The story of Berlin is one of apparent welcome and promise – seemingly the city closest to an ideal city of refuge. At the same time, Berlin, like other parts of Germany, experiences the rise in right-wing extremism and aggressive racism, alongside enhanced securitizing policies, which put ‘welcome’ to the test.
BERLIN: CITY OF REFUGE BUT WITH CONDITIONS?
The stories shared by many participants in Berlin reflect the ambivalence of promise and control in the city. To a large extent, these are stories of a warm and welcoming city, of solidarity and community, of safe settlement, pursuit and care. Ethics and politics of solidarity in the city are supported by its vibrant economy, including the fast-growing digital economy, and a robust welfare system. This means that, unlike Athens and London, newcomers in Berlin get access to considerable opportunities for housing, education, employment. Yet, the availability of support in Berlin has not been unconditional. Instead, it has very much hinged upon the ways in which newcomers subscribe to Germany’s national politics of systematic “integration”. The demand for “integration” appears everywhere in the life of newcomers, not only in official requirements but also in public and media discourse. To an extent at least, it represents a political and media response to rising xenophobia and racism - a displacement of responsibility for (unwelcome) change upon migrants. Media repeatedly emphasise the responsibility of newcomers to adapt to the society that received them, as if this society is stable and its values are by definition different or superior to theirs. The notion of integration, in this context, comprises both the need for newcomers to prove their economic value and independence by finding work wherever it is needed, as well as committing themselves to a mainstream understanding of German cultural and social values.
This systematic pressure to show their worthiness of public care and support weighs heavy on the lives of the newcomers we encountered. While Berlin indeed offers a secure and forward-looking perspective to numerous newcomers, its conditionality means that many newcomers and civic actors are torn between cynical and anxiety. We heard many newcomers expressing these sentiments – shaped by profound insecurities about their long-term future and by the rigid requirements of assimilation and productivity set to them. Civic actors occasionally expressed similar sentiments – being increasingly aware that access to resources is subjected to their proof of supporting the project of “integration”, not necessarily supporting those in need.
When my brother and I arrived in Germany, we were told that in some cities you can get residency very quickly while others were more complicated. So we headed to one of these towns somewhere in the east. Not a single person smiled at our arrival in that town, everyone frowned in our face. So we felt something though we didn’t yet understand what it was.
At the registration centre my brother called his friend who was living in Berlin at Sharehaus Refugio. He told us, ‘Leave there immediately and come to Berlin! Yes there are a lot of refugees and your papers will take time, but Berlin is miles and miles better than other places.’ We were only in that town for four hours and didn’t end up submitting our papers there. We got on a train and came to Berlin. I have been living at Refugio since I arrived and it’s such an important place. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t come here. If we had stayed in that town in East Germany where we first arrived...
You may see me laughing, but I am not in a good place. I’m very depressed. Sometimes I think, ‘I am 28 years old and I have already seen all those things.’ I’m strong, it’s true, but also I feel like nobody sees me, nobody touches me. And this is when you start to feel like all this is for nothing. I’m asked for so many things here. Integration, fine, I’ll do that. I learnt German on my own, I didn’t go to school. My language is not perfect but I managed all my papers on my own without a translator. But just give us some space, that’s all. We are coming from war. We have seen things no human should see. From a completely different place, culturally and religiously. You can’t switch these things off. Even for someone like me — my body changed, but my memory persists as ‘Ola.’ My feelings about the things the government wants from me will be different to how they see it. How to reconcile this, I don’t know.
An Arabic library in the heart of Berlin — this is a political project just by its very existence! It’s also a project of identity, of narrating ourselves differently, as newcomers to the city, not as what the media like to label us — refugees or whatever. We are new to the city, and we are creating new things in Berlin. This is a library where the newcomers have become the hosts.
Baynatna was the result of frustration, desire and need. Being on the train, and seeing everyone around me reading a book in German or English, I felt like I had nothing. Arabic speaking communities have been in Berlin for over 30 years and yet there was no Arabic library, not even a proper bookshop. So we worked on creating a library where we could find them. Our first spot was in a communal space in Kreuzberg, one day a week, now we are in the Central Library! It’s been like this 'let's do this' momentum that has kept going.
(Ali, Dana and Juan, hope)
Some Germans welcome refugees as they are, with their language, their culture, religion and music. Another part of German society accepts refugees on the basis that they will ‘become like me.’ These people think, ‘they need to speak like me, eat like me, listen to the same music I listen to.’ They probably also think, ‘he should look like me too.’ Maybe they want us to dye our hair blonde! — Anas
There is also this expectation that you should not own nice things because you are a refugee. If people see you with a new iPhone or nice clothes they automatically think you are using government money to spend on leisure items. I am working seven days a week, 10 hours most days, and I get to spend my money the way I want. I pay my taxes! — Muhamad
(Anas & Muhamad, hospitality, austerity)
There are a lot of projects and funding in Germany to 'promote integration.' We wanted to help support the Syrian journalists and writers to write in Arabic, to address sensitive topics, topics that wouldn’t usually be addressed in Arabic. The focus on anti-Semitism is an example — we chose the topic and voted on it. I felt it was important as a collaboration between Germans and Arabs, because Arabs may experience racism from some Germans, but there are elements of both communities that may also be anti-Semitic. So it's something that both communities must address. I'm very curious to see how the issue will be received.
