Life in a new land: a refugee's journey

A Monitor reporter reconnects with a Syrian refugee who is starting a new life in Germany – while trying to save his family back home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad Qaiconie stands by the remains of part of the Berlin Wall, which divided the city during the cold war. He and a friend migrated from Syria several years ago to escape the violence. Both were granted asylum. Mr. Qaiconie now attends college.

On a cold February evening, a lively crowd packs into a small space on the top floor of a building in Berlin. A beautiful view of the skyline radiates out from the terrace, and the aromatic smell of Syrian food drifts from a kitchen.

Muhannad Qaiconie, one of the organizers of the gathering, mingles easily among the guests. Just two years ago, having fled the war in Syria, Mr. Qaiconie was preparing to embark on a perilous journey to Europe. On the way he survived a dangerous sea crossing to Greece. He braved beatings by police in Macedonia. He persisted through countless miles on foot and nights exposed to the elements.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad Qaiconie chats with fellow Syrian migrants in the Arabic library he helped create to support new arrivals to Germany.

Once in Germany, he faced more hardships – loneliness, lack of work, uncertainty over whether he would be able to get his mother and sister out of war-ravaged Aleppo. But, with drive and persistence, he has started to create a new life in a new country, culminating in this moment of triumph in Berlin. He picks up a microphone and inaugurates, along with his partners, a project that will help others do the same – Between Us, an Arabic-German-English library and cultural space. His confidence and gregariousness fill the room as he tells the crowd, a mix of longtime Berliners and newcomers, how he envisions Between Us as a place where locals and new arrivals can discover what they have in common. It is a place, he says, where those navigating their way in Germany can make connections, much as Qaiconie has done himself.

Later, as a group of Syrian musicians plays a famous song from Aleppo, the crowd starts to sing and dance in what seems an expression of joy and longing at the same time. 

Qaiconie’s path from recently arrived refugee to contributing resident of a new country provides a window into what hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the Middle East are now facing – the relief of leaving behind a brutal past and the rigors of starting over in a new and often alien culture.

In June 2015, Qaiconie took part in the largest human migration since the end of World War II. More than 1.2 million refugees and migrants crossed the sea from Turkey and North Africa that year and made their way to Europe, most fleeing conflict at home and seeking a place to live in safety, security, and dignity. They arrived at a critical moment for Europe, as far-right nationalist movements were growing across the Continent. From Hungary to France to Britain, restive parties used the influx of immigrants to rebel against open borders, globalization – and, ultimately, the very idea of a united Europe itself. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Qaiconie looks at a photo of his mother and sister, whom he aided in fleeing from Syria to Turkey.

The majority of the newcomers settled in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the arrivals and famously proclaimed “wir schaffen das,” or “we can do this.” Now the rest of Europe is watching to see if she was right: Can Germany fold more than a million newcomers into its society without disrupting the social and economic cohesion of the country and without succumbing to the growing political clout of the far-right? The stakes are high, and already Germany’s government, in an attempt to gird against the election gains of nationalist, anti-immigration parties, is hardening its policies.

For those like Qaiconie, Germany’s integration policy is not a political issue but something intensely personal – a maze of bureaucratic procedures that can sometimes feel as if it blocks, rather than facilitates, access to jobs, schooling, housing, and inclusion in society. As he tried to navigate that maze, he was also dealing with an ever-present anxiety about the safety of his mother and sister – anxiety that was about to reach a new high.


In July 2015, I chronicled Qaiconie’s dangerous odyssey from Turkey to Germany in a Monitor story. Once he arrived, his aim was simple: to find a job and earn enough money to bring the rest of his family to Europe. Self-sufficient and enterprising, he had been able to quickly find work in both Lebanon and Turkey – though not with high enough wages to support his mother and sister – and he was confident he could do the same in Germany. Qaiconie knew that meant he would likely end up doing menial labor. “I understand that this will be my place, and I have no problem if it will be like this,” he says. In Lebanon, he had worked in construction. But he soon discovered that in Germany a lot of his time would be spent ... waiting. 

