Gunshots rang out and yelling pierced the night as Yasser ran towards the glowing light in the distance. He didn’t look back at Kobani, which was enveloped in fire and a constant flurry of bullets as members of a Syrian-Kurdish coalition and the Islamic State battled for the city. Yasser wanted to put all that behind him, as he continued to sprint towards the light. The light was perched atop a lone tower, which illuminated the dull ground surrounding it, next to a pole waving a red flag with a prominent white crescent. It came closer and closer to him, until finally he fell at the feet of two silhouetted soldiers standing at the base of the tower. They helped him back on his feet, and started asking him questions in Arabic with a strong Turkish accent. The questioning soon ceased, as the shocked soldiers noticed an open bullet wound in Yasser’s arm. The soldiers decided to lift Yasser into a Jeep. They drove him to the nearest medical station. As the Jeep drove away, the flames of Kobani shrunk in size, and the last of Syria that Yasser would ever see disappeared into the night. Only the hum of the engine and the headlights of the Jeep cut into the silence and dark of the night. Yasser felt at peace for the first time in a very long time.
Many miles from Yasser, the flames of Kobani pierced the dark room that Peter sat in. His wife had fallen asleep some time ago, so Peter changed the channel to the Heute Nacht on ZDF. Outside his window, a single car drove down the quiet Munich street in front of his house. The news anchor spoke about another battle in Syria, the same one from which Yasser had run from, in what was nearly a whole world away from Peter. The report on Kobani then provided more of the shocking images of the ongoing civil war: the destruction of Assyrian temples, the bombing of Damascus, children crippled by chemical bombings, the beheading of an American journalist. But the final image stuck out to Peter: the masses of refugees. A boat full of Syrians; men, women, children, and even newborns, arriving on the deck of an Italian vessel. The crying and elation on the faces of these people rendered homeless by a brutal conflict had an effect on Peter. He couldn’t imagine being put into such a situation, even as an adult. How could a young child face all that suffering, all the horrors that would come with the voyage? Peter walked down the hallway, and creaked open the door to his daughter’s room. The little beam of light coming through the door illuminated the quiet face of his two-year-old daughter, sleeping under a periwinkle blanket. How could a child possibly endure such a trek?, he thought.
Yasser could still picture the tears in his sister’s eyes as he sat in the clinic, under the guard of the Turkish soldiers. He thought about where his family could be at this very moment. He was temporarily comforted, as he knew that his sister and mother were somewhere far safer than where he had been.
They had headed to Lebanon as refugees, along with a few other family members. His mother was a strong-willed woman, who he thought would persevere through the turmoil. His little sister could always brighten the mood with her jokes, and that would help his younger cousins feel safe, and keep them docile during the long journey. Before the war, Yasser remembered how much he and his sister fought over petty things, like food and games. Sometimes, Yasser had even thought that he hated his sister. But he would never forget the image of tears welling up in her eyes, as he hugged her before hopping into the back of a Toyota truck with his father and their neighbors. As the truck drove away, Yasser wouldn’t break eye contact with his sister, as he knew this may be the last time they ever saw each other. The truck drove further from their block, and drove towards his new life as a soldier.
The next few days went by in a flash. The truck drove through more and more towns, each one in greater ruin than the previous one. Yasser watched little girls and old women walking together on the side of the road, with their belongings on their backs. There were families mourning their loved ones lost to the war, by missile, gas, shooting, or illness. There was little happiness to be seen or experienced. It made Yasser feel all the worse. How were his mother and sister getting along? Had they made it to Lebanon yet?
Finally, after 3 days of driving, the truck reached its destination. This town was sprawling in size, with wide avenues and lengthy streets covering it like an intricate tapestry. But Kobani appeared to Yasser as though it was near oblivion. Where homes and stores had once stood were now piles of rubble. Most buildings had large gaps or holes in their bullet-riddled walls. Destroyed vehicles lined the streets as well, some still burning as Yasser’s truck approached them. The sound of bullets firing echoed around the city, but they seemed distant to Yasser at first. But slowly, the sounds came closer. The truck was going towards the sound of the gunfire, towards the raging battle. Yasser looked around the truck now. Surrounding him were his father and his neighbors. These were people he had grown up with, for his whole life. Now, they all seemed foreign to him. Yasser was the youngest of the group, as he was only a teenager. Three of his friends from his youth were in the truck with him too, but they were a few years older than him. All three of them were already married, and one of them had two kids. These young men had big, bushy beards as well, while Yasser was just now growing some modest stubble on his chin. These men had a lot more to lose than I do, Yasser thought. There were many more people back home that would miss these three, compared to himself.
