An illustration showing a man and a map. The man is placed at the bottom right corner, he is facing a map that shows Syria and Germany. A dotted line connects both countries.

Eight years later: A Syrian father’s search for stability in Germany

‘This is one thing that makes me feel comfortable: citizenship. I just want to feel secure.’

More than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Germany in 2015-2016, the majority of them Syrians escaping their country’s civil war by undertaking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to find security, stability, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives. 


Eight years later, many of those refugees are at a critical juncture: on the cusp of living in the country long enough to apply for citizenship – if they can meet the benchmarks of Germany’s strict immigration system.


As the number of forcibly displaced people globally reaches record highs, Germany has come to host one of the largest refugee populations in the world, so examining how its government’s policies shape people’s ability to integrate, rebuild, and thrive is more important than ever. 


Those who arrived in 2015 have faced an uneven road full of challenges. Eight years, afterall, is a small window of time to go from being violently uprooted to integrated into a new – and substantially different – country. Many have struggled to learn German and adjust to a culture that feels foreign and more reserved. The quest for meaningful work has been frustrating. The traumas of war and sorrows of exile are a constant companion.


Still, many have benefited from the kindness of individual Germans, building unlikely friendships and finding a helping hand at unexpected times. Some have managed to thrive, learning the language, landing decent jobs, and settling into welcoming communities.


The story of one family’s odyssey, from a middle-class life in Syria to the bottom rung of German society, represents the story of many refugees.

Part 1: Adham’s Story

Adham Amer, 58, was sitting in the driver’s seat of a white taxi on a February night in 2022 when his phone rang. It was his boss. Two weeks earlier he had landed a job as a driver, offering hope for steady employment after multiple opportunities fell through. 


Seven years earlier, in 2015, he had left Syria, where he had at different times worked as a teacher, a real estate developer, and in the oil and gas industry – travelling to the Gulf and living in Dubai for periods of time. He had earned enough to provide a comfortable home for his family in the southern Syrian city of as-Suwayda. 


But life in Germany had been a string of disappointments. Various jobs – a caretaker in an old age home, collecting scooters scattered on Berlin sidewalks for a rental company – ended abruptly. After years without steady work, his sense of self-worth was shaky and his relationships with his family – his daughter Wafaa and wife Nadwa, who had arrived in 2018, and Nadwa’s son Tammam, who had arrived in 2021 – were strained.


Working for the taxi company, which had given him the car, felt different. He would have to commute to Berlin, an hour away from his home in Mühlenbecker Land – a small town past the northern outskirts of the city – but he would gain some independence, some purpose. 


“The taxi job gave me a reason to leave the house every day,” said Adham.

An illustration of Adham Amer, in the back is a drawing of a taxi. Both drawings are over a gray watercolor-like background.
Sara Cuevas/TNH

Finally, his uncertain future felt like it was starting to stabilise: A steady job opened up the possibility of applying for citizenship. “This is one thing that makes me feel comfortable: citizenship. I just want to feel secure,” Adham said.


At first, he was nervous to drive in the busy city streets. “But day by day I started to get used to it,” he said. “I was so excited for this chance to work.”


Then, on that February night, his boss fired him. Adham was crushed. 


“Why did I even come here?” he asked himself. “It’s like I’m working and working and still I’m unable to have a penny more.”


Adham’s struggle to find work, learn German, and figure out a bureaucratic immigration system while feeling overlooked or facing hostility are common threads in the conversations The New Humanitarian had with over 40 Syrian refugees living in Germany while reporting this story. Some were school-age children, some were old enough to be grandparents. 


Many said that while much of the world’s focus was on their journeys from Syria to safety, the next, often longer chapter of that story began after those journeys ended.


The German government has invested hundreds of millions of euros per year in language courses, vocational training, and other initiatives to help integrate refugees. That effort has been “remarkable”, and far more than other EU countries have done, according to Thomas Liebig, a senior economist focusing on migration at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


Even with that investment, though, the process of rebuilding lives uprooted by war is long and uneven. And Germany’s bureaucracy, language requirements, insistence on German certifications to work in various professions – as well as the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic – have thrown up barriers to refugees trying to integrate into society and become self-sufficient.


The decision to leave 

In the first three years he was in Germany, Adham rarely left his room. He was depressed, missed Nadwa, and felt alone in Berlin. 


