Last summer in Sicily, we met 21-year-old Baraa Ramadan and his Syrian family who had escaped war first in Libya and then, after a five day long journey on a boat, arrived in Italy.
They reached Sicily in a particularly sweltering month, where the colours and smells were still similar to their home, and the Mediterranean sea in front of their eyes contained the same water Syria is washed by.
We left each other right after the funeral of Baraa’s father, who had passed away at the age of 64 from heart failure at a local hospital five days after their arrival.
In the last few months, I have received several updates from Baraa about their life in Germany.
Despite their desire to stay in Munich, they were sent to Nuremberg, and we went there to pay them a visit, and to see with our own eyes how they are adapting to their new life.
Nuremberg surely doesn’t look like the Mediterranean. Being one of the oldest cities in Bavaria, it was built in different architecture styles, from a medieval old town to more modern suburbs.
Despite the ever grey sky, Nuremberg offers many colours. Every house is a different shade, and looking at them gives me the feeling they were there to mirror the many culture differences that coexist within its confines, now more than ever.
Nuremberg is also famous for its Trials, were between 1945 and 1946, right after the end of the Second World War, many Nazi criminals were proven guilty of the atrocities committed during wartime.
Seventy years after that, Baraa and his family now live in “Platz der Opfer des Faschimus” (Square of the Victims of Fascism), between streets where walls have posters that say “Refugees Welcome”. In front of the house there is a park and memorial for the victims of the Nazis.
Baraa lives with his mum, his brother and sister-in-law, who have three children aged 7, 10 and 11 years old; the mother is now eight months pregnant.
The German government gave Baraa’s family a house, which they share with other migrants: a Syrian couple and a transgender woman from Armenia.
Almost all refugees who live in Germany share their homes with strangers, who are very often other Syrians, or refugees of different nationalities, mostly from the Middle East.
The family shares the kitchen and the bathroom with others, and they sleep in a small bedroom and a bigger room with three bunk beds which they also use as a dining room.
They don’t have a table so they have to eat their meals on the floor.
Although we were supposed to stay elsewhere, it was clear from the start we couldn’t refuse their hospitality, and living closely with them was a very revealing experience.
We learned about the way German bureaucracy deals with refugees, but also saw at first hand their emotions, a mixture of relief, calm, and a deep sense of homesickness common in those who are so far away from their land destroyed by war, and the tenderness of trying to preserve their traditions, food, religion and language within these four walls.
The contrast leaves me speechless: Nuremberg is a multicultural place that reflects the way Europe is inexorably changing.
Inside the house, we hear them talking in Arabic, eat their traditional food they kindly share with us, and listen to anecdotes and stories involving distant names of people who are still living in Syria.
Baraa, among them all, is the only one able to communicate in German. His small bedroom is full of grammar worksheets and several books. He has attended only a few basic language classes in the past six months, a course that is offered – and also imposed – by the Government.
After the scheme, he kept learning the language after downloading language teaching apps on his phone.
The German Government offers them a substantial help. After arriving in Nuremberg, they spent a few weeks at an immigration centre, where they have been handed over a document called “Ankunftsnachweis”, (arrival certificate), which contains their personal details and is valid up to six months while they wait to be officially recognised as asylum seekers.
In some cases an accommodation is assigned to them, in others it’s the refugees themselves who find one, often to find a space they can share with the family that is still on their way to Germany.
The Government also helps them financially with a monthly aid of 350€ each for the first year and discounted transport tickets.
Once the asylum request is approved, it’s valid for three years, during which time they are allowed to stay but they need to prove they are able to look after themselves, find a job, know how to speak the language and integrate into German society.
For the latter, there is a specific course called “integrationkurse” (citizenship education), which brings together language and civics classes, followed by a final exam.
The children go to school, and judging by their school reports, teachers take into account their linguistic difficulties.
In 2015, around 500.000 refugees applied for asylum in Germany, and many are those who haven’t sent their application yet.
Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who decided to open the country’s borders last year, has been urging the rest of Europe to do the same, and help Germany facing the current situation.
Merkel’s “Willkommen” policy raised criticism among members of the Bundestag, and transport minister Alexander Dobrindt – who is also a member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union – recently stated that Germany will have to close the borders soon if the numbers of refugees keeps increasing.
It’s obviously a different situation from the one we witnessed in Sicily last year. Italy is a starting point, a temporary place, chaotic and overwhelmed by a humanitarian emergency they cannot always manage properly.
Germany is rather a point of arrival. There is a political debate going on, but for now refugees are not helped in order to survive, but to effectively live and build their own future.
Despite everything, though, Baraa and his family are fond of Sicily.
I fail to understand it at first, but then I realise that, despite the pain and the grief, Sicily is the land that represented for them a new starting point.
They left Syria four years ago, and the years spent in Libya don’t contain pleasant memories. Baraa tells us that Syrian refugees in Libya were overworked, underpaid and badly treated.
By sheer coincidence the next morning, a postman brings good news: Baraa’s asylum request has been approved, and he is required to show up to a post office to pick up the documents.
We go with him, and an old woman queuing in front of us asks him in Arabic if he’s Syrian. She has a Turkish passport in her hands, and maybe she’s there for the same reason.
Baraa knows how to find his way around quite well by now by public transport.
Fridays at the local mosque are an important part of their life, one of the few occasions when his mother leaves the house too. Oddly, the tram doesn’t come, but while we wait we meet a friend of Baraa, Saleh, who comes from Palestine.
We witness several random meetings like this. Nuremberg is a small city, and it’s not unusual to meet people that Baraa knows. Most of them are migrants that he has met at the immigration centre upon arrival and with whom he has shared a significant moment in his life.
He sees them often around the city, each of them going their own way while sharing the same difficulties. It’s not just Arabs: we meet a friend from Ukraine.
The migration flow is not confined to specific geographic areas, as it brings very different people together.
Saleh has a wife and a baby on the way. We walk with him to the mosque, and because of transport delay we’re late for prayers.
However, there is always time to pray, and in the mean time we meet an Italian woman, Gabriella, who emigrated around thirty years ago and then converted to Islam.
She manages the mosque, along with other people, and she tells us that this place – which is also used by Baraa’s nephews, Mahmood and Youssef, who take Quran lessons every Saturday morning – is the only multicultural mosque in Nuremberg.
It’s attended by Muslim people of different nationalities: we see different faces, different physical traits, and we can hear different dialects.
The mosque is also a cultural centre, where they run activities to help newly arrived migrants. An important part of this is to help them with the documents.
“They are overwhelmed by bureaucracy,” Gabriella says, adding, “they receive papers and very often they don’t know a word of German. They bring them here so we can translate everything for them”.
Several people are waiting with documents under their arms, and at some point Baraa ends up talking to Gabriella, in Arabic. He tells her about Syria, the journey, the sea, Sicily.
From the window, we can see the trains come and go from the nearby station, and a dark sky that anticipates the rain.
Like a proper tourist guide, a German scarf around his neck, Baraa shows us the old town. He picks up his phone and shows us a map of Messina, in Sicily, that I had drawn him one day.
This time our roles are reversed: it’s he who knows where to go, and finds his way around the centre with ease.
We happen upon a demonstration in support of Kurdistan. The organiser tells us that they are trying to raise money to help oppressed Kurdish people. There is a social ferment in the city.
While they are being distributed around the country, Bavaria remains one of the main destination for refugees. Around 10.000 of them live in Nuremberg, between private houses, Red Cross camps and other immigration centres.
When a couple of anti-migrants protests took place before, other local people responded with pro-migrants demonstrations. Generally, the majority of local people seems used to culture diversity by now.
