“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.
This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the“Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry. An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.
Wednesday, 21 October
Joseph has accepted my invitation to stay for a couple of nights. He’ll check out of the hostel around noon and come to my flat in Scheunenviertel, a fast 10 minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof. He has offered to go with me to Lageso to act as an interpreter. Also, he says, he can tell me things about the people we talk to based on the way they answer questions. He knows I’m skeptical of the conspiracy picture he’s painted, but he clearly likes the fact that I’m listening to him closely and appear to be at least half-informed about the situation. And, of course, we’re both Jewish.
But what does that mean? I find this troubling. Why have I invited him to stay and not a Muslim in more desperate straits who likely follows Islam? I know it is because I’m Jewish, a fact I’ve kept totally under wraps in my interviews with refugees at Lageso. Not that I had a reason to bring it up, but if someone had asked me, I would have said “yes, and I’m against the occupation.” And then I would have felt very nervous. The difference of religion is not the issue, but rather my inability to identify the political ideologies of Muslims after talking to them for only a short while, and in their rough English, or my rough German. Where German Berliners might not feel any trepidation bringing a strange Muslim into their house, as an American Jew in Berlin I did, and do. Maybe such initial feelings would change in the course of a larger conversation, in a different setting than the tense grounds of Lageso. I trust my intuitions; but unfamiliar and stressful situations can distort the signal one tries to pick out — too much background noise. Joseph, however, has arrived already vetted, in some sense, by Rabbi Rothschild and Germany’s greater Jewish network. And three hours of conversation in a café — a normalizing environment — have lead me to extend myself. But not flatter myself; the evidence of my limitation in this moment is disconcerting. Next time, I hope, I like to think, I will find a way to go further. So, I’ve found a flattering reflection in any case: optimism by endless deferral; that is not an ethics . . . (The mirror doesn’t lie, we do).
“First and foremost charity benefits the giver.” —Joseph Roth (“Ghettoes of the West”)
En route to Lageso, Joseph and I talk more about the situation. What about Russia? Russia, he says, has weakened IS; they are still dangerous, but not as powerful right now. Some of my information is a year old, he continues, so I made some calls to people in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan yesterday to find out the news. This is what they are saying. The guys I talked to at Lageso, I say, don’t like to see Putin in the region; they say he is simply supporting Assad. They would like to see Obama fly planes over the region — just the sight of planes, they say, would send the regime underground. Joseph laughs. Yes, he says, that’s true, totally correct. Whoever told you that, he says, maybe has some military experience. But, he continues with a shrug, Russia is looking out for Russia, supporting Bashar is only supporting their own interests; they don’t care about anything else. And Bashar is bad, he says, but IS is worse. Bashar does not want to take over the world, IS does. (Still, I think, listening to Joseph, the difference in numbers of murdered is staggering; what Assad is doing to his own people is beyond criminal.) And, continues Joseph, IS is even more violent. They are smarter than Al-Qaeda, they are more powerful, better armed, and bigger. And yet the US is doing less than they did before, less than they did against Saddham. And this enemy is greater. It doesn’t make any sense. He changes the subject. We should have a word, he says, that I can use at Lageso to signal that we are talking to a radicalized Muslim. Do you like baseball, I say. Joseph shrugs. Why don’t you do something like touch the bill of your cap, kind of adjust it on your head. He gives it a try. Ja, like that, I say. We go over how Joseph will introduce me — an American writer wanting to tell people back in the States about the situation of refugees in Berlin. True enough.
Approaching the Lageso compound of buildings, we pass the big white convention-size tents set up behind fences and adjacent to the first building that faces the street. The tents are full of people stepping in and out of the cold. Some on the sidewalk converse with others inside the fence. A young boy, 4 or 5, plays with a toy car on the sidewalk, spinning it upside down on its roof like a top. His family is squatting nearby eating apples. Their stroller is full of food, packaged and also fresh produce that’s easy to eat raw with one’s hands. Five kids. Walking onto the grounds, we pass the food tent — soup and brötchen. There are only a few hundred people today milling about the digital console of amber numbers. Joseph and I walk around observing people. I decide to approach three men and two women wearing hijabs standing around an empty baby carriage.
