Strangers on a train
Wilhelm, Brian and Inas, a refugee from Syria, met through a chance encounter on a train just four days after Inas arrived in Germany. Ten days later, Inas moved in with the couple of 25 years, in November 2015.
Inas was making his way back to Berlin after going to visit a friend from Syria. Unsure whether it was the right train, he asked Wilhelm and Brian, sat nearby. With the help of Google Translate on their phones, the three struck up a conversation and then exchanged numbers.
Inas didn’t yet know anybody in the city and was staying in an emergency shelter. “We were in contact through Whatsapp every day – morning, lunchtime, evening,” says Inas. Soon thereafter he was moved to a gym-turned-refugee-shelter, where he shared the hall with 200 people. He says there were no mattresses on the beds, exacerbating the pain in his back from a slipped disc injury, and he had terrible problems sleeping. When Brian and Wilhelm visited him they told him he’d be welcome to stay at theirs for a few days.
During his registration interview Inas was asked if he had friends or relatives in Berlin, he texted Brain to ask if he could put down their names.
“When he asked whether he could say that we were friends,” says Wilhelm, “we said ‘of course, you can give them our address, get the post sent here and even stay with us for a few days at the beginning.’ We told him to give the authorities our number in case they had any questions, because at the time we struggled to understand each other.”
Inas was then given a document, his first permit to stay in Germany, valid for three months. On the third page it stated: “the owner of this document is obliged to live at the following initial reception institution,” followed by Brian and Wilhelm’s address.
“It came as quite a surprise to us of course,” says Brian. “At first we were completely unsure of all the implications, three months is a long time. But we talked with our friends and decided: let’s do it!”
Suddenly this opportunity was presented to us on a plate.
“We had been wanting to help the entire time [the refugee crisis has been going on],” says Wilhelm, “but we didn’t really get a move on. And suddenly this opportunity was presented to us on a plate, the chance to help someone totally nice.”
“We knew we had to tell him we were gay before he moved in,” Wilhelm says. But how? Inas still only spoke a few words of German and English. Wilhelm and Brian married in 2011 at their local church. “So we showed him our wedding pictures. He shook our hands and said ‘no problem’, as he says about anything.”
Much harder was to have a new puppy thrown into the mix, Gorki, an energetic Entlebucher Sennenhund. It was a new situation for all three men, but an additional challenge for Inas, who wasn’t used to living with dogs as pets. “One time I saw Brian playing and closely cuddling with the dog,” Wilhelm says. “Inas was visibly shocked. But imagine you go somewhere and someone cuddles with a rat, it would be disgusting!” But Inas quickly grew to like Gorki.
In Damascus, Inas set up and ran his own wedding dress making business. It was successful, employing sixty people. When he closed up shop to leave, he left with just a few bags.
To be completely helpless, that was the hardest thing.
The hardest thing about arriving in Germany, Inas says, was not being able to read or understand anything around him. “Suddenly I was not a grown up man with a life anymore. I felt like a child. Brian and Wilhelm helped me with everything, to find language schools and get around Berlin, to see doctors about my back injury. To be completely helpless, that was the hardest thing.”
After a period of adjusting to each other, life together has settled into a comfortable rhythm. “It’s been like real family life,” Wilhelm says. “If we weren’t doing anything else we would cook and eat together. We haven’t felt restricted in the way we normally live together at all. But we are an old couple,” Wilhelm jokes.
“My plan is to stay in Berlin”, says Inas. “I like the city. Everything is better now, I’m not in pain anymore, I have a new flat I will move into soon, and I know more people than before.” Inas, who studied fashion design in Damascus, has found work experience with a Berlin haute couture dressmaker. “It’s my profession,” Inas says, “and I want to continue with it.”
“I have some friends from Syria in Germany, but they are spread throughout the country. In Berlin, all my friends are new friends.”
Wilhelm says: “It’s so important to tell and share positive stories at the moment. After Inas moved in with us we told one of our neighbours, who subsequently also took in a refugee for four weeks!”
Portrait by Aubrey Wade
Assisted by Stjepan Sedlar
Text by Sarah Böttcher
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.