Photo Gallery: Two Years in a German Teen Refugee Home

Foto: Ralf Baumgarten / DER SPIEGEL

Hope for a New Beginning Two Years in a German Teen Refugee Home

In recent years, thousands of unaccompanied minors have arrived in Germany hoping to be recognized as refugees. DER SPIEGEL followed eight Afghan teenagers in a group home as they inched their way through the asylum process.

Karim's guardian has gotten in touch. The letter containing the decision on the young man's asylum application has arrived, he says. When will Karim be home? In the afternoon, his counselors say.

It is, for the time being, a day like any other. Karim comes home from school, takes off his shoes, puts on his slippers, boils some rice, cooks some beans and then sits down at a table in the living room, where he eats slowly. He can hear the discussion in the next room between Mr. Sameeian and the others. The counselor is curious to know why hardly any of the boys attended the protests against the deportations of Afghans. "Our protest won't change anything, anyway," Jamil insists vehemently.

When the doorbell rings, Karim is washing the pots in the kitchen. He carefully dries his hands before closing the door behind himself and his legal guardian.

Karim and his fellow residents are the sons of Afghan families -- unaccompanied minor refugees. Like the hundreds of thousands of others who traveled to Europe over the Balkan route, they are all seeking a better life in Germany. They spent months living in tents and emergency shelters. Then it suddenly seemed as though they were getting close to achieving their goal. Since Jan. 20, 2016, they've been living in this brown, single-family home in a trendy part of Düsseldorf. A high school is located around the corner, as are plenty of restaurants, and the forest is just a few steps away. The flat-screen TV perched atop the old tiled stove, the PlayStation, the velvety sofa -- it all seemed so promising.

Saba Sameeian and his colleagues are all there to ensure that things go well for the young men. Mr. Sameeian comes from a Persian family and speaks Farsi and Pashtu, as the boys do. He's one of the five counselors with the nonprofit organization SOS Children's Villages who are living with the refugees in shifts. They accompany the youth on visits to the authorities, they go to their parent-teacher conferences, they console them and reprimand them when needed. It is a part of the most challenging social experiment taking place in Germany right now. If it's this difficult to succeed even with this much hard work and goodwill, how is integration supposed to function in the rest of the country?

But now, Karim is sitting behind the door, and everyone is worried about him.

Special Protection

Unaccompanied minors are provided with more help than other refugees. The German government grants them special protection. Many dive into their new lives with enthusiasm, some become radicalized, many are traumatized, some despair and others become aggressive. All of them, though, are united in the fear that their asylum applications might ultimately be rejected.

In the months that have passed, the boys have dreamed of having a career, perhaps even a girlfriend. They have dreamed of a future. But they have also been living in fear that they might get deported back to Afghanistan. The home is available to the boys for a total of two years. By the time that period has elapsed, they will all be legal adults and decisions will have been made on their asylum applications. Karim agreed to be shadowed during that two-year period for the purposes of this story, along with Ashraf, Abdullah, Jamil and Masoom -- as did those responsible for them at the youth welfare office. Because of the teenagers' concerns that this article might somehow affect their chances of being granted asylum or that they might have trouble back at home because of it at some point in the future, their names have been changed in the text and their photos have been pixilated so that their faces are obscured.

When the experiment in Düsseldorf ends, it will not only have transformed the boys and the people caring for them, but the man who owns the home -- Jörg Haas, a 48-year-old business owner who lives next door and who had bought the property for his own use. But when he saw refugees living in a gymnasium in his city, he decided to turn the building over to SOS Kinderdorf for a nominal rent and to help look after the boys.

"I want to lift at least a couple of refugees out of the masses and give them a chance," he had said. "It really can't be that hard."

'Kissing = Touching Lips'

On an April day in 2016, three months after they moved in, the boys are sitting with pens and notepads in the living room, as they do every day. Their teachers had previously often been religious men who would beat the soles of their feet with their staffs. Now a blonde woman was standing in front of them, here to prepare for everyday life as a teenager in Germany.

She asks whether they know what it means to kiss. "Kiss, kiss," one of them says, smacking his lips. "Kissing = touching lips," the teacher writes on the whiteboard, unmoved. She takes them to a hardware store to learn vocabulary and has organized a speed-dating event for them in one of the weeks to follow. At a recent welcome party at the home, picnic tables were set up in the yard, and close to 40 guests came, with Persian pop and R&B being played into the evening. Jörg Haas, the homeowner, was pleased because neighbors who had previously asked him whether the boys might turn out to be a nuisance to the neighborhood turned up. What was missing, though, were teens that were the same age. Now the goal was for the boys to get to know other youth in the neighborhood.

