Caroline Spreitzer is just straightening up her children’s beds when a global event reaches her garden. It’s a Tuesday in late July at half past seven in the morning. Light floods the meadows and fields around Passau and lightens up her farmhouse, which is situated on a lonely road. Then the dogs bark. Caroline Spreitzer pauses and looks out of the window. In the driveway, under the birches, people are squatting in the gravel, men, women, and children. Some are lying down, motionless as dolls. How many of them are there? Caroline Spreitzer counts five, ten, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, all have dark hair, no one has any luggage. Then she understands: In front of her house are refugees, probably from the Middle East. The ‘humanitarian disaster’ has come from the TV news into her life. That is how she phrased it the next day on her Facebook page.
If Arabs are getting stranded in a Bavarian front yard, the world must be highly disordered. Or needs to be reorganised, that’s another possibility. We shall discussed that argument later. Inside her home, Caroline Spreitzer, 34 years old, takes heart and goes to the front door. Eyes look up at her. ‘Is this Germany?’ asks one of the men. Where are we? What day is it today? What date? Caroline Spreitzer finds out that the people under the birch trees come from Syria. They were nearly 40 days on the road, the last 17 hours in the back of a windowless van. Standing, swaying human cargo, which defecates in bags.
In the group there is a family, father, mother, two daughters, a son. The father folds his hands in a pleading gesture. He points silently to his children, opens his mouth and mimes an expression: thirst! Thirst! Her skirt billowing, Caroline Spreitzer runs back to her house and brings bottled water from the fridge. As the carbonic hisses out of the bottle, the kids wince. Again she runs into the kitchen, fills empty containers with tap water and smears bread rolls with Nutella. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘they do not eat pork.’ While the group silently chews and swallows, Caroline Spreitzer calls the police. People had asked her to, ‘Police! Police!’ Spreitzer dials once, twice, three times. Nobody picks up. When she finally gets through, a voice on the other end of the line says, ‘That will take time. We do not have enough cars. There are too many of them.’
A new migration of people is under way, and this summer it became visible in the middle of Europe. Refugees sitting on Italy’s beaches, jumping on trucks in French Calais to go to England. The development fuels politics, makes headlines and special broadcasts. Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer fills the summer slump with talks about a ‘massive abuse of asylum’. In an increasing bluster of opinion, one story remains virtually untold. The fact that a frontier town in the southeastern part of the Republic is being transformed into a German Lampedusa: Passau. From Eastern Europe’s perspective, the city is the first major transportation hub in the West, the first accessible part of Germany, open, with three highway exits.
On the day Caroline Spreitzer got this unexpected visit, the federal police in Passau counted 599 new refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, transported by smugglers across the border and exposed to the darkness of the night in the woods, in fields, in front of secluded courtyards. Between January and June, nearly 15,000 people came. Nowhere else in Germany were more arrivals counted.
Those who jog over the country roads around Passau early in the morning between 4 and 6 am meet processions of refugees at dawn, see archaic images. It is as if someone had edited two themes together into one: women with headscarves carrying their babies through lush, green, milk-carton landscapes, families wandering through cornfields, children sleeping under trees and at bus stops. Those who follow them to Passau meet civil servants, farmers, doctors, teachers, interpreters, prosecutors and a mayor, all struggling for words for a new era, which now also includes their lives. And as it is representative for the whole of Germany, this search for answers to suddenly arising questions, how much benevolence must a prosperous society provide? How much goodwill to those who have in turn travelled thousands of kilometers?
What if the many are only a few compared to those who are yet to come?
No one in this city has time to ponder that hypothesis. Passau is a practical laboratory for refugee policy. There is so much happening so quickly, every day the situation changes, new people arrive hourly. That makes it difficult for everyone to keep track. And yet, in the course of this study, many reasons to be proud of this country will be found, not just pictures of anxiety and distress. Proud in a different way to the meaning of right-wing extremists.
The next morning, more people walk through the twilight, the traffic radio reports, ‘Pedestrian signs on the A3 between border crossing Suben and Passau-Süd’, as Amir Shamo, his wife Maha and their three children enter the country of peace after weeks of flight on the hard shoulder of the highway. On foot, they follow the guardrail, trucks flash by them just a body’s length away, the tired son staggers behind his parents as if the heavy transporter is no threat.
