The Road to Damascus: Syrian refugees racing in Berlin
Andrew Curry and Timm Kölln's award-winning feature from Rouleur magazine: Syrian refugees reach the velodrome in Berlin with one mission - to once again make a living from bike racing
On August 15, 2015, the Syrian national championships were held in Latakia, a city of 100,000. A sunny seaport on the Mediterranean coast, it was one of the last places in Syria shielded from the country’s five-year civil war.
The scene was surreal. A few dozen men – members of the national team along with riders from local clubs in the handful of cities the Syrian regime still controlled – raced on near-empty streets. At every intersection, Syrian army soldiers wielding assault rifles kept silent watch. Just outside the city, Russian troops were busy building a secret airbase to support Syrian government soldiers.
The top two finishers – sprint specialist Nazir Jaser, 26, and his longtime roommate Yelmaz Habash, 30, a wiry climber – were no surprise; they’d been the stars of the Syrian national team for years, representing the country at international races as far away as Florence and South Korea.
Two weeks later, they were gone. With them went Nabil Allahham, the winner of the men’s under-23 race, and the recently-crowned junior national champion, Tarek al-Moakee. Together with another junior and ten of their friends and relatives, they fled the war-torn country for Europe. They carried little besides their passports, their smartphones and the hope that somehow they’d be able to continue their cycling careers and earn a living as pros in Europe.
A month and a half later, they showed up unannounced at the Berlin velodrome, a cavernous concrete structure that hosts more rock concerts than bike races. Slipping in a side entrance, they knocked on the door of Dieter Stein, a former East German track racer who runs the annual Berlin six-day race.
Allahham – a tall man with a degree in accounting and an easy smile – was the group’s spokesman. In excellent English, Allahham told Stein he had Googled “cycling headquarters Berlin” and was hoping to speak with the person in charge. The men showed Stein their documents, and their smartphones, loaded with photos of podium ceremonies, races and start-line selfies. They were professional cyclists from Syria, they told him. And they wanted to race in Germany.
The cream of Syria’s national cycling team arrived in Germany in the midst of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. In 2015, nearly a million people – from familiar conflict zones like Syria and Afghanistan along with lesser-known trouble spots like Eritrea and economically depressed European countries like Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo – entered Germany.
A year later, German society is struggling to figure out how to manage and hopefully integrate the new arrivals. It’s no stretch to say every corner of German society has been affected. The arrival of a handful of professionals and espoirs from Syria and Iraq has forced even the tight-knit German cycling world to confront the country’s new status as a beacon for refugees from around the world. Would Germans step up and welcome them? Or would they be frozen out, marginalised or even sent home?
When the cyclists walked up to Berlin’s velodrome last autumn, they knew their very presence was already dividing German society, though the vast majority of Germans agreed in principle with slogans like “No human is illegal” and “Refugees are welcome here” that appeared on stickers, banners and graffiti all over the country. It was a chance for Germany to show the world how much it had changed and prove that stale World War II stereotypes no longer applied.
But as the summer wore on and the situation in Syria grew worse, the numbers of people making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean kept climbing. Calm summer seas saw thousands of people land on the Greek islands of Mytilene and Lesbos each day, leaving small mountains of cheap orange lifejackets and deflated rubber boats behind. Most were headed north: to Sweden, to Denmark, to France, but most of all, to Germany.
In late August, Chancellor Angela Merkel reassured panicky Germans with a promise. “Wir schaffen das,” she said: “We can do it.” Most Germans saw it as a call to step forward and help. Germany was one of the richest countries in the world, prided itself on its organisational ability, and (like most other European nations) had signed the UN Treaty on Refugees.
Around the country, armies of volunteers manned makeshift welcome centres in train stations, supplying exhausted arrivals with cheese sandwiches and cell phone chargers. Organisations collecting donated clothes had to turn donors away for lack of warehouse space. In Munich, thousands of people each day arrived at the train station, guided by volunteers who put them on buses bound for hastily-organised shelters all over the country.
After his meeting with the Syrians, Stein, too, was enthusiastic. He held a press conference and invited local TV crews to the velodrome. The president of the Berlin Cycling Federation shook their hands. Cyclists, too, were working hard to integrate and welcome the new arrivals, he told the cameras.
