Exactly 100 days after Ayad Mohammed left his native Iraq to begin a better life in Germany, he packs his backpack in a refugee hostel in a forested area of the Swabian Jura mountains in southern Germany and begins his journey back home.
His hostel is on a hill, surrounded by spruce and beech trees. The air smells like moss, and if you're quiet you can hear the goldfinches warbling. The only thing Mohammed is thinking about is that he wants to get out of there.
Three days later, he sits in a travel agency in a shopping arcade in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. The agency specializes in flights to the Kurdistan region. The bill for a direct flight from Berlin's Tegel Airport to Erbil, Iraq, is in his pocket -- a letter-sized piece of paper, with the letterhead of Iraqi Airways, which represents the end of a dream.
Mohammed is a thin 27-year-old man with sad black eyes. He's not a criminal who came to Germany to abuse women, nor an electrical engineer waiting to launch his first startup. He's a normal man, a refugee in Germany. This is his story.
"I had such hopes for (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel." He pronounces the chancellor's name like the English word "angel."
The Germany he experienced in his 100 days, says Mohammed, had an average temperature of just above zero degrees Celsius (32°F), with frequently drizzly weather and no leaves on the trees. All in all, he thought it was an attractive country. The Germans he encountered in the streets smiled, he says. He saw blonde hair for the first time, and concluded that German women are very athletic. He never heard the abbreviation AfD -- three letters that stand for Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigration political party.
He didn't have a single personal conversation with a German during those 100 days. When he did speak with Germans, they were police officers, volunteers or doctors, and the conversations revolved around his residency status, his spending money or the bullet wound in his stomach. An ambulance driver wanted to have a conversation with him once, but there was no interpreter nearby, so the two men merely smiled at each other.
Since September of last year, about 2,000 Iraqi refugees like Mohammed have voluntarily returned home from Germany. The people who return to Iraq believe that they can live a better life there than in Germany, despite the fact that their home country is partly controlled by the Islamic State (IS), by Kurds and by chaos. They voluntarily return to a country where police officers can torture people, where there are constant power outages, where homosexuals are murdered, where some men treat their wives like animals and where the per-capita income is a seventh of that in Germany.
The Iraqi refugees in the travel agencies, at Tegel Airport in Berlin or at the main office of Iraqi Airways in Frankfurt, cite various reasons for wanting to leave Germany.
One says: "Our baby is sick and is going to die. If it dies, I want it to die in Iraq."
One says: "The Syrians are always given preference. I've already been waiting half a year. I've simply run out of patience."
One says: "My father was shot in the shoulder."
One says: "In Iraq, they wouldn't even feed this food to a donkey."
One says: "The Germans don't do enough for us."
The German food doesn't bother Mohammed. He hardly eats anything, anyway, because his digestive system hasn't functioned properly for the past two years. That's when he got his two round scars: The left side of his stomach was punctured by a bullet from an IS fighter's Kalashnikov. It passed through his stomach, damaged his intestines and a few nerves, and emerged from his back, creating a larger hole and a second scar.
Mohammed says that he volunteered to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga in the summer of 2014, because he wanted to stop IS fighters who had advanced to a position 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the border of his hometown of Dohuk, in the northern part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. He learned to shoot and was stationed at a Peshmerga outpost. The attackers came on a rainy night. After being hit, Mohammed crawled through the mud on his elbows for three hours. He woke up in a hospital the next morning.
He has hardly had any sensation in his feet since then, and he needs laxatives to digest food. When doctors in Erbil told him they couldn't help him, his family collected money to send him to specialists in Iran. When they said they could do nothing for him, the family flew him to India, where doctors operated on him. The operation only made the numb sensation in his feet worse.
After that, the Kurdish doctors who had been unable to improve his condition said that if anyone could help him now, it would be German doctors. They claimed German medical professionals were the best in the world.
Mohammed saw a televised speech by Angela Merkel, and believed, because of the translation, that she claimed that anyone who had fought against IS was welcome in Germany. He saw postings by friends on Facebook claiming that refugees in Germany received money and apartments. He fantasized about watching FC Bayern Munich play a soccer match in the Allianz Arena.
