SAARBRUECKEN, Germany — At the intersection, Mohammed al-Haj waited patiently for the “green man.” It seemed a bit silly: No cars were coming, no policemen watching. Back home in Syria, he wouldn’t hesitate.
But here in Germany, it’s the law, you only cross when the walk light is green.
“I don’t want to get into the habit of not waiting for him,” said the 27-year-old Mohammed. “We must all respect German customs and traditions.”
This is one world Mohammed lives in, one guided by rules, where he says he knows his rights and his responsibilities. It’s a world where he can be ambitious and plan for the future, even as he tries to negotiate his place in a country where he arrived a year ago among hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Western Europe.
“I felt from the first day, that this is a country of law and order,” he said.
But at the same time, Mohammed is living in a second world: The hell of Syria. First thing every morning, he checks on the internet and social media for the latest in the constant stream of grim news and carnage. He is immersed in its chaos, where any moment can mean death, families are dispersed, and everyone struggles for the most basic needs. He can’t stop, even though he feels helpless, following day by day the destruction of his home city, Aleppo, as Syrian government forces besiege its rebel-held neighborhoods.
“Syria is like a nightmare that travels with me wherever I go,” he said. “I could just be sitting here doing nothing and suddenly learn that someone I know has died.”
The Associated Press followed Mohammed in the summer of 2015 as he made the arduous trek from Turkey, where he had lived with his family since fleeing Syria, across the sea to Greece, then through the Balkans to Germany.
In August, the AP revisited him in the German city of Saarbruecken. Over the past year, Europe has been deeply shaken by the flood of refugees. Governments are struggling with how to absorb the newcomers. In a backlash, right-wing nationalist parties have gained ground. A string of terror attacks has further stoked xenophobia and distrust of the refugees.
For Mohammed, those storms seemed distant. Instead, he has been focused on building his future, while still absorbed in the turmoil of his homeland.
During Mohammed’s trek across Europe last year, the young man had to be quick-thinking, always on the alert for any opening to get to the next stage of his journey, through bureaucracy, hostile border guards and rough weather. It suited his get-it-done nature.
Now he has to rely on patience and the slow, frustrating work of waiting to reach his goals.
He shares a Spartan two-bedroom apartment with three other Syrian men he met in the camp where they were housed when they first arrived in Germany.
There’s little furniture, and what there is was mainly given to them by German friends and acquaintances. In the living room, there’s only two armchairs and a coffee table. None of them have beds. Mohammed sleeps on a mattress on the floor in a small room he shares with one of the others. His clothes are hung on the wall. No wardrobe.
In the kitchen are hot plates, a small oven and a refrigerator. On the table sits what is likely to be found at any Syrian home: Olive oil, olives, thyme and pita bread.
A blackboard hangs on the wall, and one of his housemates has drawn a map of Syria topped by the flag of Syria’s opposition.
Mohammed receives a monthly government stipend of 370 euros ($400), and his rent, utility bills and language school are paid for. He’s grateful for it — he says Germany “opened its door for me and gave me everything I have.”
Still, the money is barely enough. He rarely eats out, sits at a cafe or goes to a movie. He has one pair of jeans and one pair of shoes. He shops at discount stores. He can’t visit Syrian friends who have been settled elsewhere in Germany because public transport is too expensive for him.
It’s a similar situation for many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who have flowed into Germany. In 2015, at least 477,000 refugees — more than 160,000 of them Syrians — applied for asylum status, and another 310,000 have applied so far this year.
The country is struggling to absorb them into the economy. So far, around 33,000 refugees found jobs since early 2015, mostly in menial labor or as cleaners and security guards.
Mohammed’s focus now is on learning German. He can’t get a decent job without a certificate in the language, and his main ambition of entering university would be out of the question.
Five days a week, he attends his German classes in the morning. He often walks the 25-minute route to the language institute to save the tram fare. He takes a flask of home-made coffee to avoid buying it at cafes.
After four months of studies, he has reached level three out of six and can now converse reasonably well in German.
