|Posted by Egonne Roth on August 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM|
Erfurt, Germany. First mentioned around 746 AD. Home to the first university in German, which was founded in 1379, closed in 1816 and reopened in 1994. The beautiful, old inner city was scarcely damaged during the Second World War and today Erfurt is home to about 206,000 residents among whom is one young Syrian woman rescued from the sea off the coast of the Greek island Lesbos in 2015.
Last year, Yehudit and I visited Erfurt on our way home to Mama from Berlin and stopped long enough to see it highlights: St Mary’s Cathedral perched above the Domplatz with paintings 500 years old,
the Gothic Church of St Severin built around 1300 next to it,
the Alte Synagoge dating back to the 11th century with its mikve on the Gera River, and the little streets of the inner city with their ‘fachwerk’ and Baroque buildings. We had a delicious lunch in the garden of an old pub and promised ourselves to return this year.
Little did we know then that we would meet the young Syrian woman, Seba, a few weeks later in Lesbos. I wrote about her in my previous blogs about the refugee crisis and that she would help us to make that promise come true. Of the several refugees whom we helped in Lesbos and to whom we gave our email address, only Seba tried to keep in touch and so we have been able to follow her story. She now lives in a small bachelor flat on the outskirts of Erfurt where she studies German and hopes to create a new life for herself. For months she has begged us to visit her and finally, last week, we were able to do so. She invited us to stay with her, but we decided to spoil ourselves and booked into the St Nickolei Guesthouse,
across from (and run by) the St Augustine’s Monastery, where Martin Luther lived for a few years (1505-1511). Today St Augustine’s is an evangelical monastery.
Once we had settled our things in our room under the eaves, we set off to find Seba. She lives in an area of tall
apartment blocks set in spacious gardens with many trees. From her large window she looks straight into the tops of the trees so that her place is airy and feels bigger than it is. Her accommodation is provided by the government, who also give her a monthly allowance and access to retraining. She hopes to eventually work as a kindergarten teacher as she had done in Syria prior to the war.
The young laughing woman in jeans and a skinny top, who opened the door for us, her long dark hair around her smiling happy face was a different person to the tired girl struggling up the slope in the photo we took last year. While her German is still weak, we were able to communicate using the translations apps on our phones to fill in the gaps. She told us about her journey through Eastern Europe: In Greece things went smoothly as the Greeks provided transport and basic help, but once they crossed the border into Macedonia, it became more difficult. She kept repeating the words, “We walked a lot! We were so tired!” Eventually, they got to Austria, where they were put onto trains to Germany. When she speaks of that time it is as though her face clouds over and her voice drops. She tells us how much money they had had to pay to get to Lesbos and how some people had sold everything they processed to try to get out – not all were successful. We discovered that her father had died a few years earlier and her mother recently. From the sad nostalgic poems to her mother on her Facebook it is clear how much she misses her. She is the youngest of five children, three of whom are still in Syria with their families. Late last year, her one brother followed the route she had taken and is now living in Hannover – maybe she will join him there but first she must learn German. She fetches her books and proudly shows them to Yehudit.
She served us a simple but delicious meal and when I taste her salad of finely chopped lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes in a tangy dressing, I suddenly felt homesick for the Middle East – that little salad I have been served in numerous Arab restaurants in the Galilee. Seba watched us like a hawk to see if we liked her food and we could genuinely assure her that we did. Then she served us fruit and tea and no matter how much we ate, she tried to feed us more. I wonder what inroads the shopping for our visit made on her budget.
After supper we suggested a stroll through the area but first she had to put on her head scarf and a long-sleeved jacket. We wished we could persuade her to leave the scarf off, to help her to understand her integration in Germany would be easier without it but we sensed this was not the time to discuss it. Not yet. Not this visit. We planned to take her shopping, to spoil her a little especially after she has told us she sends money home to Syria to help her siblings but she steadfastly refused to allow us to buy her anything. Never before have I seen Yehudit trying so hard to make someone choose just one thing as a gift, but Seba would have none of it. With the sweetest smile, she said, “I don’t need anything. It is enough that you came to visit me! Please stay longer.” But eventually we decided to take her with us into the city – maybe we could sit and chat in some café but also that did not work out. She kept refusing to order anything and so we wandered around for a while until we said goodbye and agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast at the Fish Market, now a central square where her trams passes through. We enjoyed walking home through the narrow streets.
The next morning we met at a pretty little café and while she would not eat anything, she had tea while we had coffee. “I don’t drink coffee,” she admitted with a little frown. She told us more about her family about whom she is desperately worried and she repeated over and over again with real fear in her eyes “It’s a big problem! Assad and ISIS is a big problem!” As we sat talking using our phones to assist us, I could not help being aware of the response of the people around us. I had noticed when I hugged her in greeting that several at nearby tables literally swivelled in their seats to watch us, but slowly they decided to just keep a slightly disapproving eye on us. Had Seba not worn the headscarf, we might have gone unnoticed.
But eventually we had to take leave of her. “Please come stay with me one more day,” she kept saying but we had to go. Mama was awaiting our return. After taking more photographs of us with her cell phone, we hugged and said good bye. “Promise you will come again next year,” she asked and we assured her we would. By then her German will be really good and we will be able to talk with greater ease.
“I think I will have start giving you lessons,” Yehudit commented as we walked away. “Otherwise Seba might be better than you!”