"We'll practice once more," the teacher calls out. "Ashraf!" Embarrassed, the teen pulls to straighten his shirt before pointing to his chest. "Hello, I'm Ashraf," he says cautiously in German. "And you? Pleased to meet you."

Later at the speed-dating, he has to clear his throat repeatedly, but later proudly says that everyone answered him. At this point in the refugee crisis, nearly two years ago, almost half of all Germans indicate in polls that they are helping refugees. At times, local residents drop clothes off at the house while others donate towels. And, as if trying to return the favor, the boys participate in the local neighborhood trash cleanup day. It is a good start.

'There's a Chance We Also Would Have Died'

In May 2016, Mr. Sameeian calls for the teens to meet in the yard. The smellof lilac lingers over the sunny lawn until Masoom lights up a cigarette. The counselor squats with them in the grass. "This is not OK," he says. "You guys have to follow the rules." In all, they have 50 euros a day to spend on groceries, but someone always comes back from the store with potato chips rather than potatoes. Another has slept through German class while still another missed an appointment at the youth welfare office. "We are going to stop waking you up," Mr. Sameeian tells them. "And use a weekly planner!" It is only after the young men protest that he realizes that most of them have never held a calendar in their hands.

Even after five months, he often feels like he's living with strangers. And it isn't questions like whether the refugees may have falsified their ages when entering the country that trouble him. He's a counselor, the young men need help and they're behaving like teenagers -- he gets all that. But he knows little about their backgrounds. Counselors aren't supposed to pry too deep to avoid reawakening past traumas. All he can do is observe and listen attentively, Mr. Sameeian says. He has only managed to collect fragments.

Of the group, Jamil speaks the best German.

Abdullah cracks a lot of jokes, but he also wakes up from nightmares in a cold sweat.

Ashraf wants to become a pediatrician.

Abdullah and Ashraf explain how they met in Iran, where they had been working as illegal day laborers after their families left Afghanistan because of the war raging there. But their newly adopted country also proved to be a dangerous place. They allege that police accused them of being terrorists during identity checks and locked them in a cell. And that the men told them they must fight on Iran's side in the Syrian war or be deported to Afghanistan. That, Ashraf says, is when they fled.

Jamil describes similar experiences. The youth counselors don't know for sure if the fragments they are collecting always reflect reality. Like everyone who comes into contact with the youths, they can only guess whether the refugees are keeping silent about some things out of shame or are holding back to see what stories might increase their chances of obtaining asylum.

Jamil knocks on the grass. "There's something that we don't understand," he says. "There may be a war in Syria, but there is a chance we also would have died if we hadn't fled. But the Syrians are quickly given the right to stay and identity papers. Why?"

Mr. Sameeian doesn't answer. He has already explained to the boys that the reasons the Afghans had for fleeing were often less grave than those of the Syrians. But he also doesn't understand how some German politicians view their homeland as a suitable destination for deportation despite the terrorism and the Taliban. "We are totally on your side," he says in the end.

The counselors have assembled files in which they document anything that could reflect positively on the youths. Language-course certificates, proof of completed internships. They note that Ashraf spends hours studying. That Abdullah sells cakes at a café run by a church and also plays on its football team. Karim obeys all the rules. Later, their efforts will seem ridiculous, but for the moment, they still believe that such records might somehow sway the decision-makers at the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF). They are also hoping they will ultimately be able to deliver good report cards, but thus far, not all of the young men are even able to go to school every day.

'Things Can't Go On Like This'

Since Jamil's childhood, his father had emphasized the importance of getting an education. Now he begins raising his voice. "When can we finally go to school? We want to learn." The lack of progress has begun fraying nerves and recently, a plate was thrown against a wall and a fight broke out. "Careful," Mr. Sameeian says in response to Jamil's outburst. "Our rules: Treat and speak to each other with respect. This won't help."

"Then what will?" Jamil demands sharply.

This, too, is a question that Mr. Sameeian can't answer at the moment. Youth counselors are only responsible for the everyday life of refugees who are unaccompanied minors. All the legal decisions are made by a guardian and the degree of assistance provided is decided by a case worker at the youth welfare office. And given that more than 400 unaccompanied refugee minors arrived in Düsseldorf in the summer of 2016, their workload has increased dramatically. The case workers involved change now and then. At times, the youth counselors are unable to reach the legal guardians for weeks at a time.

Mr. Sameeian jumps up as though he just had an idea and points to the bicycles next to the terrace. "Enough," he says. "Let's get out of here." At times like these, he tries to come up with things the young men can do on their own to improve their mood. The main thing is to keep them from feeling so powerless that they come up with stupid ideas.

