“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.
Friday, 2 October 2015
Barbara Gügold, the director of the Institute, shook my hand and led me out the door. We chatted pleasantly on the way to a favored lunch spot in one of the many barn courtyards of the neighborhood—an upscale joint that served cuisine. I ordered the octopus. Is the flat okay, she asked. Oh, it’s great, just what I needed. Those dark stone buildings behind you . . ., she said. That make the courtyard? I asked. Yes, that is the new location for the CIA. It’s probably the safest street in Berlin. It’s not a dangerous city, I said; we smiled. And so what about the refugees, I said—(this would soon become my favorite non-sequitur)—Where are they? Oh, they’re everywhere. Well, what do you think of their coming to Germany? Oh, Germany must take them, we must, and they are very welcome here, she leaned forward, very welcome. But we need to make distinctions between those truly seeking political asylum and others who are coming for economic opportunity. From Albania, Serbia, Macedonia—these people cannot stay. Their lives are not in immediate danger from imminent threat. And they are coming with the Syrians because soon the EU will declare those countries ‘safe’ and asylum will not be available to them. You mean politically ‘safe’? Yes, politically safe. The pulpo was excellent. The atrium-like dining alcove was empty but for us, with muffled acoustics, warm and luxurious. My family were refugees, she continued, Hugenots in the 17th century; they fled here from France. Gügold: my surname is a Germanized French name.
When we warmly shook hands goodbye, she pointed out the direction to nearby Humboldt Universität, where I would later be giving a lecture; she handed me an issue of Der Spiegel about the refugee crisis and a program directory for the much-touted Robert Wilson extravaganza of Faust (both parts) with music by Herbert Grönemeyer, the largest selling German pop star who also famously played the war correspondent in Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Das Boot. As she would be launching on a month-long recruiting trip in the U.S., we wouldn’t see each other again.
As I crossed the famous Unter den Linden avenue and walked onto the campus of Humboldt, I spotted a sturdy used bike for sale locked to a crowded bike rack. It looked like the kind of bike for rent in Berlin, with strong wheels and thick tires for cobblestones and broken glass. I took down the address for a shop nearby.
The Behrenstrasse souvenir shop owned by a Vietnamese couple was typical, with postcards, Berlin bags, t-shirts, hats, and knick-knacks, and it was bustling with tourists. The couple was busy, one running the register, the other re-stocking. I asked them about the bike. We haggled a little over the price and I settled for the asking, with a lock thrown into the deal.
Mih emigrated to DDR Berlin from Vietnam 39 years ago, a move from one communist country to another. He was trained to be a machinist and engineer. Mih and Lienny’s children had studied in the U.S., done well, and could take advantage of the advanced degree programs offered to academically high performing German students. They were very proud, and I was admiring. And what about the refugee crisis, I asked. (We spoke in German; I asked them to speak slowly.) When they come here, Lienny said, they will have a hard time finding work, there are too many. They will become criminals. Also four thousand of the refugees from Syria are terrorists. Where did you hear that, I asked. On Facebook, she said. Mih added, there are too many coming. When I came here, he continued, it was the DDR. I was trained, I worked hard, I learned German. We integrated into German society. With the Muslims this will be a problem. Mih, I said, I would like to ask you a question, do you feel that you are German? He smiled and gave a little laugh. No, no, he said, I am not German.
Before I rode off I made sure the front and rear generator lights were working properly — the police will ticket you otherwise. Mih pointed out the quality Shimano generator on the front wheel. If you have a problem, he said, come back, I will fix it.
Berlin is flat as a coin. With little effort on a bike you can fly ahead, out-manoeuver traffic and get anywhere you need to go in the city. There’s nothing like slipping through the narrow space between cars and pulling ahead to spike a sense of superiority. The friction of air against the body wakes you up, the body having effectively joined the machine at five points of contact to become the moving parts of a light-framed locomotive. You are one of the rushing corpuscles through the arteries of Berlin, and you feel every rapidly changing contour of its paved and cobblestoned surface.
I was headed for Oranienplatz in the Kreuzberg district of East Berlin, some kilometers away. I had heard that 500 refugees and activists had taken over the square and occupied it since 2012. Many were from Ghana and had come to Germany through Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
At a red light I saw a poster: ‘Flüchtlinge ist kein Beruf’ (‘Being a refugee is not a profession’), and a website; I jotted it down before the red turned green and took off. Physically exhilarated, I wondered if there’d be anything to find at Oplatz (as its called). But there wasn’t. The tents and makeshift structures of dryboard and wood had been bulldozed by the city months ago, the refugees pushed off, in some cases physically carried off, into hostels or shelters, the activists sent packing to regroup online, in cafés, and on the street. The square, once the site of a fixed protesting eyesore, a kind of stationary march where Berliners could gather to mobilize hearts and minds and bodies, had been quietly re-inhabited by neighborhood folks. Elderly men and women sat on benches and talked, young men sat on the grass drinking bottles of beer, moms rode through slowly on their bikes with kids strapped in back seats. Dogs sniffed around and lay quietly near their owners, off leash, totally obedient; I watched one, a huge shepherd mix, lick his owner’s hand. The dogs of Berlin are the best-behaved dogs in the world.