Her New Life Started With a Robbery on a First Date

This is the fourth dispatch from a project following a mother and her four children who fled Syria in 2015 and are now rebuilding their lives spread across four European cities. Read more about the project here.

On Maisam and Marvin’s first official date in June 2016, they were so at ease with each other that they fell asleep together on the riverbank in Heidelberg, Germany; neither of them woke as thieves robbed them in the dark.

Maisam, then 20, and Marvin, 21, had watched the sunset at the Neckarwiese, a riverfront park with a view of the picturesque city and its ruined castle, talking into the night. For Maisam, a Syrian who had arrived in Germany only nine months prior, and Marvin, a German from nearby Hoffenheim, English was their common language. (Out of concern for her family’s security in a new country and the safety of her relatives in Syria, Maisam asked to use only first names.)

Several hours into their date, not caring that they had nothing to eat or drink as others picnicked around them, they drifted off — she in his arms — when the park was still full of people. Well after midnight, they awoke to discover that Maisam’s purse had been stolen, and with it, her ID card, the 40 euros that she had to last her to the end of the month, and the keys to her room at the former nursing home that now housed refugees like her. They searched for her bag until rain forced them to take cover under a bridge, where Maisam cried and Marvin tried to console her.

At the Heidelberg police station, they were told they would have to report the crime to a police station closer to Waibstadt, where the refugee camp was. Marvin offered to take Maisam back to his house; exhausted and with nowhere else to go, she accepted. It was a gut feeling, but she had felt safe with him from the start. She was only wearing shorts, sandals and a light sweater, so he lent her some clothes to sleep in and made space in his bed.

In the kitchen the next morning, she met his mother, Monja, who was preparing breakfast and invited Maisam to eat before she and Marvin set off to report the crime. Later, when the police asked Marvin if Maisam was his girlfriend, he said, “Yes.” When they looked to Maisam to verify, she nodded.

It was in that moment that Maisam’s new life, separated from most of her family in a country she had never meant to live in, really began. While being without her family was wholly unintended, finding a sort of surrogate family in Marvin’s helped to break the landing.

A few days after their first date, Maisam unofficially moved into Marvin’s wood-paneled bedroom in the modest rowhouse where he lived with his mother and adult siblings. Maisam preferred their home to the isolation of the camp, and they made her feel welcome, especially his mother. She’s been with Marvin and his family ever since; the couple celebrated their fourth anniversary this past June. “It helped me being around a loving family — especially Monja, she has a really kind heart,” Maisam says. “They knew it was hard for me to be without my family.”

Though it’s not quite what she ever imagined, Maisam says she has grown to love her accidental life — in large part because she is in love. Looking to a future built on these foundations, she has revisited the ambitions she had before fleeing Syria and is reshaping them around what is possible in Germany.

In summer 2015, Maisam thought that she would soon be starting her second year at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus. But then her sister Souad, whom she hadn’t seen in a year, called with surprising news: She was no longer in Turkey but in Amsterdam, seeking asylum. She encouraged their mother, Suhair, to follow with Maisam, her older sister Naela, and their brother, Yousef.

With the war in Syria only escalating, they hurriedly prepared to leave Syria forever, making every step of the journey from Damascus to the Greek island of Kos together. But once there, they would have to split up.

Unlike most Syrians who that summer traveled via ferry from the islands to the Greek mainland and then over land through the Balkans to northern Europe, Maisam’s family traded on their looks — they can pass for Europeans. While on Kos, they secured fake IDs from a smuggler who assigned them Czech nationality and told them to travel separately, as he hadn’t made them relatives. They booked the earliest flights they could to anywhere within Schengen Area borders. Maisam and Naela found tickets to Zurich. Their mother and Yousef would leave the next day after them for Brussels.

It would be the first time Maisam would spend even a day away from her mother, and she took it for granted that within 48 hours, the entire family would be together again in Amsterdam. Sitting in a pension in Kos the night before their departure, Maisam painted her nails.

The next morning, she and Naela separated as soon as the taxi dropped them off at the airport. They pretended not to know each other and never made eye contact. Should one get caught, the other would keep going. Maisam was nervous about the deception — she had never been to an airport by herself — but imitated the behavior of others. Though both sisters were able to board, they only acknowledged each other in the bathroom in the Zurich airport, where they hugged and changed into warmer clothes. The hardest part, they thought, was now behind them.

Instead, 15 hours after bidding their mother and brother goodbye and about eight hours until they were to reunite with Souad, the plan fell apart. They were on the train that would carry them across Germany to the Netherlands, when the same fake IDs that had worked so well in Greece were detected at the Swiss-German border checkpoint. German police now had them under arrest. Sitting in the police station, Maisam realized it was over, especially when she saw her sister Naela — who had kept it together all their lives, from bearing the brunt of their father’s rage, to planning their mother’s escape from the marriage, to getting them this far — fall to pieces.

