As a Syrian Christian man rolled the family luggage through Beirut’s international airport, he practiced his German: “Thank you, danke, dankeschon.”
The man, who asked not to be named, is part of a group of Syrian refugees offered temporary resettlement by Germany for two years. The contingent, which flew out Wednesday, included 70 adults and 37 children and infants.
More than 2 million Syrian have fled their country and more than 4 million are displaced inside Syria, according to the United Nations. Germany is the first in Europe to take in a large group under a program that will accommodate 5,000 Syrians and will take a year and 25 charter flights to complete.
“Please, don’t write my name. I still have relatives in parts of Aleppo controlled by the army,” says the man, who was an electrician in Aleppo.
Asked what will be the greatest challenge for him, he says, “learning the language and getting a job.” He and his family took a free Internet language course as they prepared to leave, and he can count to 10 in German. But these refugees don’t know what else to prepare for except an uncertain future.
The Most Vulnerable Refugees
The Syrians who traveled to Germany on Wednesday were chosen by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, as particularly vulnerable refugees, including single mothers, those with chronic illnesses and minorities under threat.
Some had been injured and arrived at the airport in wheelchairs. Most had been traumatized, particularly visible with the children, who clung to stuffed bears and backpacks, but did not smile. The original group was larger, but 18 were badly injured and the charter plane couldn’t accommodate hospital stretchers.
“We lost everything, we only came with our clothes,” says a father of four, who gives his name as Abu Abdullah. He is from Salahdeen, a devastated neighborhood in Aleppo.
His two sons were university students before the fighting erupted. His 8-year-old son has never been to school.
“We want to go so he can learn. We want to open a business and come back and rebuild Syria,” he says.
They have all spent at least a year in dire conditions in Lebanon, where more than 700,000 Syrians are registered as refugees. This has overwhelmed Lebanon, a country that has a population of around 4.5 million.
Abu John, the father of a 2-year-old boy, says the most difficult moments as a refugee in Lebanon came when his young son was in pain.
“I couldn’t take him for treatment because the prices were too high,” he said, adding that he hopes the German government “cares about laws and rights so it will be a life of dignity.”
Each of the refugees was permitted to take 44 pounds of luggage for the two-year stay. Most couldn’t fill the quota, but considered themselves lucky to be part of the first organized refugee movement from Lebanon.
They arrived in Hanover on Wednesday night. German officials said they were setting an example by accepting 5,000 Syrians. UNHCR officials want other European countries to agree to admit thousands more that are on the waiting list.