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Letter from Germany — From the April 2017 issue

Echt Deutsch

How the refugee crisis is changing a nation’s identity

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On a starry night in August 2015, Ranim Alsous and her three children set out across one of the deadliest straits of the Aegean Sea. Alongside fifty other refugees of many ethnicities and sects, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurdish, they climbed into a small dinghy — really nothing more than an oval of inflatable plastic with a motor attached — near Bodrum, off the southwestern tip of Turkey, and headed for the Greek island of Kos.

The journey started smoothly. Turkish authorities were nowhere to be seen, the waters calm, the air warm. In less than an hour, the family would reach firm ground; in a few days, Athens; in a few weeks, Berlin. There, they would be reunited with Ranim’s husband, Mousa Alzaeem, who had traveled the same route a few months before.

Mousa Alzaeem waters a small olive tree that his family received from Berlin acquaintances after moving into a new apartment, at the edge of the city. When he lived in Idlib, Syria, he and his brother owned around 2,000 olive trees. All photographs by Kaveh Rostamkhani

Mousa Alzaeem waters a small olive tree that his family received from Berlin acquaintances after moving into a new apartment, at the edge of the city. When he lived in Idlib, Syria, he and his brother owned around 2,000 olive trees. All photographs by Kaveh Rostamkhani

Then the trouble started. The motor stalled. Water began seeping into the boat. After several long minutes, the motor came back to life, but it quickly stalled again, this time for good. The refugees had to stand upright in the dinghy as the water rose higher.

Ranim’s oldest son, Ali, a sensitive fifteen-year-old, found himself abruptly forced into the role of family patriarch. He had been the only passenger to keep his cell phone dry, raised high above his head. He alone now managed to dial the Greek Coast Guard and plead for salvation.

They said there was nothing they could do. Unless the dinghy reached Greek waters, its passengers would be on their own.

The dinghy continued to flood. Ali was desperate to save the family’s most important possession: a bag containing their vital documents and diplomas. But then he saw the infant son of a Kurdish family sinking below the surface. Letting go of the bag, he held the boy afloat. “In that boat,” Ali, whose family is Arab, told me, “all of Syria was finally one.”

A few minutes later, the Coast Guard appeared. Had the dinghy drifted into Greek waters? Or had the sailors broken the rules? Ranim didn’t know. What she did know was that her first contact with European officialdom was a painful one: the Greeks welcomed the men and older boys with a blow to the head.

Thankful to be alive, Ranim, Ali, Maya, and Amr were taken to Kos, where they applied for permission to continue to Athens. They purchased a tent in which to spend the week they expected to wait for the necessary papers, and huddled together for their first night in the European Union. Some evenings, as soon as Ranim closed her eyes, the nightmares began. She dreamed of Syria, of death and destruction, of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters dropping bombs on her family.

Once, startled awake, she realized that the helicopters were real. They were looking for survivors of another voyage from Bodrum to Kos, likely arranged by the same smugglers, which had ended as hers so nearly might have. The next morning, a photographer discovered the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, washed up on the beach, back on the Turkish side of the Aegean. His picture has since come to embody the suffering of the Syrian refugees.

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is a lecturer on government at Harvard University, a senior fellow at New America, and a columnist at Slate. The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State will be published by Harvard University Press in May.

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