What’s dangerous if you have already escaped the terrorists of Islamic State?
The family had just left a van in which they had spent many hours, how many exactly they did not count. The driver, a man whose language they did not understand, stopped abruptly and shooed all eleven occupants from the car. ‘Germany, Germany!’ he shouted, and immediately drove on. At a rest area the family faced people in shorts and flip-flops, saw holidays returnees smoking cigarettes. And a toilet with brown sauce flowing out of it.
This morning Amir and Maha Shamo did not move with forceful, bobbing steps, like walkers do. On their passage to the Promised Land, they put one foot before the other, slow, monotonous, because they had thousands of kilometers behind them and did not know when they will reach their destination. If they ever do. Somewhere here should be Munich, the city where Amir Shamo’s brother lives.
A small black backpack: On Amir Shamo’s shoulders is the only luggage the family depends on. With one hand he holds his daughter Alma’s hand. Next to him: Aiham, his son. In front of Amir walks Shamo’s wife, a baby in her arms: Oleana, a girl too young to have teeth, a child who cannot yet crawl and has probably spent a quarter of her life on the run.
The Shamos have walked perhaps 200 steps from the rest area, when a VW bus stops behind them. Two young men get out. ‘Taxi?’ asks Amir Shamo.
‘No taxi,’ says one of them and displays a service certificate: police.
The man opens the door of the bus and tells the family to enter with a wave of his hand. The police want to bring the Shamos to a guardpost in Passau. Each refugee who comes into Germany by walking has committed an offence under Section 95 of the Residence Act: illegal entry. It is a crime that remains unpunished, if you will. Every refugee must commit it to be able to apply for asylum.
Before Amir Shamo boards the bus, he turns directly to us, the reporters from Zeit. Sometimes it’s like this, journalists cannot avoid the events they want to report on. Those who watch are recognized. So Amir Shamo gives us a note on which there is a mobile number, prefix 0176. It will become important later today.
The refugee stories from Passau all start in the twilight, like detective stories. It takes some time until their fates become evident, at least if the events are told from a German perspective.
The clock of the navigation device shows 03:19 as commissioners Maier and Hillebrand leave their midnight blue bmw in the grass strip at the motorway exit Passau South, turn off the headlights, and stare into the darkness. They have guns here, handcuffs, flashlights, and bulletproof vests under their shirts. The two men are civilian investigators, night after night they wait across the border for illegal immigrants, smugglers, drug couriers.
Light cones swirl through the darkness, traffic on highway 3 hums steadily – in the language of the policemen, ‘an open psychiatry’ even in normal times. Here overtired Bulgarian artisans lurch back home, stage races with newly rich East Europeans with their Ferraris, do not vacate the left lane to German upper secondary school teachers. Vacation begins for tourists on the A3 , for investigators the road is the end of the so-called Balkan Route: Middle East-Turkey-Greece-Austria-Germany-Balkan states-Hungary. On this route dealers smuggle drugs to Western Europe, but now human trafficking is more profitable.
The commissioners Maier and Hillebrand in their darkened car are at the end of a world political domino effect: Since revolutions in the Arab states have been followed by civil wars and civil wars by reigns of terror, since barrel bombs rain on World Heritage sites and the IS murders entire regions, more than 60 million people are on the run worldwide, which is the largest number that the refugee agency unhcr has ever recorded. In Syria alone, 11 of the 20 million inhabitants are displaced, 7 million err through the home country, 4 million have escaped abroad. Turkey alone has received 1.8 million Syrians, and up to 100,000 Iraqis. The impression that the whole world comes to Germany is deceptive. The Austrians think the same of their country. All those who are stuck somewhere on the road are invisible. Those who still have money and power make their way to the rich countries of Europe. There, the officials adhere to the laws, there are homes instead of prisons. Jobs. A future for all. This is what the refugees tell themselves.
