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Healing and hope: For three Syrian brothers, a new life in Europe brings trials and triumph

They survived civil war, threats from Islamic State and a 3,400-kilometre trek. Building new lives in Germany is an emotional roller coaster

Basel Omran, Osama Omran and Zain Al Abedin Omran nervously await the initial interview in their asylum process.

Basel Omran, Osama Omran and Zain Al Abedin Omran nervously await the initial interview in their asylum process.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

Late one night in early October, Basel Omran lay in his bunk bed in a refugee camp and tried, fruitlessly, to sleep. High above him, he could see the pleated fabric roof of the camp, a massive tent in a grassy clearing in southeast Munich. Inside, even after midnight, it was never quiet – there were murmurings, footsteps, the sound of a sink or a toilet, a baby crying, even music.

This story is part of a special Globe series. Visit the Crossings series page here.

It wasn't the noise that kept him awake so much as the thoughts of home. Back in Syria, his parents would also be trying to sleep. In their village near Deir al-Zor electricity was a distant memory and each night plunged the area into total darkness. The sky would shake with the roar of government fighter jets. To light even the smallest lamp was to become a possible target for bombardment. Every week, someone perished for risking it.

Basel, a 30-year-old teacher of classical Arabic, peered into the dimness of the small cubicle. His two younger brothers, who had also made the long journey from Syria to Germany, were already asleep. Zain El Abedin, 17, the baby of the three – slightly shy but already trying out German phrases – slept in another upper bunk. Across from Basel on a lower bunk was his brother, Osama, a slender 21-year-old with wide-set eyes and a radiant smile.

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Nearly three years earlier, Osama's left leg had been shredded in a government bombing at Al-Furat University, where he was a student and Basel taught classes. The nearest functioning hospital was two hours away. In the ambulance, Basel elevated his brother's mangled leg on his shoulder. Later, he wept as he signed the consent form for the amputation. When the three brothers made the 3,400-kilometre trek to Germany, Osama travelled the entire way on crutches.

On Sept. 6, the Omran brothers arrived at Munich's main railway station. I met them on the four-hour train ride from Vienna, where they began to share their story with me. In the days and weeks that followed, we remained in contact – through visits and a flurry of WhatsApp messages, exchanging photos and videos. Along the way, I was able to accompany them on the first steps of their life in Germany, a process that was alternately halting and triumphant.

This is a story about what happens after a refugee's voyage ends. In some ways, this journey is harder than the one that preceded it, despite the dangers and hardships of the refugee trail toward Europe.

Now the three brothers must find their way in an alien place where they never expected to be. Far from family and friends, they are racked by worry about those they left behind and flummoxed by a seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy.

But they also receive extraordinary help from unexpected places. Their early months in Germany were a complex jumble of emotions: relief and disappointment, hope and frustration, anxiety and jubilation.

Their story is typical of what hundreds of thousands of people are now experiencing across Europe as a mass movement of humanity seeks safety or simply a better life. In Germany alone, more than a million people are expected to apply for asylum this year. Meanwhile, last week's attacks in Paris have bolstered right-wing voices who want to limit or stop the new arrivals – and shifted the public mood on refugees from acceptance toward wariness.

The Omran brothers know all about what it means to feel afraid, both of bombs from the sky and of threats from murderous radicals. With each passing day in Germany, they have made a mental journey from fear to security, slowly absorbing the knowledge that they have reached a place that is safe, a place where many things are possible.

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Basel and Osama Omran outside the refugee camp in Neubiberg.

Basel and Osama Omran outside the refugee camp in Neubiberg.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

A fortuitous encounter

The man looked like someone important. That was Osama's immediate impression as an older German, slightly rotund and sporting a white mustache, approached him and Basel on one of their first mornings in Munich. The two brothers were getting breakfast inside what used to be an indoor tennis court but now served as a canteen. In a dozen identical half-cylindrical buildings nearby, refugees rested and plotted next steps.

The three brothers' main priorities at that moment were to sleep and to shower – "for days," joked Basel – after their grimy, five-week, eight-country journey. They were considering leaving for Hamburg, a city in northern Germany where they had friends.