Yet underneath it all was a deep reservoir of pessimism. To some, the idea that Germany would ever be a real home for the new arrivals appeared naïve and foolish. Over the years, Germany had failed to integrate hundreds of thousands of guest workers who came from Turkey to fill spots in post-war factories; generations later, Germans of Turkish descent still form an underclass in many German cities. Why, right-wing politicians asked pointedly, would the latest new arrivals fare any better?
Frank Röglin admits he was one of the doubters. Röglin is the president of one of Berlin’s oldest cycling clubs, Luisenstadt 1910. He’s been involved in the city’s cycling scene since he was a junior racer growing up in West Berlin in the 1960s. Back then, he says, bike racing was so popular you could race every Saturday and Sunday all season long without ever leaving West Berlin.
In the 50 years since, Röglin’s done everything from serving as the treasurer of the Berlin Cycling Federation to coaching juniors at the city’s velodrome. His son raced as a junior and espoir before hanging up his jersey in his mid-20s for a job with the local power company. Röglin stuck with the sport as a volunteer, earning a full-fledged coaching certificate. At 59, he still keeps his legs shaved. A few years ago he even bought a derny he keeps parked in the basement of Berlin’s velodrome.
As he watched the news last summer, Röglin couldn’t imagine closing Europe’s borders or sending refugees back to a war zone. But at the same time, he wasn’t optimistic that the long lines of bedraggled men, women and children he saw on TV would be able to make it in Germany.
Still, when Stein asked him in October to see if he’d be interested in coaching a handful of new arrivals, Röglin was intrigued. When I called him a few months later to see if he’d introduce me to the Syrian cyclists I’d seen briefly on the news, the coach was all in.
On an icy February morning, I visited Röglin’s townhouse in a residential area of Berlin. It was an idyll of German gemutlichkeit: overstuffed couches around a gas fireplace, a Weimaraner dog named Wanda, a tidy back garden visible through the kitchen window and a black motor scooter parked out front.
Röglin welcomed me at the door and introduced me to the men. Since their late-October TV appearance, they had settled into a routine, training under Röglin’s supervision a few nights a week at the Berlin velodrome and taking language classes during the day.
When I asked about their pro palmarès, they pulled out their phones, scrolling through photos of podium finishes back in Syria and cherished bikes they’d sold to pay off smugglers. Jaser boasted that he’d competed against the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara at the World Championships in Florence just two years before.
All four told me they were planning to find work as professional cyclists. Giving up on that dream was not an option. Jaser leaned across the table. “My goal in Germany, after learning the language, is to complete my career as an athlete. I’m pretty far from the real professional teams, from the WorldTour,” he said in forceful Arabic as Allahham translated. “But the lower levels? I’m not that far. I’ve competed against them. I know I’m close. Nothing is impossible.”
Röglin wasn’t so sure. More than four months after arriving in Germany, only Habash, who arrived together with his wife, had been officially recognised as a refugee. The paperwork officially granting the others refugee status still hadn’t been processed. With nearly a million new arrivals in 2015, waiting times were being counted in months, or even years.
In the meantime, they were “asylum seekers”, entitled to basic housing and a small daily allowance for food but forbidden from working. Because they were Syrian, and therefore unlikely to be sent back, they were allowed to enroll in language classes paid for by the German government.
Their future as athletes, Röglin told me, depended on finding enough hours in the day. Like any athlete, they’d have to eat, sleep and train. But as asylum seekers, they also had to spend five hours a day in language class, stand in long lines at various government agencies to secure their refugee status, and search for a new shelter, hostel or temporary apartment every few months. As the weeks dragged on, he said, it was hard to see how they’d ever regain the fitness to race competitively.
There were other, more Byzantine challenges. First – and most importantly – they needed bikes. Röglin was struggling to convince potential donors that the guys wouldn’t simply sell their equipment and disappear. Even if he sourced bikes, Röglin worried there was no place to store them in the refugee hostels and temporary shelters the group shuttled through. Then there was the matter of theft insurance, standard for Germany. “They don’t even have addresses, let alone bank accounts, and they have no place to keep bikes in a refugee shelter,” Röglin said.
