E. 21 years old, and A., 23, left their hometown near Deir Ezzor in March 2015, after ISIS had already been in control of their town for several months. "We used to hear about the Taliban in Afghanistan and suicide bombings in Iraq, and it seemed unreal," A. says. "Then we got Daesh, who force and kill and say everyone is an infidel except for them."
The extremists, A. says, focused especially on the shbab, who were pressured to join two-month ideological trainings before becoming ISIS fighters. When a recruiter came to him, he promised he'd join but fled instead, spending $6,000 on a two-month journey with E. and six others through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany. They were imprisoned for 10 days in Hungary, spent most nights sleeping on cold ground, and lost five companions on the way.
Germany has been kind to Syrians, E. says, though he only talks to his family for a few minutes each Saturday, to make sure they are still alive under siege in Syria. He lives alone in a six-story building where none of the neighbors know each other's names. "To be honest, our cultures have nothing in common," he says. "But here I found freedom of expression, religion, and belief. I am free to pray and practice my religion and no one says anything to me. Someone else is free not to believe and I won't say anything to them. Anyone is free to choose and express what they think, and we can respect each other."
There are Syrians who came to Germany, saw how people dress, and decided to go back to Syria, he says. "They think, 'I'll lose my religion, my children, myself here.' So they leave. But this is one in a thousand." The majority will stay, he says: "The real freedom is something amazing, if you understand it. It's valuable and rare." As for culture clash, it just takes time to adjust, A. says. "Berlin is better than other places. People are open and we are learning. And look, we have molokheyya! You won't feel alien when you eat this."
We're in a Syrian cafe talking about statelessness and family reunification when the waiters come up to ask where we learned Arabic and to point us out to the table next to us. Turns out the whole restaurant is run by Palestinian-Syrians from Yarmouk camp, and the Germans beside us are foreign ministry officials trying to help 17-year-old A. get his parents to Berlin.
A., whose family was forcibly expelled from Jaffa, came out of Yarmouk and Syria through Turkey, over the sea. He tells me how his uncle once tricked the neighbors into eating a dog while they were under siege "It was so special even to invite someone to tea! There was nothing to eat. They didn't know where he got the meat."
A. grins and smiles again telling me how he was going to board a boat to Italy, but then saw his mother crying and jumped off. "Forget it, don't cry, we can go back to Syria," he said. His aunt sailed away on that boat and he stayed for three more months in Turkey until his family sent him on an alternate route through Greece. A. arrived in 2015, an unaccompanied 15-year-old, and hasn't seen his parents since.
When I tell him I like his necklace, he pulls it off his neck and gives it to me. "A gift. A souvenir. To remind you," he says. Then they bring us all qatayef and we talk past midnight.