First came the bombs, then a shoeless escape by sea in a crammed rubber boat
This is the story of a spunky 10-year-old Syrian girl’s unlikely friendship with a lonely German grandmother and how it holds the lesson of refugee survival
NEU-ANSPACH, Germany — Morning, noon and night, death tumbled chaotically from the sky into her city. Finally one November night in 2015, it crash-landed in the 10-year-old girl’s neighborhood.
The falling bombs killed two of her close relatives.
Her mother shrieked at the loss. In the dark of night, the girl watched her parents work out a terrible calculus about the future of their five young children. They arrived at a wrenching decision. At dawn, the family would walk out of a Syrian war zone. They would leave with nothing. For the sake of the children, they would throw themselves on the mercy of the world.
They would seek asylum in another country.
The girl and her family left Aleppo and found their way to a Turkish refugee camp. Within two months they would be on the road again. Dangers stalked the girl throughout the ordeal. That included the frightening night she spent in a Turkish jail with her mother and three younger sisters. Their jailers did two things she never will forget. First, they gave the woman and girls dry bread and dog food, which they refused to eat. Second, they confiscated the supplies the family had collected along their journey.
Gone were the precious life preservers they desperately needed for the next step to safety and freedom — the often-deadly ocean crossing in an inflatable raft.
No one in the family could swim.
Passage to their unknown future would be in a flimsy, black rubber dinghy. The wind was already whipping the Aegean Sea into chopping waves when they found themselves on a rocky beach on the west coast of Turkey.
Seventy desperate people packed the small boat. The other passengers crushed the family. The 10-year-old girl lost her shoes. The passengers trampled the children under foot and pushed them to the floor of the dinghy. People sat on her brother’s broken leg. He cried.
Suffocating in the press of bodies, they removed those precious life jackets in order to breathe. Better to risk drowning than suffocation.
For three hours on a single afternoon, the boat pitched up and down. Seawater soaked the children. They contemplated what would happen if the boat capsized or sank. They didn’t think once about whether they’d be accepted in the country where the journey would end and life would begin. That was too far off for these seven of the 5,644,769 million Syrians who have fled the country since 2012.
When the rubber boat finally reached the shore of Greece on a January day in 2016, aid workers handed the family apples and bananas. Then those well-meaning helpers embarrassed the poor, modest children by stripping off all of their wet clothes right there on the beach to put them in dry clothing. Small kindnesses can become indignities when there is no understanding.
Germany would be their final destination. None of them realized that the family’s eventual integration into daily German society would hinge on a child.
This is the story of a young Syrian girl named Hind and an elderly German grandmother named Traudlinde Eichhorn. This is the story of that spunky 10-year-old with flashing, observant brown eyes and a name that sounds like “hint.” It’s the story of that kind grandmother, a retired postal worker with time on her hands, who noticed the young girl on her street one day, the day that changed everything.
About 900,000 more Syrians have fled their homes since December in the face of renewed violence in the civil war. Hind and Eichhorn have something to teach them and those who may encounter them.
A German grandma
Germany desperately needs immigrants like Hind. Its long experience with a dropping birthrate and its intense experiments with mass migration offer a complicated road map.
Eichhorn, 69, is aware of Germany’s potential demographic winter, and for years she was transfixed by news reports about Syrians fleeing bombs and war. About how Germany has accepted some 600,000 Syrians who applied for asylum. About how the government efficiently distributed them throughout the country to diffuse the impact on any one town, city or region. About how national leaders openly acknowledged that absorbing all these new people would be expensive at first but that doing so was a national investment that could pay off in the long run.
“I had often thought I’d like to help, but I took no initiative to do anything,” she said. “I didn’t know who to call or where to go. Then, I had this experience.”
Hind Al Hammoud literally walked into her life.
On a hot summer afternoon in 2018, the fastidious Eichhorn sat on a stool on Kirchgasse (Church Street) outside her home, bending down to scrape weeds out of the crack between the road and the sidewalk. As she worked and sweated, Hind, then 13, and one of her more reserved sisters, Shahad, walked down Kirchgasse’s incline toward her.
“What’s that woman doing?” Hind said to Shahad. “Should we help?”
“No,” Shahad replied nervously.
No is a speed bump for Hind. She asked Eichhorn if the girls could help.
“Will you really help me?” the stunned grandmother said.
