The new Europeans

The New York Times reports: Among the first Syrians to show up in Eisenärzt was Yasser, a stocky, 37-year-old seaman from the Syrian port city Latakia. When the bus dropped him off in front of his new home, Yasser told me, he had the sense that none of this strange new reality could be his. He said he had felt that way since a day last summer, when he was working on a ship bound for Tartus, Syria, and received word from a friend back home that uniformed men were looking for him. Until then, life in Latakia had still been manageable, despite the war. The city, a stronghold of Bashar al-Assad, had not seen the kind of fighting that has shattered other parts of the country. Yasser told me that he could still find work at sea to provide for himself and his wife, an architect in her mid 20s. They had lived a good life in Latakia; he had decorated their home with various souvenirs from his international travel — a sword from China, a tiger sculpture from Sierra Leone. In his free time, he rode his Suzuki motorcycle, and the roar of its 1,000-c.c. engine was a source of pleasure and pride. Yasser told me that he completed his mandatory military service years ago, but the men in uniform wanted to re-enlist him to fight for Assad. He could not fathom fighting for any side in the conflict. “I cannot hit a cat,” he told me. Rather than return to Syria, Yasser said he disembarked from his ship off Istanbul and joined the human tide making its way to the European Union. His wife remained in Latakia. (Yasser, like many other Syrians I met in Germany, asked that I withhold his last name to protect the safety of relatives back home.)

[In September, when] Yasser arrived at the Mallersdorfer Sisters’ former residence [which had been sold to the municipality for the purpose of housing asylum seekers], he was shown to his single room on an upper floor and greeted by the caretaker of the residence, Beni Beilhack, a multiple-pierced 36-year-old with thinning hair and a persistent smile. In the following days, Yasser, bored, began to follow Beilhack around, hoping to help with work around the residence. Eventually, Beilhack delegated some tasks to Yasser: repairing a broken doorknob, blowing leaves off the hiking trails near the residence. By October, Beilhack had outfitted Yasser with work clothes and made him his unofficial assistant. The two communicated with a peculiar mix of English, German and Arabic. Under Yasser’s tutelage, Beilhack’s command of Arabic profanities expanded rapidly, and Beilhack dispensed this knowledge liberally throughout his workday, to the delight of many of the young Syrian men. Beilhack, who worked as a truck driver before the Syrians came to town, told me he did not miss his old job, and he seemed to relish his interaction with the Syrians. He started inviting Yasser to family dinners. After school, Beilhack’s son, Luca, then 12, often came by the residence. The Syrians were generally “warmer” than the local residents, Luca told me, adding, “I’d be happy if they lived here forever.”

Beilhack’s 64-year-old mother, Evelyn, also works as a caretaker at the residence, where she lives on the ground floor with her husband. Evelyn held the position previously, when the sisters lived there. When Evelyn learned the Syrians would be moving in, she rejoiced. The nuns nitpicked about the smallest details, she told me, creating an oppressive work environment. She grew up in what she called a “very international” town, a place called Geretsried, south of Munich, which was settled by Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II. Later, Southern European guest workers arrived. Growing up there left her open to seeing what the asylum seekers would be like. “You hear from a lot of different places about what an abominable people they are — not Syrians, but altogether, this whole mass of asylum seekers that are streaming in here,” she told me. People called them “terrible and slobs and poorly raised and primitive.” She wanted to find out for herself, she said. “I thought: I’ll take this on. I want to see this. I want to know this.”

Her experience with the Syrians did not confirm the prejudices. “They are respectful; they’re nice,” she said. Like her son, she seemed to enjoy the Syrians’ company. One evening, a saxophonist from Damascus serenaded her in the former chapel, stripped of religious relics, where the Mallersdorfer Sisters used to worship. The saxophonist stood next to the recently installed foosball table and puffed out a version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” One of the young Syrian men sitting next to Evelyn feigned being her companion in a cafe. “Garçon! Two glasses of wine!”

Through his conversations with the Beilhacks, Yasser began to understand something of life in Germany. Evelyn told him how much money was deducted from people’s paychecks for taxes and health insurance, and the cost of living generally seemed far higher than in prewar Syria. Back at home, his wife did some work in a private office, but he would not allow her to work for a firm. Women in Syria were not supposed to hold down such jobs, he said. In Germany, however, he would have to reconsider. He and his wife probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house and a car if she didn’t work too. “Life here is hard,” he said. If the war in Syria ended, he told me, he would go back in a minute. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email