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Reporter's Notebook: Safety Comes First, But it is Not Enough

March 28, 2016|

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Upon hearing visitors were at the camp, refugees stream from their rooms and cafeteria at a former military barracks that has been converted into a center for refugees in Höxter, Germany. The center is about 225 miles west of Berlin. An overwhelming majority of the refugees there are from Syria, with some Iraqi and Afghanis as well. Image by Mark Hoffman. Germany, 2016.

HÖXTER, Germany—After fleeing the civil war in their homeland of Syria, after crossing the Turkish border with smugglers, after surviving a perilous two-hour journey by rubber boat to Greece, and finally after making their way by bus and train and foot through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, Kinda and her mother, Shaha, have settled in the German countryside.

They live now in an old military barracks that has been converted into a camp for some 600 refugees near the town of Höxter, about half-way between Berlin and Dusseldorf. Their refugee village is a patchwork of nationalities, ethnicities and religions: Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Kurds, Christians, Muslims.

They are very happy, Kinda says, though their life is dull and often confusing. Many of the refugees here speak different languages and cannot communicate with each other.

What Kinda and Shaha have found in the camp, their fourth since fleeing in 2015, is safety, perhaps the most basic of human needs.

In ten days of meeting refugees from Syria's civil war, we have heard over and over the terror that started this huge migration. We heard about mourners shot by sniper at a funeral. We heard about a man whose 5-minute trial and execution can be found on YouTube. One of the refugees explained why he left in six words: "We were bombed from all sides."

Only when they are safe can people begin to address other human needs: food, shelter, work, companionship.

Once safety has been secured, however, it isn't long before these other needs begin to assert themselves. Kinda and Shaha mentioned that in the camp near Höxter they cannot work. This frustrates many here.

"It's good for a man to work because he can benefit the country he is in and benefit himself," an Iraqi in the camp told me. He added that some of the refugees get into fights because they have no work and have mental health problems from the terrible events they witnessed before leaving their homelands.

Our visit to the camp near Höxter lasted no more than 30 minutes and quickly descended into chaos. There is so little to do that when outsiders come, curious residents crowd around them. Many complained about the food (mostly eggs and yogurt) which is nothing like what they were used to at home. They complain about the lack of work and the stifling boredom.

A few minutes in a refugee camp, whether in Germany or Jordan, makes one thing very clear: Safety alone is not enough to make a life.