My meetings with Mustafa

29 January 2021

Mustafa (L) and Rüdiger Funiok (R) chatting over a cup of tea. (Photo: Rüdiger Funiok)

Rüdiger Funiok, a Jesuit from Munich who collaborates with JRS Germany, tells us about the friendship he forged with a Syrian refugee.

Three years ago, I was a moderator of the Jesuit Formation Centre in Munich, where eight young confreres were studying philosophy for their bachelor’s. We had invited fourteen confreres from the faculty of philosophy in Krakow, in order to spend three days debating the topic Global Challenges and Models for a Future in a World of Change. On the second day, 28th September 2017, we made an excursion to a place of accommodation for refugees in Munich. The JRS there offer legal and social support to the refugees. We intended for the Polish confreres to meet refugees directly, Muslim ones at that, a group which the Polish government vehemently refuses to accept, for religious and nationalistic reasons.

Around fifteen refugees came to the meeting, with about half of them coming from the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) and Africa. Mustafa, a 70 year old Syrian, said: “My two sons and I will go back as soon as it is safe to live just outside of Damascus.” Because of his age and his calm demeanour he seemed to be a kind of elder statesman among the Muslims. Before we headed to a Greek restaurant for a communal meal, he turned to me and asked: “Can we meet again?” I agreed and realized he had deliberately chosen me, perhaps due to my age and my role as leader of the group of young Jesuits.

Since then, we’ve met for two or three hours every fortnight, usually around noon. The point wasn’t just to improve his German; in fact, we realised we got along well, and struck up a friendship. Our simple conversations were accompanied by gestures and smiles as soon as one understood the other’s message. The central focus of our meetings became a comparison between the cultures and lifestyles of Syria and Munich. We visited museums, among them the Munich Stadtmuseum, which documents the history of the city, and which offered refuge to Mustafa and his sons after their escape via the Balkan route (4th January 2016). The sizeable technical museum, oddly named “German Museum,” was also on our list, and we were interested to note that the ancient method of bailing water was similar in both our countries.

In the aircraft-dockyard of Oberschleißheim he pointed out the Russian Migs, whose newest models had dropped bombs on his two houses. The anthropological Five Continents Museum displays Middle Eastern art, although unfortunately, the descriptions are only in German and English. The NS-Documentation-Centre, which explains the development of National Socialism with pictures and sound, does have an Arabic audio-guide available. Museums of fine art require from the visitor only the eye and the mind, of course. Some interiors reminded him of the two furniture shops he had owned.

One day, at the Nordfriedhof cemetery, we observed a burial from the distance. Mustafa then told me about rituals in his home country. Again and again we went into a church, lit a candle and prayed in silence. Mustafa is a Sunni Muslim, who observes Ramadan. In his hometown, he also had good relations with priests from the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

He showed me photos of his wife, who is still in Syria, also lighting candles in Christian churches. He expressed his great desire to be able to leave the mass accommodation where 110 refugees live.

Nobody replied to the requests I’d sent to Catholic parishes and the diocese’s real estate management about empty living spaces. Apartments offered by social welfare office in Munich were always handed to other refugees, who might have been in greater need. I felt utterly powerless. Even this external step toward integration was so difficult!

It was around his 70th birthday at the end of November when his face began to light up. They had found an apartment and, he added, his request for the family reunification was granted. His wife will arrive on 6th February 2021. I wanted to embrace him, but stopped myself due to the corona social distancing measures! We shall soon celebrate all together and I look forward to being part of it.