Asylum Seekers The Long Wait for Shelter

The Atwan family fled from their IS-occupied town in Syria for Berlin, where an overwhelmed refugee-processing system left them sleeping in a park with their children.
A migrant boy waits by his parent's suitcases at the Berlin State office for Health and Social Affairs in August. Source. Reuters/Stefanie Loos

Wasps buzz above a cut-open honeydew melon. Little Khaled Atwan takes a piece of warm fruit. He isn't afraid of wasps even though his body already shows traces of their stings. While the three-year-old chews on the yellow rind, he stamps out a rhythm with his feet, to the sound of Shiite sufi music that echoes through the mosque in a back courtyard of Berlin's Moabit district.

A group of young Iraqis are singing together and beating on tambourines. It is a religious ceremony and an antidote to the boredom and frustration the refugees suffer. Around 20 people are sitting on chairs, a few holding documents and fanning themselves. Again they have waited for hours for an appointment at the central asylum authority, to no avail.

The Atwan family is from Mayadin, a small Syrian town near the border to Iraq that is occupied by IS terrorists. Only 72 hours ago, father Ibrahim, mother Asma and their two sons Khaled and Jamin reached Berlin. Since then, they haven't had a roof over their heads. Three months ago, the Atwans fled the wartime chaos in their country and now, at the end of their journey, find themselves in the chaos of a German capital that is overwhelmed by people seeking help.

“Look at his little foot,” says Asma Atwan. The wasp stings are reddish and swollen. Because the children can't often shower, they attract the wasps with their sticky fingers. At eight in the evening, it is more than 30 degrees in front of the entrance to the red-brick mosque. Khaled's good mood astounds his mother. “How is the child handling all this so well?” asks the 25-year-old.

Scraps of paper and queue numbers – the refugees from a war zone have learned that this is how things work in Germany.

Ibrahim Atwan looks at least 10 years older than he actually is. The 27-year-old's skin is browned by the sun; his green eyes are surrounded by deep wrinkles. For weeks on end, he fled with his family through Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Bavaria to Berlin. Upon arrival, he did what most refugees do. At the train station, he headed directly for two men in uniform. “I turned us over to the police.”

The officials listened to him in a routine manner. “Syria, Syria,” he repeated as he tried to explain his situation. Then one of the policemen scribbled something onto a slip of paper. Ibrahim Atwan digs the note out of his pants pocket: “Lageso, Turmstrasse 21.” Then the officials drove away in their patrol car. A shock for Ibrahim, as refugees tell each other that in Europe, the police are friends and, above all, helpers.

“We didn't know where we should go,” says Ibrahim. So they asked around, kept on the lookout for Arabic-speaking Berliners who could tell them how to get to the address. After a little more than an hour, they arrived and thought: now things will get going.

Ibrahim Atwan was not prepared for the sight awaiting him in front of the State Office for Health and Social Welfare (LAGeSo). Hundreds of people were sitting on the ground; a few were sleeping in tents they had thrown up. Babies were crying. Security staff were shoving impatient applicants around.

On every workday, at least 250 people submit an initial application for asylum at the reception center in Moabit. The officials don't manage to process all of them; the line in front of the brick building has been growing longer for weeks now. On some days, more than 2,000 asylum seekers stand waiting.

The agency is no longer able to find emergency accommodations for all the new arrivals. In that case, it issues hostel vouchers. But the system doesn't work, because many hostels refuse to accept refugees, and because the agency is also in arrears with paying the bills. The result is homeless refugees on the streets of Berlin.

On their first day at the agency, the Atwans didn't accomplish much. They first had to make inquiries with refugees who had gone through the process in order to understand how everything works. There is an Arab saying: “He who has a mouth will not lose his way.” The Atwans had many questions: When do you get a work permit? Where can we learn German? How much financial support does the government offer per month? What does a loaf of bread cost in Germany?

On that first evening, there were hardly any answers. The Atwans ended up in the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in the central Alt-Moabit disctrict of the city, bordered by a construction site and the Church of the Savior. They found a spot between the sidewalk, a tree and a brown park bench. They spread out a white, fluffy winter blanket they had found in Berlin, lay down and couldn't sleep. A few meters further, a group of drunken homeless people was making noise. So the children played until dawn and their parents watched over them.

Before daybreak, they rolled up the blanket and got in line in front of the asylum authority. There on the second day, Ibrahim Atwan was issued a piece of paper. The blue slip of paper has become moist and crumpled in the left pocket of his trousers: queue number 14806.

Scraps of paper and queue numbers – the refugees from a war zone have learned that this is how things work in Germany. The father desperately wanted to keep his family from spending another night beneath the open sky. He says that his belief in Allah and the prophet Mohammed led him on that second evening to the Al-Hikma-Mosque, which is 10 minutes away by foot from the reception center.