Moreover, their unresolved refugee status made the practicalities of competing daunting. According to German regulations, once they had registered as asylum seekers in Berlin they needed special dispensation to spend a night outside the city. Until their appeal for asylum was granted, travelling to races was nearly impossible. Besides, they had no cars, no German driver’s licenses, and no money for gas.
And then there was the issue of a racing license. The German Cycling Federation issues licenses to German citizens; a waiver would require special permission from the Syrian Cycling Federation. That was unlikely in the midst of civil war – not to mention the fact that the team consisted of, in essence, defectors and draft dodgers whose departure put the lie to the Assad regime’s propaganda.
Even if they could somehow cut all the red tape, the single-minded focus required to train for competitive cycling was hardly compatible with life as an asylum seeker. While their refugee status was under review, new arrivals had an allowance of about €10 per day for food, clothes and other essentials. Röglin had been around long enough to know that might be enough for the average person to live on. But cyclists eat a lot more than the average person.
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Beyond the welcoming warmth of Röglin’s house, hundreds of thousands of other hopeful refugees were encountering similar problems. German politicians played the arrival of so many asylum seekers up as an opportunity. New arrivals wanted to find jobs, earn money and continue their lives. The country needed skilled workers and an injection of young people to shore up its greying population.
But good intentions would not be enough. Diplomas needed to be translated, professional exams taken again in German, certifications and licenses earned all over again. War had put the lives of young people like Al-Moakee, who was just 12 when the conflict in Syria started, on hold. Before they could return to school or find jobs, they’d have to learn enough German to function – a matter of years, not months, as anyone who’s worked to learn a foreign tongue will know. (For Arabic speakers, there was also the matter of learning a whole new alphabet.)
All across the country, many once-hopeful refugees and asylum seekers found themselves frustrated and discouraged by the formidable language barriers, the notorious German penchant for bureaucracy, and an understaffed social welfare system overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of new arrivals. “Untie one knot,” Röglin said, “and you find ten more.”
Many Germans the Syrians encountered were surprised that Syria even has a cycling team. They could be forgiven for their ignorance. Syrians competed in a parallel world of UCI-sanctioned races most European fans never hear about: the Arab Championships, Asian Championships, Tour of Libya (now defunct), Tour of Thailand, Tour of Iran. Their coaches were ex-pros from Russia and Kazakhstan with a taste for adventure. The country’s best riders won short-term contracts from teams in Doha and Tehran; the rest stayed in Syria, riding for local clubs.
Before the war, top national team racers like Habash and Jaser were on the government payroll, earning about $600 a month, roughly what a Syrian teacher or police officer might. It was a precarious existence. “We were paid based on our results,” Yelmaz says. “Without results, we had our pay cut or cancelled.” The best riders were set up with secure, low-level jobs at one of Syria’s many ministries after they retired.
Everything changed in 2011, after the authoritarian Syrian regime cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests and the political situation in the country deteriorated into open warfare. Looking back on the five years since, the cyclists say they took little interest in protests or politics. They wanted to ride their bikes. “We were riding for Syria, not for Assad,” says Allahham.
But the war forced them to choose sides, if only to keep competing. “You go straight to jail if you say anything against Assad. When you go out and people ask you, are you pro-Assad or anti-Assad, you have to say pro,” Habash says. “You’re wearing their jersey.”
After bitter fighting seized Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, in 2011, the national team hotel in Damascus became a de facto home: Habash’s family house was destroyed by anti-Assad rebels early in the conflict. After Jaser’s mother and brother fled Aleppo for Saudi Arabia via Jordan, he too took up permanent residence in the Damascus hotel. Roommates on the road, Habash and Jaser now shared a room year-round.
As the war intensified, the Syrian federation kept sending the team to international races. With the Damascus airport closed because of fighting, they had to journey to neighbouring Lebanon and fly from there. They travelled to races in Abu Dhabi, South Korea and Turkey. There, organisers – concerned that members of the Syrian opposition in exile would target them as symbols of the Assad regime – arranged extra security.
In 2013, Jaser travelled to Italy to compete in the time-trial at the World Championships in Florence. He brought with him a road bike with no aero bars. His Russian coach had friends at Astana who loaned him a helmet and Corima wheels. Riding on borrowed equipment, he finished the 57.9km course dead last, more than 15 minutes behind the winner, Tony Martin.