They are two families. Husam, 23, and his father, Razin, 50, are Palestinians from Libya. Husam has been in Germany for a year, having only recently arrived from Dresden (where anti-immigration xenophobia is spiking with the right organization, Pegida). His father has just joined him. What did you do in Libya, I ask Razin, the father. I was a geography teacher he says to Joseph, who is interpreting. I’m a teacher, too, I say, literature. He gives me a broad smile and we shake hands for a second time. They have been running from radicalized forces that would compel them to join. What was the situation like when you left, I ask Razin. Bombs were going off everywhere, he says. Cars are outfitted with guns. There’s no school, no university now for two years. Girls are afraid to go out because of kidnapping. All the young men are armed and fighting. Who are they? All different groups with IS. Who are they fighting? The regime, the oil families. Why did you want to come to Germany? Germany is the best, says Razin, for acceptance and protection. The Arabic world doesn’t want us [Palestinians], for 76 years now.
I turn to Fudail, 35, from Aleppo. What did you do in Aleppo? Fudail ran a fish and chicken restaurant destroyed by a bomb. Well, he says, there’s still a counter standing there, but no one to cook or serve! He laughs. The absurdity of the mental picture is infectious, and I laugh, too, and shake my head. Is your family still there? My mother and sister, and the workers from the restaurant. In the course of talking, the two women in concert have stepped back and moved to the side. Occasionally one of the young daughters comes over to us and takes Fudail’s index finger in her hand. He ignores her questions but doesn’t pull away. Good luck, I say, shukran lak (thank you). We all shake hands with smiles. Joseph and I walk away and he weighs in. Those are just normal people, he says. The Palestinians from Libya are exaggerating their situation a little, he continues, there are lots of places to go in Libya where there isn’t war. They are practicing their story for the Germans, to get their status. Joseph shrugs. It’s okay, he says, that’s what people are doing so that they can stay. It’s easier for the Syrians than the Libyans.
We approach what look like a couple standing with a third guy, slightly younger. Moonif, 29, and his sister, Rina, 27, have lived in Germany since they were kids; they’ve been here a total of 50 years between them. They’re at Lageso helping their cousin, Elias, 25, get registered. Make sure, says Moonif in perfect German, that you tell people we are not refugees, we are German. Moonif works in a steak house in Schöneberg; he and his sister both live in Neukölln. They are warm, friendly people, spending their free time at Lageso helping new arrivals fill out forms and navigate the system. How many people have you helped so far? 20-35, with the papers, says Rina. I turn to Elias, their cousin from Aleppo. What was the situation when you left? If I stayed, he says, I would have to join the Free Army or IS. What if you joined neither, I say. I’d be killed, he says. The Free [Syrian] Army bombed my house, I can’t go back. If it were safe, says Moonif, 80% would go back. We say thank you, shake hands, and turn in another direction.
Two guys approach us. They see we are something like reporters, and they want to talk. Abdul, 35, wears a white down jacket that cinches at the waist — otherwise stylish, it shows the soiling of his journey. He speaks with lively eyes; his hips move expressively as he talks; he could be a slim, seductive Spaniard or Italian. He’s here with his wife and two daughters, 9 and 14. I am from Iraq, he says to Joseph, from the city of Mosul; I saw the fall of Mosul. Why are you talking to me with a Syrian accent, says Joseph (according to his account afterward). Abdul shifts into his hometown speech — I adopt the accent, he says, to blend in with the others. Before IS entered Mosul, Abdul was working in the government’s Ministry of Health. They knew IS was on its way when they were told to stay home and not leave their house for over a week. Abdul was working at a hospital when the civic order was announced; he was stuck there for days. At the time, says Abdul, there were 60,000 soldiers in Mosul, but none of them from the city itself. When 200 IS fighters entered, the soldiers simply dropped their weapons and left their posts. Only the local police stayed to fight, and they were no match. Why’d they stay? They are from Mosul, he says, the others are just there for the pay. They never fought IS at all. Many people were being killed, but the military watches without reaction and simply moves out. (Abdul still has family there; I promise not to use his real name.) IS took my 2014 Hyundai, he says, I hardly got the chance to drive it. And now life there is totally ruled by Sharia: no shaving; no jeans; women totally covered, no bare skin at all; you have to go to the mosque when called or you’ll be killed. Any change in your life, he says, and you must get permission, otherwise you’ll be taken to Islamic court, and they’ll cut off your head. If you try to leave, and they find you, he says, they’ll kill you. How did you get out? Abdul describes how he and his family and three other families — a total of 13 people — hid inside an empty oil tank for seven hours. And his movements then? From Iraq to Syria to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Croatia to Austria to Hungary to Berlin. How have you been treated so far? The police in Germany are very respectful, he says, thoughtful, considerate. Our dream, he says, was to come to Germany, but now I see it is not a dreamland. The routine is killing. I hope, I say, that’s only a figure of speech here. He smiles genuinely. Yes, he says, I hope so.
