Farida poses for a photo at her friend’s refugee shelter a few days before the interview that devolved into giggles. (© Laura Kasinof October 2016)

When all you can do is laugh

More than once, I’ve seen refugees burst into laughter.


When asylum seekers talk to me about their new lives in Europe, most frequently in Germany, these conversations are rarely uplifting. Not to say there aren’t happy stories. There are. But for many, the good comes with struggle.

Many asylum seekers still live in refugee housing, which lacks privacy and can be located in hard-to-reach places. Others have family members stuck in Greece blocked from traveling northward. And for asylum seekers not from Syria, Iraq or Eritrea — nationalities given preferential treatment by asylum-granting agencies — they worry governments will deny their petitions and deport them. The fact that anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise in Europe is not lost on the newcomers, either.

Establishing a new life in a new country is challenging in the best of circumstances. Trying to do it as a refugee is even tougher. In the midst of all this, during interviews with asylum seekers, a peculiar thing has happened.

I’ll be speaking to an asylum seeker, when a story or passer-by triggers a major fit of the giggles.

This has happened with men and women, young and old. I can’t remember this ever happening while reporting on other issues in different countries. The only explanation I can find is that when frustration and tension is high — and if everyone is physically safe — there are often only two possible responses: tears or laughter. And sometimes, people laugh.

Let me give you an example. Recently I was meeting with an Afghan woman, Farida, at her shelter. It’s down a country road outside of Berlin. Many of the asylum seekers and refugees who live there use bikes to get into the nearest town.

Farida and I were sitting outside. It was a crisp but sunny Autumn afternoon. Arabic music was blaring from one of the shelter’s wooden cabins.

Farida was telling me about serious matters. She was worried that she and her children might be deported to Afghanistan after living in Germany for almost one year. In Germany, Afghans only had their asylum cases accepted 48 percent of the time in 2015, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and the European Union recently struck a deal with the Afghan government to accept failed asylum seekers.

As we were chatting, an older woman sauntered past us. She was speaking on the phone in Syrian-accented Arabic in the most gravely voice I have ever heard from a woman. It wasn’t just that she was speaking loudly into the phone, she was repeating herself over again like a grandparent who thinks if you yell enough into a speaker, the signal will get stronger.

“How are you?…. How are you?!… How are you?!”

Farida had picked up some Arabic while living at the shelter. She and I both exchanged knowing looks after we heard the older woman. I told myself to hold it in.

“Is it difficult to study German when you worry you won’t be able to stay here?” I asked.

The Syrian woman paced by again.

“Can you hear me?… Can you hear me?!” came Tom Waits’ voice twin.

Farida placed her hand over her mouth to hold in a giggle. I covered mine with my notebook. Then we both lost it, collapsing into tear-inducing laughter. It wasn’t that the woman’s voice was that funny, and it may have been the poor woman was battling health problems, but for the next few minutes we couldn’t continue with the interview. My translator looked back and forth between Farida and me, and started to chuckle as well.

“I’m so sorry,” I managed to get out with great difficulty.

We finally reached some sort of calm, but Farida wasn’t going to let this one go easily.

“She’s my friend. Do you want me to invite her over here?” she asked me with a mischievous smile.

Another round of laughter.

Latterly contributor Laura Kasinof is covering migration and refugees on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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