Hard News

It's early June, and Masoom is eating little but smoking a lot. As the others go out to explore, he retreats to his bedroom. He feels guilty. He explains that he and his cousin had to train in a camp for battle against the Islamic State. They decided to make a run for it. In the end, Masoom says, only he managed to escape the gunfire. It seems like every bit of news coming from back home is slowing the young man's ability to adapt here. A friend killed himself and his brother isn't doing well. But Masoom despairs just as much when he hears nothing at all.

The others are also struggling with the information streaming in from Skype and Facebook. When they hear their mothers sob and their fathers tell them about human smugglers who have come demanding even more money for having gotten their sons out, the young men cry in their bedrooms in Düsseldorf. On some days, the only thing Masoom can think to do is hurt himself. He has scars up and down his arms.

Mental and Physical Scars

On a day in July, Mr. Sameeian is carrying boxes through the stairwell of a spacious apartment building. Ashraf and Abdullah are now to live on their own and they will only be attended to for two hours a day. They had sat up all night on the carpet together with the other young men in the brown house eating sunflower seeds, and cleared out their room for other refugees who were still living in a gymnasium.

Abdullah says, with sadness, that they had only just arrived, and yet were already having to leave. Mr. Sameeian seeks to console them by saying they should view the move as a reward, that they had proven themselves This convinces the young man that he is now closer to his goal of living life like the Germans do. He whistles as he clears out the shelves.

There are three rooms in the new apartment, the laminate flooring is shiny and the furniture is new. Ashram hangs a picture in the living room that painted himself. It shows a Kalashnikov melting under sunbeams. Masoom, who has come along, attentively soaks up the room. "I'm staying," says the young man with the scarred arms.

Mr. Sameeian laughs. "Honestly Saba," Masoom adds reluctantly, "why shouldn't I live on my own?" The counselor shakes his head, but in a friendly way. "Later," he says.

Now the young men are all attending a refugee class at a local vocation school, but Masoom often feels too weak for school. Mr. Sameeian takes him to a psychologist, but the young man doesn't trust the specialist. If the counselors don't pay close attention, he cuts off the therapy sessions.

Mounting Frustrations

It's November and Nicole Cramer has come to the brown house. The 51-year-old is responsible for the work with the underage refugees at SOS Kinderdorf's Düsseldorf chapter. She's concerned about her team. Even Mr. Sameeian, the most experienced with 34 years under his belt, has sometimes seemed a bit helpless recently.

Masoom isn't the only one of the boys who would like to live on his own like Ashraf and Abdullah. They scratched the logo of the aid organization off the doorbell, and hardly a day goes by without one of them complaining. They argue the walls are too thin and the building too noisy or the sweater donated at Christmas is too ugly.

The counselors feel they have become too demanding. One is so furious that she does the math: Sixty euros in pocket money a month, 45 euros for clothing, a free roof over their heads, free food -- she didn't even get that much as a teenager.

Nicole Cramer listens pensively. These are the usual sums of money provided for youth care, but even she is irritated. Recently, one of the boys demanded her credit card number so that he could pre-order a new iPhone. The next time, he demanded money for a prostitute. Sex was important to his health, he said, and argued that Cramer had been assigned by the youth welfare office to look out for his well-being. When she refused to pay and spoke of love, respect and the values of the Western world, he posted about the matter on his Facebook account and colleagues working the night shift had to brush off the willing girls who began ringing the doorbells at the house.

"They're teenagers," Cramer says in the end. "They managed to make their way to us by following their own rules. Why should they suddenly think that our rules are better for them? We provided for them from the very first day as if that were self-evident, so why should they now voluntarily allow that to be cut back?"

Cramer appeals to the other counselors to change their own behavior. "Let the boys look for apartments if they complain," she says. "Let them find out the prices and talk to the landlords. They're in urgent need of a reality check."

A Nice Holiday

On one of the last weekends before the Christmas holidays, the boys strike out on their own. They want to buy a Christmas tree. Jamil feels they need to do something to improve the mood in the home. Jörg Haas, the house owner and entrepreneur, accompanies the teenagers with his wife and his children.

They walk the 2 km (1.2 miles) to the Christmas tree stand -- Afghans and Germans laughing together, telling stories and carrying the tree on their shoulders as they return. They build a campfire in the backyard, eat soup and finally decorate the tree with gold ball ornaments. They learn from each other and gain new perspectives -- it's exactly the kind of moment Haas had been hoping for. Moments that are still relatively rare. When the refugees play soccer with him or borrow tools, they make jokes, and he enjoys the fact that their German keeps improving. On some days, he helps them with their homework. But he says the boys are still keeping more distance from him than he would like.