He forgot about this soon enough, as the truck came to a rough stop. The bullets were now at their loudest; the fight was only a block or two away. Everyone stepped out of the truck, with Yasser last. The men looked unsure; they stood motionless, scared about what would come next. Yasser’s father decided to break the silence. “We must do this for our families,” he said boldly. All the older men nodded in agreement, and they walked up the block towards the fight. The men slowly approached the corner, and saw bullets whizzing down the street. Yasser crouched, and crept around the corner to discover who their enemy was. The street was littered with shell casings, cars, and dead bodies. Yasser could feel his heart pounding through his shirt. Death could take me at any minute, he thought. He looked further down the street. At the far end was a black banner with white writing, waving on the top of a pile of rubble. That day was the first time Yasser would encounter the Islamic State.
Peter sat next to his father and brother in the Parc des Princes in Paris. Peter was an avid soccer fan, who had supported Bayern Munich and the German national team since his birth. He rarely got the opportunity to attend many matches now that he had a child, so he was elated when his father surprised him with tickets to a German friendly match. He couldn’t wait to see the reigning World Champions defeat France as a prelude to the European championships next year. While it was not a very important match in the grand scheme of things, it was going to be exciting for those watching. The President of France, Francois Hollande, was present for the game, along with the German Foreign Minister.
The first half began with very little action, aside from a few corner kicks and free kicks. As the match returned to a boring pace, Peter’s enthusiasm waned.. All of the sudden, a large blast ripped through the quiet night. It reverberated around the stadium, and sounded as if a bomb had gone off. Everyone inside the stadium had been startled by the noise, but Peter heard a few people affirming that it had only been fireworks. Only a few moments later, the sound of another explosion nearly blasted his ears. This time the players stopped, and Peter could see a look of fear and uncertainty on the faces of the men on the field. Fear and anxiety swept across the stadium, as everyone was unsure of what was to come. Soon enough, the game resumed play, but it didn’t seem like anyone had their heart in it at this point. At halftime, another bomb had detonated. This one drove a French child sitting near Peter to tears, and this child’s father desperately tried to calm him down. “We are safe, we are safe,” the father assured, but it was clear that he did not believe that. France went on to win the match, and while Germany’s defeat would have usually disheartened Peter, he no longer cared about the game. He worried about what was happening in Paris as his phone lit up with alerts about shootings at restaurants, and a concert hall in the city. Once the game ended, all the spectators were ordered onto the field, as security outside of the stadium was not guaranteed. Uncertainty was in the air, and no one knew what was going on .
After quite a long period, all of the spectators were finally released from the stadium. The gendarmes filled the plaza surrounding the stadium, but Peter was fixated to a restaurant across the street. The windows were shattered, blood stained the sidewalk, and caution tape covered the scene. But one thing stood out the most: a white body bag laid down in front of the restaurant. Peter could not dwell on it for too long, as his family wanted to try to get to their hotel room fast. So they ran into the night, unsure of what they would face.
In the weeks following the attacks, Peter and his wife could not believe what was happening around the country and the continent. As they went to work in Munich, police were a very noticeable presence. At the train stations, commuters were often pulled to the side by the police for random searches. The news was again covered in more images of fear and sorrow, this time close to home: mourning at the Bataclan, a bomb threat at another soccer friendly in Germany, a lockdown in Brussels, and a knife attack on the London Underground. In ZDF’s coverage of the attacks, ISIS announced that they planned on escalating their attacks in the region. Peter thought about how easily the Paris attacks could also take place in Munich. A bomb could go off at Allianz Arena, gunmen could attack biergartens, and a concert at the National Theater could become the stage of another hostage crisis. Peter found himself comforting his crying wife one night, assuring her that they were safe - yet in reality he found himself as unsure of himself as that French father comforting his son on that horrid night in Paris.