Migrants filed nearly 450,000 new asylum applications in 2015 and more than 720,000 the following year. The new arrivals overwhelmed Germany’s system for providing housing and processing claims. In 2015, the average time it took to process a claim was more than five months, and it rose to more than seven months in 2016, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. (It’s now down to an average of about two months.) 

So while Qaiconie had hoped to immediately find work, instead he spent months waiting on paperwork. Frustrated, he searched for ways to be productive. He went cycling with a group from a local church and organized donations at the asylum center for €1 ($1.07) an hour. He spent time reading. And he began to make connections crucial for building a life in a new society. He befriended a German journalist who wrote a piece about the European response to the refugee situation. The reporter sent him books – “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” by Friedrich Nietzsche, and “The Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka. “I really suffered a lot” reading Nietzsche, Qaiconie says laughing, but he enjoyed the imagination of Kafka.

Still, Qaiconie was no closer to his goal of getting his family out of Syria. By the time he was legally allowed to work, in November 2015, he realized that most jobs – even unskilled positions – required knowledge of German. He was attending a government-provided “integration course,” which included intensive language instruction along with lessons on German history and civics. But it would take time – something his family was running out of – to improve his linguistic skills enough to find a job. And even then, he discovered that many jobs require specific training. 

Qaiconie was typical of the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in this sense: Most need to quickly make money either to support families back home or bring them to Germany. Many chose to go to Germany, the European Union’s largest economy, not only because the country was more welcoming than others but because they thought the job market would be favorable. But there is a limited supply of unskilled labor jobs in Germany, and most skilled positions require extensive vocational training.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad Qaiconie takes a class on theories of tolerance at Bard College Berlin. He got a scholarship to attend the school – one of four Syrians to do so.

“One of the core problems is that there is a fundamental clash of needs,” says Victoria Rietig, senior migration fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, who wrote a report last year on access to the labor market. “There’s the need to make money fast, and on the other hand there’s the need to get skills and training first,” which lead to higher salaries. Those training programs, highly regarded in Germany, pay low wages until the training is completed. Even when refugees are willing to go that route, they often find it difficult to be accepted into such positions. 

Germany has introduced a number of reforms in the past two years to ease access to the labor market for refugees. These include ending some requirements that employers favor German or EU job applicants, and shortening the wait time before those who have been granted asylum can work. Ms. Rietig says German authorities should also encourage alternative pathways to work, such as entrepreneurship, that can help refugees avoid hurdles to entering the labor market. 

Even as he learned how difficult it would be to find work, Qaiconie realized that getting his family to Germany was also going to be a problem. They didn’t qualify for Germany’s family reunification policy for asylum-seekers, which applies to spouses, children, and parents of minors. By March 2016, countries along the Balkan route, the way Qaiconie had traveled to Germany, had shut their borders to refugees, meaning that was no longer an option either.

And the war in Aleppo was getting more dire. Last winter, a bomb hit the apartment where his mother and sister lived, shearing off the wall to the kitchen and leaving it open to the outside. His mother hung a sheet to cover the opening. Then in May, they returned home to find the entire building reduced to rubble.

Qaiconie had always felt confident and independent. But now he was becoming disillusioned. 

•     •     •

A few weeks after my first article on Qaiconie was published, I received an email from a Monitor reader from Arizona named Dorothy. (She asked to be identified by her first name only.) Dorothy told me she was touched by Qaiconie’s story and wanted to help bring his family out of Syria. “He came across as a young man with hopes and dreams and desires,” she says, and she was struck that “after all he’s gone through he still has ideals that he wants to fulfill, and I wanted to help him with that.”

I put Dorothy and Qaiconie in touch with each other, and despite his strong discomfort with accepting help, she began sending a small amount of money to his mother in Aleppo. The two began to email each other once or twice a month, and Dorothy told Qaiconie that when the time was right to get his family out of Syria, she would help. 

