My Berlin: (be-)longing

This collaborative article was written in spring 2016 and can thus be seen as a ‘record of encounters’ after the arrival of a large number of refugees in Berlin. What encounters do you recall? And how have they shaped ‘your’ Berlin?

Sarah Fichtner in collaboration with Hussam Tumma Al-Saadi, Rawaa Azizi, Alaa Ali, Sarah Hartmann.
Illustrations Alvaro Martinez

We are drinking tea in the sunny kitchen of an office space in Berlin Kreuzberg, one of the numerous meeting places for people who arrived in Berlin as refugees in 2015/16 and people who have been calling Berlin their home for a longer time. This particular meeting place is a pedagogic training centre during the week. Every Sunday, since September 2015, it has been transformed into a lively Café by a group of volunteers belonging to the initiative “Tango Berlin hilft”. Initially created to provide emergency shelter for refugees in Berlin, this network of dancers extended their engagement by offering a space for recreation and encounter on weekends. Being a tango dancer and volunteer myself, but also a social anthropologist and homecoming Berliner – after nine years spent abroad – I wonder what Berlin means to the people in the Sunday Café. I invite them to talk about their journeys and their experiences in Berlin.

Alaa tells me how he fled from Damascus to Berlin and what he hopes for and struggles with in his new city. In the neighbouring room, people are screaming in excitement over a card game (UNO with adapted rules). Sophie and Mohamed set out the dishes; it’s almost lunchtime.

I decided to leave the country where I had lived for 33 years. I brought my wife and my one-year-old daughter to a safer place in Damascus’ city center, and I left them behind.

Because I am originally Palestinian, I cannot travel by plane. So I came by bus, foot and boat with the help of some people. I passed through Turkey and Greece and other countries until I arrived here. Now I am very happy but I am also…. sad! I am 33 now. When I was young I imagined becoming someone useful for my society, like a lawyer. But now it’s all destroyed and I’m so sad….

Berlin is a beautiful city. It’s my city now. It’s my city and I want to be someone useful to this city that helps us so much. We came here to study, to work, to build our future…. I am going to a “Schule” (school) now every day at Hermannplatz, learning German. The situation at LAGeSo (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales Berlin, now Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten) with all the paperwork is difficult and I came here with no money, but thank God, our “Heim” (asylum, shelter) feeds us. I live in a sports hall with 150 people. When there was snow, we cleared the snow in front of the “Heim”, cleaning the entire street.

I was surprised to see things in Berlin that do not exist in Syria, like the U-Bahn. My first ride made me so happy, it was so fast!

And there are these big parks! One day I hope to see a football game in the stadium. Maybe when Bayern Munich plays, my favourite team. In the world cup I supported Germany and put a small flag in my room. There is a German Muslim player, Mesut Özil, he gives everything he can to his team. Like him, a Muslim player, I want to give everything I can to this society.

Gabrielle and Alexandra, two volunteers, join our conversation. I ask them, what Berlin means to them:

Gabrielle: Berlin is my home. You know, I have lived here for 40 years! Berlin is inspiration! Berlin is always moving, it never stops. And at the same time it’s a village. Berlin is a very important city in the world because of its history, because of East and West. Berlin is a symbol for East and West.

Alexandra: And we have so many different nationalities in Berlin. Berlin stands for understanding each other, for fairness…

Gabrielle: I hope that the gentrification stops! To Alaa: You know what that means? He shakes his head, signalling a ‘no’. The people in Berlin are down to earth, you know, they are like this: she puts her feet firm on the ground. Since the Berlin Wall came down, all the rich people want to invest in Berlin, buying houses, buying apartments, buying, buying, buying… making everything more expensive. Gentrification means that people who have money spread out, making it difficult for the poor to stay. It is hard for the city, for the artists, for the poor… Alaa nods and says: Yes, it’s so hard. I have been looking for a flat for six months… You know, I admire the experience of Berlin: It woke up after it was destroyed and you can see how it was rebuilt out of ruins. They did it all together: Germans, Muslims, others, all together. And that is for the best!

