It was bombs that caused a young Iraqi to lose his home. It was an earthquake in the case of a Chinese teenager who is now no longer certain where he belongs. It was war in the case of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone who is plagued by recurrent nightmares.
This is the story of three boys who made it to Germany on their own in a physical sense but in many ways took longer to get here in mental and emotional terms.
Ibrahim*, 16, flew to Germany from Sierra Leone, armed with a fake passport. Jihua, 14, came by ship -- a trip that took several weeks to complete and took him from his former home in China to a country he knew absolutely nothing about. Hassan, 15, from Iraq, was brought here in a truck by a band of human traffickers.
When Hassan finally arrived on German soil, he didn't know whether his long and arduous journey would end in vain. He remembers being awakened at night by a sharp jab in the ribs. The smugglers shooed their human cargo off the bed of the truck they had used to transport them. Hassan and the other refugees in his group were left standing in the dark. The steady rattle of the truck's diesel engine, a sound that had been pounded into their heads for days, gradually faded away in the distance. All Hassan knew was that he was somewhere in a forest in Germany. It was night, it was cold, and he had no choice but to wait there until it was light enough to continue his journey.
At dawn he and the other refugees made their way to a train station. He got on a train and rode it for two hours before the police came and asked for his papers. He didn't have any.
Last year, the number of refugees below the age of 18 who came to Germany rose. The majority of these unaccompanied minors came from Iraq, but there are also others from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea and Afghanistan. No one can say for sure how many of these young refugees are currently living here, but refugee organizations estimate the number at somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, including both legal and illegal arrivals.
Hassan ended up in a suburb of Munich, in a receiving center for child refugees where he was placed together with boys and girls from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, China and a number of fellow Iraqis, the youngest of them just 10 years old.
Three months later, he is sitting here on the blue couch at Chevalier House, the home he is staying in together with a group of 11 youths who were brought together randomly by the vicissitudes of global refugee flows and others who were sent by their parents to find a better life in this far-away country.
One day, while still living in northern Iraq, Hassan was taken aside by his father, who told him he had something important to discuss. His tone of voice was serious. He said: "You're my eldest son. You have to get out of here. There's no work, only fear. You are going to leave Iraq." His father didn't ask him for his opinion. He gave him a clear order, and disobeying was out of the question.
Hassan is tall and slender. Under his cap he wears his hair in a carefully gelled fauxhawk -- like the one David Beckham used to sport.
"Could you please translate so that the newcomers will understand what I just said," a worker at the home asks him. Hassan pulls the bill of his baseball cap to one side, leans forward and begins to formulate the rules of this new and unfamiliar world in the more familiar sounds of the Kurdish language. The staff worker wants to remind them to adhere to the home's rules about separating trash. The Kurdish kids look at each other a bit perplexed, but recycling is a part of everyday life in Germany they will have to get used to.
Hassan's father had instructed him to "learn German and work hard." The hopes of an entire family now rested on Hassan's shoulders, a family whose existence was threatened in their homeland. Hassan was sent here with a mission to fulfill.
Fourteen-year-old Jihua, for his part, isn't quite sure why he is in Germany. While the Iraqis play pool and chat inside, the Chinese boy prefers to stand outside in front of a glass door.
"The Iraqis are pretty noisy," Jihua says, shrugging his shoulders. A quiet kid, Jihua smiles when he says something and tends to look away shyly when spoken to.
The first impressions he had when he arrived in Germany over three months ago were a bit frightening. The country was full of people who were either white or black, he recalls. They were very big, had long noses, spoke loudly, and what they said sounded threatening. Even worse for him was the fact that the moment he arrived here he was no longer able to communicate verbally with others.
In the first few weeks he slept a lot. After all, sleep meant not having to talk to anyone. Why, he asked himself, should he get up? For who? And for what?
One time he was sitting with the others, watching a live television broadcast of the Olympic Games from Beijing. The other boys in the home marveled at the colorful robes and cheerful people. "China is great," they said. "Why in the world did you come here?"
Jihua's story is confusing and tragic. But in contrast to that of most other refugees, it is not based on war, poverty or persecution. It is a tale of being caught in the maelstrom caused by a natural disaster and of a refugee flow that swept him up and carried him to Germany.
Like Hassan, he has been placed at Chevalier House. In the course of the average period of six months that these young people are kept here the facts behind their individual cases are examined and an application filed for asylum or at least for a temporary residency permit to allow them to stay. They are also provided with medical examinations. Some need treatment for intestinal parasites or tuberculosis. And, in the past, some have even tested HIV positive. Social workers are here to provide support for these youth, and they are given German language lessons starting the first day.