He was also grieving. 


In 2015, his 25-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in Syria. Years later, the details of the murder are still murky. Was the so-called Islamic State (IS) responsible? Was it the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Or was it one of the other armed groups that flourished in the chaos of Syria’s civil war?


“I can’t go there in my mind. It’s basically a black hole. It’s too much.”


By that point, the Syrian uprising that began in 2011 had been met by brutality from al-Assad’s regime, the factions opposed to the government had fragmented as outside money and weapons poured in, and the Russians had joined the fight. Tens of thousands of Syrians were being killed, and more than half the country’s pre-war population of around 21 million had been displaced internally or as refugees in neighbouring countries. 


Regardless of who killed his son, the murder came as al-Assad’s mukhabarat (secret police) terrorised dissenters, IS attacked and executed civilians, and the value of Adham’s money dropped. He walked the streets of as-Suwayda in fear.


“All of a sudden, he decided to go,” Nadwa said of Adham. 


Nadwa and Adham had only been married for a year at that point – the second marriage for both. When Adham left five days after his son was killed, Nadwa stayed behind with her son from her first marriage and Adham’s daughter, not wanting to risk the dangerous journey. 


First, Adham crossed the border to neighbouring Lebanon. From there, like so many other refugees, he went to Turkey. After a journey on a boat to Greece and then through the forests of Macedonia, his bag with his few possessions was stolen while he was in a bathroom in Hungary. 


An illustration that shows a series of maps connected with dotted lines. We see at the bottom right an outline of Syria and diagonally to its left, Türkiye, Greece, North Macedonia, Hungary, and Germany. The dotted line loops around all country map outlines. To the right we see illustrations of hills, a boat and a rucksack.
Sara Cuevas/TNH


“I had ripped my pants and didn’t sleep for five days,” he said. He never told Nadwa in full what happened during the journey. 


Some Syrians who tried to get to western Europe from Greece faced tear gas and stun grenades from Macedonian troops when they tried to enter that country. Others were drenched in pouring winter rain or sweltered in 100-degree heat, walking single file through forests and wading through rivers. People were kidnapped and extorted by smugglers in various towns and cities along the route.


“I can’t go there in my mind,” Adham said of the journey from Lebanon to Hungary. “It’s basically a black hole. It’s too much.”


Adham barely ate or slept during the journey, travelling with a group shepherded through the forest by smugglers. His son’s death was still lurking in his mind, motivating him onward. 


Adham arrived in Munich a week later, with those ripped pants and not much else. 


From Munich, Adham was eventually relocated to Mühlenbecker Land as part of a national plan to distribute the responsibility for hosting refugees among German states. When he walked into the town gym, where locals had set up a welcome centre to feed and house refugees, a German volunteer named Ulerik Haase asked if she could give him a hug. 


“That moment, I remember feeling safe,” Adham said. 


Navigating a new, unfamiliar world

Unlike Germany’s past policies of managing asylum seekers and migrants – including Turkish guest workers in the 1960s and Lebanese refugees fleeing civil war in the 1980s – the state apportioned refugees to each region of the country, based on population, but restricted their movements. Once granted asylum, refugees had to stay where they were assigned for their first three years to receive benefits. 


Asylum seekers who were likely to be granted refugee status – which included those from Syria – were given 600 hours of language instruction, and 100 hours of courses on German culture and history. The amount of money spent by the federal government on integration courses jumped from 244 million euros in 2015 to 610 million in 2017.


After three months, Syrians were also allowed to work while they waited for the asylum process to be sorted out, and were provided help from Jobcenters. These centres, of which there were 303 by 2017, were run by municipalities – sometimes in partnership with local employment agencies – and were the primary bureaucracy refugees worked with to integrate into the labour market.


Adham, like many other Syrian refugees, later grew to mistrust these centres. For now, he was trying to figure out his first steps in his new home, and eventually found himself developing a friendship with Haase, who turned out to be his neighbour. 


When the first refugees showed up in her village, Haase gave them beds and couches in her house. Some of her neighbours, infuriated, called her a traitor to Germany on Facebook. 


Over weekly coffees that first year, Adham and Haase, who both spoke English, chatted about their childhoods, children, and culture. They played volleyball together with other refugees, and she helped Adham fill out German bureaucratic forms. 