Rather than a highlight of his athletic career, Jaser remembers competing in Florence as a slap in the face. “I was happy meeting the riders, but they all had something I never saw before – multiple bicycles, fans, soigneurs taking care of them,” he recalls. “I had no one. It crushed me to go back to Syria.”
It was one of his last trips abroad. As the political situation worsened, it got harder for the team to get visas to travel abroad for races. By 2014, Syria had become an international pariah, and it became impossible for the cyclists to avoid the conflict consuming their country.
The steep, scenic mountain roads where Habash excelled were now off-limits. “For the last three years, we only had one road to train on – 40 kilometres back and forth to the Lebanese border,” Habash says. Training rides were interrupted by rocket attacks. Convoys of swearing soldiers ran them off the road. They were stopped and searched at roadblocks.
One memorable day, the cyclists were training near the Damascus airport when they were pinned down for three hours by gunfire, caught in the middle of a battle between government soldiers and members of the opposition. “The last three years were the hardest. Soldiers would curse at us and we couldn’t do anything,” Habash says.
The safety and relative privilege they once enjoyed eroded, too. Like all Syrians, they lived with the constant threat that a misunderstanding with the police, a roadblock encounter gone wrong, or an errant photo found on their phones, would lead to detention or worse.
One day, Jaser told me about the moment he knew he had to leave. On the national team, Jaser played second fiddle to a racer named Omar Hasanin, a powerful sprinter who won his first national championship in 2000 and went on to take stage victories at the Tours of Azerbaijan, Libya and Morocco. Hasanin even spent a few years racing for a Qatari pro team. In 2012, under a gathering cloud of international disapproval over the building conflict back home, he was one of the few athletes to represent Syria at the Olympic road race in London – a spot Jaser, then 23 and a rising star on the team, says he coveted and narrowly missed.
In 2014, Jaser said, Hasanin was stopped at a roadblock by government troops. His name – or one that sounded like it – was on a list of suspected anti-regime activists. Although it was almost certainly a mix-up, the former Olympian was thrown in Syria’s worst prison, the Saydnaya military facility on the edge of Damascus. “He was tortured and beaten. They released him with his legs broken,” Jaser said. “He was a champion with a big name. If he wasn’t safe, no one was.”
The grinding civil war added a grim new twist: the Syrian regime’s inexorable need for more soldiers. For years their status as top athletes had insulated them from the deteriorating conditions inside Syria. “Even in 2013, the situation was liveable,” Jaser says. “But in 2015, it turned really bad.”
Jaser got his first draft notice letter not long after returning from his dispiriting trip to the World Championships in 2013. He managed to temporarily delay his call-up by using what Syrians colloquially refer to as “extra vitamins” – his national team jersey and ID, letters from top officials at the sports ministry and a commendation from the Syrian president himself. Just weeks before the national championships in 2015, Jaser got another call-up. This time, he says, he had the sinking feeling his vitamins wouldn’t be enough.
For Habash, who had performed his mandatory military service at 18, the decision to flee was cemented when he was recalled to the army reserves a few months before the national championships. There was no doubt the notices were in earnest – one of the team’s coaches had been called up weeks before. “I thought, if they can take him, they can take me too,” Habash says. “The signs were all there.”
The army loomed for Allahham and Al-Moakee too: Al-Moakee was approaching his eighteenth birthday, and Allahham was almost finished with his second university degree, in mechanical engineering. “We were all scared to lose each other,” Habash says.
For years, the cyclists had been able to justify staying in Syria, living in Damascus and working as state employees. But serving in the army was something different: none of the team members could imagine shooting at other Syrians, regardless of politics. Their only choice was making a break for it.
Without bikes, the recent arrivals spent winter evenings at Berlin’s velodrome, circling the boards in donated blue, yellow and white NRVG Luisenstadt jerseys. They rode borrowed, ’80s-vintage steel steeds dug out of a storage locker at the velodrome. I stopped by one night in March, not long after meeting at Röglin’s house, to see them train.
Before their arrival in Berlin, most of them had never even seen a track. In their early TV appearance, they wobble on their borrowed, brakeless fixed-gears, a few struggling to pedal in sneakers. After a few months of practice, they looked smooth. Röglin occasionally piloted his derny, which buzzed like a lawnmower in the cavernous hall, onto the track to lead them in speed drills. It was better than nothing, but they yearned to be out on the road.