Young people under the age of 18 have a legal right to be cared for and provided with support in Germany. Ideally, this would be provided by an institution like Chevalier House, one of eight receiving centers for child refugees in Germany. Those who are 18 or older are sent to receiving centers for adult asylum seekers and are left to their own devices in dealing with their asylum applications.
Ibrahim, the boy from Sierra Leone, claims to be 16, but the authorities don't believe him. He says he is plagued day and night by memories of the war and the victims he saw, victims of his own actions. His cheeks are hollow, his eyes directed towards the ground, his shoulders slumped. Ibrahim is present physically but not mentally.
He sits on his bed, wrapped in a thick jacket, slouching with his face buried in his hands. He has taken wool blankets, stuffed their edges under the mattress in the bunk above him so that they hang down and form a kind of tent he can withdraw into in the room he has been assigned to at the receiving center for adult asylum seekers in Munich. The room is filled with three bunk beds, six metal lockers, scribbled-on walls, a table and chairs. On the door there is a picture of the German national soccer team, an image of one of the country's more positive aspects. Out in the corridor beyond the door there is a pervasive odor of stale urine. There's trash in the stairwell.
"This boy is crying all the time, it's a pity," says one of his roommates. At night, he says, Ibrahim gets out of bed, sits at the table, and sobs incessantly, and that this has been going on for months now. It has gotten to the point, he says, that the others in the room want to grab him and give him a good shaking to make him come to his senses.
He says Ibrahim is struggling with the memories he has of his parents, his sister and his homeland, Sierra Leone. But first and foremost he is having to cope with memories of hands getting chopped off. Memories of a woman and her child, and memories of the weapon he carried in his hand.
He is also struggling to deal with the officials at the foreign resident registration office who don't believe that he is 16 years old.
A Childhood Stolen
He has a backpack that always stays on his back, even when he is sitting down. In it he carries a sheaf of personal documents. "Ausweis," he says in German, pointing his bony index finger at two slips of paper. "Ausweis," or identification, was the first German word he learned.
The first document, issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, officially recognizes him as having been a refugee in Guinea. The other document, a residence permit, was issued by the Guinean Interior Ministry in 2002. The information given in these two documents is consistent with his assertion that he is 16. However, foreign resident registration officials have thus far refused to believe this, saying that the documents could have been forged.
Two of the officials took a closer look at him in a procedure referred to in legal jargon as an "eyeball inspection" and decided that in their view he was 18 or older. As a consequence of their decision he must go through asylum proceedings on his own, live in a mass accommodation facility for adult asylum seekers -- and all of this without getting any assistance in dealing with the situation.
The methods the authorities use to try to determine a refugee's age are controversial. Children's rights organizations claim that in most instances when the authorities try to guess the age of the youth in question, they settle on a number higher than that which the young person has provided. Consequently, support has been denied in numerous cases simply because the young people in question were declared to be 18 or older and thus legally no longer minors.
Ibrahim takes his hands away from his face and looks up. Albert has come into the room. As far as Ibrahim is concerned, Albert is one of the best things that has happened to him since coming to Germany, running a close second to the absence of war. Albert Riedelsheimer works for the Catholic youth welfare organization and for two weeks now has been Ibrahim's legal guardian. Riedelsheimer is 42, has worked for 17 years as a guardian for child refugees, has written a number of books on the subject and knows the relevant sections of asylum law by heart. "Ibrahim needs someone who can help him, who can be there for him, who can listen to him," Riedelsheimer says. "He needs to be taken out of this environment as quickly as possible."
In Riedelsheimer's view, as long as there is no proof that Ibrahim's documents were faked he should be given the benefit of the doubt and the age he has given should be accepted as truth.
Ibrahim's situation is symptomatic of some of the things Riedelsheimer sees as being out of kilter in the German system and which -- working together with child rights organizations and related policy experts -- he is striving to correct. These undesirable circumstances came under fire from the European Commission a year-and-a-half ago. The EU executive body pointed out that Germany, Portugal, and Sweden are the only EU countries in which unaccompanied refugees between the ages of 16 and 18 are frequently placed in housing facilities for adult asylum seekers rather than children's homes or foster families.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bestows the same rights upon unaccompanied refugee children as it does on orphan children who are citizens of the receiving country, is not fully observed in Germany. Indeed, Amnesty International holds the view that refugees here under the age of 18 are often treated like second-class citizens.
But that's not the case at Munich's Chevalier House. Here refugee children are put through an active program of teaching in which they learn all about the country they have come to. Hassan, the boy from Iraq, sits with the others in his group in their classroom. Outside, a fog bank has pushed up against the windows. To these boys Germany had until recently seemed something like a fairy tale, a far-away kingdom where peace and prosperity prevail.
