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Confronting the refugee crisis

October 19, 2016

Confronting the refugee crisis

October 19, 2016
in Harvard Gazette

BERLIN — One minute, Donia Mehu was standing in her kitchen, cooking and puttering. The next she was lying in rubble, horribly wounded and bleeding.

It was 2012, the year that the Syrian civil war came to Aleppo, that troubled nation’s largest city and Mehu’s home. When her husband found her unconscious after the bombing, it was too late to save her leg.

Mehu paused briefly in her story to control her emotions, then continued. Life was good in Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, before the war. She and her husband had no children, yet they did well enough that she was able to stay home and take care of the household. But that world was now blown apart.

She said that these days her wish was to learn German, to better navigate the country in which she lived as a refugee in a center outside Berlin. She wanted to move into an apartment and get new prosthetic leg. The long journey from Aleppo to Germany — navigated by boat, bus, and on foot — had taken its own toll.

When Mehu stopped talking, so did her translator, Ilke Kiral. A recent Harvard Kennedy School graduate, Kiral was back home in Germany just weeks after earning her degree, pursuing her deep interest in its burgeoning refugee community.

Kiral, born near Stuttgart to parents who emigrated from Turkey in the 1980s, is something of a bridge between two worlds: that of native Germans whose welcoming stance is increasingly shifting to dissatisfaction as the number of asylum seekers grows, and that of the refugees, desperate for what Germany can offer: safety, jobs, health care, education, a future.

On this summer day, Kiral was standing with Mehu and a few others in the sparse grass behind a plain white building in Stahnsdorf. The rectangular building was one of two on the property, housing 140 residents, all waiting for decisions from German authorities on whether they could stay or would be returned to the countries they had risked so much to flee.

When Mehu finished, others stepped up to tell their stories. A Palestinian man explained how he had sold a kidney in Egypt to finance his trip — and been paid only half what was promised. He told of his frustration at not being able to work and how he felt he was viewed with suspicion everywhere he went because he was Palestinian. A woman from Chad had fled with her daughter, whom her dead husband’s family wanted to circumcise. And Mehu’s husband, Ali Muslim, filled in details of her story, telling of their perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece, of high seas, Turkish patrols, and traffickers’ threats.

Kiral, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in public administration, had heard such stories before. She spent the summer volunteering at Berlin area centers while engaging in an annual ritual for college graduates: looking for work. In the two years before leaving for Harvard she had worked as a project manager dealing with mosques, migrant organizations, and city governments.

“I was bringing different ethnic communities, language communities, together with the German majority to find solutions, for example, for retired people, for mothers who don’t speak German that well,” Kiral said. “It was very hands-on work, on the ground, giving lessons, speaking to educators.”

The need for bridge-builders like Kiral is high in Germany today. The combination of a strong economy, a perceived need for workers, and relatively welcoming policies has made Germany the top destination for migrants bound for Europe. But rising dissatisfaction among some segments of German society has led to arson at some refugee centers, where migrants wait months to years for decisions on their future. This year the backlash has grown, sparked by reports of assaults on women by young men with immigrant backgrounds during New Year’s celebrations and other incidents, such as July’s Munich mall shooting that left 10 dead. (Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)