The clock in the police car shows 03:28, as a silver car takes the exit. The license plate is not lit, that’s suspicious. Maier and Hillebrand start the engine, turn lights on, they track the car with a blue light. An old Mercedes. They don’t chase the refugees, they want the smugglers, the beneficiaries of the emergency, often unemployed people from Eastern Europe who receive a few hundred euros for the last stage, sometimes pumped full of cocaine or amphetamines. They are the miserable end of a chain whose beginning is often one of the warring parties acting as a smuggling organisation that reinvests its income in weapons.
The war feeds on the misery it causes.
The man in the Mercedes doesn’t brake, he races toward the woods. Maier and Hillebrand accelerate, and slowly overtake him. Stroboscope-like photo in quivering blue light: two policemen with guns in their hands. Bavarian-accented English, ‘You are arrested! Illegal person in the car!’ A skinny guy in shorts and T-shirt, first both hands on the car roof, then handcuffed. According to the passport, he is a Hungarian, first name Zoltan, born in 1975. Wet with sweat in the back seat of the car, half asleep and blinded, are three young men who say they are from ‘Syria’. And again the question, ‘Is this Germany?’
Hillebrand makes a conciliatory gesture as a lifeguard, palms down. ‘No problem,’ he says, ‘German police.’
There were years when Maier and Hillebrand had to wait for ten hours until a smuggler or dealer was netted. This morning it took nine minutes. While they drive their catch to the police station, they see the next car by the roadside. A pickup truck. People jump off the hold. Maier and Hillebrand continue. Their car is already full.
Dialling the 0176 number that Amir Shamo has left us, a man with fluent German picks up. It’s Amir, Shamo’s brother. He asks if we can put the Shamos in a taxi to Munich. ‘No matter what it costs.’
But Amir Shamo and his family are already sitting in Passau on plastic chairs in front of the former classroom building of the police, which serves as a reception point these days, with camp beds to rest, with high tables, where officials fill out lists and type names in old computers.
A policeman sticks yellow bracelets around the wrists of the Shamos and writes numbers with black ink, numbers new lives like a midwife in a maternity hospital.
56: Amir Shamo, 38 years
57: Aiham Shamo, 5 years
58: Alma Shamo, 3 years
59: Maha Shamo, 30 years
60: Oleana Shamo, 4 months.
Thus, their first tour of German bureaucracy starts. An official photographs the Shamos. Another takes their fingerprints. A third shows them forms on which they can choose between ten languages.
‘Do you understand any of these?’ asks the official and moves with his finger down the list.
English. Persian. Dari. Urdu. Kurmanji …
At Kurmanji Amir Shamo raises his hand. Together with the officials he then fills out:
Place of residence: Mosul, Northern Iraq.
Legal representatives: –
The forms ask a lot of questions. Who? When? What? Where? It’s only the Why they don’t ask about, about the reason for the flight.
What has to happen to a person to be willing to leave his family, his friends, his work, his language, his whole identity? How many bombs have to fall, how many buildings destroyed, how many people beheaded?
For a year, Amir Shamo endured the terror of IS. A year in which the fighters blew up the monuments of his native city of Mosul, stole young girls, wiped out families. The Shamos are Yazidis, they belong to a religious minority in Northern Iraq who do not believe in either Allah or Jesus Christ, rather in a God who created the world out of a pearl. Amir Shamo had never planned to leave the land of his fathers. He owned a bar, he lived with his family in a stone house, they did not have much, but it was more than enough. When the fighters of IS took their city a year ago, three options remained: convert, be executed or run.
Amir Shamo is a devout man, he would never betray his religion. So he decided to flee, as five of his eight brothers did before him.
He paid €34,000 to escape, a lot of money for an Iraqi bar owner, but not much for a man’s life: €6800 for each of them. For a journey that floods Amir Shamo’s memory as a milky stream of days and nights, of heat and cold, of endless journeys and marches. He always avoids questions about their fleeing with the same sentence, ‘I do not know.’ He talks as if he were ashamed, as if he would not like to remember, but rather forget. ‘Every morning and every night I pray to God to make it rain stones on Northern Iraq,’ says Amir Shamo. ‘Stones that will drive away the terrorists of IS.’
