Every day, they’d come by the hundreds. They’d wake up before dawn, rising from a cot at the camp, or from a friend’s floor, or a bed at a hostel. They’d brew tea or instant coffee, and then go out to catch the train or a bus. When they got to the stop closest to the state government office, they’d walk another fifteen minutes or so, past the drugstores and bakeries and döner joints, the sun now bright in the sky. There they’d join the dozens who are already there, having spent the night sleeping on a tarp or in a sleeping bag outside.
I met many refugees in Berlin last summer, where I’d been doing radio stories about the tens of thousands of people who’d been arriving in the city that year, all of whom had to pass through Das Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, a compound of offices colloquially referred to as the LaGeSo. So when I wanted to speak with refugees, I would just have to go there, and there they would be, standing in the hot sun, in lines that snaked outside the buildings, waiting—sometimes days, sometimes weeks—to tell a bureaucrat who they were, where they were from, and that, yes, they were seeking asylum in Germany. And then a new kind of waiting would begin.
“I was fourteen years old when I started dreaming of Germany. I watched a documentary about World War II. I saw Hitler’s castle, and the mountains around it, and the nature, and everything looks green and it’s like heaven. The dream started there. And actually the dream comes true.”
Ehab Zein felt like a lucky man. When I met him he was a twenty-four-year-old Syrian with no job prospects, living in a dirty hostel in a country where he doesn’t know the language. But feeling lucky comes by way of comparison.
“We’ve been through the same situation in Turkey,” he told me. We were in a candlelit bar listening to Aretha Franklin and talking about a horrific story—71 refugees had suffocated to death in the back of a truck that was taking them across Austria.
“We traveled three and a half hours [in a truck]. Six children and forty-two adults. So, people start to feel dizzy, and started to throw up on each other. And I almost fell asleep while I was standing because there was no oxygen. Once the door opened, we get out running like sheep.”
The truck had taken them to the coast of Turkey, where they got on a boat and set course for Greece. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 400 people, such as three-year-old Alan Kurdi, died trying to make a similar crossing. Ehab said he was almost one of them.
“We were in a rubber boat,” he told me. “Anda fog starts to surround us, and there was a lot of rain. We couldn’t see anything. And the GPS was not working, I don’t know why. So we were lost in the sea for two hours, and in the middle of the sea, the waves were two meters high. So we think we’re going to die. The kids were sitting quiet, and the women were also quiet, but the men were crying. I don’t think they’re men, they’re such, I don’t know…” He laughed. “But eventually we saw a trade ship in the middle of the sea, and we followed its path. And we started to see the Greek island, called Chios.”
After twenty-five days that included running from Macedonian border guards, hiding in the trunk of a car across Serbia, and getting arrested in Austria, Ehab made it to Berlin and registered at the LaGeSo. Officials there gave him some vouchers to cover the cost of a hostel, and a few hundred Euros in cash to cover his expenses for a month. He found a place to live—a former psychiatric hospital that had been converted into a hostel, housing mainly Syrian refugees like him.
Unlike refugees from most other countries, Syrians are pretty much guaranteed asylum, which comes with a three-year residence permit at the outset. So he felt like he had some time to figure things out. Until then, he was mostly left to deal with the ennui of being a young man with little to do.
When I met up with him at the bar, he had been living off state assistance for about three months. At that point, he was actually allowed to get a job, but without speaking German and with no guarantee of long-term residence, he wasn’t getting any job offers. Even if he had, he would have to then apply for a work permit, which takes six weeks, and during that time the employer that made the offer would have to try to give the job away to an EU citizen. After those six weeks, if no citizen wanted the job, Ehab would get the permit to work.
All of which is to say that he didn’t have a job, didn’t have much to do, and was generally in a bit of a funk. He described a typical day as waking up in his hostel room in the mid-afternoon, hung-over. He’d make some instant coffee, fire up “sad Arabic music” on YouTube, and send WhatsApp messages back and forth with his ex-girlfriend, an eighteen-year-old who still lives in Syria.
But he still felt lucky by comparison. “It was a shitty life in Syria, even before the war,” he said. “For a young man like me, there is no future there. I have no friends left in Syria.” He punctuated it: “No. Friends. Left. They are either in Turkey or in Holland, in Sweden, in Germany. Even if the war stops I won’t go back. I can’t live in a country where the dictatorship rules. I want rights. I want to speak loud. I want everyone to walk in the street, without being scared of anything. In Syria we were afraid of our shadows. In Germany, there is no fear of anything. Whatever happens, you will not sleep in the street. Here, everyone has their rights.”
Ehab was pretty certain he wouldn’t have to leave. Unlike refugees from most other countries, Syrians are pretty much guaranteed asylum, which comes with a three-year residence permit at the outset. So he felt like he had some time to figure things out. Until then, he was mostly left to deal with the ennui of being a young man with little to do.
“On Saturday, I was a little bored, so I called my friend, and I told him we should go out somewhere. He said yes, and we went to a club. It was a very good night—we met some girls. We were just standing near the wall, and they were dancing in front of us. One of them told me she wants a lighter, so I gave her my lighter, and after that we start talking and dancing.”
