By Elizabeth M. Ekren
2nd Place, Prose, Create | Encounter 2019
As an anthropologist, I research the daily lives of refugees in Germany. I’m trying to learn more about what helps them to overcome the different challenges they face in rebuilding their lives. On the surface, it might seem straightforward. Wouldn’t refugees be far better off than before, just in reaching Germany? As one economist told me during an interview, “A refugee who comes to Germany at least has safety from the beginning and his or her sociocultural subsistence minimum secured, which, incidentally, is often higher than the average earnings in origin countries or even in the United States.” Before they fled, they were doctors and lawyers, business owners and teachers, cooks, tradesmen and household managers. After they fled, they held on to their strength and resolve, their skills and backgrounds, their desire to move on and start again.
Although the flight from war in a home country may have culminated in arrival to Germany, a new kind of flight defines daily life. For the majority of refugees in Germany, the trajectory of this new flight means months, if not years, waiting for asylum claims to be adjudicated and enduring the constant uncertainty of potential deportation. It means work prohibitions, denials of education credentials and long-term dependency on welfare schemes to make ends meet. It means drawn-out stays in overcrowded shelters, often with no private bathrooms or kitchens, in places that are physically uncomfortable, but psychologically, can never be their own. Material difficulties and psychological struggles afflict daily life as time goes on because there is constrained opportunity to independently alleviate them. In other words, although the governmental system accounts for basic levels of provisioning, it is complicated to move beyond and exploit for tremendous benefit.
The question they always asked me, but I wanted them to answer, was always, why is it so hard? I remember when the answers first started to make more sense to me. It was after a few days of particularly challenging field visits. Ethnographic research is tedious. Most of the observations to record about daily life are banal or random by themselves. But the point is, when something has been seen enough times that it is not random anymore, there is something to be said from seeing it.
I had visited two shelters in one day. I biked about 20 km. Transport was striking, but the connections between the shelters were poor, anyway. The last part of the ride was in a downpour. I was behind on typing an unrecorded transcript from a 2-hour interview with an Afghani refugee family. Later, at a volunteer group hosting a coffee for refugee women, I listened to a group of German volunteers complain about the refugees they were allegedly trying to help. Perhaps it was assumed that since there were difficulties even with the basic niceties of, “Where do you come from,” and “How many children do you have,” that it didn’t matter that the conversation turned away from these rudimentary attempts at engagement to open disparaging in German of the others at the same table. The volunteers criticized the refugees for not putting forth their best efforts to engage with them.
The same day, at one of the shelter visits, the opposite accusation arose from a volunteer who complained that a family had too much contact with Germans, wasted volunteer resources and ought to stop trying to engage. In German, this is a Teufelskreis, a devil’s circle. In English, I would say, damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
I had stopped by the room of Nasrin and Munir, whom I tutored in German, for a tea break between seeing other families. “What?” another volunteer demanded as she barged into their room during our visit. “By my count, there are six volunteers helping this family. This is unacceptable. It shouldn’t happen. It’s too much.”
“We’re just visiting and having some tea together,” I said.
After eschewing a cup of tea, complaining a bit more and verbally disciplining Nasrin’s children for asking for fruit incorrectly, the volunteer left the room. Nasrin turned to me. “What did she mean?” she asked. Before I could say anything, as if I even had anything to say, she told me, “She thinks we shouldn’t have German friends here, right? Or get help?”
“I think, she just does not understand how different volunteers and people engage with one another here,” I offered as a whitewashed explanation.
In the refugee shelters, understanding often went beyond words. “She isn’t a good woman, is she?” Nasrin asked. I shrugged, attempting to be impartial. “I’m not worried, “she continued. “I feel full when my house is full. I want to meet other people. Just stay. Don’t worry. I don’t care what she says. You and me, though? We’re sisters. Let’s just drink our tea.” I tried to smile at the reassurance that Nasrin didn’t think the services she received from the shelter volunteer corps would be curtailed, just because we were seen having tea together. But I swallowed enough guilt with my tea, wondering who ought to be reassuring whom.