For years, wars and conflicts have raged in the Middle East, shattering certainties and alliances. Currently, the Turks are bombing the Kurds, the enemy of their enemy, Islamic State. Like the Shamos, many citizens tried to persevere, hoping that peace would return to their homeland. But it did not return, and their distress grew until it became unbearable. This explains why now, in the summer of 2015, so many refugees are reaching Germany.
Outside in the parking lot of the Passau guardpost, engines hum, the police bring in more and more people, confiscated cars line up in ranks. What the refugee boats are in Lampedusa, the smugglers’ cars are in Passau. Vehicles that have become symbols, a rescue capsule and prison cell at the same time. They stand in long rows in the courtyards of police stations or are left to rot in the woods. Square, old transporters from Volkswagen, Fiat, Mercedes. The owners have changed repeatedly, the tachometer veered umpteen times, pockmarked rust spreads on the steel sheets.
Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Italian license plates. In the glove compartments legacies of smuggling, candy wrappers with a Turkish inscription, croissant bags from Greece, empty plastic bottles with Hungarian labels, crumpled Marlboro boxes, notepads full of phone numbers. If there are benches, they smell of sweat, and cigarettes sticks out of the cushions. Outside, traces of past years in the paint, often names of Bavarian, Swabian, Lower Saxony craft enterprises.
Even the cars tell a story of this summer of upheavals and the movements that arise from them. Many of the cars, say the police, were originally owned by a German and were sold at the time of the scrappage scheme. The label remained. A white minibus must have belonged to the German Sports Aid, as the lettering has withstood time and weather. A few years from now, the car could be exhibited in Bonn’s Museum, between Helmut Kohl’s sweater and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
At the police station, hours pass in waiting, answering questions, filling in lists, waiting, stamping documents, waiting. Oleana, the baby is sleeping in her mother’s arms. Aiham, the five-year-old, looks in wonder at the screens of officials on which photographs and fingerprints of the refugees appear. When a police officer raises a high five in the air, Aiham slaps it. The Germans pat him on his head and give him sweets.
Every day dozens of families land in front of the Passau officials, thousands of refugees every week. The work of the police is suffering on an assembly line. If you watch them for a few days, you realise that they are very tired, but they do everything possible to give the stranger as much space as possible. To leave each individual in the crowd their dignity. Maybe it’s best to measure how strong a civilisation is at times like these. And in places like a police station.
Sometimes a small Renault Twingo stops in front of the building, and a bald man with a leather bag gets out. Dr. Ingo Martin is a specialist in general medicine. He comes when the refugees ask for a ‘doctor’. This summer he has the feeling he is moving back in time, reaching well into the last century. During these weeks, he sees bodies that remind him of historical images of 1945. Blistered feet, festering gunshot wounds, arms and legs full of shrapnel, ‘particularly badly healed war wounds that could not rest under the conditions of the flight,’ says Martin. In addition, lacerations often on the head, because the smugglers always pack their cars full and ruthlessly slam the doors.
The doctor is a good storyteller, a pleasant conversationalist, he precisely examines individuals among the many and that prevents generalisations. Martin does not speak as a concerned German, he often laughs at the comedy of some encounters. When he sent a heavily pregnant Muslim woman to the hospital and her husband wanted to give her the children, Martin snapped, ‘Welcome to Germany! In this country, the sick go to the hospital – and the healthy ones take care of the kids.’ Martin also says that many refugees were indeed ‘cachectic’. So tired and famished, but the doctor can see what a human body can endure, how quickly it recovers, especially the children. Mostly an aspirin, vitamin C and some gel against insect bites are sufficient. ‘Many have been in the woods for so many days.’
It is a sociological diagnosis that the physician makes: If something moves him this summer, then it is not so much the injuries he sees. Rather it is the appearance of the refugees. Their eyes during the examination are ‘unbelievingly lost, but relieved’. The women, so tough. The children, so uncomplaining. It stinks in the police stations. It takes time. ‘But there is no aggression from any side, nothing, zero.’
Dr. Martin has been thinking: Where does this discipline come from? This dignity – even in the groups of refugees who move across the fields? He has come to the conclusion, ‘What I see here is family loyalty. Mutual respect.’ Martin sees how siblings share a piece of dextrose. As families silently wait for hours on a cot until they are called. Cleary, the more destroyed a country, the stronger the bonds become.