“I’d love to,” Hind said, as they conversed in German.
She grabbed a tool and attacked the weeds.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Eichhorn told the Deseret News, speaking in her native German from the living room of her quiet home. She has decorated it beautifully and keeps it immaculate. The widow lives alone. She is estranged from her only son, and therefore from her only grandchild.
Some of her neighbors in Neu-Anspach, a town of 15,000 in central Germany, were confused by her sudden relationship with a Syrian family. Some had complained about foreigners who moved into their neighborhoods. One had a bad experience with an apartment full of single men who were loud and stayed up late, disrupting the German man’s routine and sleep. Others worried about the economic costs. Still more feared a sea change to German society.
“When Hind started coming to see me, some neighbors watched her closely. They stared,” Eichhorn said.
Hind and her siblings gave them plenty of opportunities.
“Every day after that, they came to visit,” Eichhorn said. “Now they know where I hide treats for them.”
Hind, already an expert in German slang, learns jokes at school and tries them out on Eichhorn. Eichhorn teaches her the nuances of German culture. They talk about faith all the time.
“I tell her I have none,” Eichhorn said. “I believe in nothing. She tells me I’m going to hell. We don’t talk about it so much anymore,” she added with a smile.
“I don’t get anywhere,” Hind agreed, smiling back.
They swap stories about how Eichhorn married young, at 18, and how Hind, now age 14, certainly would have been married years ago if she’d remained in Syria.
“She is a strong personality,” Eichhorn said.
The elephant in the room is how long this relationship will last. Hind’s family is seeking asylum, hoping to remain in Germany permanently as refugees. After nearly four years, they still don’t know if Germany will grant them that status.
“It’s hard for her parents to commit to the language when they don’t know if they will have to return home,” Eichhorn says. “A lot of Germans feel the same way: ‘Why should I engage with them? They may just return to Syria.’”
Her opinion is clear-cut. The love and concern she expresses sounds, well, grandmotherly.
“My hope for Hind is that she can stay in Germany,” Eichhorn said. “If the children have to go home, the culture shock would be immense.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a bold bet when other European nations balked at the height of the Syrian crisis in early 2015: She left her nation’s borders open.
Some Germans expressed concern. In August 2015, Merkel famously told them, “Wir schaffen dass” — “We can do it.” Many cheered. Others recoiled. An American presidential candidate soon said she should be ashamed.
The issue and how to resolve it remains immediate. There are some 70 million displaced people today worldwide. Lump them together and they would become the world’s 20th-largest country. Special reports devoted to the challenges have been published by National Geographic in August, the Economist in November and others.
Since 2015, Germans have watched about 1.5 million asylum seekers arrive, more people than the entire population of Estonia. With them came both resolve and criticism. For example, the fledgling Alternative for Germany Party adopted an anti-immigration position. Its national support skyrocketed from 3% to 14% in the 10 months after “We can do it,” according to Politico.
Merkel’s bet was part humanitarian, part pragmatic. Germany’s population was both aging and declining, a common problem throughout Europe with vast economic and societal repercussions. The birthrate needed to replace an existing population is 2.1. Germany has been below that number for 45 years. Its latest figure is 1.57, according to The Local.
Refugees are young. In Germany, more than 60% of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers are 25 or younger. They offer a boost to the nation’s workforce, economy and funding for retirees.
The United States and Germany have taken vastly different tacks toward Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers:
Germany accepted 185,000 of them in 2018.
The United States accepted 62, according to Frontline.
America had accepted 12,587 in 2016 and 6,557 in 2017.
The latest figures say Germany has absorbed 584,000 Syrians, roughly equal to the entire population of Luxembourg.
Nearly five years after the in-migration began, a significant percentage of refugees have begun to help fuel the German economy.
“If Germans want to maintain their economic well-being, we need about half a million immigrants every year,” immigration researcher Wolfgang Kaschuba told The Washington Post last year. “We need to guarantee that our society stays young, because it’s aging dramatically.”
Like America, Germany has done this before. Its leaders consciously follow lessons of the past. Germany was at the center of the greatest refugee crisis in history, World War II. It also successfully absorbed a massive number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In the latter case, about 80% of adult refugees had German jobs within eight years, an economist told The Washington Post.