I turn to the other man, Yaman, 45, an oil engineer from Homs. A tall man, he looks aged beyond his years and sways slowly as he talks, but from the shoulders not the hips. His voice is mellow, its softness a rich contrast to the harshness of his situation. He’s arrived in Berlin three weeks ago with his wife and his daughter, 10, and his son, 17. I am an individual person, he says, I’m not with the regime or with IS or with the Free Military, I am just myself. The Free Military has come to control Homs by force. They say, “we are here to protect you.” (The FSA is made up of many defectors from Assad’s regime who refused to kill civilians). “But,” says Yaman, “you will draw Bashar to us,” we say. “The Koran tells us,” they say, “that jihad licenses us to fight the regime.” “But we’ll get killed,” we say. “Or,” they say, “you will be killed other ways.” When the fighting starts, says Yaman, we hid under our kitchen table. For ten days we were surrounded by fighting. Funny thing, though, he says, all fighting stops in the middle of the day, for two hours, so both sides can eat. Then it starts again. We saw many bodies in the street. The Free Military would throw the bodies of soldiers into garbage cans and write on them: For Bashar Al-Assad, from the Free Military. I will stay here if I can, he says, but the process is so slow. How are you being treated by security here, I say. Some are okay, he says, quite nice. Others kick us while we are sleeping. Joseph says afterward, I don’t think he’s Syrian. No one says, as introduction, “I am an individual,” no one — everyone has some affiliation. And he has no accent, Joseph continues, he speaks in a way that comes from nowhere, he has learned to talk like that. Joseph shrugs, maybe he’s Egyptian and has lived in Syria for a long time.
We walk to the front courtyard area, where the console displays its lit amber numbers, and hover by the opening of a large tent set up for people to take shelter. Three guys who look to be in their 30s sit on stools by the tent opening. One smokes a cigarette down to its filter and talks quietly to another in hip designer glasses. Joseph makes introductions; is it okay to talk to them? The smoker gives me a dead hard stare for an eternal five seconds. His eyes are steel blades. No, he says, we are not interested in talking to anyone from the West. The West cares only for its own interests. We will not talk to them. Joseph says, okay; he adjusts his cap, well, thank you very much. We go. Those guys, he says, are totally radicalized, maybe not as much as the guys in the camp who tried to stab me, but definitely those are not just normal people. Will they get sent back, do you think, I say. Probably not, he says. The way the law works in Germany, he says, they can stay: they will say they are against Bashar, which is true, but they will not say that they support IS, even though they do. And as far as the law here goes, being against Bashar is enough.
On our way out, we are stopped by a guy who looks to be in his 20s, in a red track suit and athletic shoes. He is highly agitated and starts talking to Joseph in a voice that grows more insistent and louder with every sentence. I got here three months ago, he says to Joseph (it’s clear that our presence has been discussed around the grounds) and because I’m from Iraq they won’t accept me. I want to go back, how can I go back? I’m almost ready to kill myself. It’s safer back there. Even if I’m killed there, it will be better. EU is just accepting Syrians. It’s terrible here. So go back, says Joseph, it’s easy. Just go to Frankfurt, to the embassy, and say that you want to go back. They have to take you. But I need a paper from the German government, he says. Go to the embassy, says Joseph, they’ll help you get the paper. We walk off the grounds. Upset guy, says Joseph, but he’s exaggerating his situation.
Sitting over a plastic plate of noodles at the Asian Wok booth outside the Hauptbahnhof debriefing with Joseph over the visit to Lageso. Two girls walk by cloaked in Palestinian flags. I look around for a demo forming, but nothing’s happening. Maybe they’re on their way to one? A red balloon rolls by on the sidewalk, looking for its string; a grown man stomps, and it pops. The little red lit Ampelmann with his arms straight out signaling to stop turns into a bright green profile in stride. The real man imitates him, walking across the tram lines to the other side.