The encounter with Peter Gauweiler – the German man with the mustache – would change all that. Osama reflected that in Syria, a person of stature would arrive with a large entourage. Not this man: He came with just two other people, and no one scurried to clean up the area ahead of his arrival. Mr. Gauweiler struck up a conversation with Basel and Osama, and was shocked to learn that Osama had travelled the entire trip on crutches.

Such resilience was striking, but so too was the devotion of his older brother. Basel rarely strayed far from Osama. With his air of quiet authority, he was the de facto leader of their small group of Syrians travelling together – when he told people what to do, they listened. But he was also gentle and self-deprecating. The one indulgence in his bag on the way to Germany was a tube of hair gel.

Basel and Osama explained their story to Mr. Gauweiler, who listened attentively. For more than a decade, before retiring earlier this year, he had represented a Munich district in Germany's parliament. A senior leader of the Christian Social Union, the conservative party that dominates the state of Bavaria, he is a vocal critic of the German government's refugee policy. In a recent appearance on national television, he called it "lawless."

Yet, in an individual case, he was moved to help. (Mr. Gauweiler declined requests to comment for this story.) He asked Osama what his dream for the future was, and Osama answered without hesitation: to walk again on two legs. Within days, Mr. Gauweiler would make that a reality.

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Osama Omran’s left leg had to be amputated after he was injured in a government bombing.

Osama Omran’s left leg had to be amputated because of injuries he suffered in a Syrian regime bombing of his university.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

'Is this the place for my new leg?'

Encountering Mr. Gauweiler was one of two lucky breaks for the Omran brothers in their first days in Germany. The other was meeting a 33-year-old Arabic-speaking volunteer named Rasha Abolof. Born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents and raised in Austria, she moved to Munich six years ago. When refugees began flooding into Bavaria in August, she was on vacation from her job at a travel agency. She began helping out at initial reception centres and never stopped.

At first, the brothers weren't sure what to make of Ms. Abolof. She loved R&B and body building and sported a tattoo in Chinese characters on her forearm. With her big laugh and flashing green eyes, she drew attention like a magnet. But as the days went on, they decided to trust her with their future. It would be one of the best decisions they ever made.

Zain Al Abedin Omran with the brothers’ friend and advocate Rasha Abolof.

Zain Al Abedin Omran with the brothers’ friend and advocate Rasha Abolof.

Courtesy Rasha Abolof

Not long after meeting Mr. Gauweiler, the brothers were moved to a refugee camp in the neighbourhood of Neubiberg, a sedate area of neat homes and low-slung offices. Mr. Gauweiler's staff arranged an appointment for Osama at Streifeneder, an 87-year-old company that makes and distributes parts for prosthetic limbs.

Thomas Struk, an orthopedic technician, was waiting for Osama at Streifeneder's outlet in Munich's prosperous downtown core. When Osama walked through the glass front doors on crutches, his amputation obvious, it was an unprecedented sight. Normally, customers would receive a preliminary prosthesis before they even leave the hospital – not spend years without one.

Technician Thomas Struk helps Osama get fitted with his new prosthesis.

Orthopedic technician Thomas Struk helps Osama get fitted with his new prosthesis.

Courtesy Rasha Abolof

Osama looked in wonder at the wheelchairs, canes and walkers for sale and the photos of prosthetic limbs on the walls. He had thought he was going to a doctor's appointment, but it dawned on him that this could be something else entirely. "Is this the place for my new leg?" he asked Ms. Abolof. She nodded. He hugged her and began to cry, thinking about what it could be like to feel normal again.

Streifeneder decided to donate the time and materials for his new prosthetic foot, which would cost about 8,000 euros ($11,500) in total. A day after the initial measurements, Osama and Ms. Abolof returned to the clinic, this time with Basel. Mr. Struk brought out the foot and showed Osama how to place it on his stump – first the silicon liner, then the plastic case which leads down to a foot made of carbon fibre.

After taking some trial steps in the fitting room, holding onto a cane for support, Osama exited a door leading to a small adjacent courtyard. In his career, Mr. Struk has fitted hundreds of prostheses but he had never seen this: Within minutes of going outside on his new foot, Osama began playing with a soccer ball.

