Parts Unknown: Berlin and the refugee crisis

Berlin is a special place. The common joke here is that you will find just about every kind of human being in Berlin, except a native Berliner. It is possible to use public transport on a busy day and hear Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, a thousand English accents, but little German. For a city that was once so divided, it is now a permanent home to people from over 190 countries.

Berlin’s popularity as a place to live for foreigners has several explanations. Germany itself, for a powerful European nation, makes the expatriation process much easier than other well-known European nations (France, Spain, Italy). There are a wealth of different visas one can receive and German companies do not have to go through too many hoops to hire a foreigner. In addition, the end of World War II brought many world powers to Berlin that transformed it to a foreign-occupied, polyglot city for several decades.

It should be of little surprise then that one of the top destinations for refugees would be Germany, but more specifically Berlin. A foreigner can get a degree at a local University, work for a German (or non-German) company, and easily maneuver the city with little-to-no German. Housing and food prices are also far more reasonable than other major European cities like Paris or London. If you are fleeing from your home country, Germany is the place to be, and from what I have seen Berlin has done a great job of managing a logistical nightmare like the refugee crisis and has taken charge when other locations might have turned them down.

Observations of a refugee camp

I had the opportunity to visit a refugee tent a few weeks ago with a non-profit organization. This organization interacts with refugees on a regular basis and has built strong relationships with many refugees currently living in Berlin. It was an eye-opening and educational experience, to say the least.

The “tent” looks like a structure an astronaut would live in on Mars. It is massive, domed, and quite hot inside. In order to get in, you must stand in an air-lock for a couple of seconds before you may proceed. From my point of view walking in, you could see living spaces on the left and recreational areas on the right. For the amount of people that I saw outside and inside of the tent, it was hard to tell how tight the living quarters were. However, the recreational area was pretty spacious and wide-open.

This is a picture I took of one of the walls in the tent. Artwork made by the kids!

There is a ping-pong table surrounded by couches in this area and since I do not speak German or Arabic, it seemed like my best shot to interact with some of the refugees. I ended up playing ping-pong with a young teenager who spoke limited English, so we agreed non-verbally not to count the score and just hit the ball back and forth. I later found out through much hand-gesturing and some broken English/German/Arabic that this young man had only been playing ping-pong for thirty days and was taught by another refugee not related to him (originally I thought he was asking me if I was thirty years old, I was glad this was not the case).

After a few rounds of ping-pong, I went outside and joined a few people passing a soccer-like ball around. I met a mother and her son (I will call them Sarah and James) who originated from Albania. I learned (again through much hand-gesturing and a poor combination of several languages) that Sarah was a former track star in Albania. She was even wearing a t-shirt that said “Tirana Marathon” that day. I learned that Sarah had another son, exactly my age, that stayed behind in Albania due to steady employment as a waiter. You could tell she was very proud of her son.

The day I visited the refugee tent was German reunification day. The camp was not too far away from the main festivities close to Brandenburg Gate, and the organization I went with decided to lead those that wanted to the festivities downtown. We had a group of about twenty join us, including ping-pong guy (let’s call him Tim), Sarah, and James. For the festival, long chunks of road were sectioned off and covered with street vendors, rides, and a plethora of food options. I do not pretend to know what it is like to be forced to leave your home country under the circumstances these people faced, but it must have felt good to have been out and about with everyday German people at a festival… you could blend in to the sea of people with the added benefit of not being in a space tent.

We (that is, the organization I went with) had set aside a fund to buy food for the refugees. Since french fries are loved almost universally, we bought a bunch for the refugees and watched a concert going on at Brandenburg Gate from a distance. Tim, Sarah, and James definitely seemed to enjoy it all.

Some closing thoughts on the people

I would like to emphasize how similar all of the refugees are to myself. These, by all account, are normal people that were thrust into extraordinary circumstances that forced them to flee. They grew up playing video games like me, they enjoyed movies, many refugees are college-educated, and boy did they love their music. I did not even notice huge differences in the way we dressed, what made us laugh, and what made us come together for a good party (I’m looking at you, french fries and concert). At the end of the day, they are human and I am human, and it was such a privilege to get to spend time with these wonderful people.