A few days later, I attended a meeting of the primary volunteer group coordinating refugee services in our city district. The group was trying to decide what to make of a vacant plot of land next to a shelter built out of shipping containers. It was supposed to serve the residents there and act as an inclusive space that refugees could make their own, a place where they might mingle with Germans from the neighborhoods surrounding the containers. It was a well-attended meeting by German standards. There were no refugees there.
On the one hand, the scope of volunteerism during Germany’s so-called “refugee crisis” has been vast and wide- reaching. The grass-roots coordination efforts to fill in gaps where the government has failed have largely made possible the initial steps toward welcoming and integrating over 1 million refugees who have arrived since 2015. On the other hand, the generosity of volunteerism has not been exempt from the creation of complex power dynamics that can act as an extension of a political system already hostile to refugees’ autonomy. Working with volunteers can offer inroads to help. But just like the laws that determine the complex conditions under which benefits are had and asylum status granted, working with volunteers can seem like just another situation in which assimilation, or even capitulation to another’s conditions, is a necessary component of moving on. To what extent, as with much of anything the refugees were facing, was there ever really much choice?
During those days, when I thought about what I had seen, I reflected on what incentives refugees might have to engage themselves. What, for example, with regards to the empty space outside, would compel the container shelter residents as an incentive to participating in its development? That was why it was so hard.
Time in the container village ought to be temporary. It was shelter, not home. What incentive would there be to engage with the design of a space, when living in the space was part of the nightmare one wished to avoid? Being in the container village for years on end would be considered failure at worst, involuntary stagnation at best; psychologically, what incentive would residents have to contribute actively and positively to a (presumably) temporary state they considered so negatively and wished so desperately to leave? Regarding the physical output of one’s labor, what incentive would there be to work to create something that ultimately could not be completed, much less enjoyed?
Admittedly, I found myself initially neglecting these reflections before the answers began to come together, as I wondered if the space ought to be utilized as a communal garden. I reflected first on how many of my conversations with other refugees at other shelters had been centered on the importance of food; missing tastes of home, creating what was familiar, replicating what used to be done. I thought of what one resident at the container village told me about German produce as we cooked falafel together once in the kitchen container, shared among eight families. Omar, who was in his mid-50s, used to own multiple restaurants in Syria, but he could not work in a German restaurant due to training equivalency regulations and language requirements. Omar sighed and told me how he missed the food in Syria. “All the fruits and vegetables were very fresh. A tomato is not a tomato here,” he said. “In Syria, they are so big, so red. Sweet! But here, they taste like water.”
Even the very essence of food was removed and transformed into something else; because a tomato was not a tomato, a dish made from home only maintained the appearance, not the essence, of what it really was. Its value as a coping mechanism was thus diminished. It made me wonder, could residents regain some of that essence or control if they could be allowed and encouraged to produce (and grow) items themselves to be what they conceptualized they should be?
But what was missing from these initial thoughts was the element of time and the necessity of some degree of permanence, as they formed relationships with the incentives and motivation to become invested in a space. In an emergency shelter north of the city, the custodial caretaker repurposed a small plot of land on the property for residential gardening use. Like the container shelter, it was a facility where residents were meant to spend time only temporarily, but stays of drawn-out, unpredictable length were the common and unfortunate result of dysfunctional shelter allocation systems and supply failures.
A young single resident from Bangladesh, Hossain, told me that the garden plot was conceptualized by the caretaker simply as a way for people to pass time while waiting to go. There was no reflecting on whether transience would incentivize peaceful, productive or communal use of the space where residents could come together or utilize their possession of space to pursue more scalable ends. He told me that he never saw residents working together in the plots or trading produce with one another.
In another visit, I asked some African residents from the same shelter to tell me about the garden. Vera, a younger woman from Nigeria, said, “I suppose people can use it, but they have to get the keys. It’s not all open.”