Apart from cycling, the five men didn’t seem to have much in common.
Wiry Habash, 30, left school after tenth grade to join the national team full-time. He was the last of his family to leave Syria; two of his sisters were already living in Germany when he arrived, and his brother was a refugee in Denmark.
Jaser was raised by his mother in Aleppo after his father died; he left school at 13 to help support the family by working as a tailor in his mother’s shop. In his spare time, he rode with a local Aleppo club. A few years later, he began riding full-time for the national team, quickly establishing himself as one of its stars.
Like so many other refugees, the decision to leave Syria had put Jaser’s life and career in limbo. “I lost my family, my homeland, everything,” he said. “I’m starting here from zero. I came here like a child, and now I’m starting to learn the language and find a way to earn money.”
Al-Moakee was the youngest member of the group. Just 18, everything was a struggle. He was floundering in German class and felt isolated and alone at his youth shelter, where he shared a room with an Afghan boy who spoke no Arabic. The only place he felt strong was on a bike.
Allahham was the late arrival and outlier. A hobby cyclist as a teen, his fluent English and higher education set him apart. Until the war made life in Damascus untenable, Allahham was in line to inherit the family business, a women’s clothing store his grandfather founded in the 1960s located in the city’s renowned Al-Hamidiyah souk.
In Damascus, Allahham juggled university studies with helping out at the family store and a job at a nearby computer-repair store he ran with his brother. On top of that, he somehow fitted in work as a computer tech for the university, and training on the bike. When he met the other cyclists at the national championships, he decided to flee with them.
With his background as a sprint specialist, Jaser showed the most promise on the track, clinging to the derny’s wheel for a few laps after the others had peeled off in exhaustion. Röglin picked up the pace, whipping around the track at over 60 kilometres an hour until Jaser cracked.
After parking the derny, Röglin found Jaser on the side of the track and clapped him on the shoulder. “Too fast?” he asked the panting Syrian in a high, clear voice – the one you use to talk to children and foreigners. “Our national champion can ride behind a derny for an hour at 68kph.”
“Okay, okay,” Jaser replied in halting, hard-won German. “I just need some more time.”
As the Syrians wheeled their bikes to a storage room deep in the bowels of the velodrome, Röglin told me he still wasn’t sure if this was all a waste of energy. But he was beginning to warm to the idea that Jaser and his team-mates might be more competitive than he’d first thought. “This is his only chance to train,” he said. “Get him out on the road, and I think he has real potential.”
After their training session, the men showered and changed into street clothes. As Röglin locked up, they washed a box of cookies down with sweet tea from a vending machine in an echoing fluorescent-lit hallway and joked in Arabic. It was almost 9pm, but they seemed reluctant to leave. Even empty and dark, the velodrome was a place where they were recognised as athletes, not pitied as refugees.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to get to know the cyclists individually, hiring a translator and setting up meetings in the evening or after their German classes to hear about their personal stories. Getting them alone wasn’t easy. In Berlin they did everything together, from their five daily hours of language class to training rides and meals.
Their team spirit extended to plans for the future. Habash had a vague idea that they could somehow race together just as they had in Syria. Perhaps they could form a team of their own. “Right now, the idea is to succeed together,” Habash said to me.
As they told me separately about their shared road from Damascus to Berlin, their close ties began to make sense. In the months leading up to their escape, the group approached their escape from Syria as a team. Each member was assigned to research and prepare a different part of the voyage. Habash, whose brothers and sister had already fled to Germany and Denmark, planned the route. His relatives helped book a hotel room in Izmir, Turkey, and contacted smugglers. Other team-mates booked flights to Turkey and collected information on transportation options.
As the oldest member, Habash was the designated road captain. To raise the $1,200 smuggler’s fee for a ride to Greece in an overfilled boat, Habash quietly sold everything he had – from his bike to his tools and helmet. He borrowed money from relatives. His wife Zenab and the wife of one of his national team coaches joined the group, which swelled to 15 – the five cyclists plus friends and relatives desperate to leave.
