Displacement

    ‘Clichés Are Not People’
    An Interview with Those Who Run a Refugee Hostel in Berlin

    Do the refugees want to go back to their homeland at some point, or stay in Germany permanently? Are there problems or prejudices from the local people regarding the emergency accommodation and the refugees? Our author Alem Grabovac visited an emergency shelter for asylum seekers in Berlin, and addresses his questions to Mathias Hamann and Dragana Duric, who run this shelter.

    It is early February, it is cold, a few Syrian and Iraqi refugees are smoking cigarettes outside the emergency shelter for asylum seekers. The emergency shelter is an inflatable airdome; it looks like an enormous tent, right in the middle of Berlin – two kilometres away from the government district and the Federal Chancellery – on a sports ground. 294 refugees live and sleep here. The plan was that people should stay here only for three or four days; in fact, families have now been living there for several months. A black-clad security man opens the first door. Excess pressure is all that keeps the airdome inflated. It has a double-door lock system: one door must always remain closed, otherwise the air would escape outside and the hall would collapse in on itself like a balloon.

    Ms Dragana Duric and Mr Mathias Hamann are already waiting for me in the entrance area. They run this emergency asylum seekers’ shelter, which is run by the Evangelical Church’s Berlin city mission on behalf of the federal state of Berlin. The noise level in the hall is consistently high, dominated by the shouts of children playing. The sleeping cabins are on the left: small, six-bed rooms with bunk beds. On the right is the communal area with a corner for children to play in, a ping-pong table and an eating area with wooden benches and tables, familiar from any town or village fair. There are three sick bays for medical treatment, a prayer room, eight portable toilets and a room for doing laundry. On the partition walls hang brightly-coloured children’s drawings and translations of the most common German words in several languages. For the interview we go into the employees’ so-called conference room. You can close a door, but the walls are very thin, there is no ceiling, and at times you can hardly hear yourself speak because of the noise in the hall.

    Goethe-Institut: Pretty loud in here.

    Mathias Hamann: It would be worse if it were quiet. We’re happy when we see children playing.

    Dragana Duric: I don’t even hear the noise any more.

    294 people are living in the emergency accommodation. How many square metres is that per person?

    Hamann: Eight square metres.

    Is it possible for people to have any privacy?

    Hamann: It depends on where I look. Do I look up, down, or to the side? If I look down, I have more privacy than in a sports hall. At the moment there are 69 sports halls in Berlin that have been requisitioned; in these, the most they can do is put up a sheet around their bunk beds. Compared with a hotel, where sometimes one or two or four people are put up in a room, we have less privacy. And compared to an apartment, of course, we have even less. It’s always a question of perspective and comparison.

    The state parliamentary group of the Green Party rejects the placement of people in airdomes – they say there is no privacy, too few sanitary facilities, that it contravenes fundamental human rights.

    Duric: My impression is that people feel very comfortable with us. There are often even families who come and visit us and say they want to come back to us.

    Hamann: There always have to be people demanding a better world. We’re trying everything, doing everything we can, offering German courses, we’ve set up play areas for the children, we help people fill out forms, make sure they receive medical attention, look after our guests as well as we are able. Last year, here in this district, we were awarded the Integration Prize for our work – by the Greens, too.

    What countries do the refugees come from?

    Duric: Most of them are Syrians, followed by Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans. Last summer there were more men on their own, now there are more families from these countries.

    What, according to your impression, is the social make-up of the refugees? What’s their level of education?

    Hamann: According to a study by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 25% have a high school diploma. The people here tend to be among the better-off. But not all of those who are well-off are also well-educated. You know, the flight from Syria to Berlin costs between 2,000 and 6,000 dollars per person. From Afghanistan it’s even more expensive. Of course these people weren’t penniless farmers. A person’s background is not that decisive, though; rather, it’s what ambitions he has. That decides where his second journey will take him. The first journey was the dangerous one; that was a question of sheer survival. The second, however, is much more stressful, because it will definitively cost them their old identity. These people used to be lawyers, university professors, carpenters, manufacturers or bakers, and now, to begin with, they are none of these. They have to completely reorientate themselves here and reinvent themselves. That is the main challenge for these people. And that’s why it is so important whether someone has the strength and the motivation to learn a new language, to find their feet in a foreign culture and start again right from the beginning.

    Do the refugees want to go back to their homeland at some point, or stay here permanently? What’s your impression?

    Duric: As soon as the war is over, a lot of them say, they want to go back to their homeland.