Yasser took a look around the corner, and saw that the street was empty. There were gunshots ringing out around Kobani, but as he had been fighting there for some weeks now, they had become just a regular noise. Yasser would usually ignore the far-off gunshots. After surveying the scene, he dashed across to the open door across the street. Right behind him were his father and 4 men from their old town. The group had been halved after combat deaths and disappearances in Kobani. Yasser had seen men that he had known his whole life die before his eyes; they were gunned down in a hail of bullets, blown apart by a bomb, or, in one case which Yasser would never forget, crushed by a crumbling wall. He tried to push these memories out, as he had no time to dwell on such things in the warzone of Kobani. Yasser had pulled back the trigger on his Kalashnikov many a time during the battle, but he had yet to see if he had killed a man. He had hopes that he had killed at least one soldier of the Islamic State, the horrible scourge now ravaging the land. Since his first day he had seen many a soldier from the Islamic State race around Kobani and fire shots at him. Yasser had yet to take a bullet, however.
Now, he and the rest of the squad were trying to capture a crucial building on the main thoroughfare of Kobani. It didn't appear too special by its appearance, aside from it being one of the select structures to not have whole walls missing from it. Instead, it had an inviting storefront. Yasser wondered what wares had been sold there, and how long ago the store owner had fled the city. Or maybe he had stuck it out, and joined one of the battalions. Yasser’s father decided it would be smart to run down the block and hide in the building opposite the storefront. After that, they would begin their assault. The group agreed unanimously. Yasser’s father looked both ways on the street, and then led the charge down to the staging location. Yasser was the last in the line, and as he ran he could hear a high-powered bullet strike the wall behind him: there was a sniper on the avenue. Everyone regrouped in the house, and listened for any shots. The whole street was quiet. The whole group knelt down in circle, and said a prayer before the charge they would execute. How could they possibly believe there is a God caring for them after seeing this war?, thought Yasser. Regardless, he joined in the prayer. They all stood, and this time one of the neighbors checked to see if the coast was clear. There was not even a wind blowing down the avenue, much less any enemy soldiers. Thus, they ran out one by one. Yasser and his father ran side by side towards the building when suddenly a shot rang out through the street. Yasser ran faster towards the building, and made it through the door with his other neighbors. There were only looks of shock on their faces, so Yasser turned around. His father laid out on the street, with a large wound in the back of his head. The man who had been his closest friend throughout his whole life, who had kept him safe for so long, who assured Yasser that everything would be fine, now laid dead in a dusty road. He couldn't think straight anymore, he didn't know what to do. Then, a flash of light blinded him temporarily. Looking up, Yasser spotted the gleaming hint of a rifle in a building. He had to get his vengeance, so he gripped his rifle and ran. Through the door, up the stairs, and into a large bedroom. Sitting there, on a stool, was a sniper covered in a black shawl. On the sniper’s forehead there was a bandana adorned with the badge of the Islamic State. Yasser was filled with rage. He cocked back the rifle, and unloaded into the sniper. Everything from then on was a blur. He dropped the rifle, ran down the stairs, and back out onto the street. Yasser went over to his father’s body, and hugged it, trying to feel what little life could be left in his hero. For the rest of the day, Yasser ran and ran, far from the city and the horrid war. Towards the peace across the border he ran.
Yasser awoke in the truck, and looked out the side to see where he was. The sun was starting to rise, revealing the minarets of the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul was far from Syria, but he wanted to go further. Far from his sister, far from his father, and far from the war. Yasser wanted a new life, a new identity. Europe would provide this.
