German family help Syrian brothers banish homesick blues
After a two-year trek to Europe, Bilal Aljaber just wanted to return home – until a Berlin couple offered him a room in their house, and then took in his brother too.
BERLIN, Germany – It took Bilal Aljaber almost two years to reach Europe. However, when the 27-year-old refugee from Syria finally arrived in Germany in January 2015, he had serious misgivings.
"I had this very strong feeling of regret and I wanted to go back home but I couldn't,” he said. “I missed my family so much."
Fortunately, he has since found a second family in Germany, Berliners Edgar and Amelie Rai and their children.
Originally from Damascus, Bilal, his parents and two brothers fled to Jordan in July 2013, when he was one semester away from qualifying for his degree in English literature at Damascus University. Most of his friends were getting arrested, and running daily errands had become too dangerous. Then he was called up to serve in the military.
"There was no way I was going to kill my own people," he said.
After a year-and-a-half in Jordan, where he was unable to work or study, he left for Europe – despite strong opposition from his parents.
At first, he stayed for seven months in an accommodation centre for asylum-seekers in Berlin, where he helped with English-Arabic translation. When he asked some of the workers he had befriended there if he could move out on his own, the director introduced him to Edgar and Amelie.
"They are like my second family," said Bilal. "Anything they can help me with, they do it wholeheartedly. We have a very close friendship and this is one of the most beautiful things that has happened to me. I feel I have someone here, someone supporting me, helping me. I am not all alone."
"I feel I have someone here, someone supporting me, helping me. I am not all alone.”
Edgar, who is an author and bookstore owner, jokingly described their first meeting as "love at first sight." The trio talked over coffee, and Edgar offered Bilal the room of his eldest daughter, who had just moved out.
"There is no way of pretending that this was not everybody's problem anymore.” Edgar said. “You have to take a stand somehow."
Bilal said the room looked like "a castle" after having to share one with five other men in the accommodation centre. He moved in with the Rai family in September 2015.
Edgar and Amelie have two other children at home: Moritz, 12, and Nelly, 10. Bilal plays with the children and sometimes looks after them if the Rais come home late or go out for the evening. Edgar helps Bilal with translation and in dealing with migration officials.
A few months after Bilal moved in, his younger brother, Amr, 17, came to Germany without Bilal's prior knowledge. The Rais did not hesitate to make room for him, too. Initially, Amr stayed with Bilal in his room, but then 12-year-old Moritz offered Amr his room and moved into his younger sister's room.
Amelie said the Syrian brothers were so well mannered that it was easy to live together.
"I call them kitchen Nazis," Amelie said. "I am a bit of a control freak, but when they cook the kitchen is spotless afterwards. We never had to make any house rules – we're really lucky."
Amr has received a full two-year scholarship at the renowned Robert Bosch United World College, several hours away in Freiburg, and is preparing to move out shortly before the school year begins. The family held a celebration for him, and Edgar presented him with a gold coin, handed down from an uncle who served in the army.
"Wherever you go, there can be a new start," Edgar told Amr as he handed him the coin. Amr wants to become an architect. "I want to study architecture so I can help rebuild my country one day," he said.
Bilal is also eager to continue his studies. Now that his German has improved, he works part time at the centre that first took him in, translating between German, English and Arabic.
Every time he thinks of moving out, the Rais assure him he is welcome to stay as long as he wants.
"We have a contract, but it has no expiration date," said Bilal.
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.