Freed from the need to take the first job available, and having begun to establish a social network in Germany, Qaiconie for the first time had room to think about what he wanted to do. All along he had harbored a desire to continue his studies – his time at a university in Syria had been cut short by the war – but had thought he wouldn’t have the chance. Now, that was changing. 

Through some of the Germans he met, Qaiconie learned about a new scholarship program at Bard College Berlin, a small, private liberal arts university in the German capital. Two years ago, the university decided to offer scholarships for students from areas of crisis, and raised the funds for five full four-year scholarships beginning in the fall of 2016.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad Qaiconie rides the subway after classes end for the day.

Qaiconie applied. But he didn’t just send in an application. When he learned about a symposium organized by Bard College Berlin and the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College in New York (with which BCB is affiliated) to discuss the migration situation, he decided to attend. He had recently developed an appreciation for the works of Arendt, a German-born Jewish political theorist who became a refugee during the Holocaust, and he prepared for the conference by reading more of her work. At the symposium, he engaged in a long discussion with Roger Berkowitz, head of the Arendt Center. Kerry Bystrom, associate dean of Bard College Berlin, says Qaiconie so impressed Dr. Berkowitz that the professor wrote a letter of support for Qaiconie’s application.

Crucially, the language of instruction at Bard is English, which means it was accessible for Qaiconie. Many Syrian newcomers in Germany are eager to continue their studies, but first must spend years becoming fluent in German to enter a German university. It’s one of the many hurdles they face in integration, though government policy on the issue has changed remarkably in the past decades. Turning from policies that isolated asylum-seekers and kept them from accessing resources such as language classes until their claims were approved – which sometimes took years – the government decided to encourage integration, reforming Germany’s citizenship law, shortening the time it takes to process asylum claims, and offering access to integration courses.

Yet not all policies and people have been welcoming. Despite the large number of active civil society organizations and individuals supporting refugees, anti-immigrant sentiment has grown in Germany. Public opinion has been influenced by events such as the sexual violence allegedly committed by young Arab men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve a year ago and the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December. 

As a result, the government has tightened rules, such as keeping asylum-seekers from being able to choose where they will live, and has set out plans to speed up the deportations of failed asylum-seekers, including controversial deportations of Afghans. Ms. Merkel has gone from being the “refugee chancellor” who opened the borders to the “deportation chancellor,” says Karl Kopp of the advocacy group Pro Asyl. He’s critical of these moves, as well as the push to increasingly grant Syrians subsidiary protection rather than refugee status, which has prevented many new arrivals from being able to qualify for family reunification.

Qaiconie says that integration in Germany is too often viewed as simply a demand for newcomers to assimilate and become just like their German hosts. He wishes the government could be more flexible and adapt its policies to make it easier for refugees to find their way in the country, which he believes would better serve both refugees and Germany as a whole. 

•     •     •

It had been more than a week since Qaiconie gave €3,200 ($3,400) to a stranger in Berlin. The money was passed through informal networks to a smuggler in Syria, who was supposed to guarantee passage for Qaiconie’s mother and sister from Aleppo to Turkey. The funds came largely from Dorothy, who had sent them when he told her the time was right. Though his mother and sister couldn’t join him in Europe, they could at least take refuge in Turkey, until he could figure out a way to bring them to Germany. Dorothy had wired $3,000. Now his family was staying in a relative’s house near the border, waiting for word from the smuggler that it was time to slip into Turkey. Days passed, then a week. Then the smuggler stopped answering his phone. 

Qaiconie started to panic. He imagined everything that could have gone wrong. What if the man had taken the cash and vanished? What would he tell Dorothy?

Not only that, after his mother left her job at a state-controlled company to make preparations for leaving, the police had come looking for her. They now considered her an opponent of the regime. She couldn’t go back. “There were a thousand things behind this decision that will destroy my life if it doesn’t succeed,” he says. 

