“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.
Thursday, 1 October 2015
Getting into Germany couldn’t have been easier. I said good morning to the blank faced woman at Passport Control; she found a blank page in my passport, stamped it; I pulled my bag from the conveyor belt and walked into the heavily policed shopping mall of Flughafen Tegel International. My eyes were dry and itchy from staying up all night on the plane reading Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State and trying to learn a few words of Arabic with my Nemo phone app. Marhaban. Hello. Na’am. Yes. Herzliches Willkommen. No, wrong language. I’d hear the phrase soon from the folks at the Institute sponsoring my trip; how many others entering the country today would hear likewise?
Stepping outside, the airport shade felt chilly; the temperature would be dipping lower with every few days, and people living on the street would wait longer for the morning sun to warm them. October would bring rain. Sickness would follow. I stepped back through the sliding glass to don my German kitschy Jack Wolfskin fleece, with a giant paw print stitched between the shoulders. Ich bin ein Berliner? Hardly, but I was happy to be back for the month.
In the cab to Mitte, the city center, I asked the Turkish driver how long he had lived in Berlin. 30 years. Did he like Berlin? Oh, ja, sure. Where are the refugees? He gave his head a quarter turn, What? I repeated my question. What? He didn’t understand the word—die Flüchtlinge (literally, the fleers)—and it wasn’t my German, as bad as it is. He had never heard the word (maybe I should have said Asylbewerber—asylum seeker—but I hadn’t learned it yet myself).
Germany has known its Flüchtlinge of course, fugitives fleeing Nazism in the 1930’s, so many that in 1933 the League of Nations created its High Commission for Refugees, now the UNHCR, located in Berlin near old Checkpoint Charlie. But before that, try 1685, when the Edict of Fontainbleau outlawed Protestantism in France and hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled, that time to Germany. I thought of Franz Tunda, the Austrian lieutenant in Joseph Roth’s novel, Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End), who escaped from the Russian P.O.W. camp at the end of WWI and fled back to Europe. Could the ironical itinerant Roth, himself always on the move between hotels, ever have guessed that the title of his 1927 novel might refract the experience of so many 21st century non-Europeans, today’s Flüchtlinge? Flight without end. A political plight becoming a state of mind.
I pressed my cabbie, the Syrians, I said, though I could have added, and the Afghanis, and the Eritreans . . . Ah, ja, die Syrer; he shook his head and said, I don’t know. But they’re here, in Berlin, right? Ja, they’re here, but I don’t know where. We crossed a small bridge over the Spree into Moabit, the immigrant thick kiez originally settled by fleeing Huguenots, and the location of the State Office of Health and Welfare (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or Lageso), the office where the refugees in Berlin wait to register with the state. (Gesundheit, indeed; I thought of the coming cold.) I think they’re near, I said. Ja, they are near, he said, his head moving left to right scanning an intersection as we slid through, it’s a big problem.
The taxi driver dropped me on a quiet street off Chauseestrasse in the Scheunenviertel kiez (literally ‘barn quarter’), Berlin’s old Jewish Quarter that maintains the winding lanes of a village even as it’s exploded as a hip area for shopping, dining, and looking at contemporary art in the converted barn courtyards of its yesteryear (the hay barns were kept to the old city outskirts due to fires). The building in which the Institute had situated me is small and mod, like a cheap imitation Mondrian you could live in. When I knocked on the Hausmeister’s door at 8:30 a.m., I was greeted by a dour unsmiling woman who dragged on her cigarette and returned to the landline. Missing the warmth of the Frau at Passport Control, I took a seat and waited, silently rehearsing some fumbling German in my head.
Ten minutes later I had signed papers, received keys, and was standing in a small bright clean flat of blond wood and metal and halogen, an Ikea-nized space. The windows opened onto a vacant courtyard created by a matching pair of large dark modern stone buildings framed by even darker materials around corporate-sized windows. I could look directly into them and count the louvers of the executive shades in each room as well as the metal railing banisters that zigzag up and down the windowed staircases. Both buildings were completely vacant of people and thwarted my fleeting interest in spying on working German suits. Sterile emptiness. Over the flat box rooftop, I could make out the peaked red tile roofs of the Naturkundemuseum (natural history museum) the next street over, and beyond that the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). A sky-scape everywhere punctuated by huge cranes—the construction of reclaimed space in Berlin will continue for another 20 years or more . . . Herzliches Willkommen. Here now, I was eager to enter it again.