Baraa describes local people as “polite”, and doesn’t recall a single occasion when he didn’t feel welcome. Like many other refugees, though, his interactions with them are still very limited, hampered by language and cultural barriers.
When we go back home, Baraa’s mother is in the kitchen. I often think about her, and how she is an important figure within the nuclear family. Now that her husband has died, she is the most solid connection between Syria and Germany.
It’s not just because of the meals, and the delicious “kibbe meshuiye” she teaches us how to make. There’s a veil of sadness in her green eyes, a lot of nostalgia, feelings that maybe she needs to hide from her sons.
She pays great attention to her meals, which aren’t just food but represent something else, more profound and visceral. Her food has the colours and smells of Syria, olive trees, hummus, pita and mint.
Back in Sicily, Baraa mentioned to us his love for football, and that he used to play in the second division when he was still living in Syria.
While we walk through the park near his house, right in front of the memorial for the victims of fascism, Baraa takes his phone out and shows us pictures of his football mates. He points at some faces: “him, and him, and him, they are all dead,” he says, “and him, and him, and him, they are somewhere here in Germany now, but I don’t know where”.
An entire generation of future football players wiped out by war.
Football is a hobby he tries to maintain in Nuremberg too, a way for him to connect with other young people. He wants to start playing again in a real team as soon as he can.
For now, he watches Real Madrid’s matches every week in a bar run by an Iraqi friend.
He plays football with his friends every Saturday. They have to travel around half an hour to the suburbs of Nuremberg, a nice Bavarian village (Fürth) with football pitches.
The day we go with him the rain is pouring and the ground is covered in mud, but it doesn’t stop them. They have to play anyway, and they do it stoically, like proper football players in a proper match.
What is fascinating is how the two teams are divided: on one side there are second generation migrants – guys from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were born in Germany and so speak the language fluently.
On the other side, there’s the newest generation of refugees, like Baraa, who communicate in so many different Arabic dialects. Mostly Syrians, but there are also Turkish players, like Ayman, who is barely eighteen and plays as the goalkeeper, and at the end of the match he’s all covered in mud.
They change their clothes and put on their football kit under a bridge not far away, and change back when they finish. Then they hug, shake hands and pat each other on their back.
Until next week.
One of Baraa’s team’s supporters is his friend Abu Taher, who stands with us and the children under a big umbrella and watches the game. He is also from Syria and has two kids, who are around the same age as Baraa’s youngest nephew.
We go to his house the next day, along with Baraa’s mum and the children.
Abu and his wife share the house with two other Syrian families, all of them with children. His wife is pregnant, too.
The men are sitting around the table, drinking tea and telling us that Germany is treating them well, but Syria is still more beautiful.
The children play together, while the women chat in another room.
It’s a normal daily life scene of an extended family, a bit bizarre, but in the end, not even that much.
It’s a small Syrian microcosm in a foreign city, and even here in this house, they keep living their life halfway between integration and a deep feeling of love for their roots.
All the suitcases are on the shelves. They are there, waiting to be used soon, when the time will come for a more permanent home.
Integration is a long and painful process. It’s about finding a compromise between an old life and a new one, a balance between one culture and another.
At the park, Baraa’s family is like any other German family. The children like to feed the ducks, and the sudden sight of a few swans causes their amazement.
Integration is a challenge for Europe. It will also change them, and perhaps with a bit more time they will have better understanding of the foreign language, and they will lose themselves in a continent that is becoming more and more multicultural and multifaceted.
I look at them staring at the river, and I wonder if it will be possible for them to ever really feel at home.
Swans and ducks are very different, but they share that one piece of water in harmony, because they know it’s the only way to grab the crumbs of bread that the children are giving them.
The river flows continuously, it hears many stories like this, but it never hesitates, never stops, never changes its course.
Baraa and his family came from the water, and sometimes to the water they return.
Like the river, they are forced to keep going. And life goes on.
Images by Sara Furlanetto