earlier in September, the landlord had knocked on their door and told Ahmed that the unemployment office hadn’t paid their rent in three months. He would have to kick them out. Ahmed spent the day waiting in line to discover an administrative error had held up the payment. It was resolved, but it was one of a series of emergencies.
The apartment itself was another problem. Ahmed’s family had still not found a better place to live even though he looked for new housing constantly. He often missed class to visit potential places. When his father went to see an apartment by himself, he would call Ahmed in the middle of class so he could talk to the realtor. It was embarrassing. The family faced multiple obstacles to finding better housing: Ahmed’s accented German, their rent guarantee from the unemployment office (which everyone knows is slow to pay its bills), and the crush of other applicants.
Ahmed sometimes asked Alex to call realtors. “It’s like he has a super power he doesn’t know he has,” Ahmed said. “They talk to him like a human.” Germans have a way of introducing themselves he explained. Name, profession, they give a whole package, and “Ahmed Al Nigar, unemployed, family of five,” is unconvincing.
“We as humans like easy stories,” said Dr. Malek Bajbouj. He directs a psychological clinic at Charité Hospital in Berlin. It provides the only counseling in Arabic specifically for asylum seekers and refugees in the city. He said the mental blowback from the civil war or from the danger encountered in the migration to Europe is easy to imagine. But the asylum seekers his clinic treats say the anxiety they feel stems from the uncertainty they face in Germany.
“What is really bothering them and stressing them out is the situation now,” Bajbouj said. It is relatively trivial things: not getting a spot at a language course, waiting for a decision on their status, and staying for months in mass housing. Cumulatively, the lack of control can lead them to feel depressed and deepen any psychological problems that were already present. The Berlin clinic has seen 2,000 patients in the past year, and about 40 percent express feelings of senselessness and say they feel they have no future.
It was a feeling that Ahmed related to, though I had not realized to what extent. After eating dinner with Ahmed and his uncle that late summer evening, I walked through Mauer Park with them in the dark. A coolness was just starting to creep into the air. Sitting at the top of an amphitheater in the park, Ahmed switched into Arabic and asked his uncle if he knew that he had tried to kill himself two weeks before. “I tried to take a handful of pills, but my mother stopped me and threw them down the toilet,” he said. After a pause, his uncle turned the conversation back to American politics, addressing me in English.
Riding back on the U Bahn with just Ahmed, I asked him questions trying to draw out a fuller picture. “We have to admit that life is not for everyone,” he said. He despaired of ever finding a partner – his word. Girls in Egypt thought he was great; here he was convinced he was unattractive. He had stopped speaking with his father except when absolutely necessary, and he was reluctant to help me interview his parents again. After more than a year of living on his own, moving back in with his family – and to a one-room apartment – was extremely difficult. No one sleeps he said. Sometimes he would hangout in a nearby park until late in the evening to avoid interacting with his parents at home.
“It’s been two years and everything has gotten worse. I don’t know where people get hope from,” Ahmed said over a plate of cheap Asian noodles after the start of the semester. I pointed out that he still cared enough about his health to go vegan and that he continued to hustle to find a new apartment. “I can’t analyze this thing,” he said. “Maybe I’m obsessed with privileged people, but I don’t want this shit life.” Even if he was wrong about what he deserved, he added, it didn’t matter.
I looked up psychologists that took public insurance and would accept new patients, called a crisis center to ask about their opening hours and urged Ahmed to come with me. He declined. “That’s very sweet of you,” he said, “but I don’t believe in that bullshit.”
One afternoon I got a text from him. “Hey Thalia,” it started. “I can’t really help with anything related to my parents anymore. I don’t think I will see them again in a long time. I tried to kill myself again on Thursday,” he wrote. The important thing, I responded, is that you are alive.
I talked to him later that evening. Ahmed had been at school when his father texted him complaining that he was not doing enough to find them an apartment. Something inside him broke. “I sent him all the curses,” he said, and eventually, to avoid going home, he called Alex. “I went over there and just lost it,” he said. With a, “It was nice knowing you,” he left his guitar and ran outside to try to jump off the building.
Alex followed in pursuit and caught him. He and Ahmed walked through the streets late into the night as Ahmed cried uncontrollably. Finally, they went to a branch of Berlin’s sprawling Charité hospital and Alex checked him in. He spent the night in a psychiatric ward, a place that reeked of human bodies and cleaning products. The next morning, Alex signed him out and promised to keep him safe.
A pair of descending escalators in a glass atrium were the main features of the municipal office building. The only way up was in elevators down the hall and around the corner. “Not very welcoming,” Alex remarked. He was sick from the all-nighter he pulled the week before with Ahmed at the hospital.
They were back at the altar of the German administration. The unemployment office had sent Ahmed to the Youth Welfare Office. Could Ahmed live by himself? It was not clear which department could make the decision to separate his file from his family’s. Youth services punted back to the job center, which was closed by the time Ahmed and Alex arrived. “This is what you call stubborn,” Alex said, as Ahmed walked in anyway. A security guard quickly stopped him and told him to come back the next day.
It was cold and sunny as they walked back to the S Bahn. Alex told Ahmed he needed to take it one step at a time, that he couldn’t rush things. “I’ll find an apartment by Monday,” Ahmed said. “By Monday?” Alex sputtered, “This is delusional.” Ahmed was staying in an extra room in the apartment Alex shared with his wife and teenage son. The room had a door Ahmed could close, a piano and two saxophones, which Ahmed had started trying to play. But he said felt already that he had asked too much of Alex.
When Ahmed first got out of the hospital, he insisted on paying Alex rent, which Alex pretended he would take. Instead, he put the 50 Euro note in a box on the mantelpiece and reminded Ahmed about it every now and then. “It might seem childish,” Ahmed said, but he wanted to repay Alex for all he had done for him. One day, he said, when he found work, he would buy Alex super expensive presents. “He will hate that,” I told him smiling.
I had asked Alex earlier about what had drawn him to Ahmed initially. “At first glance, you can see that he is in between things,” Alex said. He almost never hung out with other Arabic speakers, preferring instead to jam with the kids from his international school or the friends he had made while learning German.
“I hope that he masters these different influences, that he gets some pleasure eventually in exchange for these hardships,” Alex said.
Two weeks, three appointments and a conversation with a psychologist later, Ahmed got permission to live alone. His stint at the psychiatric ward had cut both ways. It was proof that living with his family was untenable, but it also raised questions about his fitness to take care of himself. Would it be better if his family could finally move into a larger place? Should he go back into housing supervised by the youth welfare office?
“So much has happened,” Ahmed said, explaining that for now his relationship with his parents was broken. “I have done so many things for them, and they have never said, ‘Thank you.’” The hard truth was that in leaving the apartment where his family lived, he endangered their housing. The unemployment office paid the landlord per person, and his absence would mean a 20 percent cut in rent. But he said, “I am also a person, and I also have a life.” He agreed reluctantly to go with Alex to a therapist.
Standing in front of another bureaucrat’s desk, Ahmed and Alex waited to collect the stack of forms Ahmed needed to start the process of opening a new file on himself separate from his family. They faced each other, Ahmed with dark hair and a sharp nose and Alex with close-cropped gray bristle and a dimpled chin.
“Hey man, I know you hate it when I say this, but thank you,” Ahmed said. “You’re welcome,” Alex responded, before being drawn into an argument with the bureaucrat. “He’s 18,” Alex said, explaining why Ahmed did not need his father’s permission to create a separate account. On the third repetition, the employee acquiesced and began fishing out the forms. It was not the end, but as they left the building, Ahmed said he felt like he could breathe for the first time in years.