Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Refugees Await Fresh Start in Germany

At a former army barracks in the village of Messstetten, refugees share stories of peril and hope

Read “Café Offers Refugees Respite and Welcome” to learn more about refugees in Messstetten.

Sherin Ibrahim, 11, unloads a grocery cart at the check-out stand in a store in Messstetten, Germany, as two Syrian refugee families shop together. They have all applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Sherin Ibrahim, 11, unloads a grocery cart at the check-out stand in a store in Messstetten, Germany, as two Syrian refugee families shop together. They have all applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government's decision. Meanwhile, they share a room in a former army barracks in Messstetten. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

By Linda Unger*

December 4, 2015—On a recent Saturday morning, the Lidl supermarket in Messstetten, a pretty town tucked into a hilly corner of southwestern Germany, was busy. Mothers and fathers pushed grocery carts around the aisles of the no-frills store, looking for bargains to maximize the family food budget.

Among them was Farhan Othman, a young Syrian mother. Her black headscarf pinned with a small, silver-colored heart, she strolled the aisles with her husband, Ahmade Alkalil, and sons Suleiman, 3, and Mohammad, 9 months.

Their shopping list was small, and they quickly paid for their goods and headed for the parking lot on a crisp autumn day. They strapped their few grocery bags into Muhammad’s stroller, and Ahmade lifted the boy and placed him on his shoulders. The family set out on the 2-1/2-mile hike back to their temporary residence: a room in former army barracks on the edge of town.

By late October, the complex of plain, three-story buildings originally constructed to house some 800 soldiers, housed 3,500 asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, and elsewhere who had been welcomed by Germany.

The former barracks is a first stop on the asylum-seekers’ journey to a more formal welcome and resettlement in Germany. This is one of the places where newcomers register as refugees. After about three weeks, they are usually transferred to a much smaller living space while they await the outcome of their asylum petitions.

Leaving family behind

Farhan Othman holds her 9-month old son Mohammed in Messstetten, Germany. Refugees from Syria, they and their family have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Farhan Othman holds her 9-month old son Mohammad in Messstetten, Germany. Refugees from Syria, they and their family have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government's decision. Meanwhile, they live in a room in a former army barracks in Messstetten. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

“It was very hard to leave home,” Farhan told some visitors in the top-floor, dorm-style room her family shares with a Syrian teacher and his two sisters. “My mother, father, sister, and brother are all still [in Syria]. But the children can’t go to school, and we worried about their future,” she said in fluent English.

Farhan, 28, has a degree in English literature, but had not been able to find work in Syria as a teacher. Ahmade worked in the city commissioner’s office in their hometown. When the family fled, they went first to Lebanon where they spent a year—and where little Muhammad was born—and then arrived in Germany in early October 2015.

The trip was long and difficult. Farhan said she was afraid to take her baby across the sea in one of the flimsy rafts favored by smugglers, so the family traveled on foot from Turkey. This made the journey longer, and the smugglers demanded more—7,000 euros (nearly $7,500) per person, although they gave the couple a break for the children, Farhan said: “They let both our sons go for the price of one.”

Farhan Othman (right) and her husband Ahmade Alkalil unpack their groceries from a shopping trip into nearby Messstetten, Germany, with help from their sons Suleiman, 3, and Mohammed, 1. Refugees from Syria, they have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Farhan Othman (right) and her husband Ahmade Alkalil unpack their groceries from a shopping trip into nearby Messstetten, Germany, with help from their sons Suleiman, 3, and Mohammad. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Now, at least for a short while, the beige, unadorned room in the former barracks was home. A pair of bunk beds faced each other from kitty-corner walls, and three cots queued up next to each other below a line of windows.

Farhan sat down on the outside cot with the children and removed the groceries from the bags. In the hallway beyond the room’s closed door, the Muslim call to prayer could be heard.

“Germany opened their doors,” she said, expressing the family’s gratitude. “The people are all smiling, and help us. We are hopeful that our children will have good learning opportunities, and we will have a good home.”

