Refugees in Germany

Hanging in the balance

Aged just 14 when he left his native country of Afghanistan, Emdadullah Mohammand spent nine months on the road in his quest to reach Europe. Four and a half years later, however, his asylum status remains unclear. By Esther Felden

"We are not going to let go of our Emdad." Ruth Muller-Albrecht puts her arm around the young man and pulls him close. Her voice sounds defiant, as if she wants to convince him and herself, that things will really be as she says – that Emdad will be allowed to stay in Germany, in Saarland and at the Technical Relief Agency (THW) in Neuenkirchen – where he currently trains once a week as a disaster relief worker.

Nevertheless, whether he will really be able to stay is anything but certain. Despite the fact that he has been living here for four and a half years. Until now, Emdadullah Mohammand has only been accorded the status of someone who is "tolerated" under German law, meaning he could be deported back to Afghanistan at any time – his native country that he left as an unaccompanied minor in 2011. He was a scared teenager that could neither read nor write, had never been to school and couldn't speak German or English, only his mother tongue of Pashto.

Part of the team

Yet all that has long since changed. At least, there are no communication barriers in evidence during the Saturday morning THW training session in Neuenkirchen, where Emdad and the rest of his team follow local THW instructor Ruth Muller-Albrecht's directions. They are practising a rescue deployment: they have to free a person trapped at the end of a tunnel full of obstacles. Emdad, outfitted in full THW gear, removes rocks from his path as he crawls through the tunnel to reach a trapped mannequin. Every move must be correct. He is completely focused as he lifts the "injured person" into the rescue basket and gives his colleagues the signal to pull it out. Then he crawls backwards out of the tunnel until he himself is once again in safety.

Emdad is proud of what he is doing here. "I have been coming here since last year and I am happy to do so. I like the work, I am constantly learning. And my colleagues are all very nice to me." He is not the only refugee that is receiving training at the Technical Relief Agency. Michael Walsdorf, the THW's spokesman for Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, says that some 30 refugees are currently in training, including people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Emdad is a fully fledged member of the THW team
Desperate to give something back: "as a refugee, one is initially dependent on the help of others. One needs help dealing with bureaucracy, one is given clothes, a place to live… Now Emdad can say: you helped me and now I am doing something for others who need help. It is a really good way to build self-esteem," comments Peter Recktenwald, deputy director of the youth residency group where Emdad lives

The programme has been in place since 2015 and Walsdorf says that the THW sees itself as an aid to integration. "Many refugees are thankful for the opportunity. They can work with technology and at the same time they get a chance to meet people." He is convinced that both sides profit from the situation. The THW gets new volunteers and it is an easy way for the refugees to come into contact with German society.

Walsdorf admits there are language problems. But English helps to clarify misunderstandings. However, that is just a stop-gap. "The goal is for refugees to learn German so that they can receive their instruction in our native language." Many refugees are quickly able to articulate what they need to in German and can then help by translating for others. At some point while working with the THW they will be dealing with other refugees. "They will be busy with the construction or outfitting of refugee shelters, in areas where they do not need special technical training," says Walsdorf. So far, the project has been a complete success from his point of view. He says that he has yet to witness integration problems.

Helping Emdad is also the responsibility of Peter Recktenwald. He is an educator and the deputy director of the youth residency group where Emdad lives. He was the person that suggested to Emdad that he get disaster relief training at the THW. Not least, to help him gain some self-confidence. "As a refugee, one is initially dependent on the help of others. One needs help dealing with bureaucracy, one is given clothes, a place to live." That weighs heavily on many refugees after a while. By working with the THW, refugees get the chance to give something back to the community. "Now Emdad can say: you helped me and now I am doing something for others who need help. It is a really good way to build self-esteem."

Demoralising uncertainty

"Emdad is a very friendly person, always willing to help," says Ruth Muller-Albrecht, "he is really a part of the team." Emdad seems almost proud when she says that. He smiles. But that smile isn't in his eyes. They seem sad, resigned. Because Emdad doesn't fully belong. He still doesn't know how long he will be allowed to remain in the team. His right of residency expires this summer, when his vocational training is complete. What comes after that? Emdad shrugs his shoulders. If he cannot present an internship position, his prospects are not rosy. He dreams of becoming an auto mechanic – or a roofer.