On the starting line that August day in Latakia, all of them knew they might never race in Syria – or anywhere else – again. “It was difficult to think this was my last race,” Jaser says. “We had to keep everything normal, so no one would know what we were planning.”
They asked for vacation time and sick leave to cover their plans. Jaser says he requested permission to visit his sick mother. Three days before they left, they confided in the head of Syria’s cycling federation, who kept their secret. “If the government knew we were planning to leave, they would put our names on a list at the border,” Habash says. “They protected us for five years. They weren’t going to let us leave easily.”
At the beginning of September they left for Izmir. After three days sleeping in the forest on the Turkish coast, smugglers packed the group into a rubber boat with dozens of other refugees. The raft launched with 45 people in all, far too many for the small craft to handle safely. “I know how to swim,” Jaser says. “I knew I would make it. But there were women and little children in the boat. It was terrifying.”
After several tense hours, they landed safely on the tiny Greek island of Mytilene. They spent days sleeping on the streets, trying to keep warm in pouring rain. Guided by their smartphones, they made their way north, following a well-trodden refugee road from Greece to Macedonia and into Serbia on foot and by ferry, bus and train. In Hungary, they were fingerprinted, beaten by police and bussed from camp to makeshift camp. From there they were sent to Austria, where Red Cross officials urged them north to Germany.
Finally, in September, they made it to Munich, on a train with thousands of other refugees. They bought bus tickets to Berlin, assuming the national capital would be the best place to continue their cycling careers – the Damascus of Germany, so to speak.
In retrospect, that may have been a miscalculation. Berlin is billions of Euro in debt, with a high unemployment rate and a city government that’s dysfunctional by German standards. The arrival of tens of thousands of refugees in 2015 swamped its already-strained social services.
By time the exhausted group arrived, the situation was catastrophic. Lines outside the city’s main refugee intake centre, the Berlin state office for health and social affairs (LaGeSo), stretched into the thousands. In the middle of the Berlin winter, new arrivals waited for days in unheated tents for appointments.
Months afterwards, over coffee and fries at a halal hamburger joint not far from his language school, Allahham – who once vacationed and jet-skied on the same Turkish beaches where he set sail for Europe in a rubber raft – tells me still can’t believe the journey was real. “Now we talk about how we came and say, ‘we were crazy’,” he says. “Sleeping in the street for five days? Three hours in that boat in the dark sea? How did we make it?”
The surreal struggle seared itself on the men, reinforcing bonds they had already formed as team-mates. “When you make this experience from Syria to here, it makes you a family,” Allahham says. “We were together in the worst situation in our whole lives. We did this hard thing together. Right now we can do anything.”
On a sunny spring day in April, I rode the subway to the end of the line with Jaser. We came to a collection of small, low-slung buildings next to the raised subway tracks. An enterprising landlord had hastily converted them into housing; the windows were ringed with crude gobs of sealant and newly-installed pipes were still exposed.
Inside, Jaser, Allahham and Al-Moakee crowded into two small rooms, with three beds crammed so tightly into one there was barely space to move. A bunk bed in the common room faced a TV tuned to an Arabic news channel. As he wolfed down a plate of rice from the night before, Allahham offered me Arabic coffee – thick, sweet and laced with fragrant cardamom – and fruit from a bucket of tangerines and apples on the counter.
They had kitted their little bungalow out like a cyclists’ clubhouse. There was room for their new bikes; four helmets hung neatly from nails in the entryway next to the front door, and cycling shoes formed a neat line just inside. (Habash’s kit was missing: he and his wife, who was five months pregnant, were living in a one-room apartment across town.) The only decoration was a photo of Mecca tacked to the wall.
The tiny bungalow was a paradise after the one-room apartment they’d shared with Habash’s sister and five other people when they first arrived. Best of all, lined up out front were five brand-new bikes. Working every connection he had, Röglin convinced a local wholesaler to donate some cheap aluminum Bottecchias with entry-level components. They weren’t pro material, but they were enough. The Syrians were back on the road.
The men had a routine. After long mornings in German class, they raced home to eat piles of rice and pitta spread with cream cheese before suiting up to catch local training rides. For the first few weeks, Röglin went with them, following on his motor scooter to make sure they didn’t get lost after a long, dark winter of left-hand turns around the velodrome.
