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Eight years later: A Syrian family considers a future in Germany

‘We need more stability.’

An illustration of a road map that portrays the path towards citizenship in Germany through pictograms. The map starts on the bottom left is a boat then the path leads to a hand writing on a German language test, followed by a surgical map and then a hospital, university diplomas, a taxi cab, paperwork, a house, the euro symbol and finally a finish line banner with the word "citizenship" on it. Sara Cuevas/TNH

Part Four: Citizenship may not be enough to build a life around

Adham Amer, Nadwa Jazzan, and Tammam Zaher Aldin are just three of the more than 900,000 Syrians that were living in Germany as of 2022 – roughly 1% of the country's population. 


Like other refugees, the details of their stories are unique — from the circumstances that pushed Adham to flee Syria in 2015, the years they spent waiting to reunite, the pain and trauma they’ve carried with them, and the steps they’ve taken trying to re-establish their lives in their new home in Mühlenbecker Land on the outskirts of Berlin.


Many other refugees, including roughly 450,000 Syrians who have now lived in the country for at least seven years, are eligible to apply for citizenship. To qualify, they must know sufficient German, complete a government integration course, pass a naturalisation test, and show that they are able to financially support themselves. A new draft citizenship law published in May could simplify this process and reduce the wait period to between three and five years.

Read more: Pandemic disruption and double standards

Many of the refugees The New Humanitarian interviewed said that by 2019 they had been able to reunite with family members and felt they were starting to get their feet underneath them – learning the language, searching for jobs, and entering the German apprenticeship system that serves as a pathway to long-term employment. 


Then the pandemic hit. Forced inside by lockdowns – like Adham – many refugees were isolated and regressed in their language skills, as classes went remote and speaking opportunities dwindled. The job search also became more difficult. 


When the vaccines came, some felt they had the opportunity to live fully in their new country for the first time, starting companies, passing language tests, and feeling the world starting to open up. 


While Germany has provided a more robust social safety net to refugees than other countries – with unemployment, rent, and health support – its integration system could still be improved, according to Heba Gowayed, a sociology professor at Boston University and author of Refuge: How the State Shapes Human Potential. It could ease work certification requirements and recognise academic and professional credentials that refugees already possess. 


As the Ukraine war sends millions of refugees across Europe in what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described as a Zeitenwende, or major turning point, Poutvaraa said the EU is building on lessons learned from how Germany and other countries absorbed refugees in 2015 and 2016 to help Ukrainians today. 


Unlike Syrian and other asylum seekers, Ukrainians have been given immediate access to residency, education, and the labour market without going through the lengthy asylum process. They have also been granted far more agency in determining where they want to live, both in Germany and throughout the EU.


Experts say it is unlikely that this approach will be applied to asylum seekers from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, as EU politicians see support for Ukrainian refugees as part of the overall effort to counter Russia’s aggression. Meanwhile, many experts say xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are animating forces in the EU’s policies toward asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the world. 


According to Gowayed, the EU’s response to Ukraine has disproven one justification used by EU politicians to argue for hardline policies that seek to keep asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the bloc and explain the continued poor performance of integration systems in member states. 


“For a long time, the EU said this is a question of capacity. The Ukrainian case shows that it is not that they couldn’t, but that they wouldn’t,” she said. “We need to use this moment to imagine what our system could look like if we recognise people centrally as human beings who are in pursuit of rescue, which is their international right.”

Obtaining citizenship in another country is a source of both material and psychological security for people forcibly displaced from their homes: It gives them access to the full rights, services, and protections afforded by the state as well as a sense of permanence and belonging. 


“This is one thing that makes me feel comfortable: citizenship,” Adham said. “I just want to feel secure.”


Nadwa: Feeling the strain of lost years

In May of last year, Nadwa took the language exam she had poured so much energy into studying for and pinned so much of her sense of self-worth on. She learned she had passed in June. It was the happiest Nadwa had been since she saw Tammam at the airport in 2021. All the work, the hours of missed sleep, had paid off. 


Her boss soon called to congratulate her. Her salary had officially been increased by 1,000 euro a month. In January of 2023, fully off government support, Nadwa saw her rent raised from 800 to 1,500 euro a month. She also now had to pay for utilities, which their landlord hadn’t been charging for and run a couple hundred euro per month. That meant almost her entire raise was used on paying for the rent increase. 

Read more: The politics and economics of integration

In August 2015, as hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe, Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel made the decision to let people in rather than return them to the first EU country they entered – as would normally be the case in the EU’s asylum system. 


To try to mitigate the electoral threat that arose from the far-right backlash to the initial flood of newcomers, Germany’s centrist government later hardened some of its migration policies, including slowing down the family reunification process — and in some cases halting it altogether


That strategy has largely failed, as support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) reached a record 17% to 19% in a recent poll, and an AfD candidate won a district election for the first time ever in June. Backing for the party is largely driven by its anti-migration policy stances.


Meanwhile, dozens of Syrians who spoke to The New Humanitarian for this story said they had experienced depression and anxiety while waiting for years to reunite with husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers still in Syria or neighbouring countries such as Türkiye, Lebanon, and Jordan. 


Panu Poutvaraa, director of the Ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research, a think tank in Munich, found that two key factors shaped how successful refugees were in integrating into their new host communities: the community’s sentiment toward immigrants, and the local unemployment rate. 


Syrians in jurisdictions that voted more for far-right, anti-immigrant parties like the AfD made friends, joined clubs, and learned German at lower rates than their counterparts. And in regions with higher unemployment rates, Poutvaraa found, Syrians had more trouble finding work that could support them – if they could find work at all. 