'Now my life in Syria is over'

At the camp in Neubiberg, life fell into a routine. A large domed tent with a metal fence around it, the camp houses 300 asylum seekers. Many of them are from Nigeria, Mali and Eritrea; the Syrians are a minority. The brothers were assigned to room 48, a narrow cubicle with no ceiling and a red curtain for a door. Across the hallway sit the bathrooms and showers, often dirty and sometimes malodorous.

There was little to do except eat and sleep – and brood. In the preliminary stage of the asylum process in Bavaria, claimants don't have the right to work, travel or attend government-sponsored language classes. The brothers spent their days worrying about the status of their paperwork, but most of all about their family back in Syria.

Says Basel Omran, centre, seen here on a train bound for Munich: ‘I would hold all the happiness in the world in my hands if my family were here.’

Says Basel Omran, centre, seen here on a train bound for Munich: ‘I would hold all the happiness in the world in my hands if my family were here.’

David Maurice Smith for The Globe and Mail

Basel, Osama and Zain El Abedin are three of eight siblings and have dozens of cousins. Teaching runs in the family: Their father was a school teacher before retiring. The area where their parents live is a battleground in which government forces and Islamic State militants are vying for control; more recently, Russian jets have also begun dropping bombs. The brothers would try to contact their parents via a neighbour every few days, but it wasn't always possible.

Each such break in contact was a kind of torment. Zain – as his brothers call him – missed his parents terribly, and Osama was consumed with thoughts of reuniting his family. Indomitable enough to travel to Europe on crutches, Osama could also seem fragile and nervous. "I always think about the good things and the bad things," he says. Sometimes his face lights up with an infectious grin; at other times, a faraway look comes into his eyes and he prefers to be alone.

Basel never failed to filter his experiences through the absence of his parents. Here he was, in a place with constant electricity, he would tell himself, while his mother and father lived by candlelight. Here he was, watching Osama take his first steps on his prosthetic foot, his joy tempered by the fact that his parents were not there to see it. "When I think of my childhood, I cry for everything that has happened," Basel says. "Even if the war stopped now and we went back, nothing would be the same."

Before the civil war in Syria, Basel studied for a master's degree in classical Arabic in Damascus. Last summer, Islamic State fighters delivered a threat to all the teachers in his hometown: Either teach what we want or be killed. They gave Basel 48 hours to decide. If he accepted, he recalled, he would be taken for a month to an indoctrination camp. "After that, you either believe what they do or you go crazy," Basel says. "It was the worst day. I thought, 'Now my life in Syria is over.' "

After midnight, a friend helped him and Zain escape. The two brothers made it to Turkey, where Osama was already staying with relatives. A couple of weeks later, the three brothers left for the coast to make the crossing to Greece.

Zain Al Abedin Omran, above, and Basel Omran, below, in their room in the refugee camp at Neubiberg in Munich.

Zain Al Abedin Omran, above, and Basel Omran, below, in their room in the refugee camp at Neubiberg in Munich.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

Into a deep, dark spiral

As they tried to fill the long, empty days in the refugee camp, a fresh anxiety emerged. On Sept. 20, as Osama was getting out of the shower, he banged his left leg on the lip of the stall. Pain shot up his amputated limb, which began to shake. The pain radiated into his chest and his breath grew short. As he stumbled out of the bathroom, Osama passed out. He remained unconscious in the hallway for half an hour. Basel and Zain, both frantic, stayed with him as they waited for the ambulance.

After several hours at the hospital, Osama was sent back to the camp, with painkillers. Eight days later, Osama fainted while the brothers were at a nearby train station. Then it happened a third time. Doctors had no good explanation for the attacks. Tests showed nothing wrong with Osama's heart or brain; perhaps, noted a letter from a nearby clinic discharging Osama, the fainting was related to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The turn in Osama's health sent Basel into a deep, dark spiral. He felt frightened, and helpless to protect his younger brother, the person he was responsible for in this strange place. The medical issues compounded the anxiety he felt about another setback, this one bureaucratic.

