Out of Afghanistan: New life awaits refugees in Germany

Hamburg gears up to help arrivals from Kabul while others are still stranded

Maryam Saghari and Nasrin Ghulami, who live in Hamburg and have worked to help Afghans trying to flee. Tim Stickings/The National
Powered by automated translation

Nasrin Ghulami is desperate to help her father, who suffers from dementia and lives alone in Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban. But she is not stopping there.

Since Kabul fell to the militants, she has worked from her German home to forward more than 3,000 asylum requests from Afghans longing to flee to Europe.

Among them are women, teachers, human rights activists and others who fear for their lives. “We get 50 calls a day asking how it’s going,” said Ms Ghulami, 29. “They feel very bad, they cry every day.”

Despite the unpaid efforts of Afghans in Germany, such as Ms Ghulami and her fellow student Maryam Saghari, 34, the response from authorities has been frustratingly slow.

The activists, who live in Hamburg and were contacted by thousands of Afghans who got wind of their work, say they are hampered by bureaucracy. After a while, emails started bouncing back from the Foreign Office in Berlin and they had to stop forwarding applications.

Meanwhile, the people stuck in Afghanistan are waiting for answers. Ms Ghulami's father cannot get to the airport and has nobody to look after him. He can only sporadically speak to his daughter. His other relatives live in Malaysia.

Another refugee was left stranded on the border with Tajikistan. “He calls every day and asks. I really don’t know the answer,” Ms Ghulami said.

Germany flew 5,374 people out of Kabul during the Nato airlift, but many were left behind. Ms Saghari compared the bureaucracy to asking for paperwork if someone was drowning in the Alster, one of Hamburg’s historic waterways.

Another 9,000 people who were destined to move on to the US have been held up by a measles outbreak and are still on German soil.

Hamburg was one of the first German cities to offer Afghans a home, promising to take in 200 people after the collapse of the Nato-backed government in Kabul.

Those who do escape will, if the experiences of Afghans who came before them are anything to go by, face a mixture of frustration and friendship as they begin their new life.

Integration efforts

The evacuees were initially taken in at gated reception centres which have been criticised by activists. Some have already moved on to other homes.

Sabine Antpoehler, who runs a help centre for refugees at a suburban garden in Hamburg, said migrants often found it difficult to get a home.

“Many report that when they phone up, if someone hears there’s an accent they will say they don’t have anything,” she said.

Ms Antpoehler's help centre, which belongs to the Protestant church in Hamburg, offers advice to refugees negotiating the German system.

It also provides clothes, children’s toys and bicycle maintenance for refugees, who often live in areas with poor transport links. The garden is a meeting place for migrants and sympathetic locals.

At the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, people made campfires outside the gates to be first in the queue for help. Since then, some migrants have become volunteers who help the newcomers.

“It’s often about everyday things. They’re often very disoriented in our system,” said Ms Antpoehler.

The fall of Kabul made it a busy time.

"The telephone was constantly ringing,” she said.

The language barrier is one major problem. Some refugees never went to school in Afghanistan, while others do not have the paperwork for state-funded lessons.

Locals try to fill the gap by offering teaching at the Welcome Culture House, another church-run institution in Hamburg.

It dates back to 2013 when a group of migrants came to Hamburg via the Italian island of Lampedusa, and local volunteers offered help teaching German.

The centre provides teaching from beginner to intermediate level – and most importantly, with no questions asked.

Life in Germany

Two Afghan students at the centre, Mahdi and Meysam, came to Germany after a spell in the notorious Moria camp in Greece.

“It affected me a lot psychologically,” said Mahdi, who wants to do a bachelor’s degree in business. He has only sporadic contact with his family in Afghanistan, but he likes Hamburg. “It’s perfect so far,” he said. “There are a lot of things I need to explore.”

Meysam would like to be a mechanic or sell cars. Another student, Ashraf, is a midwife who likes to learn computer skills.

She has siblings who are still in Afghanistan. “Everyone is scared of the Taliban,” she said. “They call me. I am very sad because of my family.”

As well as German teaching, the centre provides a place for refugees to meet other people and get to know friendly locals.

In a gardening group, Afghan refugees such as Daut and his wife Horshit often outshine their German friends because of their backgrounds in the countryside - a welcome contrast from the frustrations of learning German.

Daut and Horshit lived for a time in Iran before eventually fleeing to Germany. Hamburg has "very good people and a very good city," said Daut.

At a theatre workshop, one local visitor remarked that they had never had a conversation with a refugee before, said Antje Kurz, who runs the centre.

“People say things about refugees but they have never actually got to know one,” she said. “Behind that word, refugees, there’s people with lives and stories."

Germany was accused by activists of being slow to get its Afghan personnel out of the country before the fall of Kabul. It only called off deportations to the country a few days before the Taliban takeover.

But many individual Germans were keen to help. They approached the church garden and an aid group called Hanseatic Help to offer donations.

Hanseatic Help dates back to 2015, when more than 1,000 refugees were put up in an exhibition hall in Hamburg. They often had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

The charity now has a storeroom of donated clothes on Hamburg’s dockside, which go not just to refugees but also to homeless people in the city.

Donations are plentiful, although there is an imbalance between largely the male refugee population and women’s tendency to have more spare clothes.

Refugee helpers get in touch with the charity to order goods, which are sorted at the quayside storeroom and delivered by van.

“We have a very important role in the city. We take the pressure off other groups,” said Sina Klimach, who works for Hanseatic Help.

“We have high quality standards. We check everything that leaves our hall is clean. It’s a question of dignity and respect.”

The 3,000 cases dealt with by the students in Hamburg are just a fraction of the pleas coming in across Germany, from people who want to flee Afghanistan.

Ms Saghari fears the number will rise further as the situation worsens under the Taliban. Aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian crisis.

Activists hope that the end of the election season – Germans went to the polls two weeks ago – might open the door to more action by officials. But it is likely to be weeks until a new government is in place.

Meanwhile, Afghan women are in danger now. “Women in Afghanistan today are not the women of 20 years ago. They can’t just go back,” said Ms Ghulami.

“They’re really in danger, and we’re playing with lives.”

Updated: October 09, 2021, 7:40 AM