For two years, the taz accompanied two refugee families in Berlin. A personal look back at two years of refugee crisis – and a farewell.
Mahmoud Mottaweh from Damascus with four of his five children in front of the refugee home in Lichtenberg where the family lives Photo: Lia Darjes
I. Autumn 2015: Arrival
It’s cold and wet on this dark November evening in the fall of 2015, but Mahmoud Mottaweh is clomping down the few steps in front of the entrance to the refugee home on Lichtenberg’s Rhinstrabe in flip-flops and a T-shirt. A strong, stocky man in his early 30s, an open, sympathetic face. In his hand is a glowing smartphone with a cracked display. Whenever we meet over the next two years, Mahmoud Mottaweh will be working this phone with his thumb and forefinger: WhatsApp and Facebook are his bridges to home, to his parents and brothers, who are also fleeing the civil war in Syria. In the fall of 2015, they are somewhere in Egypt right now.
"Hi," he says. "Hi," I say. Does he want to tell me his story, I ask. The escape from Damascus? How he lives here now with his family, his wife and four young children? "Soon to be five," grins our Iraqi editorial intern, standing next to him and translating. He works at the reception desk of the refugee home where he himself lived just a year earlier. "You want contacts with Syrian families?" he had asked me in the afternoon in the newsroom. "I’m working at the shelter tonight, come by, there are many. I’ll introduce you."
Now I’m standing in front of the scaffolded prefabricated building, wedged between an arterial road and a parking strip lost in the dark, and I feel stupid. All around me, refugees are standing by the ashtrays with the security people, smoking. Adolescents play on the sidewalk and hold a bag of gummy bears under my nose, "Want some?" Mothers in headscarves and little folding buggies push past.
There’s something voyeuristic about it, as if I’m sifting through good research material. "Come on over, there’s lots of them," our intern said. Yes, I think, that’s right. And spontaneously consider whether I’ll just let it go, get on my bike and ride home. So many stories: where to start, what to take care of first, what to tell first?
In this summer and fall of 2015, the pulse rate is high, the tone quickly becomes shrill – among journalists, among volunteers, among politicians. Every day, hundreds of new arrivals wait for their initial registration in front of the State Office for Health and Social Affairs, the notorious Lageso in Moabit’s Turmstrasse. The situation is confusing and threatens to get out of control: The completely overburdened authorities do not manage to provide the waiting refugees with water and medical assistance in these hot August days, the appointment system breaks down within a very short time. An initiative of volunteers finally coordinates for months the many Berliners who help in the emergency: Handing out water and hot food, interpreting, pointing the way to emergency shelters. In the mass shelters, which are now being set up as feverishly as they are makeshift, the mood is testy. In September, a shoving match during the food distribution ends in a mass brawl in the hangars at Tempelhofer Feld. In November, 300 refugees again attack each other with iron bars and knives. At the Schmidt-Knobelsdorf barracks in Spandau, where hundreds of refugees are housed in a kind of tent city, the refugees’ frustration also erupts into violence. Frank Henkel, then CDU interior senator, sees the "social peace" in the city in danger.
The Mottawehs come from Damascus. Father Mahmoud, 36, worked in Syria as an electrical engineer. His wife Salwa Kamel, 33, dropped out of training to become a kindergarten teacher when she was pregnant with their first child. The Muslim family has five children: Mohamad Louai (11), Obai (9), Omar (8), Alma (5) and the youngest daughter Elaf (1), who was born in Lichtenberg. In Damascus, the family lived together with Mahmoud’s parents in a house in a northern suburb of Damascus. On February 5, 2013, the family fled from the Assad regime across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 17 months later, they arrived at Berlin’s main train station.
The Jovanovics come from Leskovac, a town of 70,000 in southern Serbia. Mother Mitra (34) worked, among other things, as an unskilled agricultural worker. Their daughter Maria is 16, son Jagos 13 years old. The alcoholic father left the family. The Roma family applied for asylum in Germany a total of three times since 2011, and twice they were expelled. (akl)
Sure, says Mahmoud in front of the Lichtenberg refugee center, he tells me his story. He grins, "why not?" He sounds a bit amused, as if he is good-naturedly indulging the somewhat helpless curiosity of these Germans about the people who are now there, and with whom they have so far been confronted at best in the evening on the television news. 2014, when most of them are still in the UN reception camps in Jordan and Lebanon or on an island called Lampedusa, where the EU has come to an end. So far away. "You want to talk now? Come up to our room," Mahmoud says. Can’t, I say, journalists have to register in advance at the shelters.
