lIn 2015, a million Syrians arrived in Germany in search of safety. Five years later, I was on a newspaper assignment in Nuremberg, a city in the south of the country, to document the integration of these refugees into German society. This was one of the examples where everything had worked out brilliantly.
Malak is on the right. When she arrived in Germany, she did not know a word of the language. It was really hard, but she worked like hell to learn and build a new life. Five years later, she had passed high school. This is from her graduation day.
Then I first met her and her family. It was the summer of 2020 and lockdowns had just begun to ease across Europe. The school had built a stage outside for fear of contamination. They called each student one by one to receive their certificate. All of Malak’s family who reached Germany were there and they livestreamed the ceremony for their aunts and uncles who stayed behind in Idlib, in northwestern Syria.
This was just after she graduated. You can see her mom filming everything and her sister totally overwhelmed. It’s hard to explain how much this meant to them. Many of the aunts and uncles who remain in Idlib are still in grave danger. To have this success – and to be able to share it with her immediate family and those on the other side of the world – was so special.
This was one of those assignments where I went in with little expectations but got lucky and found this extraordinary person. We interviewed her before the ceremony, so when I came to record this I felt I had an idea of her character. I will always remember the moment I met her: she was wearing this gorgeous purple dress, silver heels and the biggest smile, obviously so proud of herself and so happy to be there.
It was so important to capture this joy because there was so much power behind it. These three women fled Syria under their own power and have built a beautiful life. Only later did Malak’s father and youngest brother join them. It is so rare to see stories of strong Muslim women in western media. It felt important to tell their story. However, not everyone has blossomed in the same way. Many Syrian refugees struggle to find work and settle. And many Germans seem to forget that part of the problem is the rules and restrictions that prevent refugees from traveling freely.
My camera gives me the opportunity to meet people and build some kind of relationship. I don’t like fast journalism. Of course, sometimes it’s not possible to talk to subjects for years or follow them later, but I always make time to get to know them before shooting. I want it to be more of a meeting. And I hope that’s what this shows: a beautiful, intimate moment that also tells a bigger story about the world.
I kept in touch with Malak and managed to meet her again a year later. She is now studying medical technology. Things have been difficult for her – in the midst of a pandemic, she has begun to not meet many of her classmates in person – but I have no doubt that she will do well. She is a wonderful young woman.
The resume of Marlena Waldthausen
Born: Germany, 1987.
educated: Photojournalism and documentary photography at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences. And de Volkskrant, the Dutch daily newspaper.
influences: Guille and Belinda by Alessandra Sanguinetti.
High point: “The unexpected beautiful encounters that this work entails.”
Low point: “Covid, which put most of my projects on hold.”
Top Tip: “Just do it.”