Aside from his injury, he liked his life in Iraq. He played soccer with his friends, on artificial turf in an indoor facility, he lived in his parents' house, where he felt comfortable and the food was good, and he drank sweet tea in downtown Erbil, where he felt safe because he believed that the IS fighters would never get there. He wasn't living in a war zone. He was living in a city of half a million people, where there were parks and a football club that played in the top Iraqi league. Still, he believed that things might be better in Germany.
There is a flight from Erbil to Berlin every Wednesday, but that route was closed to Mohammed because the airline would not have sold him a ticket without a German visa. In theory, he could have applied for a visa for "cases requiring urgent medical treatment" immediately after he was shot, but he would have had to pay for the cost of the treatment himself. He decided to find a different way.
He saved the money he had earned driving a taxi, and together with money his parents had borrowed from friends, they had enough to pay a smuggler $2,000 (€1,840). He put his X-ray images into a yellow plastic bag, stuffed three pairs of socks, three warm sweaters and a change of underwear into a backpack, and a few days later was sitting in a black rubber dinghy in the Aegean Sea. When the engine failed and the boat was rocking heavily in the waves, says Mohammed, who is not religious, he spoke what he believed would be his last words: "I bear witness that there is no other god but Allah." Then a Greek coast guard vessel appeared, and after a 15-day trip, Mohammed arrived in Germany.
He became one of the 1.1 million refugees who were registered in Germany last year. About half were from Syria, a war zone, and 154,046 came from Afghanistan and 121,662 from Iraq, two countries that are dangerous but not consumed by war. Some would argue that the two latter are refugees entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention, while others would claim that they are immigrants who can be deported.
Mohammed ended up in a refugee intake center in Heidelberg, which he liked. He watched a Carnival parade in the city, which he thought was fantastic, even though he had no idea what the people were doing. Then he was transferred to the hostel in the forest near the town of Amstetten in the Swabian Jura, a building in an area that once served as a materials depot for the German military. The camp looked similar to what one would imagine Area 51, the American restricted military zone in the middle of the Nevada desert, was like. It consisted of large buildings and a concrete open space and was so remote that when you shouted, no one could hear you. The nearest town was far away. Mohammed only sometimes saw social workers at the camp.
To pass the time, he slept a lot. Sometimes he went to the supermarket in the nearest village to buy something. He stayed in touch with his siblings and friends back in Kurdistan. His mobile phone was his life.
Frustrated in Germany
He went to see two German doctors, who looked at his X-rays and told him that his injuries were old and therefore difficult to treat. Mohammed doesn't know if the doctors were specialists or general practitioners. He simply went to see the doctors who were treating the other refugees. He took no steps to find a doctor who specialized in his type of injury. He says that it was difficult to gain a foothold in Germany, and that he had hoped that the Germans would help him without being asked.
"I am disappointed by Angela Merkel," says Mohammed. "I needed an operation, and I thought that I would get work. I wanted to work, but I couldn't get a job."
He had worked as a taxi driver in Iraq. He knew that he would have to speak at least some German to work as a taxi driver in Germany, but he only attended the refugee hostel's weekly language lessons four times.
Mohammed's German language skills are limited to the following phrases: "What is your name?," "I love you," "Thank you" and "Bye." When asked why he didn't attend the German lessons more often, he replies that he didn't want to. "I didn't have a friend to go with me," he adds.
He says that he could have imagined serving as a soldier in the German army, the Bundeswehr. But in Kurdistan he had only learned how to use the AK-47, a weapon that no one in the Bundeswehr uses. Besides, only German citizens can serve in the Bundeswehr. Mohammed didn't know that, either.
Even the most charitable of observers would find it difficult to describe how a man like Mohammed could have enriched German society, a quiet man who doesn't speak German and has no plan or qualifications.
He decided to return to Iraq with a Kurdish friend named Osman, whose wife recently had a stroke and who has the first letters of the names of his children tattooed on the fingers of his left hand: ASRL.
Mohammed and Osman were sitting in the refugee hostel in southern Germany when Mohammed said: "I can't stand it anymore. I want to go home." Osman said: "I'm coming with you."