When Caroline Spreitzer took care of the refugees in her garden, brought them water and made sandwiches with Nutella, and her neighbours found out about it, they began to grumble. ‘Are you stupid? Don’t give them anything! Otherwise more will come! ‘
This dichotomy runs through the whole country and in every village in the district of Passau. Some neighbours install alarm systems. Others prepare food as for birds in the winter. Some fret over empty bottles in their hedges. Others offer their services as a tutor. In every place empathy confronts fear. In the Lower Bavarian solitude, there are people who are afraid of introduced diseases. Many wonder: Why do so many of these foreigners wear clean clothes, even Nike sneakers? Shouldn’t they look more miserable?
That is the momentary impression. The losses remain invisible. The missing father. The bombed-out house. The tortured son. Scenes remain invisible like those in the highway rest stop, where the Shamos entered German soil. One morning a father pulled the last clean clothes out for his five daughters, jeans with sequins, sweaters with a butterfly pattern. He washes their faces, combs their hair, so that they appear proper in front of the German authorities, with some self-esteem. But something was missing: a mother.
Sympathy or fear? Caroline Spreitzer debates this even with herself. In the kitchen of her house, she says that she no longer stops at red lights at night, but carefully rolls through because recently a stranger knocked on the window of her car, pulled a €500 bill from his pocket, and asked her if she could take him to relatives in Northern Germany – past the police.
Irrespective of the ideology: The reality in Passau provides some points of concern. Those who experienced dirty sympathy would rather like to be clean. And those who flee are not always poor. An escape is Darwinism in its purest form. The most likely to come through are the boys, though aged. The strong, albeit weakened. And the wealthy, even if they have left a lot behind.
Unlike her neighbour, Caroline Spreitzer knows that they cannot stop the new migration of peoples, not with avarice, not by having an alarm system. And she guesses that her good fortune to live in one peaceful patch of earth is also an obligation. ‘There are so many vacant houses in the country,’ she says. And during the summer holidays you can open the school gyms.
What will happen then, in September? Then the big questions begin: How long does the helpfulness last? Does it go beyond the concession of any gifts that can be found in the basement: discarded shirts, old crockery and tricycles?
Those neighbours of Caroline Spreitzer, who believe that the world is in disarray, now fret about the rubbish in their gardens, complain about the ‘chaos’ that needs to be eliminated quickly. The events outside her home have forced Caroline Spreitzer to adopt another attitude. These weeks may seem chaotic: The world is arranging itself anew. More and more borders in the atlases of their children lose their validity; people move from war to peace, from unjust states to constitutional ones. Just as water flows downhill. Therefore, Caroline Spreitzer wrote on her Facebook page, ‘Yesterday it became really clear to me that we are at the beginning of a humanitarian catastrophe.’
Now that the world is rearranging itself, many lives take a different course, in Passau as well. Interpreters are urgently sought in the city. People who speak Dari or Pashto and previously cleaned offices or sold kebab suddenly become intermediaries, word-explainers, everyday diplomats.
For example, Hossi Meknatgoo, small and wiry, born in Iran in 1966, who as a member of the national judo team defected from the Khomeini regime in a foreign competition in 1986. Until a few weeks ago, in his first German life, Meknatgoo was a man with a thousand part-time jobs. Barman, for example, masseur, judo teacher. Now he translates statements from underage refugees in two homes, who are crossing through Europe without their parents. Again and again jang for war, farar for escape, shenasnahme for document and tashakor, tashakor, tashakor: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Hossi Meknatgoo now meets children who have a very special, selective knowledge of the Western world: They know every player of FC Bayern, but if they look for Passau on the map, their fingers get lost in Lower Saxony. Most, says Meknatgoo, are educated and eager to learn, they want to study, be a doctor or engineer. One boy had financed his flight by playing chess at way stations. Many are traumatised, but did not learn to talk about feelings at home. Some wince when a pen falls from the table.
Hossi Meknatgoo translates the reports of boys who say that they fled because the IS wanted to recruit them as suicide bombers. Then statements that they moved with two boats across the Black Sea, but only one arrived. The report that ten of them tried hanging under a railway wagon in Greece, but only nine could hold on until Bulgaria. And who say they have been sexually abused in Hungarian prisons by fellow prisoners.