"Hassan, we don't say 'Finger kaput', that's the way foreigners speak German, that's not the way we talk here," the teacher says.
Hassan corrects himself: "Yeah, I know, you're supposed to say 'My finger hurts'." Having already worked his way through 11 lessons, he's ahead of everyone else in his class. Some of the others are still working on lesson four. Many of them didn't even know how to read and write before they came to Germany.
On Saturday, Hassan will speak to his parents again by phone. He will be able to report to them that he is making good progress in learning German and that they have every reason to be satisfied with him.
Germany. The word always had positive connotations in Hassan's village near Mosul in Iraq. The people there spoke with admiration of one of their own, a young man who went to Germany, studied, earned a doctoral degree and managed to accumulate a certain amount of wealth. The man in question is one of Hassan's uncles and lives in Dortmund.
The more insecure their region became, the more the people of the village tended to talk about this man. "We were always afraid. When we left the house to go somewhere we were afraid that we wouldn't make it back alive and when we came back we were afraid we would find the house destroyed and everyone dead," Hassan says. His family are Yazidi, members of an ancient monotheistic religion whose roots precede Islam. The Islamists regularly persecute the Yazidi.
Hassan's father was a taxi driver. He sold his taxi for $7,500 and used the money to pay the smugglers for his son's passage to Germany. He saw this as in investment in the future, with the hope being that his son would eventually make good and be able to send money back home to his family.
Hassan is not very willing to talk about the details of his trip from northern Iraq to Germany. Perhaps the traffickers threatened him to keep him quiet. At any rate he is unable to say how long he and the others who were with him remained huddled together in the back of the truck. All he was able to bring with him was a plastic bag with a sweater, t-shirts, and an extra pair of pants. In his pants pocket he had a slip of paper with the address of his uncle in Dortmund written on it, his ticket to a new life in Germany.
The first few days, he says, looking to one side in embarrassment, he just laid in bed and cried. The children and young people who come here are faced with the task of getting used to the country that is going to be their new home and, at the same time, coming to terms with the fact that they have lost their former homeland.
Jihua stares at the floor as he tells his story. Sometimes he gets the order of events mixed up a bit. It's difficult to sort out all the things that happened, to put the horror in a sequence.
Jihua's former life ended on May 12, 2008 at 2:28 p.m. He was at school in Wenchuan, where he was in the 8th grade. He had been looking forward to the end of the school day. He had planned to play ping pong with his friends. Then the building began to shake. They all ran out into the open. Within a very short period of time the world around them was reduced to rubble. Whole towns and villages, whole streets, and whole factory complexes were flattened. More than 80,000 people were killed and some 370,000 were injured. Jihua's parents, both factory workers, were among the dead.
In the confusion that reigned after the earthquake, he says, friends took him in and promised they would get him out of the disaster area. But he had no idea the journey was going to take him outside of China.
He traveled twice by ship and spent a month at sea. The only things he was offered to eat or drink were bread and water. He said the smugglers had used him as a guinea pig. Every time they came to a border he was the one they would send across first to see if the coast was clear. Eventually he ended up in Munich.
Now he's sitting here on a bench and asking himself whether China will continue to be his homeland or whether the time has come for him to open up to the idea of accepting Germany as his new home. He cried when the other kids at Chevalier House told him he was going to be deported because he doesn't have a passport. He went to the counselors and asked them to send him away as soon as possible, before he had a chance to get accustomed to life in Germany.
Ibrahim, the former child soldier, sees in the foreign resident registration office an administrative authority that is doing everything it can to get him out of the country again. It is difficult to get it across to him that the officials there are not his enemies and that he needs to work with them.
Ibrahim was born in the midst of a civil war, and he was seven years old when his childhood was stolen from him. It was 1999. He and his father, his mother, and his 14-year-old sister were fleeing from the fighting when they were kidnapped by rebels. His mother was shot immediately.
Ibrahim speaks in a monotone, with no expression in his face that would reveal what he is feeling as he relates these horrors. They were taken to a rebel camp. There was very little to eat and hardly any water. "If you want to eat then you're going to have to shoot," the rebels told him.
Prisoners were brought into the camp a couple of times a week. They would be lined up in a row and their arms tied to a log. He was ordered to ask them if they wanted a "short sleeve" or a "long sleeve". Then he would take a machete and either cut off their hand or a longer section their arm. With children this was fairly easy. With adults he sometimes had to apply the machete more than once.