In the afternoon, my friend Sarah and I sit down in the children’s corner: a blanket full of toys and dolls, where we talk to Rawaa, while playing with her children Muhamad (2 ½) and Mariam (8 months). Rawaa is from Aleppo. She tells us: I have a dream to learn German and continue my studies and work here with my husband. I could not finish my degree in economics in Syria; it was too dangerous. When the windows in our apartment burst because of the bombs I could not stay any longer. I saw Angela Merkel on TV who said that refugees are welcome in Germany.

Mariam was three months old when we left. It was a long journey. It took two weeks. From Aleppo to Izmir, on a boat to a Greek island, to Athens, Macedonia, Serbia by taxi… then at night by foot over the border to Hungary, with a GPS on the mobile phone. The taxi from the frontier to Budapest cost 200€ per person. From Budapest we took the train to Vienna and were brought to Berlin. It was not our decision to come here. We just wanted to reach Germany.

My sister’s son went to Norway because the registration took so long here. By now, he already found a flat and continues his life. We have been living in a sports hall for five months. It is so difficult with a baby. I cannot put her on the ground; it’s too dirty. I heard that it is really difficult to find an apartment in Berlin and that there are people who do not want to rent their houses to refugees. This scares me… But most people in Berlin are nice and offer their help.

I go to the LaGeSo every morning at 5 am, even if my appointment is for later. But if you come too late, they tell you to come back next week and we really want to have our own space to live. There is only one room with showers and toilets for women in the sports hall; this is so difficult with our small children.

Rawaa and her husband Jihad come to the Sunday Café every Sunday with their two children. Asked about their favourite place in Berlin, Rawaa and Jihad state very quickly that it is this space, the Sunday-Café. In German they write on a flipchart: “Ich bin gerne hier, weil ich hier viele Freunde habe” (I like being here, because I have many friends here). In March 2016, the family moved out of the sports hall to another asylum seekers’ home, where they have their own small room. They still dream about moving into a bigger apartment in a “normal” house.

This longing for a private space to settle down and make a home is a central concern for many people coming to the Sunday Café. The uncertainty of whether one can stay in Berlin or not causes frustration. Muhamad, 19 years old from Syria, raises this point during a discussion on another Sunday afternoon:

There is a lot of confusion: there are these problems at LaGeSo and the issues with our residencies. Another point is that we try to learn the German language and to plan for our future. But the confusion about the residency causes a lot of nervousness and distraction. Me and a lot of others, we have already been here for six months, and we should be able to speak German fluently by now. But we cannot concentrate. These issues are huge obstacles for the study of the language. My main wish is to settle down, to get the residency and to know that I can stay. But like so many others, I left my fingerprints in Hungary and I do not know what consequences this will have. I am nervous about my destiny.

My main wish is to settle down, to get the residency and to know that I can stay. But like so many others, I left my fingerprints in Hungary and I do not know what consequences this will have. I am nervous about my destiny.

Khaled, a young man in his twenties, adds: One big disappointment for me is the bureaucratic treatment. We thought that the German law is straight and clear, but people with the same profile are accepted or rejected for residency, have to wait seven months, or just a few days… this is not fair and causes frustration.

I ask him if the city has changed since he first came. Well, I arrived in Berlin in September 2015, and I thought that there would be many people who are against refugees. I am always expecting to meet these people and you know, I live in Köpenick, but I never see them. I think that nothing has changed; people are nice… well, except for the old people, maybe… Our main problem is that we had to leave everything behind: our generous lives, our homes and our education, because of the war in Syria. And Berlin, well, it will be hard to leave Berlin if I am accepted at a university somewhere else. I started a new life here and I have made new German and Arab friends.

Hussam, an architect from Iraq, who helps in the Sunday Café as a volunteer, agrees: There is this kind of Berlin flavour: this enormous mixture of cultures and this kind of amazing flexibility, I think it is unavailable in other cities. I have been living in Jordan, in Dubai, in Hamburg, in Erfurt before I came to Berlin 2 ½ years ago; but the beauty of this city, which is its capacity to encompass and to embrace, this kind of living in balance, makes it very normal for Berlin to welcome this enormous number of newcomers.

While I help to rearrange tables and chairs to transform the Café back into an office space, I think about the stories, worries, hopes and opinions that were shared. I am grateful for these encounters, for these precious moments when people I don’t know turn into people I start knowing. I tell myself not to waste too much time sitting at home writing, but to get out there and listen! I cycle home and I feel it: I feel embraced by my city, Berlin.