The Syrians, dressed in second-hand jerseys and donated helmets, soon became a familiar sight on Luisenstadt 1910 club rides. They were conscious of the fact that their cycling set them apart from the crowd. “Other cyclists talk to us because we’re athletes like them, not just refugees,” Habash said proudly. “Some Germans are scared of refugees, but in the club they see us as athletes and want to train with us. That makes us happy.”
With a few hundred kilometres of training in their legs and the promise of warmer weather on the horizon, they were optimistic – perhaps unrealistically so – that they could somehow continue living as professional athletes in their new surroundings. “This is my profession, and I have to make money. I have to make it and get good results,” Habash said. “At the moment, there is no Plan B.”
On a sunny Saturday in late May, the group lined up to race for the first time in nearly a year. It was a big moment. They had been back on the road for barely a month. Jaser and Habash stood shoulder to shoulder in the front row of the elite amateur category, the others lined up just behind.
The race – 50 laps around a 1.7-kilometre course, with a stretch of rough cobbles and a long uphill drag on each circuit – was more like the velodrome than the point-to-point road races they were used to. Behind their smiles was a question: after so much time off, would they be able to keep up?
Röglin, too, had a lot on the line. Within his Luisenstadt 1910 club, longtime members were grumbling about the attention and resources being lavished on these new arrivals. Why were a handful of riders from Syria getting free bikes, race entry fees and money for uniforms and shoes while the club’s juniors had to shell out for their own equipment?
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The grumbling was an echo of complaints across Germany. With school gymnasiums nationwide converted into temporary shelters for refugees, local kids had nowhere to play sports during the long winter months. Parents already fighting for scarce pre-school spots were upset as refugee children seemed to move ahead of them in line. “This is all explosive stuff,” Röglin says.
Two hours later, the race was almost over. Jaser took the lead for several early laps before a puncture relegated him to a chase group. Allahham struggled to keep the pace, and was eventually pulled. With a few laps to go, I stood next to a septuagenarian member of Röglin’s Luisenstadt 1910 club as he shook his head in amazement: Habash and Al-Moakee were still in the front group. “No one would have believed the Syrians would make it this long,” the old-timer said. “But they’re still in there.”
Afterwards they collapsed on a patch of brown grass next to Röglin’s car. Habash had a massive blister on one finger, the result of 50 laps over the cobbles. As Wanda the Weimaraner looked on in silence, Röglin congratulated them. “There were a lot of really strong riders here, and on top of that it was a very hard course,” he said.
Jaser, sagging into a folding beach chair, looked sceptical. “So we did okay?”
Röglin squatted in front of the exhausted Syrian, briskly wiping grime off his legs with a wet towel. “It couldn’t have gone better.”
Their relationship with Röglin was changing, too. There were misunderstandings, of course: When the Muslim holiday of Ramadan coincided with the peak training season, Röglin was upset at the thought that the riders might choose to skip meals before and during important races. And when the riders came to his house to cook a thank-you meal of Syrian specialities for him, he had to be talked out of preparing them a pork dish in return a few weeks later. (“If I’m willing to try their food, shouldn’t they be willing to try mine?”)
He began inviting them over for backyard barbecues and dropping by their German classes to check in. He referred to them affectionately as “the boys”; they called him Coach Frank. “At the beginning, they were unknown, just refugees with similar interests to mine,” he says. “The more often we’re together and I see their problems, or joke around with them, the more that changed.”
Röglin kept working his connections, trying to get them exposure. They started every race Berlin had to offer in the summer – just four, a far cry from the glory days of the 1960s. In June they were special guests at the Berlin Velothon, a 120-kilometre timed amateur sportive they completed at an average of 41kph.
A month later they competed at Luisenstadt 1910’s home race, through the rapidly gentrifying Neukölln neighborhood in Berlin. For 50 laps, the racers passed by hipster cafes advertising charcuterie and “dope-ass toast & smoothies”, along with kebab shops and shisha bars. At one intersection, a mother and daughter with matching bright-pink mohawks struggled to keep pedestrians under control.
Sprinkling rain and wet leaves caused a crash that took Jaser out halfway through the race, but he felt good about his form. “From start to crash, I was in first or second place,” Jazir said afterwards. “I think I did well.”
