This German cooperative shows the rest of the world how to welcome Syrian refugees

It’s a long walk.
It’s a long walk.
Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh
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The number of asylum applications in Germany is up 132% from last year, and the country has received the largest number of Syrian refugees of the EU member states. Cities are complaining they are overburdened, and there is increasingly violent backlash against refugees from right extremists.

But in one apartment building in the city of Gelsenkirchen, four German families and five refugee families now live together in an intentionally integrated community—an important example of harmony and good faith in Europe’s increasingly divisive migrant crisis.

Samira Abdallah, a Syrian Kurd living in this city with her husband and their children, invited me to have coffee in this unique, nameless cooperative. We met in the apartment where her husband’s two nieces—sisters Nour Ibrahim, 24, and Alaa Ibrahim, 20—live with their sister-in-law Mana Al Mohamad, 24. All three young women arrived in Gelsenkirchen in Feb. 2015, after crossing the border to Turkey from their hometown of Qamishli, in northeast Syria.

larger picture of people
Image: Grace Dobush

Mana’s husband was killed in Syria’s ongoing civil war, leaving her to raise their three sons, age 2, 4, and 5, alone. “The children could grow up with hate—I don’t want that,” Mana told me through her aunt. (Abdallah served as my translator from the women’s Kurdish into German. Openly protective of the women, she joked that perhaps someone would read this story and might like to marry one of them.)

When Abdallah found out that the three women and three children had been approved to come to Gelsenkirchen, she asked the co-op to hold a large apartment open in anticipation of their arrival. Finding a home as an immigrant is not always that easy, Abdallah notes. According to the women, other local landlords have been quick to claim their apartments were no longer for rent, upon hearing would-be renters’ names.

“People treat us badly,” Nour said through her aunt. “Officers ignore us because we can’t speak German. I went to the hospital with a kidney problem and the doctor said, ‘Stand up, you’re not dying.’”

Alaa added, “I thought everyone in Germany would be like the people in our house, but outside they’re not.”

“It’s like an island,” Mana said.

Because some of the apartments in this particular co-operative are very big, a few years ago they started to be rented to immigrant families, who tend to have larger families than Germans do, said Wilma Mittelbach, one of the Germans who lives in the building, to Quartz.

“When apartments open up in the house, we encourage the residents to consciously rent them to Syrian refugees so that they come into a community with a social support system,” she added.

Mittelbach, who is active with the local chapter of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany, frequently uses the word “solidarity” to describe living alongside her Syrian neighbors.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and receive benefits according to Germany’s social support structure, Hartz IV, and so these apartments are paid for by the state. Current standards allocate each approved adult a monthly 391 euros (about $430) for food, clothing, transportation, communications, entertainment, and personal expenses. Each child receives 229 to 296 euros ($250 to $325) per month, depending on age.

people at table
Samira Abdallah (left) worked as a house cleaner and gardener in Germany after losing her job as a teacher in Syria, but after receiving German citizenship five years ago, she now teaches Arabic again.
Image: Grace Dobush

Nour Ibrahim was one year away from finishing her archaeology degree when the war broke out in Syria. The trio speak Arabic and Kurdish, and are just learning German. The state pays for language courses of three hours a day, five days a week. Nour and Alaa already understand a bit of German; Mana hopes to join them once her children enter daycare and kindergarten in the fall.

After language classes, Nour and Alaa like to watch hair and makeup tutorials on YouTube, and Nour loves listening to Rihanna and Akon. When asked what she would like to do in Germany, Mana said, “Everything.” She went to school until ninth grade and might like to train to be a hairstylist. Alaa studied psychology and worked in a bank back home; she’d like to be a translator some day.

Before the Arab Spring in 2011, Syria was considered a safe country. So when Abdallah and her husband first arrived illegally in Germany in 1995, they were not granted asylum despite the persecution they argue they faced as Kurds. Since living in Germany, she and her husband have worked as cleaners and later opened an internet cafe. Only five years ago were they granted German citizenship.

Today, refugees of the Syrian civil war in Germany automatically get a residency permit for two years. Anyone who qualifies for asylum usually starts out in ”first-response” emergency housing (in Gelsenkirchen, one option is a re-purposed school building) and eventually moves into private residences like the one Nour, Alaa and Mana have found.

After the war started, it took only a year for the Abdullah’s three relatives to get approved to come to Germany. All expressed how lucky they feel about their current situation.

But each woman also says that she hopes to return home.