A Syrian refugee balances life in Germany with chaos at home

AP , Monday 26 Sep 2016

Mohammed al-Haj
Mohammed al-Haj makes coffee in his home in Saarbruecken, Germany Aug. 15, 2016 (Photo: AP)

At the intersection, Mohammed al-Haj waited patiently for the "green man." No cars were coming, no policemen watching. Back home in Syria, he wouldn't hesitate.

But here in Germany, it's the law, you only cross when the walk light is green.

"I don't want to get into the habit of not waiting for him," said the 27-year-old Mohammed. "I felt from the first day, that this is a country of law and order."

This is one world Mohammed lives in, guided by rules, where he says he knows his rights and his responsibilities. It's a world where he can plan for the future, after arriving a year ago among hundreds of thousands of refugees.

But at the same time, Mohammed is living in a second world: The hell of Syria. First thing every morning, he checks on the Internet and social media for the latest in the constant stream of grim news. He can't stop, even though he feels helpless, following day by day the destruction of his home city, Aleppo.

"Syria is like a nightmare that travels with me wherever I go," he said. "I could just be sitting here doing nothing and suddenly learn that someone I know has died."

The Associated Press followed Mohammed in the summer of 2015 as he made the arduous trek from Turkey to Germany. In August, the AP revisited him in the German city of Saarbruecken.

He shares a Spartan two-bedroom apartment with three other Syrian men. There's little furniture, and none of them have beds. A blackboard hangs on a wall, and one of his housemates has drawn on it a map of Syria topped by the flag of Syria's opposition.

Mohammed receives a monthly government stipend of 370 euros ($400), and his rent, utility bills and language school are paid for. He's grateful for it — he says Germany "opened its door for me and gave me everything I have."

Still, the money is barely enough. He rarely eats out, sits at a cafe or goes to a movie. He has one pair of jeans and one pair of shoes. He can't visit Syrian friends settled elsewhere in Germany because public transport is too expensive for him.

It's a similar situation for many others. In 2015, at least 477,000 refugees — more than 160,000 of them Syrians — applied for asylum status, and another 310,000 have applied so far this year.

Five days a week, Mohammed attends German classes. He often walks the 25-minute route to the language institute to save the tram fare. After four months of studies, he can now converse reasonably well in German.

As he spoke to the AP one weekend evening in Saarbruecken, two German men walked by, stark naked. Mohammed was unfazed. There's a group of anarchists in town who sometimes walk around nude, he explained.

There are things he has had to get used to. You don't take off your shoes entering a German's home, like you do in Syria. You don't just drop by unexpected. And he never calls a German after 10 p.m.

It's all a world apart from Syria.

The war has scattered Mohammed's family, as it has for many Syrians. One sister lives in the Turkish city of Killis, another in Izmir and a third in Lebanon. His parents live in Izmir with a brother, and his other brother is stuck in Syria, driving a taxi.

Mohammed is the farthest away, unable to reach the rest of his family. All he has are calls.

After every one, he said, "my heart aches."

Every few days, Mohammed talks on WhatsApp to his parents in Turkey.

In almost every sentence, they say "inshallah" — "God willing" — or "al-hamdulillah" — "thanks be to God." The generic Arabic phrases are a cushion, letting parents and child avoid burdening each other with their hardships, trying to keep each from worrying about the other.

In July, Mohammed learned of the latest of his friends to die. He woke up in the morning, checked Facebook and saw that Tareq al-Bayanooni, a rebel commander, had been killed by an air strike outside Aleppo.

It felt, he said, like a stab in the heart.

"But I did not cry. Honestly, I have run out of tears."

Al-Bayanooni was the fifth of his childhood friends to be killed, guys he played with in his neighborhood streets as a kid. From his broader friends and acquaintances, he guesses 20 to 25 have died — the ones he knows about, anyway.

At the time, it looked like the opposition-held part of Mohammed's home city of Aleppo was on the verge of being crushed. Mohammed kept going back to his telephone to follow the news. His studies suffered. "I was feeling down, I lost my concentration," he said.

Making it even harder, he felt he couldn't call friends or relatives still in Aleppo.

"How can I be in the safety of Germany so far away from home and call someone in Aleppo to ask how they are doing?" he said. "I will only get 'Thanks be to God' and nothing else. He gives that answer because he could die five minutes later."

Mohammed's housemates tease him over how closely he follows the war. He understands, they're fed up with war.

Mohammed also wants to move on with his German life. He aims to enroll at a German university by the fall of 2017. Plan B is to enroll in a vocational training program as a quicker way of gaining employment. When he gets a job, he will pay taxes — perhaps 30 or 35 percent of his income — and he says that will repay the money he is now getting from the government.

For now, his entire future hangs on learning German. If he doesn't pass an exam in October, he'll have to repeat, delaying everything.

"Germany needs a great deal of patience," he said. "My journey is long, and without patience I will not complete it."

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