After their registration as asylum seekers, the next step in the process would be an initial interview. Until that took place, the brothers would have no official form of identification, no right to travel within Germany and no ability to receive the monthly stipend for refugees. Their application would be in limbo.

In mid-September, they had learned the date for their initial interview: March 14, 2016. It was a huge disappointment. Before the latest wave of refugees, such appointments would take place within a week or two. Now, a six-month wait stretched in front of them before they could begin to move their refugee claim forward. The appointment was so far away – and so much later than they had expected – that Basel was struck with despair. For two days, he barely left his room and said little to anyone.

Celebrating Eid al-Adha at the refugee camp in September.

Celebrating Eid al-Adha at the refugee camp in September.

Joanna Slater/The Globe and Mail

'Germany is good, but this place is bad'

In late September, volunteers organized a small party at the camp to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Basel and Zain sat outside at a table while Osama went inside and returned with slices of cheesecake, almond cake and apple cake. As Osama approached, Basel's expression briefly lit up with satisfaction: His brother was walking toward him without crutches, both hands free to carry plates, with only a slight hitch in his step.

It was a light moment in a time of despondency and frustration consumed by petty and not-so-petty frictions at the camp. A couple of hours earlier, a 12-year-old Syrian boy had accused an African refugee of slapping him (falsely, it turned out). Later the same day, a Syrian refugee picked a bag out of a trash can near the entrance to the camp and another refugee accused him of stealing it. As tensions rose, two groups of refugees squared off for a brawl. The security personnel called the police, who sent dozens of officers to the camp. Eventually, the situation was defused.

Norbert Bueker, who leads a tireless group of 200 local volunteers working at the camp, said most conflicts spring from a lack of understanding. Meanwhile, Mr. Bueker also has other issues to contend with: Some of his volunteers are in danger of burning out, while others are vulnerable to criticism from friends and neighbours who say Germany shouldn't be helping so many refugees. A spokesman for Inner Mission, a social-service organization with three employees in the camp, said a new weekly council had helped refugees feel their concerns were taken seriously.

For the three brothers, their early experience of Germany was limited to the refugee camp, government offices and the hospital. Some things they found baffling: "Why do families here have so few children?" Basel wondered. And others they found pleasantly different: the orderly traffic, the punctual trains, the ability to hug women friends in greeting, for instance.

The anxiety and idleness at the camp were corrosive. "Germany is good, but this place is bad," said Basel, gesturing to the large tent. In late September, he grew depressed and talked of returning to Syria. Better to go back home and die in peace, he said, than live in a barn like animals. "The situation here is not as we expected and we dream," he wrote in a message one evening.

In early October, their sister Balqis succeeded in making the journey to Germany with her husband and one-year-old son. She was assigned to a refugee camp at the other end of the country, two hours north of Berlin. The Omran siblings were now split evenly between two worlds: four in Germany, four remaining in Syria.

Then, in the middle of October came a stroke of luck. Ms. Abolof, the volunteer who met the brothers when they first arrived, had spent weeks shuttling between the local authorities and the federal refugee office. Finally, her ceaseless efforts bore fruit. A bureaucrat agreed to shift the interview dates forward for 17 Syrian refugees in the Neubiberg camp ("my 17 children," says Ms. Abolof, laughing). When Basel heard the news, his face was a mask of shock and joy. He grabbed Ms. Abolof's hand and started to dance.

Osama Omran, Zain Al Abedin Omran and Basel Omran after receiving their first official German identity cards at the district administration office in Munich.

Osama Omran, Zain Al Abedin Omran and Basel Omran after receiving their first official German identity cards at the district administration office in Munich.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

'A heavy burden has been lifted'

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Munich is housed in a squat grey building. Outside on a recent morning, the trees have turned yellow and orange. Inside, a handful of people sit or sleep in a grim waiting room on the ground floor. As the minutes pass and more people arrive, the room grows full, then overflows.

At 7:30 a.m., Basel, Osama and Zain come in with Ms. Abolof. Filled with nervous energy, Basel prefers to remain standing, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He complains that these days the brothers do little except eat and sleep, but he sounds more resigned than frustrated.