That sort of success begins not with immediate job opportunities but with required integration and language courses, said Thomas Müffke, director of integration and migration for the Arbeiter Samaritan Bund. In fact, he said one hard-earned lesson is that refugees need time.
“Many refugees could quickly get jobs working in factories or kitchens or as janitors at, say, the airport,” he said. “Those may be available and pay well, but they don’t integrate them. We want them to get jobs where they are in touch with many people and have to learn German.”
Müffke said that to succeed, refugees must learn to understand the value of commitments to Germans, who highly value punctuality, for example.
“You have to learn to call the hotel where you work when you are going to be late,” he said. “You really have to accept that if you want to work in Germany. Otherwise, they are going to obtain a job only to lose it.”
Germany uses a computer system to assign arriving asylum seekers to different states based on the number of residents and economic power of each area. German cities don’t have the capacity to provide refugee services, so Frankfurt and others contract with Müffke and his social welfare organization, which centers its activities on five main pillars — supporting German language acquisition, providing access to the job market, social integration, proactive activities for children and gender programs.
“Our goal is to help refugees become successful and independent,” Müffke said. “Our job is to help people integrate in as short a time as possible.”
But not too short a time.
Understanding the process
“It’s a process,” Müffke said. “It takes some time. America goes too fast, is too goal-oriented. Here, we take it too slow. America provides elite support for a few months. When a refugee gets a job, they say, ‘Good, you’re on your own.’ But the refugee still doesn’t understand English or the society.
“We see it as more complex, as more than having a job. You should take some time. Refugees need certain support. Not five years, but one or two. You should support them with the goal they should become independent.”
Müffke said 40 years ago, Germany helped refugees solve problems reactively. It didn’t work well.
“We don’t write their resumés for them. It’s a longer process,” he said. “We still react sometimes, of course, but we have a proactive process now.”
On a recent morning, Müffke oversaw a beautification project at an apartment complex for refugees built and managed by his organization right in the center of Frankfurt. It is called Übergangsunterkunft Nied. The long word means transition accommodations.
“This is not a refugee camp,” Müffke said.
The apartments include a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. The complex has 140 beds.
The complex is designed to increase refugee participation in German society. It’s in the middle of a German neighborhood. The garden and common areas are designed to help refugees from all parts of the world interact with each other. A soccer team has a coach from Syria and players from Eritrea and Germany.
“We help them understand German society, roles, rules, customs and laws,” Müffke said. “We help them understand how to work with the police, how to navigate the health care system, how companies work, why we have environmental policies and demonstrations, why people can live openly gay, why women can dance with men in public.
“Men have to accept that their wives are considered equal here. Wives and children have to get used to it, too.”
The beautification project is part of a day of service sponsored by the German arm of CBRE, formerly known as Coldwell Banker. Some 50 company employees volunteered their time to plant trees, start a vegetable garden, make planter boxes and build lounge tables and chairs.
“We are lucky, successful,” said Alex Erdely, CEO of CBRE in Germany. “We need to do more to give back than pay taxes. We want to do something that has a purpose.”
Erdely stopped hacking up grass where the vegetable garden would go to repeat the fact Germany lacks workers.
“To look down on refugees is odd because they are part of our economic and value system,” he said. “Nevertheless, every society has to make sure not to lose itself, not too much. We have to focus on integration so there is a benefit. We can all learn from each other.”
Müffke paused as he talked about one pillar of integration — children.
“We believe we have to start with the children,” he said. “When the children are peaceful together, the adults are peaceful together. It’s not natural, for example, for people from Afghanistan and Eritrea to be friends, but children don’t know that. Kids are key to integration. They go to school and learn German. The parents learn from the children. The children make friends with other children in German families. It creates harmony and opportunity.”
A child leads them
It would be fair to say Hind was shellshocked the first time she walked into her German school as the only Syrian amid 1,400 students.
After landing on the shores of Greece, the family spent two days at a refugee center there before traveling to Germany by bus and train. They arrived at the refugee center near Giessen on Jan. 20, 2016. Six months later, they moved into one floor of a house in Neu-Anspach, where a church holds activities designed to integrate the newest residents and a cafe holds events for asylum-seeking women. The family moved into its current apartment in the summer of 2018.
“I was embarrassed,” Hind said of her first days in her new German school. “The other kids stared at me. They didn’t know what to think of me. It was hard to fit in.”
