“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.
Monday, October 5
A typical Berlin night, my friend Susanne said with a short laugh, when I told her about my escapade. But we don’t do it anymore — we are too much in our routines, we make arrangements now to meet each other at precise times. So, she added, nothing ever happens. We were on our way down to the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (Lageso), the first place of registration in Berlin for all the refugees; in a way we were retracing the route I had take from Tegel International through Moabit the previous week. It was another beautiful fall day in Berlin, leaves starting to turn, quite warm in the sun, a little cool in the shade. As we walked up Kirchstrasse, just a few blocks from the Lageso complex of buildings, midday diners sat at sidewalk tables eating Vietnamese, Italian, or traditional German fare, such as Maultaschen (a kind of filled dumpling, like ravioli, a specialty of the south). Cafés were full, people were buying books in a local store. It was difficult to imagine what we would find at Lageso given the happy promenade here. We tried cutting through a construction site and were promptly scolded by a hardhat perched on cinder, drinking from a thermos. As we turned round a fenced off corner, Susanne said, you know, I was born in a refugee camp. What? Ja, she said, (the vowel sound floated away like a bubble), I was born in a refugee camp.
Susanne Gerber, a Berlin-based artist, was born in 1949. Her mother was German, her father Czech, but his German family roots made him one of a minority in Czechoslavakia. It was therefore not a stretch, with the advent of World War II, for him to join Germany’s mobilization. He made his way into the SS. After the war, many Germans outside of Germany were being sentenced to prison; Susanne’s parents were forced to flee Czechoslovakia. They reentered Germany as refugees and settled into a camp in Kornwestheim, near Stuttgart. Susanne was too young to develop many memories stronger than impressions; but she remembers the men who, with no work, whittled away the time talking, smoking, and playing chess. The idle talking was an important influence, as the men, confronted with the vast emptiness of idle hours, often talked to little Susanne as well as losing themselves in the wandering exchanges of those with too much time on their hands. She thus learned to speak early. The general feeling she had there in the camp was of not being quite properly looked after; she was often left on her own. Remarkably, she says, in Stuttgart she never felt marginalized as a refugee; she never internalized that perspective herself. But being a refugee is a strong part of my identity, she said, being a stranger in the world is completely clear to me. When later I saw Büchner’s Woyzeck, or the first production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, she continued, I found myself in there, the origins of my story. I still feel that I am never a local person, but someone from everywhere, from somewhere else.
Once we hit Turmstrasse, the Lageso street, the scene changed. Bourgeois diners and shoppers disappeared, replaced by bands of four to six single men, clearly refugees by their worn dress and stressed postures, walking down the street talking to each other with urgency, or on their phones. Refugee families with small children in strollers passed by. Everyone’s eyes were focused somewhere in the distance, everyone’s gait had an urban quickness and conveyed a 360-degree alertness. There was nothing but immediate purpose, immediate need. We knew we were getting closer. Soon low-price stores disappeared, and set back from the street, behind a set of fences, two very large white convention type tents, with separate free standing toilet facilities between them, provided shelter in bad weather. They stood with the same proximity to the sidewalk as any storefront, and abutted the first set of official buildings. These buildings along the street marked the beginning of the Lageso complex; soon we entered its mouth with dozens of others. Buildings shadowed us on both sides of a small avenue into the opening of the courtyard belly. In this Lageso courtyard, we passed a food tent in which volunteers were ladling hot minestrone soup and handing out Brötchen. Nearby, an elderly volunteer wearing plastic gloves spryly filled plastic cups with water from a cooler cabinet with several taps. Boys climbed on top of a flat-roofed shed next to a Röntgenmobil (for x-rays) and a truck from Zentrum für Tuberkulosekranke parked beneath chestnut trees. The food tent and trucks stood opposite a set of official buildings, further defining the waiting area. At one end, hundreds of people, mostly men, stood in a mass that grew denser towards the front, where a digital console on a tall pole displayed a set of nine brightly lit amber numbers. Women and children sat on blankets to the side, eating, sleeping. Children drew or played a game their parents had grabbed for them in quick preparation to flee. A boy with a cane made his painstaking way along the perimeter. Another passed in the opposite direction in a wheelchair. A jacketed man in his thirties sat sleeping in a bassinet stroller, his legs splayed on either side, heels digging in to keep him propped up—even in a dead sleep his body bound in effort. Some wore hospital face-masks. A few guys in their twenties stood around an iPad, laughing and knocking each others shoulders. Boys chased each other through a slalom course of standing adults, kicked soccer balls, or tried to catch falling chestnuts. Having been fed, they were doing what they lived to do, exerting themselves in play, improvising the day within its terribly narrow confines. A dozen voices shouted in excited cheering—someone’s number had appeared on the console. Susanne and I moved slowly and freely through the grounds, stopping here and there to listen and observe. No one stopped us, no one asked us what we were doing there. We were obvious in our privilege. Security in red fleece milled or stood in fixed positions. Green vests speared trash. A long line snaked outside an office. A woman in a lilac head-covering and dressed in pinstripes emerged with a thick set of files in her arms. She walked over to where we were standing near an exterior wall and leaned against it to rest. Susanne began a conversation in German.
Ishan Wahbi, a Lebanese woman in her mid-40’s, came to Germany over thirty years ago. She volunteers as an appointed legal representative for those too compromised to navigate the registration process on their own. She’s currently representing a single mother from Yemen who crossed the Mediterranean with four small children and a newborn. Are all those files for them, I asked. Frau Wahbi nodded, yes. Several hundred people are waiting in line, about two thousand are on the grounds, with 500-600 arriving daily. She is waiting for the mother to meet her there, having recently been released from the hospital.
Talking about the refugee situation has created some kind of tension in her that is now an uneasy barrier; we don’t know what it is, but we sense it. Susanne and I thank her and move off. A man wearing a backpack is arguing with a security guy in front of the office entrance. Voices spike, hands gesture with agitation. Susanne becomes a little nervous, so we walk to a more open area under some yellowing lindens, where the people waiting there on the lawn, on blankets, on benches, could be, in another context, pick-nicking or hanging out at a festival. They have relaxed into the interminable boredom of waiting for their number, waiting to take the next step in the process of being granted asylum. And today is a nice day. There are pockets of rest to settle into momentarily before the next push. We head out. I’ll come back tomorrow.