'Would Canada take us?' The cry from Germany's refugee shelters

In Germany, frustration is mounting on both sides as the growing number of asylum seekers, many from Syria, appear to be overwhelming the country's ability to welcome and integrate, Nahlah Ayed reports.

Frustrations mount on both sides as asylum seekers overwhelm Germany's open doors

Refugees wait in a crowded migrant registration centre in Passau, southern Germany. Trying to document the continued inflow of asylum seekers has proved overwhelming for German authorities. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press)

Just days after Canada elected a new prime minister, word of his plans to take in more Syrian refugees had already reached about 40 Syrians frustrated at being sheltered in a Hamburg gymnasium.

"How many are they taking?" one of them asked, pulling at his donated jacket against the rain. "Would Canada take us?"

Not likely. The 25,000 Justin Trudeau has promised to bring to Canada by the end of the year will likely come directly from the Middle East. These would be documented refugees already registered with the UN, and not from among those now on European soil.

The number Canada is willing to take in pales before the many tens of thousands of Syrians that Germany is already sheltering and the tens of thousands more still making their way here, even as temperatures plummet.

Still, for these nearly 200 Syrian and other asylum seekers stranded here for over a month, in what was supposed to be emergency, temporary housing, the remote possibility of a solution, even in far-off North America, is enough to elicit serious expressions of interest.

Because for them and many others who are now in Germany desperate to start new lives, the forward momentum of a what had been a perilous but successful journey has now come to a full, frustrating stop.

After weeks of travel, and many weeks languishing in less than ideal housing with no work, some have run so low on money they have taken to collecting bottles to cash in for deposits.

What is holding many of them back now is the wait for documentation. It comes up in every conversation.

Getting their German papers is the key to everything: access to language courses, to better housing, to registering for university, to starting to look for work.

Covered with rain capes, migrants and refugees wait at the central registration centre for asylum seekers in Berlin. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

But given the sheer number of people, in the hundreds of thousands, waiting for documents, just getting registered to start the process to claim asylum is a challenge.

"Before this procedure you are nothing. You are nothing at all," says Khaldoun, who once worked as an English teacher in Syria.

"The residency, this is the key word. Most of us are well educated or professional. So we just came here to restart our lives, and do something for the society, also because they welcomed us.

"So we hope … to be treated as humans."

Germans frustrated, too

Spend any time here and you quickly realize the frustration also extends to Germans.

Places like Hamburg — where as many as 600 asylum claimants arrive each day— are straining under the influx, and are forced to turn to old supermarkets, schools and warehouses to put roofs over refugees' heads.

Still they come. And so the main priority is housing and feeding those seeking to stay in Germany, despite these asylum seekers' own far bigger expectations.

Many Germans have been getting anxious about the growing number of migrants arriving in their country. Others, like these Germans attending demonstration with the motto 'Refugees welcome - set a light' at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last weekend are more welcoming. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

The reality here in Germany is that while the system is processing the refugee claims, it simply can't go any faster.

There isn't enough housing, beds or immigration officials.

So, among some pockets of asylum seekers, impatience with the process is now rife.

They try to complain to those caring for their daily needs, but they don't have the answers either.

And while the refugees wait, the range of pressing issues that brought many of them to Germany is so vast and complex it's hard to imagine how they can all be dealt with.

There is no such thing as a typical case.

Just among this group of 40 Syrians, one young mother is desperate to connect with health professionals who could help care for her autistic child.

A young man wanted to register for university this fall, but he could not because he has no fixed address, and no papers. That's another semester (and likely longer) wasted.

Another young man is distressed because his mother back in Syria is seriously sick. He doesn't have enough phone credits to call her, nor the right to get a job to earn the money to pay for them.

A daughter in Calgary

One slightly older Syrian mother who traveled on her own here is eager to get her papers so she can visit Canada.

She has children living in the U.S. and a daughter in Calgary, whom she is desperate to just see.

It's the reason she set out on the difficult journey to Germany.

"I didn't come here to be watered and fed," she says, through tears.

Her family in Canada says they have tried to bring her over for at least a visit, but her applications for a visa have been rejected.

Without those German documents, there's little to be done but wait.

These Syrians are among almost 250 refugees living in an overcrowded Hamburg gymnasium while they wait to be processed. Some have been in limbo there for over a month. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Some of the refugees feel they had been led to believe it would be far easier to settle in Germany. That may have been the case back in the spring when there were far fewer people claiming asylum.

For the same reason, Germany's challenges are also far bigger now: Like how to encourage Germans to accept them, and how to ensure refugees integrate quickly when authorities can't even guarantee them housing in places where refugees can connect with the wider community.

Another challenge is how to deal with the rising anger among Germans who feel threatened by the arrival of such big numbers of asylum seekers.

German authorities want to ensure the refugees it decides to officially welcome actually feel welcome.

At the same time, it knows it has to deal with the growing calls for the border to be firmly shut.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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