Next stop Erbil: Iraqi refugees line up to return home

It's afternoon at Berlin's Tegel airport, and the once-weekly direct flight to Erbil, in Iraq, is set to leave in two hours. Leyla Majeed waits at the check-in counter with her 13-year-old nephew, Mohammed. She seems agitated, nervous, angry. Six months ago she had walked across the Balkans for 15 days, heading toward a new future in Germany . 

Majeed and her nephew had decided to leave Iraq after the boy's father, her brother, had been killed in a bombing. The things she encountered on the way to Germany - hunger, desperation, dead children - haunt her in her sleep. "So many people died on their way to Germany," she says. "It was incredibly sad." 

Her vision of Germany had given her the strength to keep walking. Majeed expected to find a job, as well as a home for her and her extended family of 30. Six months later, all Majeed wants is to return home. "I came with so much hope, but I can't stay any longer," she says. She complains about the living conditions. 

The food, she says, is too expensive for the money she receives from the state. And her asylum appointments were deferred again and again. "It's sad that I have to go back," Majeed says. "We spent all of our money to start over in Germany. Now I have to return to a place where I have nothing left." A total of 92 refugees are waiting to board Majeed's flight to Erbil. 

Many of them have had similar experiences in Germany. "The asylum process for Iraqis is way too slow," Mohammed Mohsen says at the check-in counter. "I am not allowed to bring my family, and I haven't received a permit to stay yet." He tried to seek asylum for five months without success. "I can't work," he says. "I can't move around freely. The way of life is just so different here." 

Mohsen is angry, as are many others who are willing to share their experiences. "You can't open the doors to refugees and then not see the process through," he says of German asylum policies . "We have really been trying hard to start a new life." Other passengers don't want to talk. They say they're too tired, exhausted. All they want is to get on the plane. 

Hamid Maheed, a booking agent at Iraqi Airways, is calling for Majeed, Mohsen and others. Today is particularly hectic. Half an hour before the flight, he has to make a last-minute booking for an additional 20 people who have given up on the asylum process. "Most refugees don't speak a word of German," Maheed says. "They don't know how the train system works or the subway. I help them to get to the airport on time and handle the logistics for them." 

Since October Maheed has helped 50 refugees return to Iraq per week. The number has doubled in January. "They are my fellow citizens," he says, "so I feel the duty to help them." Maheed hands out one-way travel documents to Majeed, Mohsen and others. The permits were issued by the Iraqi embassy as a single-use passport home. 

Receiving the document makes many refugees feel in control again. Some had lost their passports on their flight from Iraq; some intentionally threw them away before they crossed the border to later pretend they were Syrians. They knew: Asylum requests from Syrians still get processed faster and are usually granted. Since October, the Iraqi embassy has issued nearly 1,500 passports for citizens who want to return home. 

In Moabit, another part of Berlin, Alla Hadous sells flight tickets to refugees who want to leave Germany. Hadous, in his 20s, recently took over his father's business: a travel agency and a gold shop. For months now, Iraqis have come to him to book the weekly direct flight to Erbil. The one-way ticket costs 295 euros ($320). "Some people pay cash," Hadous says. "Some get money from the German authorities. Others pay with their last jewelry." 

Hadous grew up in Berlin but speaks fluent Arabic. His father is Palestinian and his mother from Lebanon. Hadous says he wants to help as much as he can. "I always ask the clients when they book their tickets, 'Why do you want to go back?'" he says. "'Well, we imagined a different reality here,' they say. 'We have to wait too long for our permits and sleep in shelters.' And I always answer: 'You have been through so much already. In Iraq and on your way to Germany. You could have waited to see what Germany is really like.'" 

Hadous operates his travel agency just a few meters away from one of the Berlin registration offices for asylum applicants. Every refugee in Berlin knows the LaGeSo (short for Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, the local welfare office). Here, hundreds of refugees, mostly young men and just a few families, wait in line to be registered and start the permit process. Some have been waiting for months for an appointment, they say. It's -2 degrees Celsius (28.4F), and the sun is setting. 

In autumn, when it was warmer, people slept in front of the registration offices to be the first in line the next morning. Now, with the bitter cold, this is not an option. Waiting in line, instead of working and starting new lives, many here are disappointed with the reality of being a refugee in Germany. Most of the refugees bound for Erbil are returning to northern Iraq, an area that is torn by conflict, but not as dangerous as other parts of the country. 

At Tegel airport, Aamer Fahna is saying goodbye to the friends he has made in the asylum hostels. One year ago Fahna came to Germany by himself. He is still waiting for his permit to stay and work, but he does not want to give up. "I hope to receive my papers eventually," he says. "Then I can build a future here." The region he is from in Iraq is occupied by the " Islamic State ." 

His house is long gone. A friend of Fahna shows us a picture taken shortly before he decided to leave Iraq: It shows his back torn apart by whippings. "Even if I wanted to return, I don't have a choice," he says. "I would be tortured again." Check-in for Erbil is coming to a close. The 20 additional passengers that Hamid Maheed booked last-minute on the flight made it on time. Leyla Majeed is ready to leave. With her one-way travel permit and her ticket to Erbil, she makes her way to security. 

Today she is traveling alone; next week the other relatives, including her nephew, will follow. "I don't regret my decision to go back to Iraq," she says. "I do regret having come to Germany." In only five hours, she will be back where she started six months ago: without a house and without money, but in Iraq, the country she has so desperately missed. 

by Charlotte Potts

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