On German taxes, courtship and schools --Dinner with a German host family of a Syrian teenage refugee
Perhaps one of the dearest experiences on my trip across Europe was dining with a host family to a Syrian teenager in Berlin’s multi-cultural Treptow district. Over a German meal of fish, potatoes and salad, I spend hours speaking to Sascha, the German host dad, and Majd, his guest from Syria. Along the way, I learned the ups and downs on a personal integration story. Majd has bright blue eyes, dark hair and an optimistic, happy energy, which invites a certain camaraderie. Majd was still learning German but he didn’t shy away from telling his story- between German, English and some Arabic words and lots of laughter, communication flowed. Enjoying the setting summer sun on their balcony with a scenic view over the Berlin Spree river, and listening to Majd joyfully talk about life in Berlin, I found it hard to reconcile the hardships Majd fled with the ordinary happiness of this family moment.
Majd arrived in Berlin at age 17. He traveled most of the 2500 miles’ journey from Syria alone, as him and his brother got separated. His family remained. Arriving in 2015, Majd traversed the now closed route via Turkey through Hungary to Germany. He spoke of rubber boats crossing the Aegean Sea, and of finding a way to mix in with tourist groups in Budapest to avoid being spotted by police.
We steered clear of any topics potentially risking re-traumatization, avoiding dwelling on the violence that prompted Majd’s flight. Though later, in a private moment, his host Sascha told me of how shocked the well-experienced translator was during Majd’s asylum proceedings, as he translated Majd’s story. Majd, Sascha emphasized, is resilient.
Finally, in Berlin, after months of travel, Majd’s challenge was to lodge an asylum claim fast. He recounted long lines in front of the local authority for asylum. He remembered how his heart sank as he spoke to others, who waited for three weeks just to get registered. To avoid the lines, he intercepted a woman hurrying into the building to start her working day and told her, he was alone in Berlin . As he recounted how she shuttled him in past the line of waiting refugees, Majd flashed me that charming smile with a twinkle in the eye: I tend to be lucky, he said. Lucky maybe, ingenious for sure, I thought
Thus, began Majd’s bureaucratic journey. Even for me, an educated German, the asylum process is rather confusing: under German law, there are three different categories of protective status. There is the Asylum status, in which the applicant can prove that they are persecuted by the state. Asylum is thus for targeted political violence, and requires a high burden of proof from the applicant. Much more common is the refugee protection status, after the Geneva Refugee Convention, reserved for people fleeing personal risk, due to their political engagement, race, ethnicity, gender, religion and (increasingly) sexual orientation. The risk can come from a non-state actor, such as a terrorist or militia group. Both statuses are granted a three year stay in Germany, including the right to work, and may apply for family reunion. If after three years, the German state still warrants their status as valid, the applicant may apply for permanent residence. For the success of the latter, the applicant will have to prove progress in integration in the German society, as measured through language and economic engagement. The third status is subsidiary protection, for individuals, whose lives may be in danger in their home countries, but who fail to provide the burden of proof that they personally are at risk of persecution. Germany will thwart deportation and grant a temporary stay of a year, which can be extended thereafter every two years, up to seven years. If the situation in the home country doesn’t improve within seven years, the applicant may apply for permanent residence. Work permits can be granted to those under protection, but require another application with the German employment agency. Those under subsidiary protection have to wait two years, before they can apply for family reunification. While still a strong protection, it’s temporary status is rather nerve-wracking and the delay of family reunification a hard hit for minors especially.
To complicate matters, German bureaucrats have quite a bit of latitude in the decision making: so, for example, both Majd and his brother fled from Syria due to similar experiences in the same period. But upon arrival in Germany, one brother received subsidiary protection, while another brother, whose application was processed in neighboring Brandenburg, received refugee protection. Similar stories, same family background, both unaccompanied minors, different German states and different outcomes. The difference has important consequences for Majd’s family however: child refugees can apply to bring in their parents and siblings under family reunification, but only if they are recognized as refugees and only for as long as they are underage. Unfortunately for Majd, both him and his brother reached legal maturity before Germany could process the family reunification applications. Now, all he can do is skype every weekend with family back home and focus on creating a new life for himself in Berlin.