‘We don’t want to join the war’

Sherin Ibrahim, 11, and her sister Nesreen, 18, sit with their brother Rami, 27, outside Messstetten, Germany. The three fled Syria together and have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Sherin Ibrahim, and her sister Nesreen, 18, sit with their brother Rami, 27, outside Messstetten, Germany. The three fled Syria together and have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government's decision. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Rami Ibrahim, 27, an English teacher, and his two sisters, Nesren, 18, and Sherin, 11, share the barracks room with Farhan, Ahmade, and the children. They have a sister in France, a brother in Austria, and two sisters and their parents still in Syria.

Leaning against one set of bunk beds, Rami said they had no alternative but to flee their war-torn country. “We don’t want to join the war or kill anybody. So many times I was approached to join one side or the other. Who am I going to kill? If there is no war in my country, we do not come here,” he said.

Sherin Ibrahim, 11, takes a photo of her sister Nesreen, 18, as they walk through the countryside outside Messstetten, Germany. The two Syrian refugees have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Sherin Ibrahim takes a photo of her sister Nesreen as they walk through the countryside outside Messstetten, Germany. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

“Islam says don’t kill or hurt anybody,” Rami continued. “I studied Islam. I read the Prophet Muhammad. He said, ‘Don’t kill a tree.’ How can we harm a person? In our countries there are Muslims who do not follow Islam. All the prophets came to speak of peace.”

Rami and his sisters paid smugglers 2,500 euros (more than $2,660) each to pass from Turkey to Greece in a small, overloaded raft. They wanted to bring their parents, but the trip was “too hard, and it is so expensive,” Rami said.

They look forward to being reunited with their parents, as soon as the three get settled. Rami hopes to find work as a translator, and his sisters want to study.

‘I have a lot of dreams for my future’

A family of refugees from Afghanistan pose outside a former military barracks where they reside near Messstetten, Germany. They applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Abdul Ahmad Samadi, far left, and his family, refugees from Afghanistan, pose outside a former military barracks where they reside near Messstetten, Germany. They applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government's decision. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Outside the barracks, 9-year-old Sharif Samadi took turns with his younger brother riding a short, child’s bike. After riding circles around some guests who had just come out of the dormitory, he stopped to talk and laugh with them, fixing them with his deep brown eyes full of curiosity.

When the conversation turned to school in his native Afghanistan, though, Sharif’s bright face instantly clouded over, his otherwise excellent English went flat, and he called to his older sister, Onishka, to come to his aid. His father, Abdul Ahmad Samadi, who had been watching the small gathering from a ground-floor window, also came outside and joined them.

Onishka, 22, was a law student at Kunduz University until her family fled the country to seek safety elsewhere. “The Taliban and ISIS attack everyone. Children need to go to school, and they can’t because of the attacks,” she said. “I cried a lot when the Taliban attacked our university, and it had to close.”

Syrian refugees walk through the countryside outside Messstetten, Germany. They have applied for asylum in Germany and are awaiting word on the government
Syrian refugees walk through the countryside outside Messstetten, Germany. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

The Samadi family’s journey from Afghanistan to Germany took six months. “It was very difficult; we have a lot of children with us,” Onishka said. “We are five sisters, two wives, one father, and three sons. We came by boat from Turkey. It was very dangerous. Some of the Afghans with us died at sea.”

Abdul Ahmad seemed as upset by the memory as by the need to uproot his family at all. “All persons have the right to exist,” he insisted. “But the Taliban and ISIS want to attack everyone. They rape the girls. The Taliban attacks all the districts. They make family members kill for them. They forcibly recruit and will kill the boy who doesn’t go with them.” He said two of his relatives had been violently executed.

A farmer in Afghanistan, Abdul Ahmad lamented that so many Afghans had to flee their homes. “There is no peace. Why is there no peace in Afghanistan?” he demanded. “It is a poor country.”

The Samadis already have been at the refugee arrival center in Messstetten for more than three months, and they are anxious to settle. “I hope we will be transferred soon,” Onishka said. “I want to study here. I have a lot of dreams for my future.”


*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.