Accommodation is the neuralgic point at the end of 2015. About 442,000 people apply for asylum in Germany in 2015, more than twice as many as the year before. More than a third of the refugees are Syrians. In Berlin, statisticians counted 36,000 initial applications in 2015. 11,000 people are living in emergency shelters in Berlin at the end of 2015, most of them in 63 gymnasiums seized by the Senate. There are plans to house 15,000 people in 30 container villages. 7,500 people are to be quartered in the former hangars in Tempelhof alone. Reporters report quarrels and poor hygiene in accommodations where there is hardly any privacy, which are actually meant to be temporary, but in which the refugees have to hold out for months in some cases.
A few days after my first evening meeting with Mahmoud Mottaweh, the management of the shelter gave me the okay to go in. They have become cautious in their dealings with journalists after the many newspaper reports from the shelters, which illustrate one thing above all: how overwhelmed Berlin is in this refugee autumn. The taz photographer receives instructions not to take pictures outside the family’s room under any circumstances.
The room: about 40 square meters, a few beds pushed together, in which Mahmoud, his wife Salwa Kamel, the then three-year-old daughter Alma and the three boys, Mohamad Louai, Obai and Omar, then 9, 7 and 6 years old, sleep. On the table cookies, Salwa Kamel peels oranges: for her husband, for the journalist. Would anyone like some tea? Curiously, the sons gather around the guest. They don’t understand German (which will change very quickly), and soon the tablet is more exciting again.
Salwa narrates. Salwa, 31 years old and heavily pregnant with her fifth child. Her pretty face under her carefully pinned headscarf looks younger. In Syria, she learned to be a kindergarten teacher until she met Mahmoud. The two married and quickly had their first child. Most of the time, for the next two years, her husband will do the talking. But whenever it comes to that day in July 2012 when the family decides to flee, Salwa talks and cries.
"We just celebrated Bayram," she says, Eid. The whole family is gathered at their home in a suburb north of Damascus. Then a raid by Assad’s soldiers, they take away a cousin of the family. For Salwa’s mother, it’s all too much; she has a heart attack. A day later, she is dead. Salwa carefully wipes her tears, six-year-old Omar cuddles uncertainly against his mother.
Mahmoud continues to tell the story. How the family decides to flee. First to Lebanon, but it’s not safe there either, because of the Hezbollah militia. Mahmoud works in a cannery until he has the money he needs for a plane ticket to Cairo. From there, smugglers drive the family 600 kilometers through the desert to Benghazi, Libya. A boat takes them across the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean route, in classic fashion. "We were lucky, we had a captain," Mahmoud says.
For two years taz editor Anna Klopper and photographer Lia Darjes accompanied two refugee families in Berlin: the Mottawehs from Syria and the Jovanovic’ from Serbia.
The initial questions: 890,000 people fled to Germany in 2015, mostly from the civil war in Syria. The refugee issue was the dominant topic of the past few years. And suddenly the catastrophe in Syria came very close – the refugees were here, in Berlin. The many fates were no longer numbers, they took on faces: individual stories that could be used to tell an inhumane war and the injustices of the asylum system – in close-up. This is because the chances of obtaining asylum in Germany are very unevenly distributed. Balkan refugees are very likely to be deported. People from Syria are usually allowed to stay here for the time being. But what do these unequal conditions do to the families who come to us? What fates have to be told until the decision is made: asylum application accepted – or rejected?
In ten reportages the taz accompanied the two families on their arrival in Berlin and documented the ups and downs of an everyday life in a holding pattern. (akl)
All episodes are available online: www.https://app4me.ru/focus on refugees series
The Italian coast guard picks them up, in Brindisi they give their fingerprints in the fall of 2014. For two and a half years, the family will be afraid of having to return to Italy at some point because of the Dublin Agreement. But for now, they continue their journey by train to Denmark. You have heard many good things about Scandinavia.
