When Ruaa Abu Rashed arrived in Germany after weeks of treacherous travel, including a near fatal boat journey across the Mediterranean, the cold was her first big shock.
The 23-year-old did have a winter coat, but only thanks to a young Italian man at a railway station who had taken it off his own back and handed it to her mother. “I, my mum and brother took it in turns to wear it – for weeks it was the only coat we had between us,” Ruaa says. She knew no word of German. She could not even locate the country on a map.
One by one, her siblings and father arrived in Germany. By the end of the momentous summer of 2015, when Angela Merkel signalled that the country was open to Syrian refugees and added “wir schaffen das” (we can do this), there were eight Abu Rashed family members desperate to see if the German chancellor could live up to her promise. Their experiences in the two years since provide something of a verdict on Merkel’s most controversial policy, weeks before her bid for re-election.
Ruaa herself could be a poster child for integration. Four years after her arrival, she is now a competent German speaker who is about to take up a degree course at university. She is adamant that much as she misses her native Syria, she has invested too much in her German life to ever return.
“I have to take a deep breath sometimes when I think of everything that has happened in the last few years,” she says, sitting in a riverside cafe sipping coffee in her new home town of Lüneburg, northern Germany.
“When I left Syria, I was 18 and very much a child. Now I feel I should actually be about 35.” She walks and cycles around Lüneburg, as well as wading through the waves of bureaucracy as if she had been doing so all her life.
Not everything was plain sailing. Germany took some getting used to. When Ruaa arrived in 2013, there was little of the “Willkommenskultur” that would sweep the country two years later. At a reception centre to which the Abu Rasheds were sent in the town of Friedland, she felt “numbed by the sense of loneliness and boredom, by the blank looks of two old ladies we were sent into a church crypt to get some clothes from, who just sniffed at us and insisted they had nothing that would fit us”.
She continued to wear sandals for weeks, despite sub-zero temperatures, and a combination of hating the processed meat and egg dishes they were given and the sadness she felt caused her to lose 6kg (13lbs).