Stories from Berlin

There are 7 billion of us on this planet. Over 500 million of us live the EU. Every year, about 5 million babies are born here. These are figures that I am thinking about getting stamped on a t-shirt, because they are the figures that help us put into context the debate about migrants and refugees, a debate that I can’t believe we are (still) having.

In 2015, 1 million strangers arrived on our doorstep, many of them risking their lives and the lives of their children to get here, because it seemed like a less certain death than staying at home.

Because of the incredible selfishness of most EU member states, the majority of those 1 million refugees ended up in Germany. Sweden also took in a high number in proportion to its population. And thousands upon thousands ended up in a bottleneck in Greece.

Arriving home after spending the last year in Berlin, I was leafing through my Dad’s copy of the latest National Geographic when I recognised someone I knew. The woman who is pictured at the Tempelhof refugee camp about half way through this article (page 104 in the print version) is not a stranger to me. I first met Zainab about six months ago, in the company of her granddaughter. We had been running our weekly women’s group for quite a while, but up until then we had been working in a different part of the massive camp. Like many women her age, Zainab can work wonders with a ball of wool and a crochet hook, rapidly using up whatever amount of wool we were able to supply. Most women started out by making themselves shower gloves. Then they moved on to more ‘luxury’ items like hats, scarves, bags and baby clothes. It’s just what they do. After all, there is a war on.

***

One of the things that stood out clearly about Zainab is that she would never, ever, join in the scramble for materials if they were all spread out on a table. She would wait, patiently, to the end, and take whatever was left. She struck me not as someone who was too frail for the fight, but as a woman who was determined not to lose her dignity, and who wanted to set a good example for her granddaughter. On busy days, I started withholding some of the good quality wool so I would be sure she received her fair share. She prefers white, sometimes red. I used to pass Zainab a lot, just walking around the hangar, and she would always stop and greet me with a firm clasp of my hand and a kiss on each cheek. In the last few weeks, I saw less and less of her, and often I would give her granddaughter some wool to pass on to her. I very much regret that I didn’t see her to say goodbye.

As much as we try to create a calm and friendly environment for the women in our group, there is no escaping from the noise and tension of sharing a living space with 2000 other people and with dozens of staff and volunteers, not to mention journalists and politicians, coming and going constantly. There is literally a circus happening every day (the amazing Zirkus Ohne Grenzen, which is great for children, but maybe less so for tired parents and grandparents, or teenagers trying to study, who have no option of blocking out the noise). For a lot of people, the safest option is to hide.

Zainab’s granddaughter, Rojin, is in her early teens, and most of the time you talk to her you’d come away thinking that her biggest problem in life is not being able to afford a decent set of makeup. Like so many children at the camp, she has already learned how to internalise her emotions and relieve pressure on her parents. But one day we talked about how they were living, and she said to me in her basic German: “Ein Zimmer. Acht Personen. Nicht Gut” (One room. Eight people. Not good). The words “not good” are used by residents to cover a multitude of complaints. Assad is “not good”. ISIS is “not good”. When a bomb fell on your school it was “not good”. The accommodation is “not good”. The months-long wait for German classes or doctor’s appointments is “not good”. The food is “not good”.  Boys running around making noise are “not good”. Teenagers sneaking off and kissing behind the shower stalls are “not good”. Fear and insecurity are “not good”. 0.5mm crochet hooks are “not good”. The lack of contact with local people is “not good”. The boredom and depression is “not good”. It is only a 5 year old boy who has the courage to go around shouting that “alles ist Scheiße” (everything is shit). It makes me strangely hopeful every time I think of it.

***

It is about a year since the camp first opened, and many residents are losing hope of moving on to better accommodation. What began as a temporary solution has an increasing air of permanence about it, as the anticipated new arrivals have been held back in Greece and Turkey and the camp seeks to meet the terms of its original budget by holding onto its original residents. When gymnasiums and hostels began returning to business-as-usual over the summer, people were moved from one makeshift shelter to another. An Irishwoman working in a camp on the other side of town said to me that people there talked about being relocated to Tempelhof in a “to hell or to Connaught” kind of manner. To hell or to Tempelhof. It has a good ring to it.