The camp in Copenhagen is terrible. They take the train to Germany, get stranded in Halberstadt near Magdeburg. The authorities send them on to Berlin. On July 2, 2015, they arrive at Berlin’s main train station. They stand in line for a day in front of the Lageso, and in the evening they are handed a piece of paper with hostel names: emergency accommodation. They wander aimlessly through the city, and finally an Egyptian man picks them up on the street and directs them to one of the addresses.
There are dozens of crazy escape stories to be read at the end of 2015. Almost every day, pictures of overcrowded refugee boats are the lead story in the news. But it will still take a while before the habit effect sets in and people in the editorial offices ask themselves for the first time: "Haven’t we already written this so often?"
Could the photographer send them the photos?" asks Mahmoud as we say goodbye. "Our photo albums all stayed in Damascus."
A few days earlier, a waiting room in a lawyer’s office on Kreuzberg’s Landwehrkanal. Two women quietly walk in the door: Mitra, 32, and Maria Jovanovic, 14, Roma from Serbia. A social worker at a refugee counseling center gave me the contact to their lawyer, and there I meet the two: Mother and daughter, even though they look almost the same age. Two small, roundish women with dark hair and a skeptical look with which they scrutinize me questioningly.
I’m not sure they understand what I want from them, but they agree to tell me their story. "Maybe your newspaper can help us?" asks Maria. "Maybe," I say, feeling bad.
Asylum applications from Serbs are rejected 99.9 percent of the time, say the monthly business statistics of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Serbia has been considered a safe country of origin since 2014. To be sure, reports from NGOs and the United Nations repeatedly document that Roma in the Balkans are victims of systematic exclusion and arbitrariness on the part of the authorities: no secure access to social welfare, hardly any educational opportunities for children, Roma women are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence – and women’s shelters and the police refuse to help them. But to get asylum, you have to prove the individual case: You have to document when and where you were denied social benefits. Most can’t do that. The Jovanovic ‘ can’t either. They are virtually a hopeless case.
Mitra and Maria Jovanovic come from Leskovac, a town of 70,000 in southern Serbia. Leskovac is poor: in the middle of the 19th century, it was a small town. At the beginning of the 20th century, the textile industry flourished here, but those days are long gone. The capital Belgrade is 200 kilometers away. There are many small villages in the region where there is not much to do, especially for Roma: Mitra has hardly gone to school, she has no education and an alcoholic husband who eventually abandons her with the two children – Maria has another younger brother, Jagos – for another woman.
Mitra works as a prostitute to earn money, because the social welfare office in Serbia only pays at the discretion of the respective case worker. Maria and Jagos are also bullied at school. The school administration is said to have done nothing when Maria is once pushed down the stairs by a boy and injured.
Something like everyday life, while the family fears to be allowed to stay: Jagos Jovanovic learns clarinet Photo: Lia Darjes
All of these things, she says, are in the asylum application the lawyer will file for the family. "The applicants," the lawyer argues, "have been victims of cumulative persecution. There is no protection by the Serbian state."
This is the third asylum application the Jovanovic’ have filed in Berlin. In 2011, the house Mitra inherited from her grandparents in Leskovac is so dilapidated that the family is virtually homeless. They don’t have money for repairs. But there is enough for bus tickets. In 24 hours, a line runs via Hungary and Austria directly to Berlin. 1,234 kilometers, 90.50 euros per person.
The Jovanovic’ end up in a home in Schoneberg and are deported in the winter of 2013. After four months, they are back. This time it only takes a few weeks until the rejection comes. They endure a year in Serbia, and in the summer of 2015 they are back in Berlin. In a refugee counseling center in Moabit, they are given the address of the Kreuzberg lawyer who takes care of cases like them, even without a fee.
Mitra and Maria are called out of the waiting room. Files pile up in the lawyer’s office. She is electrified, almost crying, as she desperately tries to explain to Mitra and Maria that they should wait to apply for asylum because she needs time to make a good case. "You have to come with an interpreter," she tells Mitra, "You have to give me everything you have. You have to explain to me in great detail what happened to your daughter in Leskovac."