(Anas & Muhamad, solidarity)
Berlin is more open. Some Germans who have travelled are more open, but others are against all ‘foreigners,’ as they call them. In some cities in other parts of Germany, Germans who were living there all their life had never seen someone who looked different to them. They were unprepared to receive refugees. And the German government forced refugees to live in these places, and forced the German residents to accept this or threatened to cut off money. So of course, there is no love at all at the moment. No love at all. German people need to learn how to be integrated. They need to work hard towards that.
It took years for Al-Dar to be legalised and accepted by the German Senate. We’ve done some great things but we are also limited by the laws we can work within. When refugees started to arrive in the 70s, their claims for asylum were rejected. At the same time, they could not be forced to return because the war was still ongoing in Lebanon. This, together with the political unwillingness to give them the right to reside led to the government creating the 'Duldung' which literally translates to 'temporary toleration extensions.' These had to be renewed every 3-6 months and lasted four decades, with entire generations of children born into this situation. In 1981 it got worse with new restrictions banning refugees from working and their children from going to university. When they finally gave children of ‘Duldung’ permit holders rights to study and work, but they had already lost the motivation… Many of the laws since the 1990s were good, but they were too late. It took so long for politicians to understand how important this was.
Place is important because of infrastructure. What Germany did for a while was build big camps, like 500-1000 people in the villages, and I think that's something that is really not working. Either the village is traumatised because there are so many foreign people coming, but also for the people arriving in these villages there is nothing there. You don’t have proper infrastructure and you can’t look for jobs or flats, nothing. I think this is why Refugio is so special. It is in the middle of Neukölln, it is very young, very trendy, very welcoming. They don’t have to be scared of leaving the house and finding someone standing in front making a demonstration against them.
I don’t like living in the shelter at Tempelhof* – it’s a constant reminder that I’m a refugee here. I don’t have a problem sharing a room, but I don’t really get along well with my roommate, so I’m asking to change rooms. My friends and I sometimes think about moving out together for more private space and actually feel like home. The refugee office (LAF) can also pay for an independent flat instead of the hostel. But, it’s Berlin — everybody is looking for a flat! And there’s definitely discrimination. You show landlords your LAF documents and suddenly they give the flat to someone else.
* Tempelhof Field is the site of a former airport in central Berlin that was converted to emergency shelter for refugees by the government.
BERLIN AS A DIGITAL CITY OF REFUGE
Digital connectivity and communication encapsulate this ambivalence of the city of refuge. In Berlin, everyone is digitally connected, and networks of solidarity, community and identity are very vibrant in the city. Social media here mediate and expand the reach of refugee voices and politics, especially through sharing the many events that are organised by and for newcomers. Such digital infrastructures moreover constitute a fundamental element of state and non-state actors’ strategies for advancing refugee “integration”; often referred to as “digital integration”. In this context, the potentials of digital communication, especially in relation to employment, are recognised, well-funded and even tend to be over-celebrated: Coding schools and social enterprises that intend to contribute to the start-up digital economy of the city promote integration policies in practice and, in turn, receive considerable public and private funding. A vision of a digital future is often taken on by individuals with a disproportionate number of our young participants hoping for employment in the digital economy. At the same time, many of them are acutely conscious of the risk of surveillance and the severe repercussions this might bear for either themselves or for their loved ones abroad. A number of newcomers, therefore, confirmed that they develop certain tactics of resistance to surveillance, for example by sustaining different social media account or engaging in strategic self-censorship. Such a critical awareness is, however, by no means shared by public representatives in Germany. Even more so, national legislation actively contributes to the digital surveillance and border apparatus as it allows the state to check refugees’ social media profiles at any time. While in many ways reflecting a city of solidarity and support, Berlin’s potential to truly present refuge for people fleeing destitution, war and persecution are profoundly restricted by the logics of conditionality and control to which newcomers are subjected.
There were so many digital initiatives to help newcomers in Berlin at the beginning of the ‘crisis.’ The refugees were media-savvy and so technology was a way to help in a relevant way.
ReDI focuses on digital training, offering beginner to advanced classes in coding, digital literacy and design, among others. ReDI has only been around since 2016, but we already have partnerships with Microsoft and Facebook and have been recognised by the government. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Angela Merkel have visited us. We recently did a survey and found that 25% of our alumni that responded are now working in IT and more than 50% are or have been in internships in the digital sector. For us, digital skills are the tools but the goal is integration. It is a 'School of Digital Integration.'
(Ida, digital skills)
Many of my friends share every minute of their lives on Facebook. Social media platforms are important for connecting, but this is excessive. It feels like it’s acceptable now for people to be watched and monitored all the time and people are willingly participating in it. There is no need for CCTV cameras anymore, people post their whereabouts themselves! I’m really uncomfortable with that, especially about children. When I post things I’m careful not to share information about where I am or where I’m headed. Sometimes I post photos of myself, but the photos I post are months apart. I’m always consciously trying to protect my privacy.
I also work at Kiron Open Higher Education, where we help refugees prepare to transfer to university by creating academic curriculums from the online courses on EdEx of Coursera, for example. You still need a high school diploma in order to qualify to go to university in Germany, that's not something that we can make up for, but we have partnerships where the students can earn the certificates for free, and then our partner universities will recognise their transcripts. Right now we have a little over 4,000 refugee students on our platform based in Germany, and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
We got a lot of press when it started because it was something really innovative. What’s cool about it is that digitalisation in education can really support a lot of disadvantaged groups in society, not just refugees, and we're working with the Government now to expand the program. – Sophia
(Sophia, digital skills)