"We're slowly connecting with each other," Haas says, "but it is taking much longer than I had imagined."

The Most Important Year of Their Lives

January 2017. Since Abdullah began practicing how to describe his life, his memories have been haunting him again at night. He and Ashraf will soon turn 18, and the two of them are facing what their friends say will be the most important year of their life.

They've cleaned the apartment. Lying next to a cup of cardamom tea on the windowsill are "Guidelines for Refugees." The young men are now practicing speaking in detail about their pasts on a regular basis. They've also been studying a lot for school and Abdullah has received marks of "very good" for his biology and geography tests. But no other test is making him as nervous as the one he will soon face at the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees. Each detail, they have learned, increases credibility.

Ashraf and Abdullah have submitted their asylum applications and their cases will soon be heard. By now, the young men have already been schooled in the most important vocabulary. Although they've put their dreams on hold, they could still become doctors or bankers. They both want to quickly find trainee positions, because if their asylum applications are rejected, this would still enable them to stay until they are completed. They've even learned the vocabulary for that.

And yet they've also heard about the jets that, after a long break, are again being used by the German government to deport refugees back to Afghanistan. And they are also aware of the unrooted young, Muslim men in Germany who are attracting a lot of suspicion to themselves. Abdullah can often be heard saying that terrorists like the one who perpetuated an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin are terrible people. "I'm afraid that people at the Federal Office (of Migrants and Refugees) will look at us differently now."

He will later tell the officials questioning him at the Federal Office that he fled together with his family to Iran when he was eight. Before their flight, the Taliban had pushed his father to make his brother become a fighter. The brother then disappeared -- he was likely kidnapped and murdered. Abdullah feared he would suffer a similar fate in Afghanistan. In Iran, he was threatened by the family of a girl he fell in love with. He had once hugged the girl in her parents' home. He said her brothers then killed her.

Ashraf would tell his interviewers that he is a member of the Hazaras, an ethnic group persecuted by the Taliban, that he left Afghanistan as a three-year-old and that he doesn't know anyone in the country who could help him to establish a safe life there. At the time they left, he says, his father was almost murdered in a family dispute.

When they meet the earlier roommates from the brown house, they photograph each other while posing like typical teenagers, as if the only thing that matters is the here and now. They wear baseball caps, sunglasses and hoodies and give thumbs-up. They're all looking for strategies to get through this period of waiting. Jamil wanders through clothing stores. Karim is doing a better job of taking care of the household than he did earlier. Ashraf is learning to swim. Masoom has become more reclusive. He's now being tormented by the competition being carried out between some of the refugees in their hearings with the officials. Masoom suspects that some who were taken in private cars to the Austrian border are trying to outdo each other with their tales of suffering to gain the right to stay in Germany.

The counselors warn that you can't build a life based on lies.

Ashraf carefully studies the guidelines on the windowsill. He says he is truly grateful for all the help he has been given by everyone. But he also asks them why the country puts so much effort into taking care of youth like him but then has such a difficult time deciding whether to let them stay or not.

The Eternal Wait

It's the end of January and Karim is returning from his hearing. He has a translated transcript of the meeting with him. "You have the opportunity to describe all the events that in your opinion substantiate a fear of persecution," the elderly women had said to him, encouragingly.

Karim answered that the Taliban had demanded that all children at his school join the battle. He said his family were considered infidels by the Taliban because they worked for the government with the police. "They shot my older brother in the leg and the second brother left the country," he told them. In order to protect Karim, at least, his father sent him to Europe.

"Were you not able to find protection from the police or in a court?" his interviewer had asked him.

"The government is very weak. They aren't even able to protect themselves," he answered.

"What are you afraid of personally?" he was asked.

"That I would have to join the jihad together with the Taliban in my province. Then I would be killed by the government. And that if I didn't join the jihad, I would be killed by the Taliban."

Karim said he wanted to live in safety and to finish high school. "I would like to have a future."

Days of Fate

In late February 2017, the day arrives when Karim's legal guardian will tell inform him of the decision. Even the counselors are having a tough time handling the stress this week. They sit together and at times tears flow. They begin wondering whether there's any point to the work they do. Despite all the difficulties, they have established bonds with the young men. There's no other way they could have done their work. They say they gave their everything to assist in the teens' development, but people working for a government agency ultimately decided on their future.

After his legal guardian leaves, Karim spends the rest of the day in his room. The counselors ask him if he wants to talk about it, but he shakes his head.

