By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN, May 12 – Three days after an emotional reunion with his younger son in Berlin, a 71-year-old Syrian handed a bar of olive oil and laurel soap, a hand-made wall hanging and a box of pistachio sweets to a 56-year-old German he had never met before.
The gifts were from Aleppo, the city devastated by five years of war which he and his elder son had been able to leave thanks to the German, engineer and father of four, Martin Figur.
Figur is one of the “Godfathers for Refugees”, matched with the family by a non-profit organisation of the same name that seeks sponsors to help Syrians already in Germany to bring their relatives here.
“During the war, the Germans – government and people – have shown they are closer friends of the Syrian people than the Arabs,” the Syrian father told Figur at their meeting, which was witnessed by Reuters. He declined to give his name to protect relatives still living in the fiercely contested city.
Tight border controls across Europe, stricter asylum rules, and an EU-Turkey deal to clamp down on migrant sea crossings to Greece have left many Syrians in Germany struggling for ways to help relatives still in their homeland make it to safety.
The arrival of more than a million migrants into Germany last year prompted the German government to tighten asylum rules, including a two-year ban on family reunions for those granted limited refugee status, making the situation worse.
Martin Keune, the owner of an advertising agency, founded Godfathers for Refugees last year after two Syrian asylum seekers he was housing begged him to help them bring in their parents.
Keune was inspired by the story of his wife’s Jewish uncle, who survived the Holocaust thanks to a British couple who adopted him while the rest of his family were sent from Berlin to the Nazi death camp in Krakow, Poland, where they perished.
At Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport on Saturday, the Syrian father’s younger son Mohannad, who has been in Germany since 2006, held back tears as he greeted his father and brother.
“You look exhausted, but healthy and you are breathing and that is the most important thing,” he said, pressing his hand on his father’s arm.
Mohannad, 36, came to Germany ten years ago on a cultural exchange programme and had been trying to reunite his family since 2012.
“When I started looking into laws on family reunions, I became desperate,” he said.
His net monthly salary at a Berlin-based charity for refugees is less than the minimum of 2,160 euros ($2,460.24) the authorities say a sponsor must earn to bring in just one family member. That is about the average net salary in Germany.
Since March 2015, the Godfathers’ group has found sponsors for 103 Syrians, two-thirds of whom are already with family members in Berlin. The rest are waiting to receive two-year residency permits at German consulates in Lebanon and Turkey.
The association can only sponsor Syrians who have at least one close family member, such as a spouse, a child, a parent or a sibling, who has been in Germany for at least one year.
It relies on crowd funding and donations from its 2,200 members to raise the 800 euros a month it needs for each Syrian. This covers rent, health insurance, and a 400-euro stipend, equal to what the government pays unemployed Germans.
The godfathers do not fund the Syrian newcomers directly but take on legal liability for their living costs for five years even if in the meantime they apply for asylum and are granted full refugee status.
Figur signed a “Declaration of Commitment” at the Foreigners’ Registration Office in Berlin accepting liability for Mohannad’s father, brother as well his mother, who is still in Aleppo.
Germany took in some 1.1 million migrants last year, and of the more than 470,000 asylum applications filed over that period the largest group were Syrians, making up 35 percent.
The influx has fuelled the rise of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered three state parliaments in elections in March by luring voters angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming approach toward refugees.
“I can only encourage people to make contact with refugees, because only then will their attitudes change,” said Figur, a Catholic, commending Merkel’s courage in the refugee crisis.
A ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its main commercial centre before the war, has held since last week, making it easier for father and son to leave by land to Lebanon and on to Germany, a 20-hour journey.
They know they are lucky and hope mother, daughter and grandson – who have stayed behind at the wish of the son-in-law – will be able to join them soon in Berlin.
They described the gifts to Figur as a gesture of gratitude for “helping strangers”.
“Martin Figur helped us even though he did not know us,” said Mohannad’s brother, 38, pointing at his “godfather” with a smile. “And this is what I want to do in the future, help others.” ($1 = 0.8705 euros)