In this process, I gathered quickly that Majd was lucky to have a German family to help him navigate this new land. Majd only moved in with Sascha after he turned 18. Before, as many other unaccompanied child refugees, he was under the care of the German Youth Ministry. In Berlin, due to lack of space, the ministry hires out hostels to house unaccompanied minors, sometimes 6 in a room, with a social worker in the building to provide care. Majd made friends with one of his roommate, who later got transferred to a host family. When Majd was about to turn 18, he was nervous. Germany considers an 18-year-old youth a full adult, responsible for finding their own accommodation and for navigating the school and job programs on their own. From one day to another, these unaccompanied minors must leave the hostels and find an apartment, as if the 18th birthday bestows life skills and maturity instantaneously. Concerned with potential homelessness of the boy, Majd’s friend’s host family asked around the neighborhood, and Sasha and his then wife volunteered to take him in. Officially, they are his landlords, thus allowing Majd to have a registered residence with the German social services, as he starts his adult life.
Fast forward to the summer evening, when I dine with them. During the conversation, it becomes quickly apparent to me, how beneficial having a caring host family has been for Majd, and how hard navigating German culture has been. Despite the tremendous challenges Majd has overcome, his youth was still evident: Girls and soccer were more on his mind than school at times, despite Sascha’s admonition that truancy would lead to suspension. But Sascha was using a German pedagogic of letting a youth make his own decision and Majd didn’t believe that schools suspend children, because per him, schools don’t care about attendance in Syria. In this case, Majd learned the hard way to listen to Sascha. Kicked out of school, he was now looking at integration and German classes for adult refugees instead.
Cultural clashes were in display in other ways too: turns out that dating German girls is very different from dating back in Syria. What back home would be considered a watchful protective eye over a romantic interest was considered by German girls controlling behavior. Sascha and Majd had long conversations about how to treat women, including consent and respect of privacy. Listening to their story, I do wonder how so many young boys arriving in a completely different culture navigate this particularly tricky social ritual.
The most passionate conversations were about one of the driest subject most of us rarely think about: taxes. Yes, take a breath, taxes were a topic of long conversations that went to the heart of cultural differences. Germans, in general, take pride in the German social welfare state: respect for the law and paying taxes for the common good are generally valued by Germans. Majd instead expressed sincere puzzlement. Not only did he describe a culture back home, in which tax avoidance were common occurrence, but he described how so many second and third generation businessmen of either Arab or Turkish heritage were helping incoming refugees to find a job off-the-record. Local restaurants and markets hired refugees either completely in the black market, or officially part-time, unofficially full time. From Majd’s perspective, this was a win-win situation: local business owners were helping their people in a desperate situation, while gaining cheap labor and avoiding taxes. Refugees found a job within a familiar community, as they learned to navigate the German system and learned the language. But it’s illegal, Sascha interjected with restrained desperation. So, began a long discussion, which Sascha and Majd clearly have had many times before: Sascha emphasized the illegality of the matter, the criminal consequences and the irresponsibility of a community, which benefits off the German tax payers. Majd listened with a twinkle in his eye. In sincere deference to his host dad, he promised to never engage in such tax fraud, but couldn't restrain himself from expressing disbelief that the German government would really crack down on small businesses. He was confident that businessmen would outsmart the government.
As I sat back, and witnessed a respectful exchange, which included a lot of jokes and laughter, I reflected on the cultural differences at display: the German, law abiding one, priding itself in a shared dedication to the common good and the Syrian one, in which communities find creative ways outside of a state to help each other. What shone threw is the deep care and respect both Majd and Sascha had for each other, and how having a host father helped Majd (who despite his 18 years, still seemed so young, after all) navigate a new country with its taboos and pitfalls.
Majd is lucky: only a minority of the 67,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Germany are placed within families. The majority move from hostel to hostel, and upon adulthood, abruptly must find their way on their own in Germany. I do wonder, how they navigate the many cultural cleavages.