The two men decide to take a walk in Berlin, shortly before their flight home. Osman says he doesn't want to leave Germany without being able to say that he has seen the country. On a cold day, they walk aimlessly through the Kreuzberg neighborhood, smoking and saying nothing. After a while, they enter Görlitzer Park, where the grass is brown and people are leaning against the fences, selling drugs. A few drug addicts are walking around, and there is dog excrement on the ground. If there is a park in hell, it must look like this.
Mohammed is wearing long tights under his jeans and two jackets, but he's still cold. He sits down on a bench and asks Osman to take a picture of him, so that he can show the people at home what he was running away from.
When he returns to the travel agency to pick up his backpack, he encounters a man wearing a stocking cap, who introduces himself as "Mr. Satan." His father comes from the same neighborhood as Mohammed, and he invites his fellow compatriot to visit his home. Speaking in Kurmanji, a language spoken by Kurds, he says: "My wife has cooked a meal. You have no excuse to turn me down."
'Germany Is a Safe Country'
Mr. Satan lives in an apartment in the Lichtenberg district of Berlin. His wife has prepared a spicy chicken dish. Mr. Satan says to Mohammed: "You should be patient. Germany is a safe country. You have left so many difficult things behind." He tries to convince Mohammed to stay.
Mr. Satan has lived in Germany for 23 years, but his language skills aren't good enough to have a conversation in German. He is a trained gardener, but he no longer works in his profession. He worked as a day laborer for a while, and now he takes care of an old man. Sometimes his only income is the money he receives from the welfare agency, he says. Even after 23 years in Germany, he has remained a foreigner. Mohammed listens to him, nods, places his hand over his heart when he thanks the man's wife for the meal, and runs his hand through the daughter's hair. "I need this operation," he says.
On the day of the flight home, nine other refugees who are also returning to Iraq are waiting outside the travel agency in Kreuzberg. Mohammed is carrying his backpack on his shoulders. It contains his X-rays, three pairs of socks, three warm sweaters and one pair of underwear. He is flying back with the same items he brought to Germany, with only one addition: two packages of a laxative.
While walking to the subway, Mohammed speaks with another refugee.
"Why are you going back?" Mohammed asks.
"They didn't do anything for me," the other man replies.
"Where are you going?"
"But it's dangerous there."
"But there are reasonable people there."
In his jacket pocket, Mohammed is carrying a document he obtained at the Iraqi Embassy, with the words "Republic of Iraq - One way laissez passé" printed on it. The stamp on the document depicts a map of Iraq with a palm tree in the middle, as if Mohammed's journey were taking him to the Caribbean.
'Germany Probably Does Everything It Can'
The refugees, about 40 young men, check in at the airport. Mohammed has a €5 bill and a 20-cent coin in his pocket -- the last of his money. He received €145 a month in spending money at the refugee hostel, which he saved over time for his ticket home. With the €5, he buys a can of Red Bull and a doughnut, keeping the 20-cent coin in his pocket.
The logo on the aircraft reads AirExplore, and the flight attendants are from Slovakia. For security reasons, Iraqi Airways is not permitted to fly in Germany, and the European Commission has banned the airline from European airspace. The only indication that the flight is in fact chartered by Iraqi Airways is that the airsickness bags in the seatback compartment are from Iraqi Airways.
The plane takes off. Mohammed's last view of Germany is the gray buildings in Berlin, which disappear below the clouds after a few moments. The sun is shining above the clouds. Mohammed closes his eyes.
His journey to Germany took 15 days, was extremely dangerous and cost him $2,000. The return trips costs €295 and takes five hours. The flight attendant, who looks like a model, serves the passengers chicken or lamb.
Mohammed is sitting in seat 16F. He spends almost the entire flight looking out the window, even after the sun has set and it becomes dark outside.
"Germany probably does everything it can for refugees," he says after a while, dangling the seat belt between his fingers.
He mentions again that Chancellor Merkel bears some of the blame for his misfortune, but after a few sentences he adds that he now knows that she never said that people like him should come to Germany. He does say, however, that he hoped she had said that.
