Letter from Berlin

Frances Mountier_March2014Refugees bring out the worst, and best, in Berliners

By Frances Mountier

It’s summer here, ridiculously hot. The occasional afternoon thunderstorm with heavy rain comes as a relief.

My favourite and least favourite part of being in Berlin has probably been the youth centre where I’ve volunteered one night a week.

It’s in the basement of a church in Kreuzberg, an inner city Berlin district; former West Berlin but close to the Wall.

I mentioned it in my last column as the site of a civil war-like police operation: two thousand officers surrounding an occupied refugee school. Road blocks. Teenagers went on strike from school, and students from university, to march in solidarity with the refugees. They were stopped two blocks from the school, and many were pepper-sprayed.

A friend from Wellington visited late in June, during the World Cup tournament, which was viewed and celebrated in public here in Berlin.

Wellingtonian visitor ‘horrified’

She was horrified at many things: The flags flown without hesitation, a couple selling flags and other national-themed football paraphernalia from the edge of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the apparent utter lack of self-reflection by the majority of Germans on the fact that the German state caused a huge number of refugees, which should have some bearing on today.

I would have hoped that the majority of people in such a country would take a more open, welcoming view of current refugees than seems to be the case. That perspective isn’t on the mainstream radar.

The afternoon my friend left was another hot summery day. My trip from town took me on crowded overheated U-Bahns (no air conditioning in a transit system designed to cope with the cold), then on foot along the Landwehrkanal. Past parents with strollers, outdoor Pétanque, young people sitting on the edge of the river, rubbish, dirt tracks, under trees the whole way.

But this day, as in the previous week, there were also cops on one of the roads leading away from the river. A reduced, but still present, police blockade. The Green Party Kreuzberg mayor had broken earlier promises and ordered the eviction the week before.

I met the Mayor, I realised now, back at MayDay when I visited the youth centre’s stall. I was introduced as one of the English-speaking volunteers. There was a warm welcome for a Pakeha woman from New Zealand – not so much for those who are undocumented and from sub-Saharan Africa?

The organiser who didn’t like protesters

At the youth centre, the organiser told me about some 12-year-olds who attend the centre who had gone along the day before to the sit-in that was constantly present in front of the Police line, and thrown stuff at the cops.

She thought the 12-year-olds were totally unjustified, that if she saw them there again, they could no longer come to the centre. She would call their brothers, their parents. ‘That kind of activity gets you nowhere, ruins your future, the protest is wrong,’ she said, adding ‘the protestors didn’t come here as real refugees.’

I was careful not to be seen to attack Germany. Instead I talked about Ahmed Zaoui, how even in New Zealand – such a beloved country for the organiser – the Government can get it wrong with refugee status. That I would stand in solidarity with those people seeking refuge.

‘They’re not refugees, they’re criminals,’ the organiser said (of the protesters, 200 people, written off!).

Meanwhile, Bulgaria has built a thirty-kilometre fence to stop refugees from Syria entering via Turkey. A fence was built on the Greek-Turkish border in 2012. Spain has triple fences around its enclaves in Morocco. FRONTEX, the EU’s external border security agency, coordinates the patrol against those trying to cross the Mediterranean.

I didn’t argue back in any heightened fashion, though I didn’t sit in silence. Perhaps I should have voiced my view more clearly. Afterwards, I went and sat by the river. I had admired this woman tremendously; as I’ve written elsewhere, the youth centre seemed to function as an incredibly warm, open place. She had sung the praises of the ‘peaceful revolution’ of 1989, when people flooded the Berlin wall, her pride in her fellow country-people.

‘What’s needed is education, not this’ she said, condemning the refugee protest. I disagree: what’s needed is education and action. Had those 200 people tried to ‘educate,’ they would have been deported months ago. Perhaps this view of a ‘peaceful revolution’ has clouded some people’s view of the necessity of struggle.

I’ve been asking others about their thinking, too. ‘Why do you think it’s not a big issue here, why isn’t there more support for refugees?’

One answer was that in Berlin, people look inward. Vaguely aware that it must be worse elsewhere, to have so many migrant workers and refugees arriving, but more focused on the pressing issues of rising rent and lack of work in the city.

Another answer was that there haven’t been anti-racist struggles of the same scale as in colonial or colonised countries. The man who shared this with me said that in his small town in the early 1990’s he and his friends did the anti-racism work they expected the police to do, protecting people from fascists.

Kreuzberg is the only suburb in Germany where this protest could have happened, he said, because it’s long been a Turkish neighbourhood. Anywhere else in Germany and the cops would have done the eviction a year ago.

Frances Mountier is a Welington writer who lived in Berlin from February till August this year.