    Hamann: I think we are dealing here with three different groups. There is one group that wants to stay. They know all about the asylum procedure and know that after six or seven years in Germany you can get a right of permanent residence. These people are ambitious, they’re learning German, they’re deliberately moving not only in Arab circles but are also consciously making friends with whom they can speak German. This group sees their new life as an opportunity. The third group are those who actually want to go back to their homelands. Some Iraqis, especially the Iraqi Kurds, have in fact already flown back to their country. And then there’s the second group, the ones in the middle, among whom – at least, that’s what I believe – the staying will just sort of happen. They’ll have children here, or they already have children who’ll go to school here. For these children, Germany will be their homeland, they’ll put down roots here. Although they don’t even know it yet, this group will no longer return.

    How should we picture the daily routine in emergency accommodation?

    Hamann: The breakfast shift starts at 5.30 in the morning. Then there’s lunch, dinner. The last social worker finishes her shift at one in the morning. And then it starts all over again at 5.30 with breakfast.

    Duric: Alongside that we offer a wide range of activities: the refugees can play football, attend German courses with simultaneous childcare, meet local people or come on trips into town. In all of this we’re supported by our many volunteer helpers.

    How many volunteers work here?

    Hamann: We now have a pool of 1,600 volunteers who only help out at our emergency shelter. Other shelters have 3,000 or even 5,000 supporters. You can go online and enter your name on a list to do various kinds of work. Per day, it’s between fifteen and thirty people. They hand out food, look after the children, clean, give German lessons, or just chat with the refugees.

    What motivates these people? Why do they sacrifice their free time for the refugees?

    Duric: Our helpers don’t ‘sacrifice’ their time. They think that their helping just makes sense.

    Hamann: They’ve seen the pictures of the war, of the people fleeing, and they’ve said to themselves that these people have to be helped. We have helpers, male and female, of all ages and from the most diverse social milieus: they’re schoolchildren, students, office workers, lawyers, pensioners. When they give a child his food or play with him and look into his grateful eyes, that’s the answer to the question, ‘Why am I helping here?’ Added to that, in doing this, many also want to make a statement: while some people are demonstrating against refugees, these people are demonstrating at the kitchen counter that refugees are welcome in this country.

    We keep hearing about volunteers who suffer physical and psychological breakdowns. How are things here in that regard?

    Hamann: That hasn’t happened with us. Last summer, though, with a capacity for 294 refugees we only had 50, and at the same time we knew that people were having to sleep rough on the street. Last year the Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs, or LaGeSo, just a few minutes’ walk from here, where the newly-arrived refugees in Berlin have to go and be registered in order to be assigned a sleeping place in an emergency shelter, wasn’t up to dealing with the onslaught of refugees. They simply couldn’t process the applications, didn’t have enough staff. Our team decided that we would pick the refugees up in the evenings from right outside the LaGeSo so they wouldn’t end up on the street. At that time some people were stretched to the limit of their capabilities, and they rose to the challenge. It makes you proud, to be working with such people – both volunteers and employees.

    You just mentioned the LaGeSo. For many people it has become synonymous with the failure of politics. The asylum seekers had to, and in some cases still have to, wait outside the office for days and weeks, in inhuman conditions, in order to register. What do you see or hear about that here? What needs to be changed?

    Hamann: This was a great challenge that we were all facing. We tried, within our limits, to do more than just what was specified. In summer we would sometimes get a call asking if we could organise another 100 sleeping places for the weekend. We managed it, in collaboration with a mosque community. Despite all the criticism of Berlin politics, you still have to acknowledge that problem-solving capacities have increased. Many things have improved. There used not to be someone on call 24 hours. There is now. That helps us, as people running an emergency shelter. We can now call someone at night as well.

    Are the refugees frustrated by the situation, the failure to process their applications, the weeks of waiting outside the LaGeSo? What do you hear about that?

    Duric: It depends on the case. Some are lucky, others aren’t. For example, we had a man whose file could no longer be found in the LaGeSo. They’d lost it, and they sent the man into a room with dozens of boxes, where he had to search for his own file. Of course something like that is frustrating.

    Hamann: It depends on the case and on a person’s character. A fourteen-year-old girl from Afghanistan set off for the LaGeSo at six o’clock and came back at 9pm every morning for two weeks. Without success. Nonetheless she painted a hopeful picture of her situation, and always remained positive.

    What specific problems do you get? Have there been punch-ups or violent assaults here, as in other emergency shelters? Have there been religiously motivated conflicts among the refugees?

