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As Fears Mount In Germany, Syrian Refugees Grapple With Perceptions

A family from Syria speaks with a language professional (left) about their application for asylum.
Soeren Stache
A family from Syria speaks with a language professional (left) about their application for asylum.

The Paris attacks are sparking fears in Europe that the Islamic State is hiding its operatives among the tens of thousands of refugees pouring into the European Union each month.

In Berlin, those fears are also troubling Syrian refugees, who worry they may be kicked out of Europe.

Samar Alalaly, for one, rejects those concerns. The 30-year-old Syrian mother of three, who arrived in Germany six weeks ago, says they don't make sense. "We ran away from war," she says. "We didn't come to make war here."

Many Germans, including the authorities, aren't convinced that's true of everyone. Earlier this week, police arrested seven migrants outside of a jobs center near the western city of Aachen. Officials say they did so after an unnamed "witness" called to report that one of the migrants looked like Paris attack fugitive Salah Abdesalam.

Hours after the arrests, German Interior Minister Thomas DeMaiziere told reporters their investigation so far hadn't revealed any close ties between the detainees and Paris attackers. The migrants were later released with a formal apology by the Aachen police.

Nevertheless, German officials — including the interior minister — defend the extra scrutiny of migrants as the number of credible terror threats here grows.

And their profiling has been very public. For instance, on Saturday night at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, police patted down a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men they had rounded up in front of passersby. The young men, one of whom carried a skateboard, looked upset as they held their hands up in the air.

Fauzi Nagdali, a 21-year-old from the Syrian city of Homs, says such tactics are unfair. He arrived in Germany and was recently approved for asylum. He says that Syrians have undertaken a life-threatening journey to find a safe haven, only to be arrested. "That's not justice," Nagdali says.

Fellow Homs native Steve Aljundi is also defensive about Syrian refugees being put under a magnifying glass.

"Even the French prime minister, he said recently like these people who attacked, they are not new arrivals, they are not refugees," Aljundi says. "Like, he said: We host them, and they are one of our population."

Even so, Aljundi says that with the German government focused on ISIS, other dangerous Syrians who come to Germany may be slipping through the cracks.

"There are people from Hezbollah and from the [Assad] regime, Syrian regime — who were killing and torturing people — and they are living here as normal asylum-seekers."

In a tent for newcomers, Kholoud Daadi, 39, says it's frightening to know the terror group that was one of the main reasons her family fled Syria carried out attacks in Europe a week before she arrived in Germany.

God willing, she says, she and other refugees can convince German society that they are moral people who treasure peace and security as their hosts do.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.