Where are they exaggerating? And where do they remain silent – out of shame? Hossi Meknatgoo met young people who can only fall asleep with the light on, like toddlers. When they change their shirts, he sometimes sees scars, which they don’t want to talk about. He feels that his words, recorded in files, suddenly gain weight:
‘On request, A. answered that he had not had contact with his siblings and did not know where they are.’
‘M. stated that he was sent by his father on the pretext of writing a school test, while traveling.’
‘M. dreamed of being arrested again, and returned to prison, where he would be laughed at by the prisoners because he had come back again.’
‘O. says he clenches his jaw very tightly while sleeping. When he awakes, his jaw hurts. Because he is terrified of biting his tongue, he doesn’t dare to go back to sleep and stays awake until it’s day.’
‘S. reported a potentially massively traumatic event, the murder of his father by the Taliban. He saw the mutilated body with his eyes. He has post-traumatic stress symptoms. Tremors, chest pain, stuttering.’
‘M. says he had called his father while on the run to tell him that he wanted to return home. The father had then said to him, ‘If you come back, I’ll kill you.’’
Patterns are visible in the translation. Often they are orphans, fleeing. When parents send off their children, they send the eldest son. He is the strongest; the one with the best chance of getting through and maybe bringing the entire family to join him. And he is the weakest, the one that the Taliban and IS grab first. There are cases where children escaped and their parents were killed in revenge. Sometimes in Passau’s shelters a mobile phone hums. Shortly afterwards, you hear a strangled cry.
Three hours the Shamos have spent at the police station when the officials accompany them to a coach – after smuggling cars and the police car, the third vehicle which they have boarded that day. People who have been registered in Passau are driven to one of Bavaria’s initial reception centres. From there, after a few weeks of waiting, the refugees are mediated to accommodation throughout Germany. On the short walk to the bus, Aiham, the son, reaches for the hand of a policeman in uniform. The big man with a gun on his belt pauses, smiles, then he lifts the boy carefully into the bus, on which an advertisement for a herbal liqueur is emblazoned: BLUTWURZ (Bloodroot). Real Bavaria. When the refugees in the Bloodroot bus are driven out of the town, they encounter coaches which hardly differ from theirs. Passau has always been a prominent place geographically, here the rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz merge; this season 2600 cruise ships are expected here. Last year Passau counted 283,938 tourists and 467,310 overnight stays. Visitors from England, Japan, and the United States visit the old town, the cathedral, the museums. Now global upper and lower classes meet on more places than the highway. Such as the Danube Cycle Route, like mirror images, families move towards each other: fathers, mothers and children from Germany, traveling on cycles, with helmets. And fathers, mothers and children from Syria on foot. Passau’s slogan reads: limitlessly livable.
In his office at the City Hall, Juergen Dupper says he doesn’t want to change anything about this slogan. At first glance, Dupper seems just as baroque as his city. Beard, belly, Bavarian. He’s been mayor of this place for seven years, a terminus for escape routes. And he is a Social Democrat. Dupper says he does not allow words like ‘refugees,’ ‘wave of refugees’ and ‘spill over’ in his speeches. He feels that people who have fled from politics are becoming the subject of politics in Germany again. How toxic the debate has become.
In recent weeks, the parties struggled over the correct handling of the many refugees from Albania and Kosovo, who come especially in winter. People who have little prospect of asylum. Politicians of the SPD and Greens have joined the request of the Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer to accommodate these refugees in camps close to the border and return them home quickly.
This article was translated into English and shortened to fit in the 36 pages of De Groene Amsterdammer special European Press Prize 2016 edition.
Translation of Amrai Coen and Henning Sussebach, Im gelobten Land. First published in Die Zeit.
Images: (1) The Shamo family from Iraq walks along the highway A3 near Passau. A smuggler threw them out of the van in which he transported them; (2) the first step in a German life: registration; (3) in the woods near the Austrian border, smugglers’ vans are left behind; (4) German police arrest a smuggler at night. He will go to jail