“Adham had a leg up because he spoke English,” Haase later said. 


That ability had opened up job opportunities in Syria and the Gulf, but did not help him find a job in his new home. He found German difficult, and there were few English speakers in his new village. He had to pass a language test and obtain certifications to find a job, which felt nearly impossible at his age. 


Something simple, like getting a driver’s licence, took years of navigating the notoriously obtuse German bureaucracy. Refugees who were skilled tradespeople had to pass German tests and get certified to work in professions that many of them had been doing their entire adult lives.

An illustration showing a hand holding a pencil and writing on a paper that says "Deutschtest"."
Sara Cuevas/TNH

Adham also suffered from tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears that had developed after his son was killed in 2015, making it harder to learn the language or focus on much of anything. The opportunities he found through the Jobcenter paid low wages, and Adham eventually felt that many companies would only hire him and other refugees to get government stipends to cover the cost of training them. After a brief period, the companies would let the refugees go, having paid them significantly less than initially promised, Adham said. 


“I’m distrustful of anyone who asks if I’m associated with the Jobcenter,” he added.


But a German neighbour offered Adham a place to sleep, so he didn’t have to pay rent, and the government gave a stipend to unemployed refugees of about 400 euros per month to cover the cost of food and other expenses. Still, Adham felt a sense of shame not being able to work to earn a living and support himself. 


“Thank you for accepting me for your community,” he said. “Please give me a chance to work.” 


Reuniting with Nadwa

Bringing Nadwa from as-Suwayda to Germany was complicated. Adham’s asylum claim was approved, and he was given residency two months after arriving in Germany. It would take years for German authorities to work through a backlog of family reunification cases, a process the government slowed as anti-refugee backlash intensified.


Haase helped Adham fill out the necessary paperwork. But Nadwa and Adham’s daughter from his first marriage, Wafaa, didn’t have their cases approved until 2018. Nadwa’s son remained behind in Syria because his father – Nadwa’s ex-husband – wouldn’t let him leave. 


When Nadwa and Wafaa, now 49 and 16, arrived in Germany in September 2018, a couple of weeks after their cases were approved, Adham felt like things were starting to look up. As the family entered 2019, Adham began putting more effort into learning German and his job search, finding work here and there, determined that eventually something would stick. 


Even when he got rejected or fired, now that his wife and daughter were with him, Adham remained hopeful he would find something. 


Then the pandemic hit. 



Alone in his home, Adham felt the progress he had made in German began to evaporate. He spent his days sitting in his living room listening to the radio or going on walks – often for hours at a time – through the forest. “How did I end up here?” he asked himself, wondering if he should have tried harder to make it to Australia or Canada, where his English would have been more useful and some of his family and friends who had managed to go seemed to be doing better than he was. 


Some jobs that didn’t appear to require much facility in the language, like dishwashing or driving, often only hired those with an intermediate level of German or higher. In Australia and Canada, he had heard of friends and family working for Uber or Lyft weeks after arriving. But in Germany, he spoke with other Syrians who struggled to grasp the language and also struggled to find work. 


The taxi job he landed in February 2022 seemed a way out of the abyss brought on by the pandemic. Adham had spent around 1,700 euros taking tests to get a licence and clearing other bureaucratic hurdles. He was being paid under 10 euros an hour, and he had received little training. So when the taxi company boss called to tell him he was being fired for not picking up enough customers, driving the fastest routes, or operating the meter correctly, he felt he needed more time and would be able to figure it out soon. The manager disagreed.


With every rejection, Adham’s citizenship hopes dimmed as the requirement that he financially support himself, which could mean months or years of consistent work, seemed more and more unreachable. 


He failed to land a job at the package delivery service DHL and later Rewe, a grocery store. Meanwhile, he was trying to help his wife and daughter, who were still adjusting to a new country after their arrival in 2018, figure out the German work and school systems. Nadwa, who was a university professor in Syria, was learning that her previous qualifications were not recognised by the German system.


But Nadwa was determined to return to the classroom, even if it was at a different level. She worked hard to master the language and get the certifications she needed to get back into teaching.


Her determination seemed to rub off on Adham, who redoubled his efforts to find work.


“I wish I could go back [to Syria]. The dream is to go back and settle in my country,” Adham said. “But I don’t have any other alternatives. I have to fight.”


Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.

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