My refugee 'brother' who lives illegally in our house

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 17 Mar, 2016 Updated Thu 17 Mar 2016 15:33 CEST
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A Berlin writer shares with The Local the story of how his family has taken in a refugee and how settling in hasn't always been easy.


It’s 8am in the morning in the southern suburbs of Berlin, Ingrid* walks down the stairs to the basement of the apartment, knocks on the door and yells: “Samy, it’s time to get up!“

"Ahh, Mama!" the 26-year-old Afghan groans back at her.

In the summer of 2015, my 66-year-old father Wolfgang and his 54-year-old girlfriend Ingrid decided to add a new member to our family, and they didn’t choose the usual route:

They gave a home to Samy, a man who’s been in flight from Afghanistan since the end of 2011.

In the spring of 2015 he arrived in Italy. When the conditions at the local refugee camps became too unbearable, he resorted to sleeping in a tree.

"Charlotte, my daughter, had an Italian friend, and through her we got to know Samy. He wasn’t doing well at the time," my father recalled.

"He needed to come to our place. Otherwise he would have died," added Ingrid.

Journey from Afghanistan

Over the past five years, Europe in general and Germany in particular have experienced a surge in refugees arriving at their borders. In 2015, most of them came from countries such as Syria, Albania, Kosovo and Afghanistan, according to refugee rights organization ProAysl.

Within the year, the Bundesrepublik took in 1.1 million refugees –  and, according to International Business Times, some estimate the numbers in 2016 will be even higher (although in recent weeks refugee registrations have dropped drastically.) 

Samy is one of them. Back in his home country, he was living with his family in Kabul, obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and worked as an interpreter. He speaks eight different languages, including English and the two official Afghan tongues Pashto and Dari.

His family was living a good life. But, as the Taliban's ability to strike with ever more violence into the capital grew, his father's position as a high-ranking official in the Afghan army seemed to put them in immediate danger. So they decided to flee.

Samy was to go first and pave the way for his family to follow later. He went to Pakistan by foot, made his way to Greece, and later took the Balkan route through southeastern Europe.

He told me how on the way he was beaten by police, robbed and held captive in refugee camps for months.

When he finally arrived in Italy, he received the shocking news: his family was not going to come after him. While he had fought his way to Europe, his father, mother, brother, sister and fiancé had all been killed by the Taliban.

This stroke of fate broke Samy. He considered committing suicide – and that’s when he got in contact with my sister.

Samy's road to Germany; Map: Google Maps

A historical responsibility

On a late night a few weeks later, my parents welcomed the young Afghan man at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station). From the first day on, he would call them "Mama" and "Papa".

"When I met Mama and Papa it was like coming home to me," he told me.

"I came to their house and I thought to myself: 'Okay, this is my house too now. I accept this'."

While to Samy this lifeline came unexpectedly, my parents had felt for a long time that they needed to do something about the escalating refugee situation in Berlin.

"In the summer of 2015, people were sleeping in the streets, in parks and public spaces. We were so ashamed... and both of us are Catholic. We had to do something," Ingrid said.

According to Der Tagesspiegel, 40,000 migrants registered in the capital between January and October 2015 alone.

To Wolfgang, it was also a matter of historical responsibility.

"If we [the German people] hadn't offered refugees a home after 1945, millions of Germans would have died," he explained. "That’s still deeply ingrained in us."

After the Second World War, between 12 and 14 million Germans fled eastern Europe for Germany, according to the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

During those days, many German families gave a home to those seeking refuge, even though they were often complete strangers.

For Ingrid and Wolfgang, not everyone shared the couple’s convictions in the beginning – Ingrid's mother even warned that Samy "might steal from you or attack you."

The two of them were also unsure of how friends and neighbours would react – especially the policeman next door.

But against all odds "people are surprisingly friendly," says Ingrid. 

Now, nearby resident Ms. N. teaches Samy German for free, another neighbour pays for his language classes at the Goethe institute - and Ingrid’s mother provides clothing for him. Samy and the policeman even regularly go for a cigarette together.

Still, prejudice and racism have shown their face. One day a neighbour saw Samy working in the garden, inquiring if the family had their "own slave now."

And Wolfgang fears this isn't an isolated case.

"I think people are generally sceptical, they're just not being vocal about it in this way," he said.

'Curcuma, anise and four kinds of curry'

My parents weren’t free of doubts themselves.

"To me an essential question was: what’s his idea of women? Will there be machismo?", said Ingrid.

Her concern wasn’t baseless.

One evening, Samy had invited four friends from Afghanistan for dinner. When the five young men were done cooking, they set the table for everyone including Wolfgang – but not for Ingrid.

"I was just standing there and nobody noticed a thing," she told me. Once Samy realized what was happening, he was embarrassed and quickly got another chair.

"I don’t understand how things work with German women because in our culture they are not allowed to do the same things," he admitted to me.

"But I’m glad to have Mama to ask about this and Mama explains it to me."

And the learning process goes both ways.

"Just look at our herbs and spices – all of a sudden there is curcuma, anise and four kinds of curry," Ingrid said.

She has almost completely done away with pork products, too – and recently bought Samy a copy of the Qu’ran.

But the appreciation of the young man goes further than just widening their palate.

"There is a lot of respect. I often wonder if my children would have survived what he went through. I’m not sure," Ingrid reflected.

"He is able to find strength in the darkest places," Wolfgang added.

War on bureaucracy

Over time, the family has grown as an entity, decorating the Christmas tree together for the first time in December.

But the reality of life as a refugee in Germany looms large – administrative pressures keep the three of them on edge and constantly occupied.

"Most of our time goes into dealing with bureaucracy and there were times when we invested 20 hours a week in it," my step-mother said.

And despite hard-fought battles with state authorities, one uncertainty remains – if Samy will finally be granted asylum in Germany.

"It's a danger. We do have a lawyer that we talk to. But we are restless about this and we’re calling on our guardian angel," Wolfgang told me.

Samy's chances hang in the balance.

In 2015, roughly 32,000 Afghans applied for asylum – the total protection rate for people from Afghanistan during that year lay at 47 percent, according to statistics from the National Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

And the situation is precarious in many ways - according to Germany's asylum law, Samy is legally bound to reside at a refugee camp, "in spite of the fact that he has a psychiatrist's letter stating that he is likely to commit suicide if he was to stay there," said Ingrid.

Only through a deal with the local camp can Samy now live with my family.

Part of the German family

In the face of insecurity, the three of them have nevertheless managed to establish routine and rituals.

They meet for dinner at least three times a week, sneak cigarettes in the evening and play board games after – and they like to leave for the countryside on weekends.

"I like to come to the countryside: it feels like Afghanistan except without the Taliban. I like that," Samy said.

When asked about the downside of living with the Wolfgang and Ingrid, he didn’t criticise much – instead, the 26-year-old reiterated his ambitions for life in this country.

"I think we as refugees, we want to learn about the culture, the German culture. Our cultures are different but we want to learn," he says.

"My wish is that Germany accepts me and that I learn German, that I will open a school in a city in Afghanistan to teach German."

When that happens, he will be able to teach his two favourite words – "schön" and "Anschlussfahrausweis" (extended travel ticket).

But before that happens, he will have to overcome the next challenge – his 27th "Geburtstag" is coming up.

It will be a celebration with his new German family.

*All names in this article have been changed.

Want to share your living space with a refugee?

Here are a few organisations that you can turn to:

Berlin -

Hamburg - http://www.wohnbrü

Munich -

Düsseldorf -




The Local 2016/03/17 15:33

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