In the state of Brandenburg, where Mühlenbecker Land is located, 18% of the electorate voted for the anti-immigrant AfD in 2021, compared to the national average of 10%. And while the nationwide unemployment rate was 5.5% in June 2023, in Berlin, where Adham has tried to find work for years, the unemployment rate is 9.1%


In 2020, five years after the largest wave of Syrians arrived in Germany, just over half of refugees were unemployed. By 2021, a little over one-third of Syrian adults were fully supporting themselves, while the rest relied wholly or partially on unemployment benefits. As of March of this year, the employment rate for Syrians in Germany was 37.8%, according to the German Federal Employment Agency.

“My raise made almost no changes to how we live financially,” Nadwa said. “I’m nearing 50, when I would retire in my home country. Here, I’m nearing 50 and still starting from zero. I still can’t think about saving for retirement.”


Since she is paying into the German pension system, Nadwa will be able to collect social security in her mid-60s, but isn’t sure if it will be enough to live off. She was exhausted but satisfied after almost a year teaching first, fourth, and fifth graders English, science, and social studies. She had to create a full curriculum for her fifth graders, learning about parts of European history herself for the first time. She was still spending two hours a day commuting and felt like she was behind the rest of the teachers.


“I used to live in a big family, and loved seeing everyone all the time,” Nadwa said. “But here, [because of] the long working hours [and] how much I’ve gone through the past years, when I arrive home, I just want to relax, go to sleep, [and] not really talk to anyone. It’s sad.”


She rarely has quality time with her son.


Tammam: Getting on track

After less than a year in Germany, Tammam passed the intermediate language test he took in March 2022. At 17, he would have been starting his final year of high school in Syria. In Germany, he learned he would have five years of schooling before he could take the German college entrance exam – he was told he would have to restart 10th grade. 


His plan to take the exam and pursue a college degree as a path to normalcy began to seem out of reach. Instead, he decided to forgo college and is working at a restaurant while finishing an internship at an insurance company. He plans to do an apprenticeship there starting in September, when he will go to class two days a week to learn the skills of the job and work in the office the other three days.


For many refugee children like Tammam, fleeing Syria and the trauma of war came with deep costs, including years of interrupted schooling, separation from parents, leaving friends behind, and a loss of cultural identity. Key periods in their development were disrupted. 


Creating a new life, meeting new friends, and navigating a vastly different education system has been exhausting yet, at times for Tammam, exhilarating. 


Tammam has lost over 45 kilograms from a strict regimen of working out and dieting, and got off insulin after the health scares from his diabetes. 


“Everything is okay now,” he said. “I lost weight, started new work, and am making a home here. But Germany is still Germany.”


Even if he now feels more or less settled, Tammam isn’t sure it’s a place he wants to be forever.


An illustration showing a hand handing an official paperwork with a German seal on it to another hand. We see the shoulder and head of the person handing the paper on the right.
Sara Cuevas/TNH


Adham: Still wondering is Germany is home

Adham has finally settled into a job as a driver for people with disabilities. 


One cool morning in July 2022, just after an early German sunrise, he was behind the wheel of a large van on the way to work. He loved helping people who had disabilities get to their rehabilitation facilities, and he enjoyed the relaxation of driving without a boss looking over his shoulder. 


“I can do this job for another 20 years,” said Adham at the time. “Things are different now. I have a stable job I love. I have a purpose. I found joy again. Maybe I will stay.”


He has remained in that job since, the longest he’s held one since arriving in Germany. He makes 1,000 euro a month, which helps pay off the family’s 5,000 euro in debt for subsidised rent to the German government.


The consistent work also meant Adham could seriously think about applying for citizenship. He started the process late last spring, sending a letter to his local government to find out what documents he would need, and he recently learned he qualified to apply.


One foot in, one foot out

In October, Adham, Nadwa, and Wafaa – Adham’s daughter from a previous marriage – had a formal citizenship appointment, where they learned about the endless documents they’d need to submit: proof of employment, housing, language certificates, health insurance, and more. 


Tammam couldn’t yet apply since he isn’t Adham’s biological son, but because Adham had been in Germany for eight years, his wife and daughter could join him in submitting a citizenship application as a family. 


The family was not alone as Syrians seeking German citizenship last year. In 2022, 48,300 Syrians received citizenship, according to government data, more than double 2021’s figure and seven times as high the number of Syrian naturalisations from 2020. 


They had until February 2023 – when the bureaucrat could next meet – to review their documents. In November, the family began discussing what they would do if they did get citizenship. 


“This year is a lot better than last year, but it’s still stressful,” Nadwa said. “We need more stability.”


They spoke with Adham’s brother, who ran two restaurants in Brisbane, Australia. He told them they could work there once they got citizenship, and they are seriously considering moving, calculating that the higher pay, lower taxes, and working with family would bring financial security. 


In February, after months of collecting their documents, they met with the bureaucrat again and officially applied for citizenship. They will find out if they are approved in six to 12 months, and the family will try to decide whether or not to stay in Germany. 


It’s not clear if Tammam or Wafaa could join them if they go to Australia. Wafaa is about to start an apprenticeship at a pharmacy, and Tammam still may have to wait years before he can apply for citizenship on his own. 


“I have a daughter here, and she is learning,” Adham said. “I don’t know that I can be separated from her again.”


Maybe they’ll wait a couple years until she’s done with the apprenticeship, Adham said. They have time still to figure it out. 


Nadwa feels they won’t stay in Germany for long. She wants to find a situation where they can get ahead of their bills, which seems out of reach even after her promotion and Adham’s job. After years of trying to figure out a new country and fighting to get ahead, she’s worn down. 


“We lost everything in the war,” she said. “I used to want to develop my brain, travel all over the world, work on my soul and mentality. But now we only work for money. Now, we only think to survive.”


Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.

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