Maher is a journalist. He and his family are originally from Iraq. Maher has waited nearly 16 months for his asylum case to be decided. With no permission to work and no access to education for his four daughters, he is currently on hunger strike in a reception center in Germany. He hopes that this will speed up a transfer and a decision.
"Hi there, my name is Maher. I used to be a journalist before coming to Germany," begins one of Maher’s messages to the InfoMigrants. Apart from the fact he sent us pictures of his press cards and other documents to support his story, you can see Maher has worked in journalism. His messages are rich with salient information for his story, links to support what he is saying and pictures with signs to try and convey his message.
He first wrote to InfoMigrants in August 2020 to complain about the conditions in a camp in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Back then, he sent pictures of himself and two fellow asylum seekers holding up signs of protest. He was upset then because some of the people in the camp were fighting or "playing loud music," he said, "drinking alcohol and consuming all kinds of drugs." He and a few others were fighting to change their room to get away from that kind of behavior.
On a telephone call with InfoMigrants, Maher says that unfortunately, in his experience this kind of behavior is rife in the German camps accomodating asylum seekers.
A complicated story
In August, Maher said he was threatening a hunger strike to force the organizations which ran the camp at Unna/Massen to grant him a new room. For a while we didn’t hear from him, until he wrote once again with a longer message in February 2021.
Maher says he is now two weeks into a second hunger strike, which he began on March 17. Maher told InfoMigrants that he is drinking water, cola, tea and some yoghurt but is refusing to eat anything solid at the canteen for asylum seekers in the camp (ZUE) where he and his family are accommodated in Hamm. His family are still eating, he said, he didn't want to put them through a hunger strike too.
Maher's story is complicated. After being forced to flee Iraq in 2013, he was in Jordan where the UNHCR granted him refugee status, he claims. Then he got offered a job in Turkey, with Turkish state television TRT. The family were happy in Turkey, Maher says. His children learned Turkish, they went to school, things were good. They would have been happy to stay. He was working and could support himself.
But then, in late 2019, TRT terminated his contract. Maher said they told him they didn't like the fact he had done a report for the BBC on the fall of the Turkish Lira. He had ten days to leave Turkey, and not much time to think.
Maher had a valid German visa, because a few months prior to his termination he had attended a journalism conference in Hamburg and had been granted six months. Maher said he quickly printed out all the documents he had been amassing to apply for a visa for his family too. But in his haste, he printed out an application he had been making to France, not Germany. Which is how his wife and four daughters ended up with a three month visa to France where they have relatives, and he with one to Germany.
'Living in hell'
"When we arrived in Germany on January 1, 2020," recalls Maher over the phone, "I asked if it was OK that we had visas to different European countries." Maher was told, he said, that because he had the longer visa for Germany, that is where their case would be taken into consideration. So they made their asylum application in Germany.
"Since then," Maher writes, "my family and I have literally been living in hell." First the family applied and waited, but in July, the German authorities decided that he should be taken to Kehl and then deported just across the border to Strasbourg in France. However, Maher says the French authorities refused to take them, citing Dublin as a reason for them to continue with their application in Germany.
"We were literally living on the streets for a couple of days," says Maher quietly over the phone. They quickly ran through the €200 they had been given by the German authorities and Maher ended up selling his beloved camera and his daughters' phones on the black market in order to scrape together enough cash to stay in a hostel.
Then Maher came back to Germany to start the application over again, while he sent his family to stay with relatives in France. "They were tired," he said. "They couldn't face another stay in a camp, with all our belongings in bags." But in December, his family joined him at the ZUE in Hamm, hoping that that would help their application be handled together.
'Like living in a prison for a crime we didn’t commit'
Maher’s frustration shines through. "I am not allowed to work, study, join an integration course, buy a SIM card, subscribe to the internet, or even travel locally," he explains. He calls the center he is living in "detention," and is angry that he has not received any decision regarding his asylum application in the last 16 months.
Maher says he has four daughters, 17, 16, 11 and five years old. He says they are "all suffering from severe depression," and haven’t had access to school in two years. Maher claims their hair is turning gray because of the "tension of the life we are living." Maher writes that it is "like living in a prison for a crime they didn’t commit."
Maher is angry about the Dublin regulation. He points out that the system, which expects asylum seekers to be returned to the first EU country of entry in order for that country to process their asylum claim, has been criticized by many humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty, UNHCR, Pro Asyl and the Catholic charity Diakonie "among many others."
He would have been happy to apply for asylum in France, there, he says, it is easier to be recognized as a journalist fleeing a lack of freedom of press. He could have been granted a ten-year residency permit and the right to work. They have family there too, but the Dublin regulation means Maher and his family are now stuck in a German bureaucratic maze, with seemingly no way out.
Maher says that the reason he sought asylum in the first place was "because of my journalistic activities." He said he was "reporting for the opposition's channels during protests" in Iraq in 2013 when he started coming under fire. That's when he was forced to flee from Iraq to Jordan, Maher writes, "because of a threat by Iranian backed militias."
Maher sends us a copy of the letter from the UN refugee agency UNHCR in 2014 confirming that he is an asylum seeker. He said he was later granted international protection and residency, but was told to wait for a new letter confirming that. In the meantime, he moved to Turkey to work for TRT and so didn't pick up that last confirmation.
Now, he's waiting for the outcome of a courtcase against TRT and hoping that, if it is decided in his favor, he will receive some compensation for the loss of work. Money he really needs to try and start a new life in Germany.
Being granted asylum would allow Maher to work and his family to start back at school. But what Maher really wants is just to be allowed to work. He says he has had to turn down so many jobs in the last year because of his unclarified asylum status.
Hoping for a transfer
Maher is particularly upset that he and his family haven’t been transferred out of the center in Hamm very quickly.
In his experience, he says that "all families get transferred within six months." InfoMigrants contacted the Malteser charity which runs the center where Maher is staying, as well as the city authorities in Hamm, but have so far received no answer either about Maher’s case or their general policy towards asylum seeking families, and their children’s education.
Maher says that once he is transferred out of the center, his daughters should be able to start school. In the meantime, they are trying to learn German via an app on the phone.
Maher says he has received no official notice of why his case might still be pending. He says that in 2020, the deportation order they received to France has now been removed. He says his lawyer has been informed by the court that their case will be examined in Germany. However, when that might be, he still does not know.
The Malteser charity, Maher claims, have not offered his children any kind of schooling within the center, or even any other types of educational or integrative activities. On contacting various organizations and refugee councils, Maher says he always receives the same response, "wait!" But his patience, he says, is running out.
Desperate for education
In the middle of March, he said he was ready to get the whole family involved in a hunger strike in order to force the authorities into acting. The trigger, he says was that the authorities had promised they would be moved into more family-friendly accommodation, and then, despite having a negative COVID test, their move was suddenly suspended with no explanation. Although, he says he heard unofficially that someone else due to be transferred the same day had tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the meantime, Maher is still waiting. He still has no date either when a hearing might decide his family’s fate, or for a transfer to a place, where perhaps finally, his children might be allowed to start school.
"When I applied for asylum, I signed for protection! I did not sign up to ruining my own life and that of my family!" he writes bitterly. One of his messages ends with a plea for the authorities to consider his family as "human beings." As Maher writes: "We have rights too. We have plans, dreams, ambitions and feelings." And they are desperate to start realizing them, and living again rather than just suspended in what seems like, for them, an eternal wait.