Mitra and Maria are crying now, too. Without an asylum application, there is no place in a home. They have been staying with acquaintances in Pankow, but their patience is wearing thin. "We don’t know where to go?" says Maria.
At our later meetings, Maria tells me what "happened" to her in Leskovac: a rape on the sidelines of a wedding, the two men are from the village. They threaten to do it again. The rape story could be enough for a successful asylum application, the lawyer hopes.
Getting here is much easier for the Serbs than for the Syrians. They just get on the bus to Berlin’s ZOB, no Mediterranean, no nutshell without a proper captain. Staying here is much more difficult for them: almost the entire Balkan region is considered a safe area of origin. And yet the Balkan refugees are the group that submits the most follow-up asylum applications – so they try again and again, most unsuccessfully. But in the fall of 2015, the fates of Balkan refugees are forgotten in light of the crisis in Syria. II. Winter 2015 to Summer 2016: Hope
In January 2016, the Jovanovic’s submit their asylum application. It is no longer possible: they are only allowed to come to their acquaintances in Pankow at night to sleep. More "acquaintances," as Maria calls them, have come from Leskovac in the meantime; 20 people now live in the apartment. During the day, Mitra, Maria and Jagos walk aimlessly through the city, but it is winter and cold. At the beginning of February, a call from Maria: "We made it," she calls into the phone. "What do you mean?", I ask. "We have a place in a home! And Jagos and I can go back to school, too."
The Jovanovic ‘ have a temporary toleration. They have been assigned a place in a refugee home on the outskirts of Lichtenberg, and the school office has assigned Jagos a place in sixth grade at a nearby elementary school. Maria goes to the ninth grade of a secondary school in the district. The two speak German so well that they don’t need German lessons in the welcome classes for refugees – several years of schooling have accumulated in Berlin since their first asylum application in 2011.
Of course, nothing is "done" yet: the family, even if something like a daily routine is now setting in, now has a file on which the stamp "asylum application rejected" will be stamped with a probability of 99.9 percent. The red-black federal government has just passed the Asylum Package II in January 2016; among other things, it provides for faster deportation of people from so-called safe countries of origin.
At half past six on May 10, 2016, three police cars are parked in front of the refugee home in Lichtenberg where the family now lives. Mitra is in the kitchen making breakfast for herself and the children. School starts at eight o’clock. When the man from the federal police knocks on the apartment door, with five other officers behind him in the hallway, Mitra runs to the bathroom and vomits. Her flight to Belgrade leaves in the afternoon, the police officers say. Outside the home, three police cars are waiting to take her and about 30 other families to Schonefeld. It is a two-hour flight to Belgrade. The special flight with 97 passengers on board takes off on schedule.
The fact that Mitra, Maria and Jagos are not on board is due to a formal error. The authorities had neglected to properly serve the lawyer with the notice of refusal. She receives it by mail on the day of the deportation, but that is not enough, the lawyer argues in an emergency application to the administrative court. There, the matter is seen in the same way. The Jovanovic’s make their way back to the city.
In the spring of 2016, then Interior Senator Henkel was pleased with himself: "Berlin is working very consistently to further increase the number of deportations," he announced in a press release from the Interior Administration at the beginning of May. The three most frequent "target countries": Serbia with 187 deportations, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. About twice a month, according to the responsible Federal Police Directorate, a plane takes off from Schonefeld in the direction of the Western Balkans. The number of available seats tends to decrease, says a spokesman.
A call to the Jovanovic’ lawyer. "What do you do now?", I ask – "The asylum application will now be rejected, and then we will submit an application to the hardship commission of the Senate."
"We have to have hope": Maria Jovanovic in the summer of 2016 near her Lichtenberg residence Photo: Lia Darjes
The Hardship Commission is located at the Interior Administration. It includes representatives of the churches, the League of Welfare Associations and the Senate Integration Commissioner. The longer someone has been in Germany, the more social contacts they have here and the better their economic prospects – good school performance, job prospects – the more likely it is that the commission will grant clemency before asylum and submit an application to the Interior Senator. In 2015, Henkel had granted about half of 225 applications. About half of the applications come from the Balkan states. They are decided negatively more often than average. The applications are "usually unsuccessful because the short duration of stay and the integration achievements" are "not sufficient for a positive decision," according to the interior administration.