Over the next days, Yasser made the trek on foot towards salvation in Europe. There were more troubles to come on this journey, especially in the Balkans. He didn’t want to dwell long on what had happened in the past, Yasser just wanted to reach the future. The biggest trial of his journey was found at the Serbian border. There was a line of policemen at the border, blocking passage into the country. Yasser was with many other refugees at the border, and after repeated pleas to the policemen, the group decided to stage a sit-in of sorts. They would not move from the road until they were allowed in. This went on for a few hours: everyone from the old women to the young children sat in silence in front of the police. Eventually, nightfall came. With the arrival of the dark came the arrival of more policemen. One of them grabbed a loudspeaker, and demanded that the group disperse. No one budged. The man said there was no other alternative; they either must leave on their own or they will be forced to leave. Still, none of the refugees moved. This group had walked thousands of miles to reach a better life in Europe, escaping bombs and bullets along the way. They refused to be stopped here. The loudspeaker stepped down, and all the policemen put on gas masks. The refugees all stood up, and some began to run away. The police launched tear gas canisters into the crowd, blinding and choking many. Yasser covered his mouth with his collar, and tried to fight against the gas’s effects on his eyes. He couldn’t see much around him, but soon a policeman brandishing a baton came into view. The baton struck Yasser over the shoulder, which seemed to trigger something inside the boy. He realized he had to run. If not to reach Serbia, but to live. Yasser ran fast through the cloud, and soon he the gas was dispersing and he found himself in a forest. Far away, he could see the lights of a small village. But Yasser could move no more, and he passed out under a tree.
From town to town he would walk, often finding other refugees also trying to reach salvation. They shared food together, and sheltered together. For many days they would walk into the heart of Europe. Finally, after too many days for Yasser to count, he made it to Austria. Here there were many refugee camps for him to stay in, and finally he could relax.
Or so he thought. There was food, there were clean clothes, and there was an actual cot to sleep in. But he did not want this to be the last step of his journey. He wanted to get a real home. For many more days, Yasser would plead to the heads of the camp, begging to be placed with a family. But all of the families wanted to take small children, or girls, while Yasser was nearly a man. This drove him to tears and also almost suicide. However, on one fateful day, he was told to pack his belongings and go to the head of the refugee camp. A family had accepted him and he would be heading to Germany.
Sitting in a train car, Yasser finally felt safe, and he felt loved. He took a look down at the ticket in his hands. He couldn’t read German, but he could learn. The first word he would always remember was his destination: Munich Hauptbahnhof.
Peter had made the decision to take in a refugee after seeing the horrors of this time. The terrorism, the war, the suffering, and the rise of demagogues around the world. While having another child would be costly, Peter and his wife were convinced that it would be the right thing to take in a refugee. No longer would this child have to live in squalor and fear. The couple had expected to be taking in a young child, but they made a complete change in judgement once meeting a social worker about the topic. She had talked about how so many families had been taking in young children, but there were so many teenagers caught in the limbo of the refugee camps. Peter and his wife quickly agreed, after deciding a teenager would probably be much less of a handful compared to another small child. They were given the profile of a boy named Yasser. Yasser had been fighting in the war, when he saw his father die. Since then, Yasser had been travelling primarily alone to reach Europe. Peter was nearly driven to tears by this tale, as this boy’s strife was unimaginable to him.
On the day of the meeting, Peter walked into the converted guestroom. He and his wife had tried to make Yasser’s new room as homely as possible. The bed was spacious, the walls were vibrant, and a poster of the German national team hung in the middle of the room (Peter’s touch to the decor). He sat on the bed and thought about his new son. Would he also like soccer? Would he learn German quickly? Will he accept us? Peter soon questioned his decision. He thought it may be a mistake, for could he truly accept Yasser as his son? Peter put this in the back of his mind, as the train was going to arrive soon. He took his daughter and her stroller, and got in the car to meet the new member of the family.
Peter stood on Platform 2 at Hauptbahnhof. The intercom announced the arrival of the 9 am train from Vienna. The train pulled in, and the doors opened; releasing a flood of commuters and families. The final passenger to step out from the car was a disheveled teenager, carrying a small duffel bag. He was scared, and unsure of what would happen. Then, the boy saw them. A tall German man, with a red beard and a small child in a stroller by his side. The German and the Syrian walked towards each other: Peter towards his new son, and Yasser towards his new father. They stood face to face, and Yasser began to cry. All he could think about was his family back in Syria, and where they could be at that moment. How he wished he could still see them. But he found a loving man in this bearded German. Peter embraced Yasser, and tried to comfort his son.
We are safe, We are safe.