On Friday morning, I got started with my next reportage. It was about the reception of refugees in Berlin. Certain themes are less comfortable than others to write about. I was looking forward to dig deeper about that subject.So on Friday morning, I went to the Office for Health and Social Affairs of Berlin, commonly known as LaGeSo by the locals.
I didn’t know what to expect. I had planned to record everything I would hear through my mobile phone, which I switched on as I arrived at the entrance gates. It looked peaceful enough, just like any other entrance to any other german administrative building. I began to wonder if I was at the right place.
As I saw the stream of people moving towards the rear of the administrative complex, I followed. The few persons at the entrance soon gave way to a flow of people, each meter thicker. On both sides of the path, patches of green were occupied by families, groups of men or women. Children, many of them toddlers, were playing on the ground. A lot of them unkempt.
I reached the far end of the complex, and turned around. Everywhere, there were people. And something definitely didn’t look right. Most of them, having escaped war in their native countries, crossed borders and seas in the worst fashion possible, lost relatives along the way, were now camping in front of an administrative building in order to receive a paper allowing them to stay in Germany. A formality that should allow them to be in a better place, in all manners.
Except that Germany’s famous efficiency hits a massive low with the refugee’s flow. Not only the infrastructure of the LaGeSo can’t cope with the never-ending flow of people coming in, but having that paper also doesn’t bring the refugee’s wandering to an end. Once their status of asylum seekers has been acknowledged, they are given a voucher allowing them to stay in a hostel. But hostels seldom accept such customers, some because they experienced the State not paying them on time, others simply because they don’t want to frighten tourists by hosting refugees at the same time.
As a result, many asylum seekers, even having been officially welcomed on the German soil, are still homeless. Most of them are exhausted, traumatized by their journeys and what they experienced before it, and do not have a single word of German.
Last week, a single pit in the middle of a mucky patch of grass provided them water. Showers were scarce, and the sanitary closed at 5pm (toilets included) for the whole night. These appalling conditions were hard to witness, even for people who had worked in refugee camps outside of Europe. This has now improved and water is amply provided thanks to the generosity of some companies.
At that stage, I didn’t know what to report on, because there were so many things that were wrong at that precise moment. I took my recorder down and talked to a couple of Syrian refugees. In a group of five, only one of them could speak broken English. As I was asking them to share their stories, they told me they had walked and traveled by car when possible during ten days through Turkey in order to reach Europe. In order to explain to me why he left, one of them made the gesture of slicing his throat with his thumb. Your everyday life in a war-ridden country. Another man joins us. He’s Syrian born, but lived in Berlin for twenty years. He comes every day to help fellow Syrians to get around. He tells me that if I wanted to help, it would be good to prioritize one of the men of the group, because he came here alone with his ten-year-old daughter, and he suffers from diabetes. The said man then explains in Arabic that he only has one day of insulin left, and that he doesn’t know how he can reach out to a doctor. The LaGeSo gave him a voucher to go to a doctor, but he can’t even read it, let alone find his way around the city. He has been sleeping rough at the LaGeSo for a week. I see a German woman arriving with bags full of medicine. She doesn’t have any insulin, but I found out later on that day that she arranged for the man to see a doctor. For now, she’s in a state of shock. She looks around, see all these people stranded here with barely no one to help them, expect a few Johanniters and members of a Facebook Group called “Moabit Hilft”, gathering citizens of Berlin trying to help out as much as they can.
After a few hours, I decide to make my way back in order to quickly report on what I saw today. I see a lot of Germans walking through this chaos, some with tears running on their cheeks, all of them with a look of utter disbelief. Like me, they would never have expected to see what they saw today…in what we call a civilized country.
Some of my journalist colleagues, dressed to the nines and ostentatiously taking notes like teacher’s pets on holidays, are walking around. They too contribute to that feeling of awkwardness. They – we – look out of place, with our notepads and cameras. I didn’t take any pictures, I forgot all about taking notes too, and once I reach home I can think of nothing but to go back there to help out.