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Commentary: Syrian Migrants In Berlin

Syrian refugees demand help from Germany written on a train station wall in Hungary

Commentator Lee Cullum recently attended a conference in Berlin where the main topic was supposed to be the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But she says all anyone could think about were the migrants pouring into Germany from the Middle East. 

I went searching for refugees in Berlin as their numbers in Germany were catapulting, perhaps to more than a million before the year is out. About ten people were camped on the sidewalk, with makeshift bedding huddled against the wall of a medium-rise building a few blocks from the enormous and sleekly modern train station called the Hauptbahnhof. Athletic shoes were tossed about, heavily worn and swollen in sullen protest that belied the exhausted optimism of the men who wore them.  

They are all men, not only homeless but stateless. One of them comes over to speak. He's friendly, willing to be approached, unlike the others who seem absorbed in their own struggles with worlds lost and maybe, now, found. He tells me that he speaks no German, or English either, except to inform that he's a Kurd, from Syria. At that moment I heard someone else, over my shoulder, on the right, explaining that he had come to help. Did he live in Berlin? Yes, for 15 years. Before that? In Lebanon, though he was a Palestinian. How long have these men been here? For 10 days. Staying till when? Until they get their papers. Then they hope to be sent somewhere in Germany. A new government plan would allocate migrants to all the federal states based on their size, population, prosperity and capacity to cope. Each refugee granted asylum would get health insurance, language lessons, a stipend - more likely now in basic necessities instead of cash—and a place to live though due to the overwhelming numbers of new arrivals many are staying in school gymnasiums and in tents. 

The Good Samaritan from Lebanon, in crisp light khaki pants and windbreaker with a matching baseball cap, clearly not one of the group pacing the sidewalk, comes often, he tells me, to bring the guys a little money to use at the public toilets in the park across the street. He points out a young woman who's just arrived, carrying a shopping bag filled with toys. Her style is breezy contemporary. Where, I wonder, are the children her gifts are meant to gladden? Where are their mothers? The Palestinian asks, where is your wife? Nobody answers.

I give the Good Samaritan a little cash to pass along to the "forced wanderers " as some are known on Facebook, thinking it more discrete to let him handle such a thing, and get back into the cab that brought me. What do you think of all this? I ask the driver. It could be a problem, he replies. So many of them, and they don't speak German.

On a Sunday morning I stop by the NeueNationalgalerie, unaware it was closed for major refurbishing, and what should I see on the far side but a tan blanket and white cover, two pair of running shoes stretched into submission over thousands of miles, a garbage bag overflowing with empty soda cans, discarded bottles lined up along the splendid glass wall.

I almost stumble over a bearded young man, asleep on the blanket, cozy beneath the creamy duvet. An insect buzzes about his face. He opens his eyes for an instant, but never, I think, notices the intruder nearby, close enough to wave away the fly. Another refugee, almost certainly, this one solitary, savoring a bit of peace, dreaming perhaps, of what? A better world? A decent meal? A woman? New shoes? A new life? I don't think it's naive of me to hope  he finds them all.

Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist from Dallas, and the host of CEO on KERA Television. 

Lee Cullum was the host of CEO, KERA’s original monthly series of interviews with North Texas business leaders that previously aired on KERA television and radio. She is a commentator for Morning Edition on KERA-FM and contributes columns to The Dallas Morning News. A veteran journalist, Lee was previously a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered on NPR. In addition, she was editor of the editorial page of the Dallas Times Herald and host of Conversations, a series on KERA with major newsmakers. Lee also worked as a reporter, on-air moderator and executive producer of Newsroom on KERA.