| Sophie Rohrmeier |
Rattiszell, Germany (dpa) – “Come on over, come on over,” calls Hisham al-Halabi when the curious approach his garden gate.
So far, the 14-year-old and his family haven’t had a lot of chances to greet visitors. They fled from Syria’s war, travelling across Egypt and the Mediterranean until they ended up here in the Bavaria region. Now, they are asylum seekers, trying to figure out the customs of Rattiszell, a small rural town.
The locals are doing what they can to make the family feel comfortable, but it’s going to take a long time to bridge the barriers.
“This is a bit of a change. How do you behave around Muslims?” asks mayor Manfred Reiner.
Rattiszeller is picture-postcard pretty, but it has little experience with refugees. The last ones before the al-Halabis have already earned legal refugee status and have moved on. They also came from Syria, but were Christians, unlike Mohammed, Lama and their three children – Hisham, Sidra, 11, and Sama, 6.
The photo on Mohammad al-Halabi’s smartphone shows a Damascus square and is emblazoned, “Your heart is so tender: Damascus, I love you madly.” The image is a reminder of home for the father in distant exile in Rattiszell, Germany – PHOTOS: DPA
The mother of the first family here used to attend Catholic mass, says Reiner. That helped to establish something mutual. Almost 90 per cent of the village’s 1,500 residents are Catholic.
Hisham’s mother wears an Islamic headscarf.
“We have to tear down some of our prejudices about Muslims now,” intones Reiner.
He’s being prescient. The stream of refugees from Syria is growing, with Germany expected to see 200,000 asylum applications in 2014. That’s already more than can be held at beds in government hostels.
By the end of July, 1,515 asylum seekers had been moved into facilities owned by the counties and towns. The remotest parts of provincial Germany are now being reached.
The smallest of all is the single-family home where the al-Halibis now find themselves, in Rattiszell.
The house used to be the home of Alois Schmitt, a retired soldier and well-respected resident. After his death, his daughter decided in 2012 to rent out the house to the local community to be used to house asylum seekers.
Not everyone was pleased by her decision.
“The local population was unhappy with the owner, because it was she who decided to bring asylum seekers here,” explained Monika Lex, head of the local kindergarten, where Sama now attends.
Mayor Reiner says he’s gotten very little information from the county or regional governments about what the little town is supposed to do for its refugees.
“We were taken by surprise. We’re a small farming town, almost a village. Especially here, information is important.”
Hisham is busily learning German. It’s harder for his parents.
Round here, many people have difficulty themselves speaking standard German, because they use a Bavarian dialect for daily communication. No one speaks Arabic.
Jeannette Winter-Thaler, certainly doesn’t. A neighbour, she has become the contact person for the al-Halabis after her own little boy wandered into the Halabis’ garden one day and said, “Hi.”
They’ve brought her official letters which they can’t read, so she can call the proper authorities on their behalf. Since then, she had been driving Mohammad and Lama in her car to Bogen, 20 minutes away, for their German lessons.
Winter-Thaler, 42, is one of the few people in this hidebound little town who can identify with refugees, because she herself is an outsider. Her family fled communist eastern Europe when she was young, she spent time in a refugee camp and ended up here.
County government official Anita Karl is volunteering her time to provide the German-language course, the only one available in the region. Bavaria is the only German state that funds language courses for asylum seekers, who otherwise are not entitled to language education while their applications are being processed.
But mandating such requirements and actually guaranteeing the availability of classes in every part of the state are two very different things.
“That deal hasn’t worked it’s way out here,” says Karl.
No one has made any effort to discover what the Syrian family has experienced. Nabil, the husband of Mohammad’s niece, Walaa, provides some idea.
“My house – boom – there were bombs and fire. At my job, there was also a fire.” The children also heard bombs. “Thank Allah that we’re now here.”
He and Mohammad fled with their wives and children by ship.
Mohammad swipes up a photo on his smartphone showing a Damascus square. It is emblazoned in Arabic, “Your heart is so tender: Damascus, I love you madly.”
Nevertheless Rattiszell is “very nice, everything good,” says Mohammad optimistically.
The only thing lacking is work. Asylum seekers may only try to find a job in Germany nine months after arrival. And they can’t have a job if a German native is interested in the same position.
Stephanie Aumer, head of the bureau for foreigner services, says she is “thankful” that neighbours are helping. “We’re at our stress limits,” she says of the workload.
Meanwhile, in Rattiszell, the mayor is contemplating whether a hike with locals and the al-Halabis will help break down some barriers. “That way the town can see ‘A-ha. They’re participating, just like anyone else, except they’re Syrian.”
Meanwhile, as everyone thinks about how best to deal with them, 14-year-old Hisham will be at his garden gate, continuing to invite people to come visit.