Refugees Speak Out

'Sexually Harassing Women Is Completely Unacceptable'

Mohammad F. (links), Ammar B. und sein Bruder Mohammad B. (rechts). Andreas Prost für ZEIT ONLINE
Four Syrian refugees tell their stories (one did not wish to be photographed).
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The sexual assaults in Cologne by men described as North African or Arab risk undermining Germany’s warm welcome for the 1.1 million asylum seekers that arrived last year.
  • Facts


    • The four Syrian men live in an emergency shelter for refugees in an abandoned hotel in central Berlin.
    • Their views on relations between men and women vary, but they all seem to agree that misconduct toward women is frowned upon in Muslim society.
    • While men are viewed primarily as breadwinners in Syrian society, the war has made it more difficult for them to perform this role.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

A refugee hostel opened its doors a few weeks ago less than 100 meters from the editorial offices of ZEIT ONLINE, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global Edition.

We went there and asked whether someone would like to talk to us about men and women, and their relationship to each other. After the horrific events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of assaults on women were carried out by men described as being North African or Arab, almost everyone is talking about Arab men, but almost no one is talking to them.

Four men immediately agreed to talk to us. They are all from Syria and arrived in Germany recently. They are very different. Mohammad F. is 60, a carpenter, married and has 12 children. Mamoun H. is 32, an energy engineer and single. And Kurdish brothers Ammar and Mohammed B., 22 and 21, would be university students now if there were no war. They are accompanied by Hassan, a security official from the refugee hostel, who serves as their interpreter.

ZEIT ONLINE: We would like to talk to you about women. Did you hear what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve?

Only Mamoun H. nods. The others shake their heads. We tell them what we know at this point.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mamoun, what did you think when you heard about it?

Mamoun H.: I was shocked, mostly because the perpetrators were apparently Arab Muslims. They should be treated in the manner required by German law.

Ammar B.: Harsh penalties, just like in our country. A man once hugged and kissed a female tourist, against her will, on the street in Damascus. He was sent to prison for six months.

ZEIT ONLINE: Were sexual assaults on women common in Syria?

Mamoun: No, not really. Syria was a very respectful society before the war.

Mohammad F.: I cannot imagine that they were Syrians. All the refugees know how grateful they must be to Germany. Besides, the Koran forbids violence against women.

ZEIT ONLINE: Most of the suspects are men from Muslim countries, and some of them are allegedly Syrian.

Mohammad F.: We too have aggressive people, of course. But they are truly not interested in religion. Instead, they simply have a bad character. In my city, people like this used to hassle women who weren’t wearing the Niqab. But three-quarters of residents are not like them.

Mamoun: Before we had the Islamic State (IS), the treatment of women in my town near Aleppo was okay. But now they’re not allowed to make any decisions on their own anymore. They have to stay at home. Even if they urgently need a doctor, they can only go if a man drives them.

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