German “second family” helps Syrian brothers banish homesick blues
It took Bilal Aljaber almost two years to reach Europe. However, when the 27-year-old Syrian finally arrived in Germany in January 2015, he had serious misgivings.
“I had this very strong feeling of regret and I wanted to go back home but I couldn’t,” he said.“I missed my family so much.”
Fortunately, he has since found a second family in Germany, Berliners Edgar and Amelie Rai and their children.
Originally from Damascus, Bilal, his parents and two brothers fled to Jordan in July 2013 when he was one semester short of qualifying for his degree in English literature at Damascus University. Most of his friends were getting arrested and running daily errands had become too dangerous. Then he was called up to serve in the military.
“There was no way I was going to kill my own people,” Bilal said.
After a year-and-a-half in Jordan, where he was unable to work or study, he left for Europe despite strong opposition from his parents.
At first, he stayed in a refugee camp in Berlin for seven months, where he helped with English- Arabic translation. When he asked some of the camp workers he befriended if he could move out on his own, the director introduced him to Edgar and Amelie.
“They are like my second family,” said Bilal. “Anything they can help me with, they do it wholeheartedly. We have a very close friendship and this is one of the most beautiful things that has happened to me. I feel I have someone here, someone supporting me, helping me. I am not all alone.”
Edgar, who is an author and bookstore owner, jokingly described their first meeting as “love at first sight”. The trio talked over coffee and Edgar offered Bilal the room of his eldest daughter who had just moved out.
“There is no way of pretending that this was not everybody’s problem any more.” Edgar said. “You have to take a stand somehow.”
I am a bit of a control freak but when they cook the kitchen is spotless afterwards. We never had to make any house rules.
Bilal said the room looked like “a castle” after having to share one with five other men in the camp. He moved in with the Rai family in September 2015.
Edgar and Amelie have two other children at home, Moritz, 12, and Nelly, 10. Bilal plays with the children and sometimes looks after them if the Rais come home late or go out for the evening. Edgar helps Bilal with translation and in dealing with migration officials.
A few months after Bilal moved in, his younger brother, Amr, 17, came to Germany without Bilal’s prior knowledge. The Rais did not hesitate to make room for him. Initially, Amr stayed with Bilal in his room, but then 12-year-old Moritz offered Amr his room and moved into his younger sister’s room.
Amelie said the Syrian brothers were so well mannered that it was easy to live together.
“I call them kitchen Nazis,” Amelie said. “I am a bit of a control freak but when they cook, the kitchen is spotless afterwards. We never had to make any house rules, we’re really lucky.”
Amr has received a full two-year scholarship at the renowned Robert Bosch United World College and will move out at the end of August 2016. The family held a celebration for him and Edgar presented him with a gold coin, handed down from an uncle who served in the army.
“Wherever you go, there can be a new start,” Edgar told Amr as he handed him the coin. Amr wants to become an architect. “I want to study architecture so I can help rebuild my country one day,” he said.
Bilal is also eager to continue his studies. Now that his German has improved, he works part time at the camp that first took him in, translating between German, English and Arabic.
Every time he thinks of moving out, the Rais assure him he is welcome to stay as long as he wants.
“We have a contract but it has no expiration date,” said Bilal.
Portrait by Aubrey Wade
Assisted by Stjepan Sedlar
Text by Nadine Alfa
This story is part of the No Stranger Place series, which tells stories of refugees and locals living together in Europe. The project was initiated by Aubrey Wade, Sarah Böttcher and Stjepan Sedlar, and developed in partnership with UNHCR and Nadine Alfa.