German is tough, he said. Other refugees give up on learning it and just take unskilled jobs or even try to leave Germany for an Arab nation.
“But those who are thinking along these lines came here without a goal in mind,” he said. “I must be patient.”
In July, Mohammed learned of the latest of his friends to die.
He woke up in the morning, checked Facebook and saw that Tareq al-Bayanooni, a rebel commander, had been killed by an air strike outside Aleppo.
It felt, he said, like a stab in the heart.
“But I did not cry. Honestly, I have run out of tears.”
Al-Bayanooni was the fifth of his childhood friends to be killed, guys he played with in his neighborhood streets as a kid. From his broader friends and acquaintances, he guesses 20 to 25 have died — the ones he knows about, anyway.
Mohammed had lived his entire life in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest and most diverse city. In the early days of the war, he’d served as a volunteer at an Aleppo hospital, where the AP first met him in 2012.
By June and July this year, it looked like the opposition in Aleppo was on the verge of being crushed. Troops and militias loyal to President Bashar Assad cut off all roads into rebel enclaves.
Mohammed was watching every moment.
All those living in the opposition areas — some 300,000 people — “are my family,” he said. He feared they would meet the same fate as those in other towns besieged by Syrian forces — like Daraya, outside Damascus, where residents were reduced to eating grass.
He kept going back to his telephone to follow the news. His studies suffered. “I was feeling down, I lost my concentration … I was worried people would starve,” he said.
Making it even harder, he felt he couldn’t call friends or relatives still in Aleppo.
“How can I be in the safety of Germany so far away from home and call someone in Aleppo to ask how they are doing?” he said. “I will only get ‘Thanks be to God’ and nothing else. He gives that answer because he could die five minutes later. “
Then in early August, rebel fighters outside broke through the blockade.
“It was such a joy,” Mohammed said. “The power of faith is what triumphed.”
It didn’t last. In the weeks since, hundreds have been killed in Aleppo in continued bombardment of rebel-held neighborhoods.
Mohammed’s housemates tease him over how closely he follows the war. He understands, he explains, they’re fed up with war.
“We, as a people, have been destroyed and disabled,” he said. “Every one of us is enduring a calamity of some sort…In Germany, when a child trips, our humanity compels us to reach out and lend a helping hand. So you can imagine what it’s like for a Syrian father to see his own child ripped to bits by bombs.”
On a rare day out, Mohammed and a friend went to have lunch in the historic center of Saarlouis, just north of Saarbruecken. But as soon as they sat at a restaurant, the German waiter started removing the cutlery, wine glasses and plates from the table, all with a not-too-subtle air of hostility.
Lunch is over, and it’s break time for the servers, he told them brusquely.
“He could have told us that in a more friendly way,” Mohammed said, as he and his friend got up to look for another place to eat. “He could have said, ‘We’re sorry, but we’re closed now,’ and told us when they will reopen.”
Was he rude because they’re Arabs?
Mohammed shrugs it off. “The waiter may have been tired or stressed out. Maybe he had a problem,” he said. “Anyway, you cannot judge an entire people by the behavior of just one individual.”
He said he has yet to come face to face with xenophobes and racists. “I know they exist, but I just have not come across one of them,” he said.
“Swear to God, I find the Germans to be beautiful people, they are always smiling and laughing. They are worthy of respect.”
He thinks back to his time living in Turkey. The Turks, he said, treat Arabs in a racist way. “They look down on us.”
“In Turkey, when they don’t understand you, they start to yell and scream,” he said. But if he speaks in broken German to a German, they use sign language and “try to help as much they can.”
As he spoke to the AP one weekend evening in Saarbruecken, two German men walked by, stark naked.
Mohammed was unfazed. There’s a group of anarchists in town who sometimes walk around nude, he explained.
“They live to drink, smoke pot and listen to music,” he said.
There are things he has had to get used to. You don’t take off your shoes entering a German’s home, like you do in Syria. You don’t just drop by unexpected. And he never calls a German after 10 p.m. “There is a great deal of respect for privacy,” he said.
