Berlin couple go from hosts to surrogate parents

After a shaky start, a young refugee family and their German hosts learn to trust each other and become close friends.

Manuela and Jörg Buisset, and daughter Nöemi, host Nourhan, who just delivered her second child.  © UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

BERLIN, Germany – Manuela and Jörg Buisset knew they had to help when they saw hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in their hometown of Berlin during summer 2015.

Images in the news showed long queues of people, many living on the streets without shelter. The Buissets had just finished renovating their modern basement apartment and were planning to rent it out.

Instead, they signed up to offer temporary housing for refugees with the non-profit Berlin Refugee Council.

A few weeks later, Manuela, 54, received a call saying there was a family in need of a place to stay. Ahmed, 28, his wife Nourhan, 20, and their two-year-old daughter, Alin, had recently arrived from Syria. They had vouchers for motels, but there were no vacancies.

Manuela said they did not expect to be hosting a family. "We would have preferred a young woman alone, but in this situation you cannot say no," she said.

She and Jörg, 51, picked up Ahmed and his family, and the two small plastic bags that contained all their belongings.

"It was a strange encounter," Manuela recalled. "Ahmed was very insecure and shy but we thought he was stubborn. He wouldn't make eye contact with us, which we thought was so impolite, but he thought it was rude to make eye contact since he didn't know us. He later told me he was just completely lost."

"She is like my mom, she is so good to us."

The Buissets welcomed the family into their new basement room, and what was supposed to be a 10-day stay became an open-ended arrangement. It has been a little over a year since they moved in, but both families are happy and admit it took time to trust and get to know one another.

"We are so happy here," said Nourhan, who gave birth to her second baby, Laith, in July 2016. "When Manuela went to Paris for 10 days I couldn't live without her. She is like my mom, she is so good to us."

During her pregnancy, Manuela accompanied Nourhan to all her medical appointments.

"I was never keen on babies, but this little guy is so sweet," Manuela said. "I was with Nourhan in the hospital when she delivered and I always went with her to the doctor. I didn't want her to be alone and scared. She is like my daughter."

Every night, Nourhan takes up some of the Syrian food she makes to share with her German hosts.

Nourhan and Ahmed, who only want to be identified by their first names, are from Al Quneitra, a small town near the Golan Heights. Ahmed was a truck driver and is now taking German language classes five hours a day. Nourhan looks after the children but dreams of becoming a hairdresser.

They are both eager to return to Syria. They follow the news closely, and when world leaders met in Vienna last November for talks on peace in Syria, Ahmed and Nourhan started packing their bags.

"It's more than sympathy," said Manuela. "At first I was scared, but we really, really like each other now."


This story is part of a series entitled No Stranger Place, which was developed and photographed by Aubrey Wade in partnership with UNHCR, profiling refugees and their hosts across Europe. One year on from the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, thousands of people have come together to bridge cultural divides and language barriers, embracing compassion, hope and humanity – even as some European governments continue to build obstacles. Their generosity is an example to the world.

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