The way you survive is by relativising. Isn’t it better than what you read about Idomeni? Better than Calais? Better than the tent camps in Turkey or Jordan? Better, a thousand times better, than being bombed to bits in Syria? Being abducted and forced to fight by the Taleban in Afghanistan? Your wife and your children being at the mercy of your local oligarch/warlord in the Caucasus? Sure, pigeons perch in the rafters and shit on your bed and on your daughter’s new clothes that you spent hours picking out at the donation distribution point because even though there wasn’t much choice, you could almost convince yourself it was retail therapy. But it could all be worse, couldn’t it?

The answer is yes, it could, and I am reminded of this every time I look at the news from Syria and read the place names which I now associate with people I know, people who used to live in this region, this province, this town, or when I read about boats capsizing in the Mediterranean and bodies being washed up on beaches. For how long can you content yourself by repeating “at least they didn’t drown” (and many of them damn near did, and they tell you about it by drawing pictures of boats underwater and adding little stick figures for their parents and siblings)?

So everything is fine, and I keep showing up with a smile on my face and a parcel of wool under one arm, and I get to know people, and they get to know me, and we spend a lot of time laughing together and drinking tea and painting each other’s nails and showing each other photographs, and sometimes we meet up at the weekends. It’s all relative, you tell yourself. At the camp, some people have decorated their walls with children’s drawings and magazine cuttings. Other walls remain bare, betraying no mark of the individuals or families living there. There are people who try to spend their whole day anywhere but there (chiefly absentee fathers doing everything they can not to appear weak in front of their children), and then there are others who withdraw into themselves, invisible behind the plastic walls of the partitions, losing their appetite for the thrice daily servings of food on plastic plates with plastic cutlery (incidentally, the kitchens in most camps are not set up to cater for people with medical-related dietary requirements).

It’s all relative, and because it’s all relative, it makes a mockery of the idea of universal human rights. It makes a mockery of our shared humanity. It feels like the universe is laughing at us.

***

The National Geographic article contains some inspiring stories, which remind me of a lot of the unsung heroes I’ve got to know over the last year. But overall, I feel less than hopeful most of the time. Arriving home, I don’t feel like I’ve been in one of Europe’s most popular cities. I feel like I’ve been thousands of miles away.

The EU – mainly Germany – hosts just a tiny fraction of the world refugee population, and still there are vulnerable people falling through the cracks. The most humane moments I’ve witnessed in the last year came from people bending the rules, not observing them.

Hania Hakiel, my friend and colleague in Berlin, responded to an early version of this post by reflecting more deeply on:

[…] something so obvious and so totally forgotten. These people escape the war, fine, but they arrive here as…people. Their bodies carry trauma like the bodies of many of us and like us they suffer not only from the past psychological injuries but also from headaches, toothaches, cancer… Like us they like to eat nice food and have a peaceful sleep. That is maybe why I so seldom write about my experiences at the refugee camp. They are just experiences with other people. Do you report “today I met a person” on daily basis?

I am frankly embarrassed to talk about what I’ve been doing all year because I cannot find a language in which to talk about it that does not diminish the humanity of the people I’ve met, the humanity of our encounters.

In Germany, many people have stopped using the word Flüchtling (refugee) and replaced it with Geflüchtete (an adjective describing someone who has fled). It sounds clunky, to say the least, but it matters because it actively attempts to maintain the personhood, the inalienable human-being-ness, of the one who has fled.

When we label people refugee or migrant, we often forget how many of us have a history of migration in our own family.

When we label people Muslim, we forget that being a ‘Christian’ continent hasn’t prevented us from going to war with one another hundreds of times, including two major wars in the last century.

