Recklinghausen, Germany – The phone call came out of the blue one day last summer, recalls Naser Alameen. The Syrian was on his way home when a voice asked: “Do you want to be relocated?”
For two years, the 52-year-old man and his family had been living between the highway and the sea on a farm south of Beirut, Lebanon. After they were forced to flee their war-torn village near Idlib in Syria, a Lebanese farmer gave them shelter in a small, one room stone shack in the middle of his banana plantation.
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Together they numbered 20 people, including Alameen, his wife and five of their children, brother-in-law and family, along with neighbours and their relatives from Syria.
“Why not?” he replied to the woman from UNHCR on the other end of the phone. “Anything is better than this.”
The Alameens were among 20,000 people selected to take part in a resettlement programme for Syrian refugees in Germany, a joint initiative between the United Nations and the German government.
“We target the most vulnerable of the registered refugees,” Audrey Bernard, from the UNHCR office in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
Every day, Bernard and her team screen a database of 1.2 million names and choose potential cases matching situations provided by countries willing to take in refugees.
Chance at new life
“They had the flexibility and the legislation allowing admission of asylum seekers in their territory faster than standard resettlement procedures,” said Bernard, commenting on the Alameens’ fit with Germany.
The European country was the first to allow certain Syrians registered in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt to move there without a protracted asylum application procedure.
About half of all those selected have successfully arrived in the Federal Republic of Germany, where they have a chance to integrate and build a new life.
Thomas Langwald from the German Office for Migration and Refugees explained the programme, which costs the state about $14m, specifically targets families that “cannot return to Syria” and would have difficulty settling in the country they first fled to.
Every candidate has to undergo numerous interviews, collective and individual, as well as medical check-ups. Every file is thoroughly vetted by both United Nations and German authorities.
“We have to make sure the people have no criminal record or ties to terrorist organisations,” explained Langwald.
The Alameens were approved in March 2015. A month later they boarded a chartered plane in Beirut and left the Middle East.
Everything was different in Germany – the bread, the language, the opening hours of the supermarket, recalled Alameen, sitting in the room the family shares in their temporary shelter.
At a transit camp in Friedland village, the family discovered the deep culture differences that set them apart from the locals.
“We miss Syria,” said Hend, Alameen’s wife. “Suddenly it is so far away.”
The resettlement programme tries to buffer the culture shock.
Upon arrival, they are granted temporary residence for two years. They get work permits and receive social grants and free healthcare. Relocated Syrians get free German integration classes to learn the language and culture.
The asylum system, however, is becoming overwhelmed in Germany.
The thousands of undocumented refugees arriving in Europe every day can only dream of the benefits afforded families such as the Alameens, who are unofficially known as “first class refugees”.
Asylum applications for those arriving in Germany through other means can take months to be processed, which means months of uncertainty as they are unable to work, live in overcrowded hostels with no privacy, and realise the low chance of having their applications approved.
In the first seven months of 2015, Germany received 195,000 asylum applications. That’s more than twice as many as the same period of 2014, when it received 80,000. One-fifth of the applicants – nearly 42,100 – are from Syria.
According to the interior ministry, Germany received 140,000 refugees from Syria since the conflict started in 2011. “We are reaching our limits,” said Langwald.
That’s one of the reasons why Germany has not submitted a fourth relocation pledge to the UN. “We are hoping for a pan-European solution, which Germany will then be part of,” Langwald said.
While the resettlement programme is meticulously organised, municipalities are struggling to cope with the influx of newcomers. Sports venues and old warehouses have been transformed into temporary residences.
“Yalla, show what you’ve learned,” Naser Alameen told his youngest daughter, Amina. The young girl timidly recited the alphabet and numbers, up to 20, in German.
The family was allocated a home for free in Recklinghausen, a town in the former coal region in the west of Germany. It has three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Volunteers gave them two sofas.
Many refugees, such as the Alameens, would be without furniture if it weren’t for local support.
“Without the voluntary refugee organisations it wouldn’t work,” said Esther Aderholz, a German official.
The Alameens get free healthcare, the children are learning German at a nearby school, and they’ve discovered a Turkish supermarket where they can buy Middle Eastern food – including Lebanese bread and Arabic yogurt – which makes them feel more at home.
Naser Alameen still finds the language barrier challenging, expressing frustration that he cannot communicate while running simple errands.
But the family has found support in fellow refugees and neighbours who are happy to accompany the Alameens and translate.
Yet, Naser and Hend Alameen haven’t been able to leave their old life behind completely.
They worry for their relatives in Syria and Lebanon. Their eldest son was killed in Turkey last year. Their second son, who also lived in Turkey, is facing problems after attempting to return to Syria.
“He has changed, we don’t know what happened. His friend was killed, he is living on the streets,” Hend said as tears rolled down her face. “My heart cannot rest until he is safe.”