It didn’t help that she’d missed a lot of school. Her father kept her home before they fled Syria because of nearby violence. In Germany, she had a lot of catching up to do, in a language she couldn’t fathom.
“This is no Mickey Mouse school,” said Fritz Färber, one of the teachers at the Adolf Reichwein School in Neu-Anspach. “It’s a serious school.”
The administration and teachers try to help. Asylum-seeking students are assigned to integration classes, learning the German language, culture and geography. Hind soon was joined by other Syrians. They stuck together because they couldn’t understand the other asylum-seekers, kids from Poland, Afghanistan and other countries.
“There were four of us,” Hind said. “We spoke Arabic together.”
Färber had Hind in a gym class early on. She’s a good athlete, he said. She likes korb ball — which is like basketball — as well as sword fighting, running and soccer. Färber has a reputation as a “classroom daddy.” He gains the trust of his students, though he maintains firm boundaries. When a field trip approached on which Hind would be the only Syrian, she was sick to her stomach about going.
“I had no German friends,” she said.
She confided in Färber. Without her knowledge, he talked to the class about her. He told them what Hind had been through. He told them she needed their help and understanding.
Then he convinced her to go on the field trip. She began to make new friends.
Färber plays the trumpet at his church, but he didn’t become a music teacher until 20 years into his career, when he was asked to start a school orchestra. Hind attended a concert and asked to join his class. Her eyes went wide at the sight of the trumpet.
At first, her father refused to allow it. The trumpet was too loud. Too Western. Not fit for a woman. She didn’t tell Färber that. She only told him the family couldn’t afford one.
Färber dug around, found one of his old instruments and repaired it. He cleaned up an old case. Then he gave them to her.
For the first week, she left it at school, but she fell behind. So she took the trumpet to a friend’s house. She practiced incognito there for two months, afraid of what her father would say. She finally eased into telling him about it. He agreed to allow her to play it, but said he couldn’t buy her one.
She drank up the lessons, learning quickly. Within a year, she performed in a concert.
Hind continued to confide in Färber. She talked with him about arranged marriage and other Syrian cultural norms.
“She knows she can break her family’s and her culture’s traditions, but she also knows that if she breaks those traditions, it will separate her from her family,” he said.
“I don’t want to do that,” she told him.
Classroom German bored Hind. Instead, she learned it by careful listening and observation.
“Hind wanted to integrate,” Färber said. “She built a trust in the culture and the school.”
Her best Syrian friends did not. They didn’t learn German the way she did. They didn’t take school as seriously. They started to create trouble. Färber noted that many refugees experience longstanding struggles with trauma.
Hind said her Syrian friends changed and began to act out more. She distanced herself from those who didn’t integrate. Today, her two closest friends are German girls.
Asked about integration, she said she tells her sisters and brother the recipe is simple.
“You must be nice,” she said. “When you’re nice, they’ll be nice. You must help. When someone needs help, help them. Be yourself. Listen to your feelings. Don’t listen to others.”
Färber said Hind is ambitious. She has qualified for realschule, the second-highest type of German schooling. She is doing well enough that she could go to the next highest level and qualify for a university education.
“If I were in Syria, I’d be married now,” Hind says. “In Syria, girls are engaged as early as 10 or 11 and then married months later. I knew a girl who was 10 who was engaged to a 26-year-old man.
“I want to marry at 18 to 20. I want to get an education or learn a skill first.”
Not all of the Syrian students are doing as well, Färber said. It is unclear whether all will graduate.
“With Hind, it took many pieces to make it all fit together for her,” he said. Including the help of a certain lonely German grandmother.
“She’s done very well,” he said.
Americans continue to wrestle with the refugee question.
The federal government has failed to fix America’s broken immigration system, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said recently at a Cato Institute event. As in Germany, American business owners have more jobs than they can fill.
Instead of solving the problem, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said politicians have weaponized the immigration debate as a way to earn votes rather than solving the problem.
Curtis introduced the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act of 2019 in November to provide a solution that would allow states to tailor a temporary worker visa pilot program to their needs.
Meanwhile, President Trump says the country is “full.” In September, he signed an executive order granting local politicians veto power over the placement of asylum seekers in their communities. In January, saying Texas had done more than its fair share, Gov. Greg Abbott blocked refugee resettlement throughout his state. So did the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts.