Are you aware of the low prospects of being able to stay here, I ask Maria? "We have to have hope," she says. Would they come back after the 30 months they would have to stay in Serbia if deported? "But of course."
The Mottawehs also get a residence permit in June 2016 – not surprising in their case, the protection rate for Syrians is 98.2 percent.
However, they do not receive protection under German asylum law or the Geneva Refugee Convention, but only so-called subsidiary protection, which is valid for one year.
Mahmoud is frustrated, he wants full protection status, three years. He writes to me on WhatsApp: "Do you know a good lawyer?"
The fact that the Mottawehs only receive subsidiary protection is also a consequence of the Asylum Package II. This protection status is only valid for one year, and family reunification is excluded. The refugees do receive a work permit and are entitled to social benefits. However, and this is crucial, they are not granted individual protection on the grounds of persecution: Once the civil war in Syria is over, they face deportation. Several higher administrative courts have already ruled that this is not legal: potentially, all Syrians are politically persecuted by the ruler Assad. The aid organization Pro Asyl therefore advises Syrians with subsidiary protection status to consider filing a lawsuit.
In fact, the courts are literally flooded by a wave of lawsuits. By October 2016, three times as many lawsuits against negative asylum decisions had been filed with the Berlin Administrative Court as in all of 2015, quickly accounting for 40 percent of all proceedings at the court.
On June 30, 2016, Mahmoud files a complaint with the Berlin Administrative Court against his asylum decision. A few days later, he comes to visit me in the editorial office. It is hot, he is sweating, he is restless and seems tired at the same time. "All these paragraphs here make you feel small," he says. "It feels a bit like being in a big prison. In Lebanon, I was able to start a new life from one day to the next in Beirut: I could work, I could buy a car. It’s all so tedious here."
III. fall 2016: disillusionment
The chaos from the refugee autumn of 2015 has subsided. Instead, problems have manifested themselves. True, there are now far fewer new arrivals: 55,000 refugees came to the city in 2015. In 2016, there were still 17,000, but refugee aid workers still criticize far too long waiting times for initial registration, which has since moved to the former ICC convention center in Charlottenburg. Instead of the Lageso, a newly established State Office for Refugee Affairs, or LAF for short, now handles refugee registration. The accommodation situation remains difficult. Admittedly, there are no more nightly treks of disoriented refugee families through the city. But there are too few places in the shelters – not to mention apartments, which families in particular urgently need. As a result, nearly half of Berlin’s 49,000 asylum seekers are living in emergency shelters as of fall 2016, according to the social services administration. There are no binding standards for emergency accommodation. Refugee aid workers criticize the catastrophic conditions in gymnasiums and empty office buildings.
In the Lichtenberg home, Mahmoud stands in the room where the family still sleeps five. He doesn’t like to sit down; he’s angry. It took a while for the authorities to manage to rob him of his stoic smile. Now the time has come. Every day, he says half in English, half in German – the integration course Mahmoud recently started is having an effect – he calls the housing companies: "Degewo, Howoge, Gesobau, Gewobag" he lists, it sounds like an absurd poem. They all tell him: Sorry, we don’t have anything, but we have you on file.
The social welfare office will pay up to 1,018 euros gross cold rent for a refugee family of seven like the Mottawehs, who apply for apartments from a shared accommodation. The apartment has to have at least four rooms and 80 square meters, so that the office does not object because of "cramped living conditions".
"We don’t even want four rooms, why don’t three go?" asks Salwa. "Yes, difficult," I say to the family, feeling helpless.
Later, I call a project of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers’ Welfare Association) in Kreuzberg, which helps refugees find a place to live. "Why is it so difficult?" I ask. Social worker Elvin Aydinoglu explains that many case workers in the housing companies get in the way when the refugees only have a temporary residence status anyway.