"The Germans could do more if there were fewer refugees. They could make quicker decisions on whether to grant refugees residence permits," he says.
He adds that he understands that Germany cannot do everything for everyone. If it were his choice, he explains, he wouldn't give any money to his friend Osman, for example, who only went to Germany to find a better life. Mohammed is beginning to sound like Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria and leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). In recent months, Seehofer has become a vocal critic of Merkel's welcoming refugee policy.
He says he didn't go to Germany because he wanted money -- or at least not only because he wanted money. He went because of his stomach wound. "On behalf of all of Kurdistan, I thank Germany for sending us the Milan rockets, which have destroyed the tanks of Islamic State," he says. "But if I fight your war, why don't you help me when I become injured in that war?"
The flight lands at 10 p.m. local time. When Mohammed enters the security area, he says quietly: "My family, they're all there."
'Don't Be Ashamed, Eat'
His sisters and two of his cousins are waiting for him. One sister cries so much when she embraces him that her entire body is shaking. She keeps stroking his thin hair and saying: "My dear, what has happened to you?" A tear rolls out of Mohammed's right eye. "Call me," he says to Osman, before disappearing into the night.
A cousin drives Mohammed home to Erbil, where the rest of the family is waiting. When his mother sees him, she throws her arms around his neck and becomes so emotional that her legs buckle. His aunt embraces him from behind and repeatedly kisses him on the shoulder. His mother cries and says: "You are welcome. You are welcome to my eyes, to my face and to my head."
She sits next to him on the sofa. She massages his legs, which are beginning to go numb because of his injured nerves. She throws up her hands, keeps erupting into tears and says: "Thank God that you have returned." She kisses him and looks at him. She says: "You have suffered so much. You've become thin. The food is ready." His father, sitting next to him, is holding a flashlight in his hand, in case the power goes out.
One of the women spreads out a plastic tarp on the floor and begins carrying dishes into the room: hummus with pickles, warm bread from the clay oven, skewers of roast ground lamb, chicken soup, bean soup, grilled tomatoes, peppers and a large plate of buttered rice.
In Kurdish society, a guest is given the best piece of meat from the chicken soup, is the first to be served rice and is encouraged to eat more. "Don't be ashamed, eat," his relatives tell him. The women make rolls of Yprax for their guest, a dish of stuffed grape leaves that is difficult to prepare, as a sign of appreciation. It is customary for Kurds to offer their guests a bed for the night and to ask them if they need anything. The welcoming experience is a stark contrast to the burning refugee hostels in the German state of Saxony, a thought that is even more unbearable here than it is in Germany.
Mohammed is home again. He has a pillow in his lap and is supporting his head with one hand, but he doesn't look happy. He looks tired and sick. He wants to work as a taxi driver again and go on picnics with his friends, outside the city where the pomegranates grow. He will have the same life he had before he fled to Germany, aside from the debts that he and his family will now have to repay.
Mohammed doesn't dream of wealth or anything particularly fantastic. He dreams of not losing the sensation in his feet. Should Germany have done more to help him?
Mohammed was wounded because he volunteered to fight at the front. There was no war in his town. "Dohuk is safe," he says. He wasn't fleeing from anything when he arrived in Germany. He didn't arrive there as a refugee, but as someone seeking help, someone who wanted German doctors to operate on him. His hope probably made him blind to reality. Perhaps he would have had his operation if he had stayed in Germany and made more of an effort.
His dream of a better life failed because he did not obtain the necessary information before embarking on his journey, even though it would have been easy to do so in Kurdistan, where people have access to the Internet. His dream of recovering, and of finding work and an apartment in Germany failed because he did not learn to speak German, and because he gave up after 100 days. He returned because he was homesick.
On this evening in Erbil, as sweet tea is being served and the kisses are fading, Mohammed pulls the 20-cent coin that he didn't spend at the airport out of his pocket. He turns it around in his fingers. 20 cents. He kept it, he says, as a memento of Germany.
- • The Hate Preachers: Inside Germany's Dangerous New Populist Party
- • Rolling Up the Welcome Mat: Berlin Moves to Curb Afghan Refugee Influx