The atmosphere in the camp is less charged than before. Basel has befriended a few refugees from other countries and says some of the security personnel are helpful. Food still runs out at breakfast and dinner, and sometimes the bread is mouldy, but now these seem like temporary problems to be endured. After suffering three fainting attacks since his arrival in Munich, Osama has had no such incidents in the last two weeks.

A couple of days earlier, Basel recounts, Mr. Gauweiler made a surprise visit to the refugee camp with two local officials in tow. They all crowded into their small sleeping cubicle to talk. Mr. Gauweiler asked what the brothers wanted to do next. Zain answered that he'd like to finish school. Osama said he wanted to go to university and become a photojournalist. Basel's first priority was to learn German, with the hope of eventually becoming an interpreter.

After four hours of waiting, the brothers are called upstairs for their interviews. Most queries are straightforward: name, date of birth, marital status, profession, date of arrival in Germany. Then, Basel says, the bureaucrat's eyes "zoom in like cameras" on his face and she asks him, "Do you have problems with the Syrian government?"

It is an odd question. It is hard to imagine a Syrian fleeing their home who does not have problems with the Syrian government, let alone one whose brother's leg was shredded by a government bomb. Basel believes the query is a way of asking whether he is a rebel fighter – and he answers truthfully, "No." In 10 minutes, the interview is over. As they finish up the paperwork, the translator – a man from Sudan – asks about what is going on in Syria. "We just want peace, that's all," Basel says.

At 2:30 p.m., the three brothers emerge from the refugee office, stunned and happy. They have all passed this stage of the process. They are holding the next step: a 12-point questionnaire which will be used to evaluate their asylum claim. (Question 11: Are you an eyewitness to or affected by: War crimes? Torture or rape of civilians? Executions? If yes, when and where were these incidents? Please explain briefly.)

In a few days, they will enter the district administration office in Munich and emerge with their first stipends and with photo identification confirming their status as an asylum seeker. It indicates that, as of Dec. 10, they can travel anywhere in Germany and also, in theory, get a job. Soon after, Basel will begin German classes three times a week, helping translate the lessons from English to Arabic for his friends.

Basel Omran holds his paperwork and an ID card issued by the security service at his German refugee camp.

Basel Omran holds his paperwork and an ID card issued by the security service at his German refugee camp.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

But now it is time for a small celebration. At a self-serve Turkish restaurant near Munich's central station, the three brothers sit at a long table. They drink Ayran, a yogurt beverage, and eat kebabs and rice. They are in high spirits. At one point, Osama gives Ms. Abolof, the Austrian volunteer who has become a dear friend, a peck on the cheek. He is laughing but also daring – the life they have here will be different, with different freedoms. Yet they are unanimous: If the war in Syria ended tomorrow, they would return home immediately.

Osama Omran and Zain Al Abedin Omran at a Turkish restaurant in Munich. In the background are Ahmad Al Mohammad, the brothers’ cousin, and Fadi Khalifa, their childhood friend.

Osama Omran and Zain Al Abedin Omran at a Turkish restaurant in Munich. In the background are the brothers’ cousin and a childhood friend who came with them on the journey from Syria to Germany.

Laetitia Vancon for The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, knowing they have passed another hurdle is "like a heavy burden has been lifted," Zain says, touching his shoulders. Their father was very worried about the interview, and the brothers look forward to reassuring him that everything went well. Basel says he is filled with energy and feels like running through the streets. "The only thing is my family," he says. "I would hold all the happiness in the world in my hands if my family were here."

As night falls, the restaurant fills up. The brothers set off through the darkened streets. It is a cold, clear evening and office workers are streaming toward home. The roads are full of cars and trams. Ahead of them looms the same railway station where they arrived, exhausted and uncertain, two months earlier. Basel looks up into the night sky. "I feel like a door has opened," he says. "The big door – the door to the future."

Joanna Slater is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Berlin.

Watch Parts lost: A young Syrian’s journey to Germany on a pair of crutches


Editor's note: The last time The Globe and Mail published an article about the Omran brothers, two of them spelled their names differently in English: Basel was Basil, Zain El Abedin was Zaynalabedin. Revisit that article here:

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