Around 6 a.m. he and his friend left the club (on their own), and sat down on a bench in the quiet subway platform. A German man, sitting nearby and staring at them, eventually asked where they were from. “We said, ‘We are from Syria.’ So he took ten Euros and gave it to my friend. I was shocked. Why is he doing this?”
The man walked away, his footsteps echoing out under the fluorescent lights. And then he turned back and said to Ehab, “‘I know what you’ve been been through, what your situation is now, and the way you are living. But the German people are nice people. We’ve been good with you, so you be good with us.’ After he said this,” Ehab told me, “I almost cried, it was very emotional.”
Because you felt—
“I felt bad.”
“That some refugees must be doing bad things here, and making our picture look worse.”
A week after telling me this story, Ehab made a plan to buy up a bunch of flowers, take them to a street corner, and offer one to each white person that passed by.
I left Berlin before I could see this unique display of gratitude, but I’ve stayed in contact with Ehab since. He told me on Facebook Messenger the other day that none of the bad news I keep hearing—from the increase of anti-refugee rhetoric after the sexual assaults in Cologne, to Syrians being beaten up with baseball bats and fires being set in refugee camps (and then cheered by onlookers)—has shaken his confidence that things are going to work out well for him in Germany.
Napuli Paul Langa Görlich used to have that kind of confidence. And when she lost it, she started protesting.
When I first met Napuli, she was sitting at a small desk on the edge of a massive public square called Oranienplatz, which is the former East Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. The square is mostly grass and dirt and tall trees, but cut in half by six loud car lanes that makes it a less than pleasant place to hang out for an afternoon.
Napuli calls her desk the “infopoint” for refugees, where she can offer advice or connect them to free lawyers or people willing to give them a couch to crash on for a few days. But when I met her there, the only person she was talking to was a drunk German man stumbling in circles in front of her. “She buys me coffee,” he told me.
In 2014, this square was filled with dozens of tents and about 150 refugee activists, who, like Napuli, lived in them. Back then, Oranienplatz was the symbolic centre of the refugee activist movement in Germany, which was demanding a broad array of rights and the prevention of deportations.
To the local government, though, the tents were a nuisance. For eighteen months, Berlin’s state integration commissioner and Kreuzberg’s district mayor negotiated with the activists to have them leave the square. Most agreed to depart peacefully when they were promised quicker assessments of their individual cases and permission to stay in Berlin, even though many of them were assigned to live in other German cities. But Napuli wouldn’t leave Oranienplatz. And on the day officials planned to clear the tents away with bulldozers, Napuli made a desperate move: she climbed one of the trees in the square and refused to come down.
As she told The Citizen, an activist-run paper, “When I climbed the tree, it was not my decision. It was the decision of the people whose rights were being violated. So I decided I would just stay there.”
On the fifth day, she told The Citizen, “I started climbing further up the tree. As I was climbing, a branch that I was holding on to broke and the negotiator was shocked and he said, ‘Okay, what do you want?’ I said […] ‘I want the Infopoint back’ […] So I came down and the Infopoint stayed on Oranienplatz.”
Given what she’d risked, I thought it was sad to see that lonely desk on the edge of the indifferent square, but Napuli didn’t care what I thought about it.
“I don’t need pity. I’m not a victim, you know?” she said to me.
She first came to Germany in 2012 from South Sudan (via Uganda), as hopeful as Ehab that she could start over. She was registered in Hamburg, and moved into a refugee camp there. Right away though, she realized she wouldn’t be able to start a new life as quickly as she expected.
“Some people were staying one year in [the camp]. People were treated like puppets.”
Napuli was especially frustrated by how difficult it seemed to be for African asylum seekers to have their claims taken seriously—and how long it took Africans to find out whether or not they could stay. (According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the average refugee receives an initial decision in five months, while, say, Somalis can expect a twelve-month wait, at which point their claim is likely to be rejected. So then they appeal, and perhaps appeal again, dragging out the whole process for years.)
At the camp, Napuli also saw how hard it was for asylum seekers to get work permits. And she thought it was oppressive that refugees were essentially assigned to a specific city, meaning they had to rely on that local government to receive state services. She didn’t want to stay in Hamburg, stuck in a camp on the outskirts of the city. She wanted to be in Berlin.
“I never told myself I wanted to be an activist. I was just getting angry at what I saw,” she said. “So I joined the movement.”
“For me, he has the right to say, ‘Okay, I have to be with you sometimes.’ And then I say, ‘Okay, here, you have two hours to be with me, and the rest of the day maybe I’ll be with the movement.’”
The Oranienplatz tent city grew out of that movement, out of an attempt to make the struggles of refugees more visible. Napuli lived in a tent there for more than a year. At one of the biggest demonstrations she helped organize, a young German law student showed up.
“He just came [up to me] and said, ‘Hi, I’m Max.’ Then I said, ‘… Okay.’ And from there, we got to know each other.”
What was your first date?