In the fall of 2016, more and more of the refugees who arrived last summer have temporary residence permits. In theory, they can now also apply for apartments in the so-called protected market segment. But they are competing for these apartments, which number around 1,300 across Berlin, with homeless people, for example, but also with women from women’s shelters. In Lichtenberg alone, the Mottawehs’ district, around 5,500 refugees were still living in shelters in October 2016, according to the district’s social welfare office. Stasis. There is also a certain static in public perception: in the election campaign for the Berlin House of Representatives, the issue of refugees plays virtually no role. The then Senator for Integration, Dilek Kolat (SPD), has since launched the Integration Master Plan, which obliges all Senate administrations to do their part. In the education administration, Senator Sandra Scheeres (SPD) has come through the worst: The need for new welcome classes is dropping. At the same time, the transition to normal classes is proceeding surprisingly quietly. Not even the always critical teachers’ union GEW is speaking out. IV Summer 2017: Perspectives
Meanwhile, Maria calls less often. The Hardship Commission has granted her family a completely unexpected stay: three years. If the family can then support their stay "predominantly themselves", they are allowed to stay. Apparently Maria’s rape story was convincing, says a member of the commission, which does not comment publicly on individual cases. The media attention certainly helped, too, they say.
Maria knows: she doesn’t need the newspaper anymore. Our relationship is a business deal, a win-win situation: Fortunately, the two families understood that early on. "Is your newspaper big, do you also do the articles online?", Mahmoud had already asked at our first meeting.
With Maria, it’s amazing the optimism with which she always firmly assumed she would be allowed to be here. She, who was otherwise anything but naive, guided her family through the appointments with the lawyer and the authorities, and is now also managing the search for an apartment. "Can you help me with the Schufa, we have an apartment viewing tomorrow and I want everything complete," she writes to me. Is this always forward-looking pragmatism also self-protection, given her past? Perhaps.
In the spring, a letter arrives for Mahmoud in the home’s mailroom. The sender is the Berlin Administrative Court. Their complaint was successful, the letter says. The Mottaweh family is allowed to stay for three years.
When I visit the family in July of this year, Mahmoud texts me another room number: The accommodation crisis in Berlin has eased – the Mottawehs notice this because they now have two rooms available in the refugee home: one for the children, one for the parents. To Salwa’s delight, there is even a small kitchenette; she had hated the communal kitchen on the floor.
Mahmoud is in a great mood. He has heard from other refugees that finding a place to live in Brandenburg is supposed to be easier. That gives him hope now. Then he rummages in his wallet for a business card: the logo of a recruitment agency. When he has finished his German course, he is told to get in touch. They are sure to have work for him soon; electrical engineers are needed.
He rummages through a black folder and pulls out a few plane tickets: They want to visit his parents and three brothers, who now live in Azerbaijan, during the summer vacations. He swipes back and forth on the inevitable smartphone, a photo shows one of the brothers in a chef’s hat: "Own restaurant in Baku," Mahmoud says proudly.
Whenever we’ve met in recent months, Mahmoud has shown me photos on his phone. Mostly they were pictures from Syria. Pictures from before he fled, showing him in his living room with his family, in front of his car. "That was me," he would usually say, and it seemed important to him. Other pictures show the injured and the dead: photos sent to him by friends who stayed in Damascus. A few he took himself, when he helped drive injured people to hospitals before he fled.
Meanwhile, the selection of pictures I get to see is different. Less Syria, less looking back, more Berlin, more now. The children at the streetcar stop, the family eating ice cream. He no longer looks at Google Earth to see if he can still recognize his house, if it might still be standing. No more talk of going back, of helping to rebuild his village: "My country no longer exists," says Mahmoud.
Maria doesn’t get in touch anymore. It feels right. Regardless of whether their residency permit will be revoked in the summer of 2019: They are no longer the "refugee family," their story is told. In July, I talk to Maria again on the phone. Yes, the mother now works for a cleaning company. Yes, they have found an apartment: three rooms, in Hohenschonhausen. The new school? It’s okay. Yes, the brother still plays the clarinet at the music school. She sounds impatient. Her WhatsApp picture shows her with a young man. Her boyfriend? I forget to ask her. Sorry, she has a bit of a cold and has to go now.
"Take care," Maria says. "Yeah, you too," I say.