Between races they took advantage of long summer evenings to pack in 800-kilometre weeks on top of their language classes. Soon they became fixtures at evening training races around Berlin. After a strong showing at one weeknight ride, organiser Karsten Niemann – a local bike shop owner who runs an online cyclo-cross store – called Röglin to ask why such strong riders were on such cheap, heavy bikes.
After Röglin shared their story, Niemann started working the phones. Within a week, high-end carbon frames that had been gathering dust in the basements of local amateurs with more money than time, had arrived, along with new “shop4cross” uniforms and a last-minute invitation to the 155-kilometre Hamburg Cyclassics amateur race. Organisers paid for their accommodation, and they were written up in the sports section of the city’s newspaper.
But not everyone was as welcoming. The Syrians’ best chance at attracting attention was a strong showing in Germany’s premier race series, the Rad-Bundesliga. Organised by the national federation, the nine-race series attracts a handful of Continental teams and coaches – the outfits most likely to take a chance on a refugee cyclist. But it’s restricted to cyclists with German citizenship or permanent residency, and despite Röglin’s pleas, the series organisers refused to make an exception for Jaser.
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As August melted into September, sporting success seemed tantalisingly close. Their form was peaking just as the season came to a close. Nazir was crushing all comers at the weekday training races Niemann organised. And Allahham told me they were finally able to ramp up the pace on competitive group rides, making their German training partners sweat and curse. “Germans do not like to see anyone not from Germany ride better than them,” he laughed. “That makes them angry.”
Even more importantly, Allahham, Jaser and Al-Moakee were finally granted official refugee status, which allowed them to look for work and travel freely in Europe. Not long after, a national bike store chain contacted Röglin to ask if they’d be interested in apprenticeships. But the pay was barely above their asylum-seeker allowance, and the work would leave them no time to train or finish their language and integration classes. They passed.
Meanwhile the euphoric can-do spirit that had welcomed so many asylum seekers just 12 months earlier seemed to be evaporating, along with the last traces of summer. Politicians pressed German police to implement tighter border checks and reject more asylum claims. And after a year, German companies had only hired a few thousand of the roughly 700,000 people who arrived in 2015. After members of a new right-wing anti-immigrant party won seats in the Berlin parliament for the first time, even Merkel admitted she had been overly optimistic the year before.
In the midst of all this, Habash and his wife welcomed a baby girl into the world at a maternity ward not far from their cramped Berlin apartment. The next day, Röglin showed up at the hospital. “They’re my friends now,” he said. “In the beginning it was just about sport, but now it’s so much more complicated.”
I had once wondered if the close relationship “Coach Frank” had developed with “the boys” would change his mind about the prospects of their fellow Syrians. When we first met, he was pessimistic about the chances of success for this ambitious German project.
Seven months later, I was a little surprised to find his mind hadn’t changed. As far as Röglin was concerned, the determination that enabled Habash, Jaser, Allahham and Al-Moakee to make it as elite cyclists set them apart. If these four – with the help and goodwill of so many people in Berlin’s cycling community – were still struggling to make it in Germany, what hope was there for the rest? “The challenge is more than gigantic,” Röglin told me in September, days before Habash’s daughter was born. “If I knew what a long story this was going to be, I might never have started.”
In late September, the team lined up for the last event of the season, a 115-km circuit race around the village of Strausberg on the outskirts of Berlin. Jaser won from a three-man break, crossing the line alone. Habash came in third and Allahham and al-Moakee were close behind. Of the race’s top-ten finishers, four were listed in the results with SYR next to their names.
As they raced in the sun through the peaceful German countryside, Russian and Syrian warplanes were roaring above Aleppo. Flying from Latakia, where the national championships had been held a little more than a year before, they launched what observers called the most sustained and brutally effective aerial assault of the five-year civil war. Bombs killed hundreds of people, including dozens of children. Reports from rebel-held areas of the city claimed the attack targeted rescue workers, water lines and underground shelters.
The bombing was a decisive blow to a ceasefire negotiated just a week earlier. Each new casualty report, each photo of dead children and blasted buildings broadcast on the news and seen on the smartphones of Syrian refugees all across Germany, served as further confirmation that theirs had been a one-way journey.
“We can’t go back,” Allahham said. “There’s no future there."