The document is 15 pages long. "The applicant is hereby ordered to leave the Federal Republic of Germany within 30 days of notification of this decision," the first page reads. Page 3 states that the probability that the applicant will be killed in Afghanistan is 0.074 percent.

Two months later, Ashraf also receives a letter from the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees. It states that although the Hazaras are subject to a certain amount of discrimination in Afghanistan, kidnappings and murders of them have remained isolated and localized. The applicant is encouraged to live in one of the safer parts of Afghanistan upon his return. Given his good health and ability to work, it states, he can establish himself there without a family network and without having completed an education and still have the means to subsist.

His application has been rejected.

Ashraf says he doesn't understand as he reads through the legalese with the help of a translator.

Searching for Solutions

By November 2017, all the young men have been informed of the decisions in their asylum cases. A delay of one year has been ordered in the deportation of Abdullah and Jamil because they would face considerable mental duress if they were immediately forced to return to Afghanistan. Masoom has been granted subsidiary protection because he could face torture or death in Afghanistan. It gives him the right to stay in Germany for at least another year. Nicole Cramer says that Ashraf and Karim are also safe for the moment despite the rejection of their asylum applications. With the exception of Masoom, all are at this point learning a vocation. This provides them with a temporary exception from deportation for three years. If the refugees can find jobs after their training, it's possible for they will be allowed to stay longer in Germany.

Cramer and her colleagues inquired about traineeships at car dealerships and retailers. They told the young men they would have to apply and that they would have to be prepared to accept rejection. By this point, Karim is working at a bakery, where he begins preparing bread rolls at 3:45 a.m. In addition to going to school, Ashraf and Abdullah are also receiving training to become metal technicians. Jamil is studying to become a social assistant.

When the first decisions arrived, in the excitement, some counselors had suggested they ought to adopt the teenagers to prevent their deportation, but Cramer urged them to calm down. She said there was no one-size-fits-all solution. "Germany takes in young refugees and we put a tremendous effort into supporting them," she says. "We push them to integrate, and with that alone we fuel hope. And we are also still concerned with them to a certain degree when they become legal adults." She urged her colleagues to maintain contact with the lawyers, help with appointments for refugee counseling and at job fairs and to not allow themselves to be driven nuts by the constantly changing news on refugee policy coming from the government in Berlin.

Around this time, talks are collapsing between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens to form a government. One of the key sticking points had been the question of whether refugees in Germany should be able to bring their immediate family members to the country. The counselors worried the debate might present a hardship for the teenagers, but they didn't seem too bothered by the issue.

Cramer says it seems like their families probably had in mind a different role for their sons -- that they would be providers. The idea that they have to cover part of their own costs with some of the money they earn from jobs in Europe also seemed to scare most of the young men.

Saying Goodbye

Departure. Streamers are hung from the lamps in the living room of the brown house. One of the young men is wearing a Santa Claus costume and holding a package in his arm with colorful bows. The words "Our Village Düsseldorf" are emblazoned on the pullie that Jörg Haas unwraps.

Unlike the welcoming party when the youth first moved in, few neighbors ring the doorbell this evening. One woman, who often dropped by with groceries, visits to wish the young men her best. She says Germans need to learn that foreigners also benefit them. Other neighbors, however, were annoyed by the home -- the noise, the untidy yard and the trash.

Haas says he had thought a number of things would be simpler. "But I would still do this experiment again. Every contribution is worthwhile."

He's also convinced that integration can only work if everyone involved pursues the same goal and every effort is intertwined -- and that people also want to and can do the same things they are expecting of the refugees. For example, he asked the counselors to get the teenagers to be a bit tidier and to learn how to be better neighbors. In the end, though, keeping the backyard in order wasn't a priority for the counselors. "They just have a different perception, and that's totally fine," says Haas. "But how are the refugees going to learn the rules of their immediate surroundings?"

The young men will move out five days later. SOS Kinderdorf has now acquired its own home -- another unassuming old house in a neighborhood of single-family dwellings. Jamil is happy because he will now be living on his own with a roommate, just as Ashraf and Abdullah do. Karim is already living on his own. Masoom is moving to the new SOS Kinderdorf home. He feels left behind, but the counselors believe that a well-structured everyday life is still the best thing for him.

All the young men remain under the protection of the youth welfare office, which is permitted under Germany's social laws to continue providing services to the youth when they become legal adults. The justification being that if they stop receiving the intensive help too soon it could threaten everything they have achieved.

"We were lucky," says Mr. Sameeian. "There were no police visits, no cases of violence and no fanaticism."

Still, there were a few times when he actually was scared during the past two years. At times like that, it bothered him that he would never know who the young men really were inside.

But, then again, he says, it's no different for him with other people.

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