    Hamann: A total of around 23,000 people have passed through here. Of course there has been the occasional little problem from time to time. Perhaps because the people are problematic, perhaps because they’ve had terrible experiences, or perhaps because their current circumstances are difficult. Sometimes, too, we’ve just had to ban people from coming in.

    In other emergency shelters there have been problems between Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans, between Muslims and Christians. That hasn’t happened here?

    Duric: From the very beginning we’ve had a rule: we can understand anything, but we do not tolerate racism here. We do not differentiate according to religion or nationality. Everyone here is treated the same.

    Hamann: If people want to think each other are crap, they’ll always find a reason. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Syrian, Iraqi, German or something else. For example, we had a Sugar Festival [Eid al-Fitr] here; we worked with a neighbouring mosque community for four weeks and arranged for it to culminate in a lovely party. Then a fistfight broke out over a plate of baklava. The question now is: how do I perceive this? Do I say that a couple of refugees had a fight for five minutes, or do I say that 290 people celebrated the Sugar Festival peacefully?

    How do the male refugees treat the women – the female refugees, the volunteers?

    Duric: These people are a bit more lively than Germans, they pay us more compliments, but that’s not a problem. To begin with they may not take us that seriously, they’d rather speak to a man. But we very quickly make clear to them that things don’t work like that here, that if they need help they will have to speak to women, too. Generally speaking I feel I’m treated very respectfully.

    Hamann: If that weren’t the case, all the female volunteers, all these women, wouldn’t come to us any more. I’ll read you the names of the volunteers for this week: Susanne, Alina, Joanna, Lucile, Emily, Fatma, Sophia, Francesca, Jil, Christina, Nina, Rahel, Amelie, Elena, Miau, Julia, Waltraud etc. If there were constantly problems with men here, they wouldn’t all volunteer to come. Of course many refugees come from patriarchal societies and have an image of women that we once had in Germany, too. But that can be worked on; and besides, not everyone is the same. And just because a few individuals make problems, it doesn’t mean that everyone makes problems.

    On New Year’s Eve in Cologne, probably more than 1,000 North Africans and refugees sexually harassed women and robbed them; some women were even raped. Do refugees need rules of behaviour? Do we have to teach them about a new, German ‘guiding culture’?

    Hamann: Our rules of behaviour are in the Basic Law, in our constitution. Everyone has to stick to these, whether they’re a German or an asylum seeker. Again: this week we have working with us an atheist Afghan woman who was born in Palestine, a Frenchwoman, an Italian Catholic woman, a Turkish Muslim woman and a Jewish woman from Israel, working together as a team in a Christian emergency shelter. They would never do that if the men here insulted them.

    So it’s all just scaremongering?

    Hamann: I would immediately sign up to the fact that these people need German and integration courses, that we need to attend to their trauma and their psychological state of mind. And of course these attacks in Cologne cannot be tolerated. They must be prosecuted. But just as it’s not the case that all Germans are neo-Nazis just because a few of them carry out arson attacks on refugee accommodation, the events in Cologne do not mean that all North Africans and Muslims are people who don’t respect women.

    Duric: After what happened in Cologne, for example, two of our Syrian former occupants protested in Cologne against the events of New Year’s Eve and apologised for them.

    Were there problems or prejudices from the local people regarding the emergency accommodation and the refugees?

    Hamann: In the mornings, for example, employees from an architect’s practice around the corner come here. They approached us last year and asked how they could help us. Now they help out at 6.30 a.m. during our breakfast shift, handing out food. I’m not saying it’s like that everywhere. But our neighbourhood really is wonderfully supportive.

    Last year there were more than 1,000 attacks on refugee accommodation in Germany alone. Aren’t you afraid that your emergency shelter might be targeted, too?

    Hamann: Well, on 1st May Berlin FC Dynamo, which is famous for hooligans and neo-Nazis among its supporters, is playing against Berlin AK, which has a more Turkish character, here in the Poststadion, just a few hundred metres away. We and the police will warn the people in our accommodation on the day: you have to be more careful than usual during these four hours. We’ll put up leaflets, and a few hundred police will ensure security. Nonetheless, of course all these attacks worry me. I worry about our colleagues, our co-workers, the refugees. The mask of civilisation, as history has shown us often enough, is very, very thin. But if people want to, they can live together peacefully, too. Duric: In our district people work on concrete problems and help each other regardless of social milieus and religious differences.

    Is there anything that annoys you about the public debate about refugees?

