Young Migrants Seek A Safe Place

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Among the thousands of asylum-seekers pouring into Germany every week are scores of children who are alone. Most of these unaccompanied minors are teenagers sent by their parents to escape poverty and violence. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Munich that the unaccompanied young people are often traumatized and under pressure to find work so they can send money to their families back home.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I don't have to search long to find children who've come here to seek asylum. The first two I meet are 17-year-old Syrians, Malaz and Wissam. We are identifying them by their first names because they are minors dealing with difficult personal and legal situations. Of the two boys, Malaz is the more outgoing.

MALAZ: We are friends.

NELSON: So you came together?

MALAZ: No, I saw him here.

WISSAM: Yes.

NELSON: And how long have you been here?

WISSAM: Two days.

NELSON: Their friendship may be new, but the boys never leave each other's side at this intake center, set up in a Munich military barracks built during Nazi times. The teens are nervous living in a male dormitory with strangers from so many countries. Malaz says he finished 10th grade in Damascus and that his family paid $3,000 to a smuggler to get him to Germany. The hazel-eyed teen lights up as he shares his plans to learn German and go to school here, at least for a while.

MALAZ: I'm not going to say here, I think. Go to U.K., I think. I don't know for right now.

WISSAM: It's very hard.

NELSON: Wissam, who is less ambitious than his new friend, says he only has one goal.

WISSAM: I want to be safe here.

NELSON: You want to safe here?

WISSAM: Yes.

NELSON: Monika Steinhauser, who heads Munich's refugee council, says finding safe havens for these children is a top priority.

MONIKA STEINHAUSER: They're supposed to go to specialized homes for young people. And, of course, we don't have enough places now because the numbers have gone up considerably.

NELSON: The EU, in a recent report, estimated 4 percent of the migrants that arrived in Europe last year were unaccompanied minors. Four out of five are boys and are mostly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. Most head to Sweden and Germany, where they try to find work so they can send money to their families back home.

Munich's youth authority says 195 unaccompanied minors arrived in a single weekend this month. Like the adults, they almost never carry identity documents. Steinhauser says German authorities estimate 40 percent of the unaccompanied minors are actually adults who lie about their age to avoid deportation. In most cases, Germany won't send kids back, even if their asylum requests are denied.

STEINHAUSER: Authorities are wrong, I think, in at least half of those cases, if not more because when those young people - they arrive here - they have gone through very, very hard situations, so they look old when they come here.

NELSON: One of the places these children recover is a newly-opened group home in Munich, run by HPKJ, an organization that provides education and therapy to at-risk children. Ninety boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 to 17, who came to Germany over the past few months, live in this building. One of the home's directors is Anna Lena Goedeke, who says they provide unaccompanied children a stable environment, where they eat three healthy meals a day, learn German and, most importantly, heal.

ANNA LENA GOEDEKE: When they are here, it's too early to look in the deep problems. We have psychologists here. They're looking if they have sleep problems or if they hurt themself, but we are not going in therapy.

NELSON: She says the young residents quickly settle into their new routine and are happy just to be kids again.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Like these smiling boys, who crowd around the group home's foosball table. Even so, it will be a long time before these children are whole again, says Jutta Stiehler, who is an administrator with the organization that runs the home.

JUTTA STIEHLER: During the night, maybe the ghosts come back - the fear and the sleeplessness.

NELSON: She says her hope is for these children to heal in their souls and in their hearts. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Munich.

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