Private Sponsors for Syrian Refugees

For months, Ulrich and his co-activists got only four hours of sleep a night.

von Marion Detjen

Ulrich started earlier than the rest of us. While Syria was still far away for me in the spring of 2015, he was already letting it into his bathroom mirror. “I can’t look myself in the eye if I keep on doing nothing,” he said, and brought the relatives of a Syrian acquaintance to Germany by means of two private sponsorship declarations. Ulrich, Tina, Martin and a small circle of other sponsors founded the association Flüchtlingspaten Syrien, meaning “private sponsors for Syrian refugees”. They studied the legal situation, collected donations and sponsorships, became regular visitors to the immigration office, organized stopovers in Turkey and later Lebanon, looked for apartments, built up a network of volunteer German teachers, guides and doctors, and set up an office open to the public. For months, Ulrich and his co-activists got only four hours of sleep a night.

Issuing sponsorship declarations for complete strangers who are not allowed to claim state benefits in Germany? Creating dependencies that might last a lifetime? That seemed heroic to me at the time, but also rather insane. I looked in the mirror, thought, I can still look myself in the eye, set up a standing order with my bank and kept an eye on the “refugee sponsors” from a safe distance.

Then we heard about the homeless young newcomers who have no chances on the housing market in Berlin. That seemed to be a situation we could do something about. S. moved in with us. It’s no big deal; we have space and often have visitors from abroad. So now it was a young Syrian in our spare room.

S. got up early, left the house before us, went to his German course and from there straight to a café, where he worked away as a waiter and kitchen porter until late. He didn’t usually get home until we were on our way to bed. In these late hours of the evening, he told us about his family in Aleppo; about his journey across the Mediterranean; about the civil war for which there was still a solution a few years ago, in theory at least, but not any more since the major powers had intervened. He told us about his youngest sister, who hadn’t been to school for a year, about the constant grenade fire, about the frontline only 150 metres away, about his father’s ruined shoemaking workshop in the IS-ruled part of the city, about the difficulties of getting water and electricity. And on the weekend we saw him sitting in the garden staring at his smartphone, waiting for news from his relatives via Whatsapp.

At some point in August he said his father, an elderly man with heart problems, was about to set out for Europe in the hope of getting his wife and S.’s younger brothers and sisters out later, by means of family unification regulations. The family contacted people-smugglers.

That evening, my husband and I looked in the mirror together and knew: we can’t look ourselves in the eye any more. Had it been just the two of us, we probably still wouldn’t have dared to take the step. But the “refugee sponsors” were there with the infrastructure, the donations and the network to minimize the risks of a private sponsorship. My parents, my brother and his wife and two other sponsors the group put us in touch with joined us in the venture.

Then came months of toing and froing with the authorities. There were never-ending complications but a lot of things went remarkably smoothly. Almost automatically, we found an apartment for the family, which was let to the association at half price. Plenty of people were keen to help, including government officials – that has to be said.

For several fearful weeks Aleppo was cut off from the outside world. We found people in Lebanon who helped us without even knowing us. One morning I got a message on my phone that the first truck of fresh food had departed for Aleppo – the route was open again. The family were to set off immediately, not wait any longer. We feared for their lives.

Shortly before midnight on 4 December, we drove to Schönefeld Airport to collect the family. S. had been there for hours, trembling with excitement. And then they really did come through the gate, one after another…………… an indescribable moment, like a birth and a death at the same time.

Familienzusammenführung geschafft. S. begrüßt seine Mutter und Schwester. Foto: Privat
Family reunification. S. welcomes his mother and sister. Photo: private
Family reunification

They’re here now and we’re gradually getting to know each other. The tug of war with the authorities has not let off. Quite the opposite, in fact; it’s a full-time job at times, even though we are spared visits to the LaGeSo, Berlin’s Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs, because the family is not entitled to welfare benefits. Our life feels very different to the old days. While the family is struggling with their new beginning and the consequences of decades of dictatorship, mourning and crying and laughing and afraid and then taking courage again, we have been looking at our own world and suddenly discovering all sorts of things we hadn’t noticed before. The facades and blinkers with which we keep the disturbing at bay are becoming more permeable. And strangely, we haven’t experienced that as a threat, but as something that strengthens and enriches us. And we’re happy to bear the weight of the private sponsorship, to which we will be tied our whole lives – not necessarily financially, we hope, but certainly emotionally and morally. These are relationships, and by entering into them we enable even more and even closer relationships.

I rarely see Ulrich because we’re all so busy. But we are linked by a deep understanding – we’re doing it! The question in front of the mirror no longer arises.

You can find more information about signing up as a private sponsor here: Flüchtlingspaten Syrien