Part three: Tammam’s story
Tammam Zaher Aldin, 16, had already crossed the Syria-Lebanon border to get to the German embassy in Beirut twice by himself. He knew his third trip would be his last. It was spring 2021, and Tammam was trying to get a visa to reunite with his mother, Nadwa Jazzan, who had left for Germany three years earlier.
Tammam’s father – Nadwa’s ex-husband – had not allowed his son to leave for Germany. Tammam, whose father had hit him growing up, had tried getting an uncle to sign the documents that would allow him to make the trip. But that had failed.
“I would sit in class thinking about Germany,” he remembered, looking back at that time.
In April 2021, Tammam’s father contracted COVID-19. Tammam spent every night at his bedside, going to school in the morning and then to the hospital in the afternoon.
“My dad was dying,” he recalled. “I didn’t care about getting COVID or really anything else during those days. I wanted to be there for him.”
After 11 days of sleeping on a chair in his father’s room, Tammam lost his father.
Ten days later, he made the trip to Beirut.
“As a teenager, I was by myself, crossing the country,” he remembered. “I felt freer, but I was also mourning.”
After submitting another round of paperwork to the German embassy in Beirut, he returned to as-Suwayda, the city in southwestern Syria where he lived.
“If I wasn’t accepted that time, that was it,” Tammam said. “I couldn’t keep trying.”
Weeks later, while he was at a friend’s house, he got a call. As his friend watched, a smile spread across Tammam’s face: His application had been approved, he was told, and he had two weeks to leave: 14 days to pack up his life, say goodbye to family members and friends, and then fly to Germany.
The days before he left were a goodbye tour. “That was the best week of my life,” Tammam remembered. He saw every friend and relative he had in Syria, and he was optimistic about starting life anew.
A rocky landing
After Tammam arrived in Germany in June 2021, the excitement he had felt about the move faded. He hadn’t thought much past reuniting with his mom. “I had missed her so much over the last three years,” he said. “I was ecstatic to finally see her.”
He moved into the apartment in Mühlenbecker Land, a town on the outskirts of Berlin, with Nadwa; his stepfather, Adham Amer; and Adham’s daughter Wafaa.
“I didn’t want to talk to the few Syrians that did live nearby, or who were in my welcome class,” Tammam said. “It reminded me of everything I left. Those first three months in Germany were really bad. I felt like I had nothing.”
He constantly messaged with his friends back home and stayed in his room. He heard of violence not far from where he’d lived in Syria. “I still wanted to go back knowing that,” he said. He scrolled on social media and tried not to add more stress to his family’s new life as he watched everyone grapple with their own challenges.
There was also the weight of the years he spent separated from his mom, his father’s death, and the fact that half his life had been spent in a country in the midst of a civil war. After Nadwa left for Germany – even though Tammam had supported her decision to go – he had found it hard to concentrate in class, his grades suffered, and he got into fights at school.
“I had lost hope,” he said. “I was a 16-year-old far from my mom, with a dying dad, during a war. I couldn’t concentrate on much.”
Now, in Germany, Tammam could not attend a regular high school, where classes would be conducted in German. Instead, he enrolled in mandatory classes for newly arrived foreign children that focused on learning German. Other subjects – such as maths and science – were also taught, but were less of a priority. To enter the regular school system, Tammam would have to pass an intermediate German test, which could require months if not years of study.
Tammam said he felt unmotivated. He couldn’t see how he’d build friendships like he had in Syria. Eventually, he hoped to study economics – Tammam’s favourite subject was maths – and he was interested in digital currencies. For now, he went to German class, worked out at the gym, and came home.
“That was a really dark time for me,” he said of his first few months in Germany. “I just didn’t feel like myself, and didn’t want to leave my room.”
He needed to put more effort into studying German, but his class did not inspire him. Students learning three different levels of German were all in the same class, and that slowed down everyone’s learning, Tammam’s teacher said.
One of the youngest students in the class, in the first months Tammam often sat quietly on his own, watching other students get into fights or skip lessons. Throughout his first year, he also had health scares and hospital visits brought on by type 2 diabetes, a disease he was at risk for because he was overweight.
Finding a friend, helping other refugees
Tammam’s first German friend was a 65-year-old neighbour. Three months after Tammam arrived, he began spending time with Siegfried Bernhart, who was part of the organisation that supported Nadwa and Adham when they had first arrived. Bernhart didn’t have much family nearby and had befriended Adham.
Bernhart answered Tammam’s questions about German society and food, and he corrected Tammam’s grammar while they worked together in the yard. They smoked cigarettes, and Tammam talked about his friends in Syria.
As his German improved, Tammam felt less alone and more inspired to tackle his studies. He started making daily study schedules, prioritising grammar — which he found to be the most challenging part of learning the language.
Tammam also began asking himself what he had done in Syria that had brought him joy: judo. He had spent nine years practising it and had made his best friends through the judo community.
“To feel alone, like your friends are far away and the people you care most about could be in danger. I want to make them feel welcome here, like Germans did for me.”
He started searching for a club, but the one he settled on was an hour and 20 minutes away. He quickly realised he was too busy studying to commute that far.
“Judo is just going to have to wait,” he told himself.
The only time Tammam briefly paused his studies was in late February 2022, when refugees from the Russian invasion of Ukraine started arriving in Germany. Tammam empathised with them because of his own experience.
“I know what it’s like, what they’re going through,” Tammam said. “To feel alone, like your friends are far away and the people you care most about could be in danger. I want to make them feel welcome here, like Germans did for me.”
Tammam and Bernhart bonded as they prepared apartments for the new arrivals. They spent weeks cooking food, helping paint, and dragging mattresses up stairs. Mühlenbecker Land, he realised, felt like his community too, and he wanted to help Ukrainians feel the same.
By August 2022, nearly one million Ukrainians had sought protection in Germany following Russia’s invasion in February that year – nearly the same as the number of refugees and asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 and 2016.
A shared laugh, adjusting to new rules
A week before the intermediate German exam in March 2022, Tammam sat in class, relaxed. He’d been in Germany for nine months.
During a partner drill, he had everyone at his table – Syrians, Afghans, Kurds, and others – cracking up at his jokes in German. As soon as they thought they had calmed themselves down, Tammam and another student made eye contact. The table erupted again at his joke about a sour gummy candy.
Tammam was feeling confident, but even if he passed the exam, the path to university would be long. It could take up to six years to gain the necessary language proficiency, complete the required schooling, and pass the college entrance exam. According to a 2019 survey, nearly three out of five refugee university students in Germany were 25 or older.
Still, the moment laughing with his classmates felt a world away from the loneliness and anxiety of his first months in Germany. He’d made friends, and he was becoming more comfortable being himself in German.
Tammam even started to prefer certain aspects of German culture. He still missed being able to walk up to any stranger and ask for help or a meal, knowing the answer would be “Yes.” But he liked how Germans valued following the rules.
In Syria, his school’s dress code had forced him to keep his hair short. Months into living in Germany, he had yet to go to a barber shop, preferring to grow his hair out.
“My hair feels like my way of expressing my freedom to be myself,” he said.
He continued to spend much of his free time helping Ukrainians, which gave him a new sense of purpose. And to the surprise of his teacher – because he had been in class for a relatively short period of time – when Tammam took the intermediate German test, he passed.
Tammam started thinking about building a life in Germany in a way that felt more certain. Even the chance to become a citizen – the ultimate symbol of stability for a refugee in a new country – started to look not like a matter of if, but when. The path would be long: Finish high school; Take the college entrance exam; Go to college. Normalcy was achievable, he felt. It would just take time.
Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.