Example10 Example11 MCH LSE Refuge City ATH Refugee Info 003
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People Example10

Get to know the newcomers, activists and volunteers we met in Athens, Berlin and London, as they share their personal experiences of refuge, welcome and the digital city.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 115 Marcia Chandra

Abohanna*, Sharehaus Refugio
Neukölln, Berlin, September 2018

I’ve been here for nearly three years. Three years and two days if you want me to be super precise. That’s the anniversary of my arrival in Germany and to Refugio.

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...

(connection, Berlin)

MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 005 Marcia Chandra
MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 035

This bar is so important to me. When we first arrived here, my brother and I were living in this very small room and I didn’t yet work at the café. So we had lots of time. We used to spend three, four hours... a coffee, then a coke, then a beer. We’d sit all evening on the terrace or on a bench by the river, just looking around us and observing life. I love how crowded it is, there is such a buzz. You just want to be a part of it, you know?

(home, berlin)

MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 075 Marcia Chandra

I know my way around the area very well because I cycle. I barely use the U-Bhan, unless I am with other people and we are going somewhere together. Otherwise, I am always on my bike. So I know the streets, the shortcuts, how they connect. I also walk a lot. I walk aimlessly, and then once I need to go back home, I use my GPS. I still use GPS to get home because Berlin is huge, you can’t have it all memorised.

(digital lives)

MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 125 Marcia Chandra
MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 139 Marcia Chandra

In this neighbourhood, the gym is really important to me. I have always been shy, even in Syria, because of my weight mostly, but I’ve lost 23kgs since I arrived. It affects everything in my life, my health, confidence, energy. I also have memories of the hospital. A few days after I arrived, it got very cold. Very cold! My jacket wasn’t heavy but it was the only one I had. It was maybe irresponsible to go out like that. I got a very high temperature so they took me to the hospital and I ended up staying there for five days. It was very bad pneumonia, I have never been that sick in my life. Anyways, the hospital has a beautiful view and the walk up to it is gorgeous, too.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 189 Marcia Chandra

My German still isn’t fluent two years into the language course, but even early on I managed to start going to the Job Centre alone, without translators, without support. At the beginning when I started working at the café I had to always have a German speaker with me. Now I can handle it all on my own. It makes me proud. I don’t mean it makes me arrogant, just proud of myself for achieving this. But language is still an issue when connecting with people. When I want to have a deep conversation with someone, I feel that I don’t have the words to discuss personal things. I think it is because of the vocabulary, I find it difficult to express myself or talk about myself in German.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 168 Marcia Chandra

I love how big volunteering is here. It wasn’t just because I am a refugee and I didn’t have papers that I volunteered in the café. It isn’t a case of exploitation. Germans volunteer much, much more than we do. They volunteer alongside their job as a part of their life and work for free for an organization like Refugio. Thank heavens for all this. I was able to create a community with these people. And it helped improve my command of the language. Interacting with different people is so important.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 013 Marcia Chandra
MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 137 Marcia Chandra

When we arrived in Berlin, there were so many refugees here. My brother’s friend introduced us to Sven Lager who was running Refugio. Without papers we couldn’t start learning the language, we wouldn’t be able to work and no one would just take you in, not even people who opened their homes to refugees. But Sven gave us a room for free for eight months until our papers were finalised and would regularly ask us if we needed money, too. I will never forget that.

I wanted to do something to help Refugio so I created a garden on the roof. It was my way of returning the favour. I did good work and Sven was so surprised. It was really nice, because in theory, we were the ones who needed to say ‘thank you,’ but it became him saying thank you to us, too! It reversed things from being just one way.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 053 Marcia Chandra

I’ve travelled around Europe, too. I mean the countries I’ve visited as a tourist after getting my residency, not the countries I crossed as a refugee on foot. I have three sisters that live in Sweden. My niece there is dearer to me than all my siblings. She is still too young to have Facebook but we talk every day on Snapchat. She threatens me, ‘don’t you dare not pick up when I call you!’ I speak to my sister maybe once every three months, but I speak to my niece every day.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 149 Marcia Chandra
MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 154 Marcia Chandra

Even if I experience racism, I think I will just try to ignore it. They may be experiencing their own pressures, so they feel, 'this is my country and I have more of a right to it.' It's important to try to understand each other. But the majority in Berlin are welcoming. People opened their homes to refugees, to strangers. I can only look at these people with great admiration and respect. We shouldn’t be looking at the small number who have a racist demonstration. Sometimes they like to cite a crime that a Syrian did, but why am I expected to bear responsibility for his crime? Because I am Syrian? Punish him for the crime! People should be judged by their character not their nationality. A law is a law and is applicable to everyone. It is the most beautiful thing in the world to have a just system.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 146 Marcia Chandra

We wouldn’t have left Syria if life was still liveable there. Even though the political situation was never good, we liked our country. We had agriculture and trade, you could still have a good life. So we didn’t come here just looking for something better. The security situation had become even worse, unliveable. The fear was not about being locked up for a day or two — it was about being thrown in a prison cell for the remainder of your life.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 196 Marcia Chandra

The last year I was in Syria, I was all alone and scared all the time. Till now it hasn’t left me... the fear. Using the internet attracted unnecessary attention so I avoided it. Even in Turkey, it took me three months to feel I was safe enough. Other people are cautious because they still have family in Syria, but I have no one, so one day, I posted so many things to Facebook. I had to share what happened to me. So I criticised Bashar al-Assad, everyone. And I felt so relieved after. Now I like sharing. I share lots of photos of my life, like when we all go out, and sometimes at the café if I manage to make a really good cappuccino.


MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 156 Marcia Chandra
MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 090 Marcia Chandra

I got really lucky with Refugio, I am one of the privileged refugees in that way. Others have really, really struggled. Some people have managed and got on their feet, even in very difficult circumstances. But I have a friend who decided to go back to Turkey. He just couldn’t manage. He was living in an overcrowded residence, there were 250 people sleeping for months in a basketball court. I don’t blame the German government, they were doing what they could. But you can understand my friend, too. It was heart-breaking.

(austerity, berlin)

MCH LSE Refuge City BER Newcomer04 061 Marcia Chandra

To feel at home here, I think the most important thing is to be protected from loneliness. To have people around you who are close to you. I am lucky my brother is here with me but also I live together with the people at Refugio. They are not like friends I see every couple of weeks or connect with on WhatsApp, they are family. I think the experience is very different if you feel alone.


Photo from Marcia Chandra

Update June 2020 — Five years from when I first walked into Refugio and was given shelter by Sven, and several years since he left Refugio, he remains one of the most important people in my life. He continues to be a friend that helps keep me motivated and continuously renews my confidence in myself. Looking back, I am really proud to have managed to learn two languages, German and English, even though I started learning them as an adult at 30 years old. I am more sociable today than I have ever been, even in Syria. I have friends and a social life. I have a very active lifestyle and I have managed to lose 30kgs from regularly going to the gym. I enjoy working at the coffee shop and meeting people, and I also volunteer. I feel like I am part of the world, meeting and working with different people from all over.

Photo courtesy of Abohanna.

* Abohanna is a pseudonym.

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