Emdad's certificate of participation in the THW programme for refugees
Emdad has earned his right to stay: "We want to show the authorities everything that he has done to establish himself in Germany. We want to emphasise all of his activities – especially those at the THW – as proof that it is high time that he be granted asylum," Peter Recktenwald continues

Or something completely different, "Street cleaning, or working on a construction site – whatever," he says. "I'm just fighting to be able to work and pay taxes. But I still haven't been granted asylum, even though I've been here so long." He adds that this is why he often doesn't feel good.

Educator Recktenwald is more direct: "Emdad has done everything to prove that he wants to integrate. He has taken literacy and language courses." He attends vocational school and is a volunteer at the THW. "But the threat of being deported is constantly hanging over him. It is driving him mad. I can't blame him for that."

Emdad cannot understand why he still hasn't been granted asylum. Peter Recktenwald says that he has changed a lot over time. Initially the teen was wary, but then it became possible to win his trust. "He was a nice kid, he was quick with a joke and very polite.

But recently he has become bitter – and once again suspicious of us. Since we are his main communication partners, he unloads his frustration on us." Emdad asks himself why Syrian refugees are granted the asylum that he has been working toward for years within a few short months.

Emdad's colleagues at the THW are also aware of his concerns. "I talk to him a lot," says instructor Muller-Albrecht. "He has told me quite a bit about himself. I know he has fears, no wonder he does. And he has experienced a lot of awful things."

Childhood in a ″safe″ country

Emdad grew up in a village near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. He has four siblings and is the family's eldest son. His father worked the countryside and also had contact with the Taliban, says Emdad. "One day there was a military operation in the village. His father was shot dead," explains Recktenwald. After that, Taliban representatives showed up at the door of the family home. They said that they wanted to take Emdad with them, that they would send him to school. "I was happy, because I had never been to school," he says. His mother was sceptical but let him go.

Emdad never ended up in school, instead he landed in a training camp for future fighters. "They gave me a jacket to train with. I had to learn how to put it on and wear it. There were wires and a bomb in it." Emdad was wearing a suicide vest. He got scared and ran away. His escape was successful and he returned home to his mother. She explained to him that he couldn't stay because the Taliban would come looking for him. She took her son to an uncle. The family then sold a piece of property to finance his escape. Emdad says that his escape cost around $15,000 (13,500 euros).

Still a child, the 14-year-old travelled by himself for more than nine months, utterly dependent upon human traffickers. His flight led him across Iran and Turkey, then he took a boat to Greece. In France, Emdad boarded a bus that was supposed to take him to Germany. "The police stopped the bus in Saarland and checked everyone's papers. They wanted to see passports. But all I could say was: no passport, no passport." He spent his first night in Germany at a police station. An officer brought him a cheeseburger from Burger King to eat.

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Jalalabad (photo: Reuters/Parwiz)
No "safe country of origin": a policy brief issued by the BICC (Bonn International Centre for Conversion) at the beginning of 2016 calls for a cessation in the repatriation of Afghan refugees. "The reconstruction and peace process in Afghanistan has failed. Germany, a participant in the international intervention [and thus] also responsible for its failure, must recognise this in its policy towards Afghan refugees and offer perspectives, rather than making them return,″ write authors of the brief Katja Mielke and Elke Grawert

A sea of bureaucracy

After spending three months in a so-called clearing house, Emdad finally landed in the care of Recktenwald and his colleagues. The educator says that he has lost track of how many times he has tried to secure asylum for the young man. He says that he has two very thick binders full of letters written to the authorities. All to no avail. Emdad does not have an Afghan passport, he never had one. The consulate general of Afghanistan in Bonn refuses to issue him with one since his nationality cannot be definitively established.

Recktenwald is pinning his hopes on paragraph 25a of Germany's residency law. According to the statute, a foreign youth can be granted residency if his or her stay has been tolerated by German authorities for four years, they have attended school, or have attained a recognised school or vocational degree and are under the age of 21 when they submit their application. Further, it should "appear guaranteed" that the applicant has integrated into German society and "freely accepts the basic democratic order of the Federal Republic of Germany."

Emdad's colleagues at the Technical Relief Agency are convinced that he fulfils all of those requirements. Peter Recktenwald is as well. "We want to show the authorities everything that he has done to establish himself in Germany. We want to emphasise all of his activities – especially those at the THW – as proof that it is high time that he be granted asylum. He has earned it." Emdad stands next to the educator and listens to what he is saying. He smiles again. Appreciative, but, at the same time, apprehensive.

Esther Felden

© Deutsche Welle 2016

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