Lichtenberg, October 17th, 2015

Berlin is now cold and damp. Today we welcome 500 refugees coming from Freilassing to be driven to shelters in Berlin and Brandenburg. Due to the presence of neo-nazis in Schönefeld, we are told at the last minute that we will have to make do with another station. Someone, in the blurry decisional sphere up above, opted for Lichtenberg, east of Berlin. Lichtenberg it is, we are on the road.

I arrive to early. A dozen police vans are already here, as well as firemen. Only three paramedics are there, installing tables outside. I ask them where they want us to be, they don’t know, it is their firs time welcoming a train. We end up by agreeing after some It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, but it’s 5°C out, and the atmosphere is bleak. We aren’t sheltered. A team of five translators arrives, sent by the Senate for Health and Social Affairs. I came with a Syrian friend who wants to help as a translator. “Thanks but we’ll manage. Stay as a reserve”, says one of the “official translators”. Naturally, once the 500 people arrive, no one is “official” or “reserve”: we make do as we can, with about 6 translators and 20 helpers. The train is more than an hour late.

In the meantime, we learn that the neo-nazis protesting in Schönefeld are on their way to Lichtenberg. As the place is still empty, four men stand behind the cordoned off area, and take multiple pictures of us. They are not journalists. Maybe we’ll get hate mail later, right now we can’t do anything about it, and upon our asking them, the police doesn’t want to ask these men what is their purpose. Later, a dozen “antifas” (antifascists) is here to shelter us.

Two volunteers are here for the first time, they don’t know “how it works”. It’s easy, it’s chaotic every time, we do the best we can, no strict rules. The two of them prepare about 200 sandwiches as we wait for the train. A homeless man comes to us, tells us he has a fiver to spend, asks us what more he can buy. We tell him we’re sorted for the day. We could do with more, all we have comes from private funding, but he needs these 5 € more than us. Another elderly man approaches the tables and asks if it’s a flee market. He begins to talk politics.

At last, we are told the train has arrived. No time for talking anymore, everyone takes a stand behind a table, five of them being aligned with different goods on it. People come from the stairs, and queue to receive water and food. This time, they are Afghan and Syrian. They laugh at my bad Arabic and non-existent Farsi. I’m relieved they are here, and no longer on a boat on the Mediterranean, even if they still look exhausted and lost. The first arrived are quickly taken to one of Berlin’s shelters, as buses were already queueing. But 500 people aren’t so easily dealt with and dispatched in buses. They sit on the floor. As we run out of food, we give away snacks. At least the brands are universal, no struggle to explain what’s in that. An Afghan woman asks me if she can change her baby’s nappy. I ask one of the security guys, hoping he’ll let her do it in the truck they came with. Answer: “She can change him on the table”. Food is still on. I don’t answer and ask the woman to follow me. All we can offer is a wooden crate, barely sheltered. She changes the baby here, in the open air. She doesn’t seem to mind and I am so frustrated by the whole situation.

Once the food boxes are totally empty, I go in the crowd. Soon, a Syrian from Damascus comes over, introduces himself, giving me his name and asking me where he can find a SIM card. That’s a frequently asked question, all of them want to inform their relatives of their whereabouts. He tells me: “I’m from Damascus. And don’t worry, I’m rich.” It wasn’t my immediate preoccupation and I laugh, he laughs as well, at my three Arabic words. He asks me if learning German is difficult. I avoid answering by telling him we’ll deal with the SIM card first. There is a shop within the station. He gives me his wallet and passport, I tell him to rather come with me, I don’t want to hold his documents in case he’s gone when I’m back. On our way to the station, three policemen politely ask us to remain in the cordoned off area. I take his money to buy his card, come back two minutes later. Five people now ask me the same. I go to the shop again, cursing myself for not having thought about asking volunteers working at the Lageso to provide some SIM cards.

The lady in the shop seems surprised, I explain that I buy the cards for the refugees just arrived. She asks: “But do they have phones?”. I tell her that they also use mobiles in the Middle-East, and that it’s a practical way to keep in touch with one’s relatives. I do six similar trips, before we’re told to move faster towards the buses…that are not here. They quickly arrive though, and the last people, heads down on their mobiles, frustrated that the SIM card isn’t activated yet, are taken on board. One last question from my new friend from Damascus: “what are they doing with us now?”. I tell him not to worry, he’s taken into a shelter for registration, and he can spend the night there. I wish him good luck, wondering if I’ll see him again next week at the Lageso.

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