“I don’t really remember. For him, he already had this kind of flash. But for me, I was busy, you know? And our first [date], I was not there. And he called me very angry to say, ‘Why are you not here?’ And I said, ‘Hey, c’mon! I’m busy. If you’re angry like this, don’t call me again.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no, no please give me another chance.’ We made another [date]. I think after two weeks, he proposed. He knelt down. And for me it was shocking! What, are you kidding me?!”
She kept him waiting for two months before saying yes. “For me it was like, ‘Why should I refuse him?’ [A partner] should know who I am and what I am doing. And he was also marching in demonstrations, and helping. So I realized I have no reason to refuse him.” She goes on: “For me, he has the right to say, ‘Okay, I have to be with you sometimes.’ And then I say, ‘Okay, here, you have two hours to be with me, and the rest of the day maybe I’ll be with the movement.’”
They were married last spring.
“When we were married I was thinking that in three months I’ll [finally] get [my] papers, and I was making all my plans in accordance with this. And after three months [the government said] three more months, and then three months, three months, three months. They are wasting my time. I need to have this paper in order to work, in order to live my life. Not to be stuck.”
Are you still receiving money from the government?
“After I married, they cut everything. You cannot take the money without giving me papers. Max had to drop out of school so that we can survive together. Now he’s working in a call centre. If I didn’t have Max, I might have been in Görlitzer Park [selling drugs]. Many refugees are [doing that]. It makes me cry, seeing my brothers like this.”
It makes me wonder if Abdou might end up in the park one day too.
Abdou (not his real name) has already been sleeping outside the office for a few days when I show up. He stands out to me because he’s wearing a gold and black Cleveland Indians hat. “It’s the OVO, the Drake colours,” I say. “Do you like Drake?” He does. He agrees to talk with me.
Abdou is in his late twenties, slightly pudgy, but with strong-looking arms. He’s from Senegal, from Dakar, from a neighbourhood where houses are destroyed routinely by floods and heavy rains. “The ghetto,” he says.
Why did you come to Germany?
“My father died in 2012. July 6. He had a heart problem. And that made things very difficult because he took care of everyone. He had two wives, because he was Muslim. My mother has two sons, and [his other wife], my aunt, has three children. And I am the first son of my father, so it is me who has to search for money, who has to try and help my family you know? But in Senegal, there are no jobs.”
So with his friends, he “broke into people’s apartments and took [their things]. Or we’d break into vehicles and take the radio. And if we saw a girl on [a phone], we’d take it and run. And we’d [sell this stuff] in the night market” in Dakar.
But, as he couldn’t help but notice, the prisons in Senegal “are filled with the youth from the ghetto.” And gang violence is common. “One day my friend was stabbed by a knife. He was in the hospital for two months.”
Abdou decides to leave Senegal. He travels to Morocco where he meets some other Senegalese, and Nigerians, and Cameroonians who also want to get to Europe.
Eventually, ten of them buy a small rubber boat. They paddle across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain because they can’t afford a motor.
“It is not the first time I tried to cross. It was the [tenth time] or more [for me]. The other times the Moroccan police caught us and brought us back. And so you prepare another travel. This is life.”
On this attempt, he and the others leave when it’s dark out, so they can evade the police. But by 3 a.m., they are completely lost on the water, and the waves have become dangerously high (Abdou sweeps his arm above his head to show me how high they rose over the boat). Most of the other passengers are now crying with fear.
“I like 50 Cent. I like 50 Cent because of this slogan, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’,’ because I live that. The slogan of 50 Cent is my slogan.”
“That was their first time on the water. And my role is to speak to them, and to try to keep them calm. If all the people cry, we will fall in the water. And they won’t keep calm because they can’t swim.”
You can swim?
“Yeah, I swim.”
He tells me he comes from a long line of people who made their living from the water—fishers, mainly. So he was taught to swim as a young child. And knowing he can swim, and knowing he comes from people that know the water, he remains calm on a boat lost at sea.
A few hours later, the Spanish coast guard discovers them and takes them to a camp in Spain. At this point, he’s vague on the details, but he says he moved through Spain and France and Belgium before getting to Berlin.
“I have no friends in Germany. I sleep in the streets. But I think I will get my papers, and get a job, or study. I think [this is] a good situation.”
What if you don’t get your papers for a long time? Do you think you would have to break the law to make money, like you did back home?
“Nowadays I can say I am responsible. Because I am only person who can help my family, so I don’t want to do something that puts me in jail. My mother, she tells me that too—not to do anything bad for money.”
Do you talk to your mother often?
“Yes, I call my family often. And if I have some money, I send it to them. Because if I have nothing, no problem.”
We wrap things up. I ask him his favourite Drake song.
“I like the song with Nicki Minaj.”
“Yeah, I love this song.”
Is Drake your favourite rapper?
“I like 50 Cent. I like 50 Cent because of this slogan, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’,’ because I live that. The slogan of 50 Cent is my slogan. Life is difficult. If you are trying to build a future, life is very, very difficult. When I left to come here, there were two options: die or arrive. Because going out on the water is very dangerous. I have friends who die in the water. But some arrive.”
Interviews have been edited for clarity.