Beyond the challenges of adjusting to a new country and language without their families, many Arab or Muslim teenagers are trying to overcome a backlash in the wake of recent attacks.
In the early hours of Christmas Day, a homeless man sleeping in an underground station was set on fire. The attack was committed by a band made up mostly of minors who, according to the police, came to Germany as asylum seekers in recent years. The homeless man was rescued, and CCTV footage appeared online showing the perpetrators riding the underground trains moments after the act. The police used the video evidence to track down the men.
Following the release of the video footage, six teens between the ages of 15-18 handed themselves over to the police. A seventh, a 21-year-old who the police say was the main perpetrator, was arrested near his home, police and news reports say. Six of the alleged culprits were Syrian and one was Libyan.
For Muslim refugees, particularly minors, the backlash that tends to follow terror attacks or individuals’ acts is a source of constant anxiety. For 16-year-old Walid from Aleppo, who arrived in Berlin 10 months ago, widespread negative perceptions of Muslim refugees among the German public makes his efforts to integrate into German society that much harder.
The attack on the homeless man came just days after a truck was driven into a Christmas market in the German capital, killing 12 people and injuring 50. The market attack was later claimed by Daesh. In that case, the man alleged to have carried out the attack was no teenager; he was a 24-year-old Tunisian. But the attack only reinforced negative stereotypes surrounding young Muslim men.
“There is fear of Arabs amongst Germans,” Walid said, shaking his head. “They become afraid when they see an Arab. I have to give Germans a better impression of Arabs.”
Local News Agency interviewed several teenage refugees, who came by themselves to Berlin, about how they are coping in the current climate. Their names have been changed to prevent any negative repercussions on their asylum process. We also interviewed social workers working with unaccompanied teenage refugees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional reasons.
Another difficulty for teenage refugees trying to navigate their new home is Germany’s “no-strings attached” policy. For Germany, asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea have priority. That means those fleeing Egypt, or even conflict areas such as Libya or Afghanistan are considered by German authorities to be “economic migrants,” and, therefore, have a much lower chance of receiving asylum.
So youths from these “low priority” countries who want to settle permanently are offered no real certainty of their future in Germany. The threat of deportation looms, ever present. Some handle that reality better than others.
Two years ago, the family of a 15-year-old Egyptian, Ahmad, borrowed $4,180 to pay smugglers for his journey to Europe. Ahmad says that his family was worried at first because of the dangerous sea journey, but was eventually persuaded to allow him to leave because they knew he had no future in their village.
At the beginning of the interview, Ahmad was unhappy about the way things were working out for him in Germany, and how under German law he wasn’t allowed to start working straight away after his arrival to pay off his family’s debt. As he spoke, however, he became more optimistic, realising out loud that he is in fact adjusting well to his new life.
“I guess that the difference is that, everything is better here,” he said. “I learn things everyday, life is beautiful here.”
He now goes to a special German high school where he studies German language with other refugees, while at the same time mingling with other German teens. He wishes to continue with this integration programme and get the vocational training which is offered by the German government as a part of the programme.
“What I am afraid of now is that once I reach 18, I will be deported because I don’t have the right for an asylum,” he said, referring to the fact that Egyptians are officially viewed as economic migrants. “They did that to people before me.”
He says that back in Egypt, the only option would have been to join one of the drug and arms trafficking gangs that he says control his village in northern Egypt. “It is not a choice, It is mandatory to join the gangs,“ he said.
Asylum-seeking minors — under 18-year-olds who arrive to Germany unaccompanied by adults — go through a separate process from adult arrivals. After being registered, they are sent to specially designated shelters, often floors the government has rented in hostels. There they receive shelter, food, and a modest allowance — originally $1 per day, it was recently changed to just over $2.
Although the current arrangement in Germany provides for their basic needs, it is not enough for many who came here thinking that they can start working to earn money. Many end up disappearing or turn to drug dealing, social workers interviewed for this story told News Agency.
In a handful of cases, alienated youths get recruited by militant groups, something that poses a huge challenge for the German authorities. Last July, a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker attacked and injured five people on a train, using an ax and a knife before he was shot and killed by the police. Daesh took responsibility for the attack, helping to fuel anti-immigration sentiment amongst far-right Germans.
Yet recruitment and brainwashing by violent groups like Daesh is precisely what Walid, the Syrian minor from Aleppo, is fleeing. When Daesh started recruiting boys his age in anticipation of an offensive, his father, who is himself now living in exile in Turkey, urged him and his brother to leave for Europe.
“The regime was shelling from the sky, and Daesh was bombing on the ground,” he said, talking about how he had little choice but to leave.
Like Ahmad, he is now taking the mandatory German class provided by the German government and slowly integrating. Unlike Ahmad, he, as a Syrian, doesn’t need to fear the risk of deportation.
“It’s really hard if you spend more time thinking ‘Am I going to get integrated?’ If you put it aside, you get integrated and then you have a much better chance of being allowed to stay,” a German social worker told News Agency.
In reality, she added, the fear of deportation is often unfounded. Even though many youths don’t ultimately obtain asylum status, they don’t necessarily get deported, because of loopholes in deportation papers. “I don’t have numbers, but I don’t think it is happening that often,” she said.
The biggest challenge from the state’s perspective, she said, when it comes to young refugees, is integrating them into the German educational system and supporting them to get a job in the long-term.
Both Ahmad and Walid lived in the same shelter at one point, and spoke of countless hardships they experienced there, but ultimately, they both agreed that they have no future in either war torn Syria or authoritarian Egypt, and that in Germany they see a future for themselves.
“Syria is my home country, but Germany is my adopted country,” Walid said.