Her neighbor Ama, an older woman, agreed, “It’s really hard to get the keys. They wouldn’t ever give them to us. I think it is racist against us.”
Vera nodded and said, “Yes, of course we would like to use it. But they already decided who can use the space and who gets the keys. Even though some people don’t even use the space they have, it is decided already. I would have preferred if that area could be a playground for everybody to share because there are so many kids here who would like to run around and play.” The two of them shrugged, Vera told me about another refugee who once put soap in her food because he didn’t like the smell as they cooked in the communal space, and we continued to drink our instant coffee like any other day.
I was brought back to my thoughts about the space at the container shelter. Finally, they started to go beyond whether or not a communal garden would be a justified use of the land. The absence of refugees at the meeting was of course problematic for the simple fact that a complete lack of presence meant a complete lack of voice and input. But more fundamental was the question asking why residents of the container shelter would even wish to provide their voices at all. What could be more demoralizing and disincentivizing than encouraging people to take ownership of land where they might occupy themselves, where they might produce something of value with their time, where they might find moments of peace and enjoyment, only to have this ownership removed abruptly and suddenly with the next inevitable transfer to the next shelter?
Why is it so hard? When limited space is exacerbated by limited time, the garden itself becomes divisive, pitting residents mentally against one another, as they wonder why some have access to the plots and others do not. Some residents fail to make use of what they have, but the lack of exchange between them means that they are left to wonder amongst themselves whether such empty plots sit unattended due to negligence or transience. Unfortunately, there is no way to communally navigate these issues, take over abandoned plots, or manage together the use of plots within the unpredictable durations that residents live at the shelter.
As in other domains of refugee life, the reality is that use is decided for them from above, from somewhere beyond their control, imposed as a way they ought to spend their time without consideration for the time likely wasted doing so. The garden plots, often themselves the victims of their caretakers’ impermanence, are physical reminders of the many life possibilities that can never be tended to or brought to physical fruition. What could be more ironically symbolic of refugees’ own experiences of upheaval than such garden plots, initially full of hopeful seedlings waiting to push triumphantly through the challenges of earth, only to be suddenly stunted and abandoned when the next uncontrollable (and inevitable) stroke of power from beyond decides yet again there is no right or ability to cultivate them?
Bahar, an Afghani woman from another shelter with a garden, wondered if plants would even grow in Germany, since it was cold and rained so much. “But the shelter office says we must take care of the plots”, she explained. “We must do something with the garden. I tried to tell the social worker, I don’t have time. I have German class in the morning. Then homework, cleaning, cooking. When do I have time for a garden? But, she said, you must.” Later that season, the garden was destroyed when some of the shelter residents got into a fist fight and trampled over most of the plants.
Voice and power come from other channels. The impediments of daily life are bureaucratic, uncontrollable, intangible. They are the passage of time and the torments of waiting through it to see if the garden one is forced to tend to start a new life will grow or be destroyed by other onlookers, a storm, a self-sabotage to finally feel in control of something.
But what is the garden? It is another space in which to keep doing what one would never choose to do, but does to flee from what is no longer survivable to find hope for a situation that might be. To tend the garden is a protracted dream for something more. It is hardly easy and rarely voluntary. It is to continue the flight from rudimentary conditions to established living, from resource scarcity to security, from starting over from nothing to moving on to something.
Bahar could not understand why her family’s asylum claim was rejected or why she had to wait over a year to find out. When we spoke, they were in the process of appealing the decision. “We’re waiting for the letter with the status from the court case, but it has not come,” she said. “I hope we get a letter. Maybe then, we can have a big apartment, a car. A big garden. Inshallah,” she said. “Right now, there is no apartment. No car. No big garden.”
“A garden?” I asked. “Don’t you have one here?”
“It is not our garden,” she corrected, reminding me of how she had already explained the situation. “We will try to tend the plot here on the weekends because we have to,” she said. “But maybe the plants will grow, and people will stay away this time. Inshallah.”
Quotations from this essay are taken from interview and fieldnote transcripts. All names have been changed.