The whole point of the Europe that has evolved in my lifetime is that it’s a place where borders are not supposed to matter, where diversity is something to be celebrated rather than feared, and where the definition of cultural heritage is constantly expanding and evolving.

If we are afraid that our culture is being diminished at home, we need only look around to be reminded of the fact that it is flourishing. This week I spotted two stories about refugees and Gaelic games. Two Iraqi brothers have found acceptance and friendship in the Berlin GAA club which meets every week at the park at Tempelhof. And in Belfast (that city of famously divided Christians), an 11 year old boy who arrived from Aleppo last December recently helped his local club win an U-12 hurling title.

If you want the best parts of your culture to survive (and the worst parts to be eradicated) then probably the best thing you can do is open it up to the world.

Yes, we’re destined to become a multicultural melting pot. But so is everywhere else.

In the same way that people who don’t vote forfeit the right to complain about elections, people who do nothing to engage constructively with refugees forfeit the right to complain about them.

***

Paradoxically, I think a lot of Europeans are holding back out of politeness. You don’t need someone like me writing articles telling you that refugees are people too. You know that they are people, you know that they are just like you, and that embarrasses you, and it embarrasses them too. It’s just very, very awkward for everyone. The first time I walked into the camp at Tempelhof I was burning with shame. I was afraid to meet anyone’s eye. I was ashamed of myself, I was ashamed of the EU (and I used to love the EU), and I was ashamed for the people I met there, that they had to see me seeing them this way. A lot of the time I feel like apologising.

This causes a certain tension, which I still see with a lot of new volunteers when they join the group. People are afraid to make eye contact, afraid to reach out. Afraid of rejection or misunderstanding. No one wants to be seen as a tourist. No one wants to offend anyone, no one wants their look to be interpreted as a stare. Nobody wants to be associated with charity, but nobody is quite sure how to go about making friends. There’s an elephant in the room and his name is Trauma. I talk to people in bars and at parties, tell them that we need more dedicated volunteers, and they all say “don’t you need training to do that kind of thing?”

You are afraid to be invited inside somebody’s room, because to step inside those cramped little spaces is to make a cognitive leap. Calling them rooms is an insult to the English language. You know what they’re like, you’ve caught glimpses as you pass (and tried desperately to look as if you weren’t looking), but to feel yourself inhabiting that space, even for a moment, to sit there and think: this is where these people go at the end of the day, this is the only place they have to come back to and feel safe…you’re afraid to invade what little privacy they have, but you’re also afraid to make yourself vulnerable by entering that space.

And you’re right to be afraid. Getting involved in other people’s lives has a transformative effect. It takes so much effort to communicate verbally, and still the language barrier means that physical contact is one of the main ways people relate to one another. There is so much hugging and kissing going on, so much looking deep into each other’s eyes, so many children are using you as a human climbing frame, that at times you feel like your body is very slowly disintegrating. You arrive carrying your parcels of wool or paint or paper, and you leave weighed down with fruit and the tiny packets of jam and honey given out at breakfast time which people have been saving up to give to you. And you still have those moments at two in the morning where you wonder if everyone secretly hates you.

And on and on for months and months. You get close to people, and you start to feel afraid that they will surely move to a better place soon, and maybe you won’t ever see them again. You get close to people, and you start to hope that they will be moved to a better place soon, and you won’t ever see them again. Presumably they feel the same about you. Fear and hope wear the same face.

And you get used to it. Everything is relative. Things could be better, they should be better, but they could always be worse too. Alles ist Scheiße. You care. You don’t care. You care. You don’t care.

An 11 year old boy who wants to be either a doctor or an architect draws a fine two-storey house and explains that you and he and his family and two other volunteers are going to live in it. You say: “that’s nice, can it have a balcony please?” And he draws a balcony and he puts you standing on it, looking out at the swing and the apple tree.

The apples are big and red and rosy.

You can almost feel the breeze.

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