    Hamann: Everything is too dominated by clichés. On both the right and the left. The refugees are neither lazy social scroungers who bleed us dry, grope women and take our jobs, nor are all refugees traumatised victims that Germany is horrible to. I find it hugely annoying that the polarised fringes dictate a large amount of the discourse. If, for example, I tell you that we ban some people from coming in, some will immediately say: there, I knew it. And if I say that there are traumatised people here who’ve been standing outside the LaGeSo for months and receive no money, the others say: the state is failing them, it’s not doing enough to look after those who need help. But clichés aren’t people. There’s no such thing as a typical asylum seeker. They are people whose natures and characters are just as varied as those of the local population. If we focus on Cologne on the one hand, and on the other point to the 29 Syrian doctors who are already working in hospitals, these are clichés that don’t tell us anything. The vast majority lie between the two and have to struggle with the fact that they need motivation to get back out of the psychological hole they’ve fallen into. I don’t see this debate happening anywhere.

    What ought we to be talking about, in your opinion?

    Hamann: How can we integrate these people into our society? How can we manage to give their lives structure again? If we don’t want Cologne, we have to think about how we are to give these people opportunities and prospects. We have to see them as completely ordinary, normal people with a psychological dynamic, who need to be supported and on whom demands can also be made.

    How would that look, specifically?

    Hamann: Again: The refugees need opportunities, possibilities, prospects, and they have to recognise that they are the ones who have to avail themselves of these. During the asylum process you’re not actually entitled to go on a German course. But they have to learn the language – that’s why we’ve been offering German courses every day from the very beginning. We’ve also arranged externally for them to be able to attend regular German courses at the nearby Kurt Tucholsky School, and for childcare to be provided at these times. Naturally we don’t force anyone to go. But we can make offers. The highschool Europagymnasium has approached us and is providing two scholarships. There were two people we particularly encouraged, who worked hard, and they now have these scholarships. We cooperate with companies. There’s a caterer round the corner who cooks with our refugees from time to time. We have interns from the Faculty of Psychology who are working with our refugees. We had a company manager who worked here with us for a week. We organise meetings with the locals: every Saturday and Sunday we have a ‘Coffee&Cake Conversation’. Outside groups bring cake, we provide the coffee, then sometimes up to 100 people sit there just chatting to one another. Big firms come, small communities, or private individuals. That’s how people come together; that’s the only way integration can work. We have to do everything we can to show these people that they have prospects.

    Duric: We also have Arabic speakers coming to us, and once a week we sit down with the refugees and discuss their and our concerns. We take minutes of these meetings and put them up publicly on the wall. We also had a job fair here in the shelter.

    How would you describe the mood in Germany at the moment?

    Hamann: On the one hand there is a very great and permanent culture of welcome and of helping, and on the other a diffuse fear of being ‘overwhelmed by foreigners’. But here too the debate is too dominated by clichés. The naïve multicultural helpers on the one hand, and straight to the racist critics on the other. These clichés are no help to us either.

    Angela Merkel said, ‘We can do this.’ 60% of Germans now believe that we can’t do this any more. Can we do this?

    Hamann: What’s that supposed to mean? What are we supposed to do? There’s this story about a boy on the beach and a starfish. A boy is on the beach; it’s ebb tide, and there are lots of starfish on the sand. He picks up the starfish and throws them into the sea. Then along comes a man and says to the boy, ‘What you’re doing is completely pointless. There are so many starfish; you can’t save them all.’ The boy looks at the man, picks up a starfish, throws it into the sea and says, ‘But I’ve saved that one.’

    Last year it was one million refugees. This year it may be another million. Do we need an upper limit? How many people can we integrate into our society?

    Hamann: How do we establish success? In that every refugee is integrated? That certainly isn’t going to happen. In that there are no more Nazis, who hate other people? That won’t happen, either. But what does it mean, then, that we haven’t done it? Is that even the relevant debate? Rather, we should be talking about how and not whether we can do it. And look: we did it once before, with the migrant workers. Why shouldn’t we manage to make it work again? We have politicians called Dilek Kolat, Özcan Mutlu and Cem Özdemir; we have intellectuals like Navid Kermani, who gave a speech to the German Bundestag on the 65th anniversary of the Constitution. We have people who aren’t called Sabine Müller or Martin Schmidt who are now helping to shape this country. We can see from this that it can work.

    Duric: Will it be easy? No! Can we do it? Of course! Why not? We all just have to do something for it and work together.
    Alem Grabovac is a freelance author and journalist living in Berlin. He writes regularly for Berlin’s Tageszeitung newspaper (taz).

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016

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