Usually, Abo Malek would not have asked for money from the soldiers and thugs who came into his restaurant in Al-Zahira, a neighborhood in southern Damascus, the Syrian capital.
But on this day in August, the 47-year old father of seven children had simply had enough from armed men demanding free food.
He demanded the men pay him for the food they had just eaten.
“If you tell us to pay for the food, we will have to report it to our boss,” an armed Syrian general responded angrily, referring to his commander in the army working for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Malek said.
Mr. Assad’s troops were controlling the neighborhood where Mr. Malek was operating his small restaurant since the beginning of the unrest – a poor neighborhood with thousands of displaced families.
Most houses in this part of Damascus were spared from the destruction of war, with rooftop apartments and corrugated roofs lined along streets jammed with restaurants and shops.
“After they took me and cut my finger off, I knew I had to leave and rebuild a future for my family away from Syria.”
“Then go for it,” Mr. Abo Malek said, daring the general to make good on his threat.
Two hours later, the general came back and arrested Mr. Malek, he recounts.
The military man said he was only following orders when he took him to a nearby military base to cut off his left ring finger – the one Mr. Malek uses to prepare his kibbeh, a traditional Syrian mixture of cracked wheat, minced onions, finely ground beef, lamb, goat or camel meat.
The general had been ordered to bring back Mr. Malek’s finger as a sign that he had carried out his orders.
Mr. Malek pleaded for leniency but the general, he said, wouldn’t budge.
So Mr. Malek offered the general a 20,000 Syrian Pounds (€95 or $105) bribe: He asked him to cut off the ring finger on his right hand, which was not essential for Mr. Malek’s work.
When asked about what happened next, Mr. Malek turned his eyes down and grew silent. The translator for the interview suggested that this would be enough on this topic.
After a long pause, Mr. Malek, looking sad, said: “In light of all the terrible things I have seen over there, including people with no legs or other limbs, I am ashamed to make a big deal out of my finger.”
This was the day Mr. Malek decided to leave Syria, his home.
“After they took me and cut my finger off, I knew I had to leave and rebuild a future for my family away from Syria,” he said this month in an interview in Berlin.
Nine months after his finger was severed, Mr. Malek wore a grey-and-black colored shirt, grey trousers and black-and-brown leather sneakers while eating a Wiener schnitzel for the first time in Berlin’s Mitte district.
He recounted how he left Syria, making a 3,900 kilometer (2423 mile) dangerous journey in search of safety, and a better life.
“I paid for the journey with the money I made when I was running my restaurants,” he said, his eyes tired but hopeful.
Mr. Malek ran two restaurants over 15 years in Damascus. Most of all, he specialized in making kibbeh.
“When the war broke out, I sold my Kia car,’’ he said. “That’s the money that helps me now.”
Before moving to Al-Zahira, the neighborhood in southern Damascus where he last lived, he had an apartment in a residential suburb called Ghouta in the southern part of the Syrian capital city.
But the dwelling was destroyed in a firefight between rebels and Syrian government forces, as were two restaurants he ran from the same neighborhood.
Even then, he was still not ready to give up on his homeland.
He moved his wife and seven children to another neighborhood – Al-Zahira – he thought would be safer, because it is under the control of Mr. Assad’s government troops. This part of town had not been destroyed by the fighting.
Syrians make up the largest refugee group worldwide with more than 3 million people on the run by the end of 2014, according to Statista, a website based in Hamburg that provides data and statistics.
In Germany, 17,711 Syrians requested asylum during the first three month of 2015, the second-largest community seeking a safe haven. The largest asylum seeking group in Germany are refugees from Kosovo. But their applications are mostly rejected, because their region is not officially at war, said an advocate for refugees.
“Syrians have priority when they arrive in Germany, and their applications are usually dealt with fairly quickly,” Tobias Klaus, a spokesman at ProAsyl, a human rights group in Frankfurt, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Once a Syrian refugee’s status is approved, they can file for family reunification, Mr. Klaus said. This would enable them to bring their families to Germany.
Mr. Malek left Damascus last September with €3,500 to pay for travel tickets, illegal border crossings, smuggler costs and bribes. His route took him from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon, then to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya. From there, he got on a boat — 12 meters (39ft) long and 4 meters (13 ft) wide — with around 400 people. His journey to Berlin took 25 days.
