So no one told you life was gonna be this way....

Just over a year ago an English teacher from Aleppo moved in with us and our lives changed forever

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My housemate has been binge-watching Friends non-stop every afternoon after his German class for the past week. "I did this in the last days I was in Aleppo to distract myself too“. This time the reason for distraction isn’t that bombs are falling all around us (thank goodness!), but something perhaps just as deadly – a letter from the immigration authority with an invitation to his long awaited asylum interview.

He has waited 18 months for this letter, during which time the German asylum laws have changed many times, each time introducing more and more restrictions that will negatively impact him and all the hundreds of thousands of other people who have arrived in Germany in the past few years seeking a safe place to stay.

"I am trying not to think about the fact that this one meeting will effect the rest of my life“. No pressure then. We sit together making a plan of action and once that‘s done I tell him we can chill out now. Hmm. Easier said than done when you haven’t seen your wife or child for 20 months and the pain of separation is tearing you apart on a daily basis.

On top of not knowing how or when he will ever see his family again, he is worried he will be deported to a camp in Turkey, or even worse – be sent to Switzerland! He retreats back to the sofa to watch the next episode (with the evil orthodontist) and I try to make sense of it all.

On one hand I have never been so happy, we always hoped to become a family of three (or four!), but it didn’t quite work out in the way I imagined. No nappies to change and I now have two men to cook for me and look out for me, actually I really lucked out. I am happy to feel useful helping out on a daily basis not just by providing a roof over someone’s head (the alternative to our guest room is sharing a gymnasium with 80 others) but also helping with the never-ending admin requirements for living in Germany.

My-oh-my does that get boring, it wouldn’t be quite so bad if the Germans who seem to love paperwork so much were the slightest bit good at it! But we can manage all that, with a big bit of effort. What is more difficult (difficult is a slight understatement), is watching the news together. In the past, war zones were far away places causing death and destruction to far away strangers. Of course it was still terribly sad. But now ALEPPO IS IN OUR LIVING ROOM.

His city and his people are being destroyed on a daily basis and we can just watch. Together. Thankfully the remaining few members of his family still in Aleppo managed to leave the city just a few weeks ago because the other day a bomb dropped near their flat destroying the roof. But they only have a temporary visa to stay with other family in a neighbouring country and they can’t afford the living expenses there, so they will have to go back to Aleppo in two months.

Who on earth would go there right now unless they have no choice? This and a million other things he has to worry about puts any problems I have into perspective. Despite all this, he always remains sensible, caring, considerate and very funny.

A few hours after the recent 3rd birthday party of his son, celebrated via Skype (of course) I have to admit he was not his usual upbeat self. This was the second birthday they have spent apart. I will never forget him standing in our kitchen with his eyes closed with his hands held up imagining he is holding his beautiful son "I just want to see him for a minute, to kiss his tiny feet. And to hold my wife in my arms, even for a moment.“. This guy is so in love with his family and I am just a helpless bystander, watching the wounds grow deeper everyday.

So how did they get into this situation? The three of them left their bomb-damaged home in Aleppo to search for a safe place to live, with dad going ahead to make the dangerous journey alone and request safe passage for his family as soon as possible, as many of our other friends have successfully done.

Some people ask him why they didn’t make the journey together but that would have been a death sentence because his boat sank and two people drowned. He swam for hours in the cold sea, determined to live so he could see his wife and child again. Had he been swimming with his baby they would not have stood a chance.

Despite all this, they consider themselves lucky and count their blessings. And they never give up. "We never give up – we are a team." We all have low moments from time to time but when one is down the others rally around. Every week we hatch new plans and try something new – our friends have been helping too, in so many different ways.

Actually it is thanks to millions of ordinary people that go out of their way every day to do whatever they can to help as many people as they can. Knowing this has made me fall back in love with Germany. Our faith in humanity has been revived and we know that humans are resilient, amazing and beautiful beings. Love will prevail. And in the words of my housemate, "we will keep building bridges between humans, they will get knocked down, but we will just keep building and keep building...“. In response I recite to him to the famous words of some modern poet:

I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)

Katie Griggs

Manager, Home for Refugees in Berlin

Working life began aged 14 in a local pub kitchen on Saturdays followed by a position as waitress at Pizza Hut one year later. Part-time work (WHSmiths, Somerfield, HSBC) continued throughout A'levels and University before landing a full-time position at Richard Branson's newly launched Virgin Finance company in Norwich. A few years later London was calling: a job in marketing at Sky TV awaited. After another few years there, it was time to move away from corporate life so the Amex-card, the car, the phone and laptop were exchanged for a bicycle and second-hand computer. Ten years of self-employed work followed - in London and Berlin with a portfolio of clients in organisations with a social, cultural and environmental focus including Greenpeace, an electric car company and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Then in 2015, 100,000 refugees arrived in Berlin requiring all-hands-on-deck. That included working in several huge emergency camps, hosting refugees at home and setting up Cycling Lessons for Ladies: providing cycling tuition for women refugees in the milder months and in the Winter preparing food together for homeless people at an emergency shelter. So far over 14,000 meals have been prepared as a team. In 2017, a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 41 meant there was even more to learn about life (and also time to launch a fundraising initiative "Cancer Care for Aleppo"). Returned to work at Friends of the Earth, as a project manager of environmental projects designed by refugees to finish that project. October 2018 started working for Berlin government managing a home for refugees.


Go to the profile of Ellen Tout
almost 5 years ago
Love your posts Katie, so moving.