It’s my turn to get in a train today, so I’m not able to go to Schönefeld. Instead, I go to Berlin’s central station an hour earlier, in order to see if I can help people before taking my train. Sure enough, when I arrive, I see small groups of Afghans wandering around. They try to avoid coming too close to the police officers patrolling around. It makes for a very strange atmosphere – officers walking at a slow pace, Afghans usually thirty to forty meters behind, cautious not to be noticed. And a helper in between, with a big suitcase.
I head to my platform and board the train. In my carriage, I notice a young man who looks very much like one of the people I see every day in Schönefeld: no luggage but a worn-out backpack, looking around very cautiously, fear in his eyes and not knowing what to do with himself. He holds his ticket firm and tentatively takes a seat, still looking to see if someone tells him off, very cautiously. For all I know, he could be anything, from a random lost passenger to another displaced person on his way to meet a relative in another city after years apart and months of dangerous traveling. But it’s the way he looks at things that gives him away. You can see that everything is new to him. As I observe him our eyes meet for a second, I see fear again in his. I give him a nod and a smile, it reassures him, and he sits, still looking at me. He nods back, tentatively. We both understood, I think, although I can’t be sure. It’s not as if I could come over and say “oh hey, you do look like a refugee, are you one by any chance?”. I feel I am being prejudiced by the color of his skin. Maybe I’m just imagining he needs help. Be it as it may, I will watch out for him when the controllers come, in case he doesn’t understand what they want.
For the time being, a German woman asks the man if she can sit next to him. He doesn’t seem to understand, and he looks panicked as she repeats her question. I see the woman came with another person, so I stand from my two seats and tell the two of them they might be better off sitting together. They look pleasantly surprised and eagerly take up my offer. I take my belongings and go sit next to the man instead. If he’s not a refugee he might think I’m weird, but I don’t mind. I am still unsure whether I’m just being prejudiced because he looks the part. I don’t know if I should to start a conversation. I wouldn’t in normal circumstances so why now? For half an hour, I read my book, and we don’t exchange a word. However, this changes as the ticket controller enters our carriage. Panicked eyes again. He rummages feverishly through his papers, he doesn’t seem to find his ticket. I whisper: “Deutsch? English?”. He replies: “No, no. French?”. He speaks very good French. We don’t have time, I take his papers, find the right ticket. He’s heading to another city, paid a fortune for a ticket bought that same morning. We get controlled, everything is in order.
We look at each other. “Thanks”, he says. He is Syrian. His mother lives in Berlin, she came with other relatives a few months ago. His brother is in another city, and he himself just arrived in Germany. He wants to register here and apply for the refugee status, but rather in the same city as his brother, so as to be able to live with him. He isn’t sure whether it’s legal or not. I ask him whether he notified anyone, he said he was already allowed to stay at his mother in Berlin, but still had to register at the city’s Senate, should he inform anyone else? I don’t know, I think not, if he was let go from the shelter he initially was in, he’s free to travel to other cities as far as I know. I’m not sure about it all, but he’s on his way to a registration office anyway, so I suppose he’s not doing anything illegal.
We have four hours to go until he arrives, his brother will be waiting for him at the station. He sees I have an Arabic course book on the table. He smiles and asks me why I learn it. I tell him about my engagement towards the other Syrians arriving every day in Berlin. He remarks: “You are very kind. I noticed that all the people who work in Human Rights are very friendly”. I laugh and am about to say that I don’t work in Human Rights, before realizing that indeed, these past months have been revolving around providing very basic help to fellow human beings in need. For me as well as for thousands of other people of good will volunteering across the country, none of this was planned. We were all busy getting on with our lives, and it just happened so: once we found out about the conditions in which the refugees were handled on our shores, we were just unable to turn a blind eye.
For the time being, I sit with my new friend and share my thermos of tea with him. In return, he’s only too happy to teach me Arabic, and we share an agreeable time chatting together. At some point, he tells me, speaking about xenophobic people: “Sometimes I understand why they fear us. They are good Arabs and bad Arabs”. I tell him that it is exactly the same in Europe, there are good Europeans and bad Europeans, just like anywhere else in the world. After an hour, I remark he’s tired, and he asks if it’s ok if he sleeps a bit. I tell him I’ll wake him up nearer to his stop. Later, as we drive through Frankfurt, I show him the skyscrapers. “That’s one of the financial centers of Europe”, I tell him. “Is that so?” he looks at this display of power, very pensively. I think we both have in mind that Europe could do so much better.
When we reach his station, we shake hands and he tells me: “Thanks, I’ll see you around!”. I doubt he will but say yes anyway. As he gets off the train, I see him being greeted by his brother. I travel further, so I look from the window as my train gets in motion again. The last I see of him is that beautiful and long embrace of two brothers on the platform.