As the youngest daughter, Maisam rarely had to bear the full weight of the family’s burdens, even as, in the years before their departure from Syria, both her country and her parents’ marriage unraveled. Both disasters had led to multiple displacements, first to Jordan, then to smaller and smaller apartments in Damascus as her father withdrew any financial support and her mother’s savings and sisters’ earnings dwindled. Through it all — the different schools, cities and houses — Maisam’s bond with her siblings and especially her mother was steadfast. “I was just happy to have everyone,” she says. “I never felt lonely.”

In that police station on the German border, she began to understand that she would no longer have everyone. Maisam and Naela had no choice now but to ask for asylum in Germany. During the police interrogation, Maisam sat silently, listening to her sister respond, between sobs, to the officers’ questions. The police were so rattled by Naela’s hysterical crying that they repeatedly asked if they could offer the women anything. Maisam requested a pillow.

Over the next 10 months in Germany, the sisters were moved between different refugee housing centers — including a former U.S. Army base near Heidelberg and a former hotel in the Black Forest — with little to do but wait. Maisam looked into how she could continue art school, quickly realizing it would not happen easily or soon. And without materials, she barely made any art, though she did draw on the camp walls for the children.

In December 2015, they were again moved, this time to the former nursing home in Waibstadt. Because of her age, Maisam was able to attend German language classes, but Naela was too old to be eligible. Their lives began to diverge, with Naela volunteering for an Arabic-language feminist Facebook page and also developing a new relationship with a German man who lived nearly 100 miles away.

Maisam began to do all the things she had never done for herself before — from grocery shopping to laundry to cooking to budgeting to simply talking to adults. “I had to grow up so suddenly,” she says. A Syrian friend in the refugee camp noticed how lonely Maisam was and suggested a dating app, but she was so inundated with lewd propositions that she was about to delete it when Marvin messaged with what she calls “the first normal, nonsexual” message.

Built on many other firsts, as well as a shared passion for video games and fast food, their relationship has given each of them stability. Both of their fathers are not in their lives, and the couple are both attached to their families — the everyday constant in Marvin’s life, as Maisam’s had once been in hers. Another 20-year-old might have been put off by moving in with her new (and first) boyfriend’s mother, brother and sister, but for Maisam it was welcome. “They are warmer, more open” than the Germans she had met so far, she says. “I love them very much.” When Monja decided to move her family into a nicer rental, Maisam moved with them and began to contribute to the rent.

Though she acknowledges that being around a family has helped her emotionally because it is familiar to her former life, the hurt isn’t gone. “It’s still hard to this day,” she says.

It was almost a year before Maisam and Naela finally saw their mother and brother again. Suhair and Yousef received their temporary residency permits sooner and were able to travel from the Netherlands in August 2016 for that long-awaited reunion. Later that year, Maisam’s and Marvin’s mothers met.

For Maisam, her mother remains her best friend. “There isn’t one day that we don’t talk or text each other,” she says. “She is the only person I’d tell everything to.”

Maisam has become fluent in German, and she worked for six months at an apparel store. With no clear path to university for now, she enrolled in September in a vocational school as part of a three-year apprenticeship with a visual-marketing firm, staging events like weddings and designing department store windows, work that appeals to her artistic side. Before she started, she dyed her hair cotton-candy pink.

From Hoffenheim, though, the apprenticeship is a three-hour round-trip commute by public transportation, so Maisam rents a small, low-ceilinged basement studio 30 miles away from Marvin’s family. She chose it because it was the cheapest option, but it doesn’t even fit a bed; she sleeps on a pullout sofa. Her first night there she lay crying, wanting to just go back to Hoffenheim.

When Marvin visits her, they binge on Netflix (most recently the Egyptian horror series “Paranormal”), Burger King and Domino’s; it’s all much better then, and even feels more homey. “Marvin is my home,” Maisam says. She still returns every weekend to his family. She’s keen to move to somewhere bigger than the village, but he would prefer not to move any farther than Heidelberg. “Where I am, it’s perfect to live,” he says.

In some ways, she’s happy she didn’t make it to the Netherlands. She likes that Germany is larger, and she also likes Baden-Württemberg, the state where she has landed. “My state is good. Not strict. The weather is nice. You don’t have Nazis here,” she says. “Some places in Germany, there are real Nazis.”

Last May, Maisam celebrated her 24th birthday — her fifth one outside of Syria — with Marvin and his family, in their house’s small backyard. Had it not been for the coronavirus lockdown, she would have spent the day as she had been planning for nearly a year: riding the roller coasters at Europa-Park with her best friend, who also came to Germany from Syria as a refugee and whose birthday is the day before Maisam’s.

Instead, they passed the spring evening grilling and drinking wine. Monja baked Maisam a chocolate cake and gifted her a microwaveable teddy bear. Marvin gave her a PlayStation 4.

While Maisam might be a bit curious who else might have happened into her life, she’s fairly certain it wouldn’t have included casual relationships. “I skipped the whole being heartbroken, [expletive] relationships — skipped all of that and found the person I really love,” she says.

She is happy with how it turned out. “Marvin is not going to break my heart,” she says, adding, “He only breaks my heart when he eats pizza without me.”

Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” the editor of “EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees” and the director of the international reporting program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. This dispatch is part of a reporting project intended to span 10 years.

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