During the day, the Atwans wait on the sidewalk in front of the LAGeSo, unshowered, hungry and sweating: “It's a catastrophe,” says Ibrahim Atwan. He has difficulty holding back his tears as his wife tries to distract the children. They shouldn't see their father this way.

Dozens of refugee families spend the night and wait with the Atwans around the Turm Strasse area of Alt-Moabit. Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Roma sleep in the small park. “At least it's not raining,” says the mother. The Germans are a loving people, she adds. She points to a woman volunteer who moves with a basket from family to family. She distributes soap, chocolate bars and cartons of juice inside and outside of the asylum agency.

As the IS fighters began beheading or hanging more and more men, Ibrahim considered fleeing. When a jihadist caught him smoking a cigarette and threatened to drag him before an IS tribunal, the decision was made.

The volunteers have made a good impression on the Atwans. What have they noticed in the city their first few days? “The many dogs and a lot of dog excrement,” says Asma Atwan. There are many more bicyclists than back home, and food is much more expensive, her husband observes. He can still remember how his father took in a Iraqi refugee family in 2003 during the war in Iraq. Not a single refugee had to sleep on the street back then in Mayadin. “Our welcoming cultures are simply different,” he says. Ibrahim's suggestion is that the men all sleep outside, and women and children receive accommodations. The Atwans would be happy with just a tent or a room during these difficult days.

In Syria, the family had their own floor of a building: bedroom, children's room, bathroom and kitchen. Ibrahim is happy to tell of life in their home country. He is proud that he was once able to provide for his family. He had inherited the apartment from his father, a policeman. He earned enough money with his barbershop. “I want to open a barbershop in Germany,” he says. Then he turns his attention to the first warm meal in days. We invited the Atwans to snack bar, where the children asked for French fries and kebabs.

Before fleeing, the Atwans had never left their home town of Mayadin. They led a quiet life on the banks of the Euphrates and had no intention of emigrating – until Islamic State invaded.

“I wasn't allowed to work any more, because haircuts were forbidden,” says Ibrahim. As the IS fighters began beheading or hanging more and more men, Ibrahim considered fleeing. When a jihadist caught him smoking a cigarette on his own balcony and threatened to drag him before an IS tribunal, the decision was made.

In the previous months, Asma Atwan had not left the house in Mayadin. Out of religious conviction, she wears a head scarf; she didn't want to subject herself to wearing the black, body-length veil that IS prescribes for all women. In the hot Berlin summer, the Atwans are now astounded by the other extreme. But the married couple has a humorous attitude to the scanty clothing many Berliners wear in public. “As long as we don't have to take off our clothes, the others can be naked,” says Ibrahim. “If you stop staring at the women, then it's alright by me,” says his wife, and they both laugh.

In order to pay for the flight, Ibrahim sold his apartment around three months ago to a realtor who rents rooms to foreign IS fighters. Together with the family's savings, he had around €3,000 ($3,375). He gathered together his wife and children, gave all his money to a people smuggler and began the long journey to Berlin. He cannot imagine returning to his devastated homeland.

The young family had hoped for a little bit of security. In Germany, or maybe in Sweden. A few weeks ago, the Atwans slept under the sky for the first time in their lives. That was in a forest in Greece. They were scared. But with the courage of exhaustion and in the hope of reaching Berlin one day, they simply went on.

“Syrians told us we should go to the German capital,” says Ibrahim. He had heard that Berlin is an open and tolerant city, and he thought that the center of the richest country in Europe would be a good choice. There are many immigrants here and Halal foods, which are permissible for Muslims are widely available. “Big cities also have much more housing space,” Ibrahim had thought, but now realizes he was wrong.

The Streams of Refugees-01


The next morning shortly before five, Ibrahim Atwan drags a black, wheeled suitcase with clothes behind him. A gift from the mosque. But one-year-old Jamin isn't interested in the freshly-washed clothing. He insisted on wearing the favorite shirt that he has had on for days. “Daddy's Buddy” is written on it. “A child shouldn't flee, a child shouldn't be homeless, a child shouldn't sleep in the park,” says the father and sits down the ground.

The stiff, dried grass in front of the asylum authority bores into the skin. So there they sit again  – and hope to finally have accommodation at the end of the day. Today the Atwans are lucky to have found a place beneath a fir tree; they spread out their blanket once again. Mother Asma picks dried sticks and prickly green needles from the blanket. “We try to make things as comfortable for ourselves as possible,” she says. And then it happens. After three days of waiting, a night in the park with drunkards and two nights in the mosque, the number 14806 is one of the first to be called out. The Atwans disappear into the crowd of asylum seekers. They can scarcely wait to finally be able to let let their guard down a little. Maybe even to sleep on a soft bed. A software program will provide them with accommodation somewhere in Germany.

The Atwans leave their white winter blanket with spots of chocolate on the lawn in front of the reception center. “Someone will need it tonight,” Asma Atwan says in parting.


This article first appeared in the Tagespiegel daily newspaper. To contact the author: [email protected]