In desperation, he called the man in Germany who had put him in touch with the smuggler in northern Syria. “He’s not answering his phone because he was taken by [Jabhat] al-Nusra,” the intermediary told him, referring to the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Though distraught, Qaiconie decided to wait a few more days. Finally, the smuggler called. It had been a simple dispute, he said. Jabhat al-Nusra had detained him as punishment and then had let him go. He could take the two women to the border the next day. 

Relieved, Qaiconie kept in contact with them by phone until they reached the border. There was a nerve-racking hour when they were out of touch. Then he received word: They were in Turkey. Safe. All told, he spent about $4,000 to get them out. (Full disclosure: I contributed a few hundred dollars to the cost.) 

Finally free after spending years in a war zone, his mother and sister were elated. Qaiconie had sent them a small sum to cover their food and necessities for a few weeks. They called him after three days to say they had spent the entire amount at the market, reveling in their newfound freedom. Qaiconie laughs as he recalls his reaction. He had nothing more to give them, but he couldn’t get angry.

“I told them, ‘it’s OK, I’ll see what I can do,’ ” he says. “They were happy, and they must stay happy. And they had the right [to be happy] because they stayed all this ... time [in Aleppo], and I was enjoying [life] here.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Muhannad Qaiconie (r.) eats lunch with college classmates at a Lebanese restaurant in Berlin.

Now that his family was safe, Qaiconie could focus on his studies – and just in time, because he had received the scholarship at Bard College. He plunged into the role of university student in August. A decade older than most of his classmates, he nonetheless relished the opportunity to study Immanuel Kant and Judith Butler’s theories on gender and the concept of global citizenship.

It isn’t always easy. His English isn’t perfect, and writing academic essays is difficult. Sometimes, he says, if there’s an English word he doesn’t understand, he misses out on an entire class discussion.

Yet he’s getting through it. His English has improved markedly since he began. In February Qaiconie gave a presentation on Karl Marx in his philosophy class. He brought a copy of the assigned text in Arabic just in case, but he didn’t need it. He deftly delivered his presentation, then fielded questions and participated in a discussion with his classmates. 

Marion Detjen, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany, who taught Qaiconie in a class on migration history at Bard last semester, says that having students like him enriches the course for everyone. It was “vital; it was really really important because how can you talk about this topic shutting out those experiences of people who are now living with us and who have all this firsthand knowledge...?” asks Dr. Detjen. The class also discussed the language used to talk about immigration – terms such as “refugee” versus “newcomer.” 

For his part, Qaiconie is tired of always being labeled a refugee, which can feel dehumanizing, stripping away one’s dignity and personhood and leaving the caricature of a poor foreigner who needs help. He knows a group of Syrian musicians who came to Germany as refugees, and their gigs are usually touted as “refugees playing music,” he says, instead of as a performance by Syrian musicians, or, simply, a performance. “It’s like you are an object, like you are a file,” he says. “They don’t deal with you as a human.” 

•     •     •

Bard students have the opportunity to study abroad, and Qaiconie plans to spend a semester at the school’s campus in New York and a semester at the Al-Quds Bard College for Arts and Sciences in the West Bank. It’s unclear how he can get to either – the new US immigration ban has frozen visas for Syrians, and it’s unlikely Israel would grant him entry.

But in his typical fashion, he insists he’ll find a way. Behind his plan to go to New York is a desire to meet Dorothy in person for the first time. He’s hoping to graduate in less than four years, and wants to pursue a master’s degree and a PhD afterward. Though he had to give up his government benefits to accept the scholarship at Bard, the university provides a dormitory room and three meals a day. Outside class, he spends time working on the library and with the German woman with whom he is in a relationship.

He doesn’t miss Syria, he says, though he still cares deeply about the revolution. Qaiconie doesn’t want to go back if the regime remains in power or if Islamic extremists take over.

“The goal is freedom,” he says. The only way he sees himself going back is if he can help find a solution to the conflict. He plans to apply for permanent residency in Germany as soon as possible. Here, he has the kind of freedom that he wanted in Syria. “Absolutely I’m happy here, because I do what I want. And this is what I want,” he says. “This was the reason for being part of the revolution.” 

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