Ahmed and I met last week at a refugee intake area in Berlin. He traveled more than 2,000 precarious kilometers by boat, train and foot from Syria. I flew EasyJet from Santa Monica via London. But we shared the need to feel productive — I, the volunteer, to help assuage a growing humanitarian crisis; he, the refugee, to return to a productive life.
“I’m here every day, seven in the morning to seven at night. They feed me, but I’m not here for the food,” he says. “I’m here to contribute to society.” Ahmed is a 36-year-old pharmacist from a small village outside Aleppo who decided he’d had enough violence.
He and nine friends joined 30 others to travel from Syria through Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria and finally to Germany, where they hope to build new lives. Ahmed brought with him only what he could carry, and he dumped half of that in the Aegean Sea to keep afloat the ramshackle boat that carried them from Turkey to Greece.
“Forty people in a boat seven meters long and two meters wide. You’ve seen the photos — children and women and our bags… “It is not easy to leave Syria. It takes two to three days to bus from my little village to Aleppo because of the fighting,” he continues. “[After the boat], we walked every day for five hours.” I glance at his flimsy sandals and worn shorts.
Last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel quadrupled the number of asylum seekers that Germany will accept this year to a total of 800,000. About 45,000 of them will arrive in Berlin. This influx of refugees into the German capital would, in terms of L.A.’s Westside, be the proportional equivalent of doubling the population of Playa Vista.
Refugees gather outside Berlin’s Office of Health and Social Welfare and wait for their number to appear on an LED board, which signals their opportunity to register as an asylum seeker. Several hundred people, including young children and elderly women, mill about or lounge on a grassy area that is surrounded by red brick government offices.
The square would feel like a college campus if it weren’t for the weary looks on people’s faces. Berlin’s government workers are overwhelmed, registering 150 people each day while the crowd outside their office swells. Refugees complain bitterly about waiting for weeks for their number to post. “There’s confusion with the system. Confusion with the staff. Confusion everywhere,” says Ahmed, echoing others’ frustrations.
“I’ve been here 10 days. At first, we were sleeping on the street. Now, we are sleeping in a camp. It costs six euros to take the bus from the camp to this building every day!” Amidst all this chaos are dozens of volunteers who sort mounds of donated clothing and toys, distribute bottles of water from shopping carts and offer a smile to the exasperated refugees.
Wanting not just to write but to help — contribute and be productive myself — I join the volunteers. I feel connected to these Syrians. I know their homeland: I spent an extraordinary summer living in Damascus helping Iraqi refugees. That was in 2009, the year before violence engulfed Syria, killing 210,000 people and forcing millions more to flee.
I meet Berendt and his volunteer team. Berendt is a 50-something freelance computer guy who speaks English and directs me to sign in, sanitize my hands and don rubber gloves at the volunteer rendezvous station.
We head into the refugee crowd with a grocery cart overflowing with water bottles, juice boxes and fruit cups. I’m eager. Children reach for juice boxes. They utter a carefully rehearsed “dankeschön,” then break into a surprised smile when I respond “afwan” — “you’re welcome” in their native Arabic.
I fill my arms with six, seven, eight bottles of water and plow into the crowd. The refugees are kind, if not quite as eager as I am. They’ve been through this. Many hold up water bottles they’ve already received. Others act as if they wish to make me feel better, I think, by accepting my offering. Sheepishly, I realize how pathetic this small gesture is.
They appreciate it, but what they really need, as Ahmed noted, is a chance to be productive.
After handing in my rubber gloves, I mill through the crowd and reconnect with Ahmed, whose number still has not appeared on the LED board even though numbers for people who arrived after him have posted. “Maybe it’s because you’re not a family?” I offer. “I’m a family, and we’ve been waiting for days!” interrupts a nearby man. I glance at him, but feel too overwhelmed to interview anyone else.
I resume my chitchat with Ahmed and mention I’d been to Iraq just before and after the U.S.-led invasion. “I’m from Iraq!” the nearby man interrupts again, and I can’t ignore him any longer. He unfurls his story: He’s a doctor. Some men stormed his hospital and pointed an AK-47 at his head.
Later, he found what he called a “death paper” on his home’s front door. He explains that doctors are often targeted for kidnapping in hopes of high ransoms. He fled Baghdad with his wife and four-year-old daughter. “We have much to offer,” he says in perfect English.
“I’m a surgeon and my wife is a gynecologist and I speak some German.” I lower my head. I’m here to contribute, too, but in the end all I share is helplessness. To help Syrian refugees in Berlin, visit losyria.org/en/csos/relief.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, is writing a book about refugees and her experiences in Iraq and Syria.