But with the sense of law and order, he said he feels equal to Germans. The police, he said, treat people “with respect, not like in the Arab world where they insult and beat you.”
Two of Mohammed’s housemates, Mohammed Zalt and Mazen al-Ali, said their German friends advised them not to leave home for a day or two after a mass sexual assault on women in Cologne last New Year’s eve. But Mohammed said he didn’t change his routine. His first concern is always whether the attackers are Syrians. “When I learn that they were not, I am relieved.”
“In fact, I fear for my life here like everyone else,” he said. “I fear a street explosion from a terror attack will hurt me.”
Every few days, Mohammed talks on WhatsApp to his parents in Turkey.
In almost every sentence, they say “inshallah” — “God willing” — or “al-hamdulillah” — “thanks be to God.” They’re generic Arabic phrases that reassure while being diplomatically vague. They’re a cushion, letting parents and child avoid burdening each other with their hardships, trying to keep each from worrying about the other.
“When will you come home? I’ve made makdous for you,” Mohammed’s 55-year-old mother said, referring to a popular Syrian dish of pickled eggplants stuffed with nuts, topped with yoghurt.
She was joking. She knows very well that her son can’t get to Turkey for the time being.
“I’ll come home soon, inshallah,” Mohammed told her.
She told him that she and his 65-year-old father had just come from the market and that they hauled 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of tomatoes up the six flights to their apartment. They’ll dry the tomatoes in the sun to use in winter, when they’re more expensive.
That alarmed Mohammed. “Why are you carrying 10 kilos of tomatoes?” he gently reproached his father.
Ever since his parents moved to a new apartment in Izmir on the sixth floor with no elevator, he worries. His father jokes every time he brings it up that it’s a good workout for him.
“It’s torture every time he says this to me,” Mohammed said.
In every call too, his mother repeats the same prayer for Mohammed, “May God grant you success.” His father’s advice: “Look after yourself. Spend your time with good people and stay away from those who are bad.”
The war has scattered Mohammed’s family, as it has for many Syrians.
One sister lives in the Turkish city of Killis, near the border with Syria. The oldest of her four children, a 16-year-old boy, is now the family’s sole breadwinner.
Another sister lives in Izmir, and a third in Lebanon.
His parents moved from Killis to Izmir to live with one of Mohammed’s two brothers. He works 12 hours a day, six days a week in a metal shop. The job pays $600 a month, barely enough to support his wife, three children and parents.
Mohammed’s other brother is stuck in Syria, driving a taxi.
And Mohammed is the farthest away, unable to reach the rest of his family. All he has are the calls.
After every one, he said, “my heart aches.”
Mohammed is still planning. When his house mates move on, he’ll ask the landlord to get German tenants so he’ll have no choice but to speak German. “I’ll be fluent in just about a year,” he predicted.
He aims to enroll at a German university by the fall of 2017 for a degree in mass media or languages — German and English. Plan B is to enroll in a vocational training program as a quicker way of gaining employment.
“When my German is perfect and I have a job, I will be just like any other German. I will be paying taxes, perhaps 30 or 35 percent of my income, and that would be the repayment of the money I am getting from the government now.”
He’ll also be able to move ahead in his personal life. He hasn’t thought about dating since he arrived in Germany. He feels he has nothing to offer yet, and he doesn’t want to just meet a woman on the street.
At university, he said, he can get to know a woman. He imagines he’ll date someone poor like him.
“Our poverty will be sweet. We will discuss issues, share experiences and read each other’s mind,” he said. “It’s nice to be poor and then slowly earn more and more money.”
A year ago, he said he would only marry a Syrian or a German woman of Arab origin, but now he says he’s more flexible.
“She can be a Muslim or a Christian,” he says. Before marriage, he says, they would work out issues like how the children would be raised and what his wife would wear in public.
“She will also have to tell me what I need to change myself.”
For now, his entire future hangs on learning German. His final exam for the third level of his course is in October. If he doesn’t pass that, he’ll have to repeat, delaying everything.
“Germany needs a great deal of patience,” he said. “My journey is long, and without patience I will not complete it.”