It is memories like this that haunt him like evil spirits, he says.
He lived in the rebel camp for a year. His father was killed in the fighting. When one of the rebels got his sister pregnant the two of them were released. They moved from one refugee camp to the next, always on the run in a constant effort to get away from the rebels. They made it to Guinea where his sister had a miscarriage. She died soon afterwards. Ibrahim has a photo of her in his backpack. It shows a woman lying in a hospital bed and a doctor standing beside her. You can see in the woman's face that she is in pain and making a great effort to smile.
Culture Shock in Munich
In his story Ibrahim talks about a diamond that his sister gave him and the man who helped him get to Germany in exchange for it, by getting him a forged passport and an airplane ticket. Ibrahim says he can't remember most of the details. Many child refugees are afraid to speak openly about what they experienced for fear of being deported.
Riedelsheimer hopes to secure a residence permit for Ibrahim. Over half of the unaccompanied refugees under the age of 18 are given a time-limited residence permit. The others are granted temporary asylum for a period of six months but with the possibility of having this period extended. Very few of them are deported.
Four months have gone by and Ibrahim has to go back to the foreign resident registration office. He takes the relevant papers out of his backpack and lays them out on the linoleum-covered floor, his documents from Guinea and other papers from Germany with bureaucratic-sounding headings on them like "Instructions regarding your obligation to cooperate with the responsible authorities in connection with your application for asylum" or "Instructions with regard to the storage of your fingerprints". Ibrahim is unable to understand what is written on these papers, but this fact fails to make any impression at all on the man at the local government registration authority.
An interpreter translates for Ibrahim into Krio, his native tongue. Ibrahim stares out the window into the fog. Riedelsheimer says he has never before seen such a traumatized young refugee and that this is the most difficult case he has ever had to deal with.
Two months later Ibrahim's case has still not been decided.
Ibrahim, Hassan, and Jihua have been in Germany for six months now. Hassan and Jihua, who continue to live at Chevalier House, often go into the city together. Once they even went to the circus.
Jihua has become more outgoing and laughs a lot. He is holding a nine-month-old baby on his lap that belongs to a young woman who is also staying in the home. He tickles the child and makes it laugh. Another girl, from Vietnam, sits down next to him. He tells her in broken German about an experience he had two months ago. He had gone into a Chinese grocery store because he wanted to talk to someone who spoke his language. He greeted the Asian woman behind the counter.
"Nihao," he said.
"Sorry, I don't come from China. I'm from Vietnam," she replied.
He says he is no longer very homesick for China. There is no one there he could go home to anyway. He has an appointment soon with the child welfare office and will probably be transferred to a group living facility.
Hassan has already had an appointment to discuss his future. He wears his hair a little longer in the back now, and his jacket has "US Air Force" written across it in big letters. He won't be going to Dortmund to live with his uncle as his father wanted. He has been given a room in a group facility in Munich and is happy to be living there. One reason is that he has been reunited with two friends from a neighboring Kurdish village in Iraq.
His teacher told him that he will soon be able to start attending secondary school. When he finishes, he wants to go into training to become a barber or hairdresser so that he can start sending money back to his family.
Ibrahim is standing in a well-lit room. It's been almost three months now since he moved out of his bunk bed tent at the adult receiving center. He is in a group living facility now, together with nine other young people his age -- most of them Germans. He no longer looks down all the time. It's as if he wants to see and absorb everything that's going on around him. He speaks fairly good German, is eager to learn and asks the most questions in the German course offered for young refugees.
He excuses himself for the untidiness in his room, the first place he has ever been able to call his own. He doesn't have many possessions. On his desk, he has a toy horse made of plastic. He says he found it in the garbage, adding that in Germany people throw away so much stuff that is still good.
At Christmas Albert Riedelsheimer sent him a picture -- a group photo taken last fall of the kids who were in his care, including a rather downcast-looking Ibrahim. A girl living in the facility comes into the room and Ibrahim hides the photo behind his back. Yes, he'll be glad to come down and help her cook dinner. He'll be there in a few minutes.
When the girl has left he shows me the photo. "Oh, my God, I looked like I was about to die," he says.
There are professional staff at his facility who comfort him at night when he cries after having nightmares. He's not having bad dreams as often as he used to, he says. He's soon going to start therapy to help him deal with his dreams.
Ibrahim is going to be able to stay in Germany for the time being.
He spoons the last bit of coffee out of his cup and confides that during the past several months he had always carried a pocketknife with him in his jacket. He say he would have tried to kill himself rather than get deported back to Sierra Leone.
* The names of the refugees referred to here have been changed to protect their identities.