“Refugees found themselves separated from their families, with no access to water, and felt that their human dignity was taken away.”

Carolin Schön is an 18-year-old apprentice banker in the German city of Erbach. In her free time, Carolin volunteers with refugee children in a refugee camp, as well a children’s home for unaccompanied minors. The camp functions as emergency accommodation for refugees awaiting official registration and the children in the camp are between the ages of two and 12 years old. Children in the home for unaccompanied minors are aged between 12 and 17. Carolin told the IPF that many of these children lost their families in their country of origin or on the long journey to Germany, the majority being from Syria and Afghanistan.

Among them is the story of a young boy from Syria. Carolin believes that his story “reflects everyone’s story from the camp”. 

The boy, who we will refer to as “Al”, had just started attending university in a small, neighbouring village in Syria. The university was collecting donations for a nearby village that had been heavily bombed, however, Carolin was told that soldiers from the Syrian Army found out and arrested some of the students who had been helping. 

While Al was not arrested, the incident promoted him and some of his friends to set up a group that wrote graffiti all over the village’s bombed walls, spraying quotes such as: “Islam is not fighting.”

Eventually, the Syrian Army found out about this too and a member of the group was killed. The others were arrested and tortured with racks, electric shocks, and water-boarding. Three weeks later the prisoners were released and their community celebrated them as heroes. 

Despite surviving torture, the boys  were not scared into silence and continued with their graffiti.  They were arrested once more and, this time, the torture went on for six months. This time, most members of the group died of hunger, illness, or as a consequence of the torture. 

When Al was eventually released, he was in a lot of pain and no longer able  to walk. He spent a whole year in a hospital. Carolin said: 

“To this day, he still has scars on his face and he can’t walk properly. He showed me pictures and videos from the torture and how he looked after the ordeal; I saw cigarette burns and shoe marks on his face, it all looked so horrible. I have never cried as much as I did that night.”

Carolin told the IPF that once Al got out of hospital, he was arrested and tortured yet again. The soldiers had realised that the boy was strong, and wanted him to work as a mercenary soldier. Carolin never found out how Al was able to flee to Turkey with the last of his family’s money, however, when the soldiers found out they arrested his brother and killed his father. Al told Carolin that the soldiers are now asking for money from his mother to keep his brother alive.

Too scared to say in Turkey because some of his friends had been killed there as well, Al said that he decided to flee to Greece. Roughly 60 people were said to be on his boat from Turkey to Greece, but only 12 survived. 

Moving forward, the journey from Greece to Germany was equally hard. Al said that he was forced to hide at the border and live in the woods for weeks. He told Carolin that the living conditions at refugee camps in Macedonia and Serbia were terrible. Refugees found themselves separated from their families, with no access to water, and felt that their human dignity was taken away.

Al currently lives in the children’s home for unaccompanied minors. Carolin explained that he, like all the other refugees, will never forget what happened to him and feels as though his life is hopeless.

Knowing of these refugees’ horrific pasts has made Carolin realise how good her life is in Germany is, and has driven her to help those less fortunate than herself:

“The refugees are really interested and curious about my life and German culture in general. They are so thankful for any help they get and that makes me so happy. They are not just people I’m working with, they are my friends – even more than that, they are my family.”