In Berlin, he wants to get back in the food business, which is his passion.
“I would like to start a business in Germany, a restaurant and catering service for Syrian food,” he said, smiling, while lighting an extra-long Al Hamra cigarette, which he pulled from a white pack with Arabic writing.
“Those are Syrian cigarettes,” he said proudly.
He has brown colored eyes, surrounded by soft lines, and black and white hair. The wound on his right hand is healed and what was once his ring finger is now just a small stub.
Germany has been an adjustment for him, but he likes the fact that it’s more transparent and organized, the opposite of Syria.
“The Arab culture is much more based on bargaining, negotiation and blurry lines,” he said. “But in Germany, people are more strict and rigorous. That’s what I like about this country. I enjoy rules and regulations.”
Germany seemed to be a good choice to Mr. Malek. His 20-year-old son, Mohamed, who is studying law at Damascus University, urged his father to flee for Germany. Mohamed told Mr. Malek the German educational system has an excellent reputation.
Syria, which was briefly occupied by France in the early part of the 20th century, traditionally has more of a French influence. France controlled Syria from 1923 to 1946, and many Syrians to this day still speak fluent French along with Arabic.
But these days, Mr. Malek said, Germany has a better reputation than France of welcoming refugees from Syria.
“My plan was to leave on my own and later get my family to meet me in Germany,” he said. “I brought them all to a safe place before I left.”
He is not the only Syrian to make such plans.
In 2013, the German government let as many as 20,000 Syrian family members join their relatives in Germany. But the program was stopped last fall, according to the ministry for immigration in Germany.
The European Union is now trying to set up a universal program for all E.U. members, but many, especially Britain and some eastern European countries, are balking at taking refugees. Currently, Germany and Sweden take the bulk of Mediterranean refugees.
The European Union wants to add an extra €50 million in 2015 and 2016 to an existing program to resettle refugees. But the plan has gotten bogged down in Brussels, as some E.U. countries pledge to ignore binding refugee quotas.
“The new humanitarian program plans to accept 20,000 new spots, which will be distributed across Europe,” said Harald Neymanns, a spokesman for the German interior ministry.
To bring his family to Germany, Mr. Malek’s wife and children need to apply with the German embassy in Syria. But Germany pulled out its diplomatic mission from Syria in February 2012, a year after unrest started. Syrian families must now travel to neighboring Lebanon to the German embassy in Beirut.
“My wife and four children travelled to Beirut by car, which is very dangerous and cost them €350,” Mr. Malek said.
The Beirut embassy has been overwhelmed by asylum seekers, the phones are not answered, and it can take six months to get an appointment, said Katharina Vogt, an adviser on asylum and refugee issues for the non-profit German workers’ welfare organization called Arbeiterwohlfahrt.
The journey from Syria to Lebanon has become even more complicated and dangerous in recent weeks, she said, because of more checkpoints that were set up in the conflict area. People can only cross the Syrian-Lebanese border when they have an invitation from the embassy in Beirut or money to bribe their way through, she said.
In addition, it is difficult for most families to gather all the necessary paperwork in Syria and pay for the application fees the embassy demands, she said.
“This is draining my resources,” Mr. Malek said. “In addition to travel expenses, each application costs up to €60.”
But Mr. Malek has bigger problems than German bureaucracy.
His son Mohamed, the law student, was kidnapped two weeks ago by thugs working for Mr. Assad in Damascus, Mr. Malek said. The people holding his son knew he had reached Berlin and supposedly has access to hard currency. They demanded €1,400 for his release, he said.
Mr. Malek paid the money and his son was released, he said.
In Germany, he is now fighting a paperwork battle to get the proper government approvals to bring his family to Berlin. It hasn’t been easy, he said, and he is still fighting to bring them along to resume their lives in the German capital.
For Mr. Malek, his long, risky journey to Berlin will only end when he is reunited with his family.
“When I left Damascus, I left my dearest and closest to my heart at home,” he said, looking sad, but one can tell that the wish to get them all to safety also keeps him going. “I hope we can soon be reunited again.”