They are in the minority. At least 42 governors have consented to allow refugees to resettle in their states. Utah’s governor sent a letter to the president saying the state wants more refugees.
Knowingly or not, those leaders seem to be following the German lead. Some Germans want to formalize the goodwill that exists in some German cities and regions.
The integration council wants to divert some European Union refugee funding to towns and cities that desire to help. They could even create “migration profiles” of the types of asylum-seeking refugees they could best support, Petra Bendel, chairwoman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, told Frontline.
The German attitude toward asylum-seekers is generally positive, according to a study by the foundation.
Still, the nation’s leaders know they cannot accept as many in the future, said Marian Wendt, a member of Germany’s national parliament, the Bundestag. He said people have migrated throughout the whole of human history.
“It will never stop,” said Wendt, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, a center-right party. “What we need is a controlled migration process. First, we have to give people a perspective of hope in their home countries. Germany has Africa and the Middle East. The United States has South America and Central America. We have to provide development aid and economic aid for those countries ... the motivation for people to stay in their country.”
Germans worry about the financial cost of supporting asylum seekers until they receive refugee status and are fully integrated and employed, about the effect they may have on German culture and about crimes committed by asylum seekers and refugees, Wendt said. Some feel they threaten German economic prosperity. But the integration council’s 2018 barometer, which measures public opinion about refugees every two years, found that “most Germans believe refugees enrich their country’s economy and culture,” Frontline reported.
Oma saves the kids’ lives
One night, Hind’s sisters and brother began to vomit. A lot.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Hind said. Neither, obviously, did her parents. They thought their children were dying.
Frantic, Hind called Eichhorn, who hurried to their home. She learned they had eaten poisonous raw beans they found growing on the playground. She dialed 112, the German equivalent of 911. Four ambulances and two emergency doctors swooped in and swept away Hind’s three frightened sisters — Shahad, who was 10, Nour, 8 and Nada, 4 — and their brother, Mahmoud, 6. They split them between two hospitals.
Hind went with two of them to translate; her father went with the other two. Before Hind left, she asked Eichhorn another question: “Can you sleep here at our house with my mom?”
Eichhorn stayed with Fatima.
When Eichhorn tells the story, Hind is a hero of integration. She is a stranger in a strange land, who plugged herself into the German culture and a network of Germans who would help her when she and her family needed it most. And she started with a simple act of service: pulling weeds.
When Hind tells the story, Eichhorn is the hero. A native-born “Oma” (the German word for grandmother) who opened herself to strangers from a distant land, willing to respond to a crisis at a moment’s notice and to provide long-term daily nurturing and stability.
“I trust Fatima and the children,” Eichhorn said. “I’ve never been disappointed. They know what I have in my cupboards better than I do.”
Some neighbors remain wary. Others have warmed. One who was skeptical now regularly helps Hind repair her bike.
Eichhorn treasures the children.
“I’m proud of them,” she said. “Because they’re so full of life, they’ll try anything.”
She frets they will not be given asylum. Germany has begun to deny it to some after they have worked for years on integration.
“That’s absolutely wrong,” Eichhorn said. “First we help them, then we send them back without proving whether they will be safe or have work. Overall, I think integration is going well. There are problems here and there, but there are more Germans who commit crimes and hurt women than there are refugees.”
Concern over immigration and terrorism is common across Europe, and asylum seekers have been involved in incidents in Germany. A high rate of Germans have also committed attacks on Syrians, according to a university researcher. In all, German crime statistics show that even at the height of the refugee influx, crime in Germany was down 10%, and that there is no link between the number of refugees and the number of German victims of crimes committed by them.
But success relies on both the asylum seeker and the resident of their new country.
On a recent sunny morning, the Al Hammoud family stood outside Eichhorn’s home. Fatima, the children’s mother, still shy about her uncertain German, watched quietly in blue jeans under a flower print dress, a hijab covering her head. Hind, in sandals and a white T-shirt, held the bunny rabbit Eichhorn keeps for her. Eichhorn, in pink shirt and pants, stood surrounded by the other children. Her right arm rested on the shoulder of Mahmoud’s Lionel Messi soccer jersey. Her left arm was wrapped lovingly around Shahad in her pink sweater. Nour and Nada mugged for everyone underneath Eichhorn’s towering sunflowers.
They have become a newfangled, 21st-century extended family.
“These are my grandchildren,” Eichhorn said.