Hartley Woolf | September 2016
Ahmad is a Syrian asylum seeker living in Darmstadt, south Germany. I first met him towards the end of his journey in Tovarnik, Croatia, where I was shooting a documentary about the refugees passing through the town. We stayed in contact and he would update us about his progress, finally sending us the good news that he had united with his grandparents, who were already living in the small German city. His journey from his home in Aleppo took him 3 and a half months, traveling most of the way in a small group with cousins.
Ryad, Ahmad's younger brother, is also staying in Darmstadt on a student visa. Their grandparents came over to Germany a year prior to Ahmad's arrival and are also waiting to be granted asylum.
Ahmad is taking his language course at the Hochschule Darmstadt university, which will culminate in a final exam this year. He is in a class with 24 other asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, all in a similar position to him.
Support for asylum seekers in Germany is substantial. His language course is paid for up until the level deemed necessary for integration into German society. As far as accommodation is concerned, since entering the country Ahmad was first given a place to sleep in a camp in a villiage named Bad Arolsen with 3 meals a day and a small monetary allowance. Once in Darmstadt he was then relocated to a Heim, a special accommodation centre for asylum seekers, before finally moving in with his grandparents.
He reached Darmstadt over a year ago, and had his asylum hearing in October of 2015. He's had a lot of time on his hands while waiting on official procedures and processes, and has become a master of the Rubik's cube. His current record is 56 seconds.
Over breakfast Ahmad tells me a story from the Qur'an. The Prophet Yunus (Jonah) is swallowed by a whale, trapped under three layers of darkness; the darkness of night, the darkness of the sea, and the darkness within the belly of the beast. Yunus' faith and patience are tested, until he is finally set free.
I ask Ahmad about home; that which he left behind, and the new home he now finds himself in. "Home is not stone," Ahmad tells me. "It is wherever you feel safe and happy and find love.”
Ahmad takes me round town. We talk about girls. We soon get to know each other's tastes, and we take turns pointing out potential girlfriends to each other. We talk of marriage and family; ordinary hopes and ambitions.
He takes me to the Heim, the local accommodation centre for asylum seekers without friends or family to stay with. It's a busy day as the occupants are being given important information about their hearings. Everyone is friendly and talkative, though all answer my questions with the same weariness of waiting.
I meet Rabeeh (above), a Syrian who was working as a reporter and photographer for Deir al-Zour Free Radio, documenting the effects of the war for 4 years before he made his way to Europe. He shows some of his recordings to Ahmad and I. On his small mobile phone screen, smoke rises from behind crippled buildings; glass and rubble crunch underfoot inside ruined homes, schools and museums.
Ahmad hopes to study medicine and become a doctor or surgeon, though until he is granted asylum he is not able to get a job or study. He has however been able to arrange an internship at the local hospital, where he assists the nurses with simple tasks and administers basic treatment. The day I visited him at work he helped translate for a Arabic-speaking patient.
During his break Ahmad tells me stories about his journey. While attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece, the engine of the boat he and between 40 and 50 other refugees were given failed three times, at last breaking down in the middle of the sea where they were picked up by coastal authorities and taken to the island of Losbov.
Ahmad had been keeping notes of his experiences all along the way. In his spare time at the hospital, he goes over what he's written in more detail. He hopes to release his story in the form of a book.
Ahmad clocks out for the day and takes me back to his Grandparents'. He sings songs in Arabic, some traditional, some pop, and explains their meanings.
Ahmad's uncle Rachid joins us for dinner. Rachid has been living in Germany since the 80s. He co-founded Deutsche Syrische Verein, which provides support for people living in Syria, building schools and hospitals and orphanages. Rachid helped Ahmad with the finances he needed to make the journey across Europe. The smugglers' boat from Turkey alone cost Ahmad €1,200.
Ahmad’s wait continues. Not long after my visit, he told me his young cousin was tragically killed by a bomb in his school, the National School in Aleppo. The news had to be handled carefully; Ahmad's grandmother suffers from a heart condition which makes any kind of stress or intense emotion potentially lethal. Ahmad is one of the fortunate few who was able to reach his final destination in Europe with family able to support him along the way, and he has only to wait for a decision on his asylum claim. Thousands are still in transit without even knowing where they will next lay their head, and many, many more remain in their home countries waiting for change, for help, or a chance to leave.
Since writing this article Ahmad has passed his German language exams, and is now able to study medicine at university. His second asylum hearing is this September, which will define his status as a refugee in Germany.