Tempelhof and the streets of Berlin, November 1st, 2015

Firts time in about ten days that I’m back to Schönefeld. 500 people are coming today. Many volunteers are here, so much so that I feel useless at my usual spot. They ask me what they can do, I give them tips, hope not to sound too bossy in doing so and thank them for being here. At the beginning we were just two or three, sometimes really struggling. Now I have a little army of volunteers waiting in line. But it is Sunday, and Sundays are easier compared to weekdays. Five soldiers help us prepare the sandwiches, as many helpers. Within half an hour, we have 300 sandwiches ready.
People begin to arrive. Sadly, we don’t have enough food. We use up all the bread we had kept for tomorrow. Still, this doesn’t feed everyone.

After the food distribution comes the usual Hotspot-time: Internet sharing. Today it so happens that instead of talking to families I’m with single travelers. Soon, my smartphone can’t cope anymore. Two other volunteers agree to share their Internet connection. Some are unsure about it, I think to myself that we have to work on that, too.

I meet Khaled, a man from Damascus, in his 60ies, who despite having repeatedly told everyone at the shelter he was in in Austria, that his wife and children were in a shelter in Munich, has been brought to Berlin. Now he wants to go back to Munich. Another nonsensical story in all this chaos.
A man keeps on passing me his phone. His name is Khalid, he’s Syrian and comes from the border with Iraq. His niece lives in Münster, she wants me to put him in a taxi from Berlin to there. While ten people are asking me a billion questions, I try to explain her that it’s not a good idea and that I will see if he can take a bus to Münster instead.

Another woman borrowing my Internet is asking me a lot of things about Germany – do I think it is better than Finland? What about Sweden? Are German people nice? I don’t know what to say. She’s a lawyer, came here with her 6 children. She asks me whether I think she’ll find a job here. “I’ve got a PhD you know!”, she tells me. What should I say? Tell her the truth? I still have a faint hope since she’s fluent in English as well as in Arabic. Maybe she could find a position in the Lageso?

With these “special cases” in mind, I ask one of the officials from the said Lageso if I can travel along in a bus to Tempelhof. There is enough place in the last bus, I get in with another volunteer.
Khaled thanks me ten times for accompanying him. I must have been called an angel as many times today, each time I feel more awkward as it’s the worst welcome Europe is capable of providing.
Half an hour later, we enter Tempelhof. I used to run on the field, to fly my kite and to cycle there. Now it seems we are entering a whole different world. As we drive by the fence with the field, people look bewildered and some wave at the buses. I can see in their eyes that some of them have never seen “a refugee”. It just occurs to me that I’m not sure to have my passport with me so I quickly check.

On our way to Tempelhof shelter, 1.11.2015

Khaled asks me a bit about Berlin, if it’s a nice city. Even though he doesn’t want to stay, he’s curious about it. He asks me about the shelter. I tell him a bit of German history, which makes him laugh. I also tell him that people are kept in warehouses while the whole building (with its solid walls) is kept empty.

Arrival in Tempelhof, 1.11.2015

There are no more translators in the buses. Me and my co-volunteer are translating the driver’s instructions into English and Khaled passes it on into Arabic. The Afghans don’t understand, no one can speak Farsi with them today.

We park in front of a hangar. All the people are asked to wait in two lines. Those who want to stay in Berlin, and the others. The others are those who want to go elsewhere. Dortmund, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, any place where they have a relative. Some others have family already waiting for them in Sweden or Denmark. Out of 200 hundred people, about 150 decide not to stay in Berlin. That doesn’t mean that they have any clue as to how to reach their destination, but this doesn’t seem to concern Tempelhof helpers and security staff. Fifteen minutes later, we are walked out of the shelter. I didn’t skip any step, no information was given to the refugees, they are simply let go. In the streets. Without a map.

In front of Tempelhof shelter, 1.11.2015

Beatrice, the other volunteer, and I, look at each other. We had initially told six people we would bring them to the bus station. The security told us that for all they cared we could take along as many people as we wanted. These people won’t be registered nor given any food or bed since they aren’t planning on staying in tow. We end up in the streets, with Khaled, and Whalid, whose niece keeps on calling me every ten minutes to make sure I take care of him. We’re followed by 70 newcomers, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and a very old Yemenite couple with their five children. How can you tell people that you hadn’t planned to help them? It’s impossible, so we just managed, dragging our 70 human beings carrying their lives in plastic bags, their kids on their shoulders and their crying infants, barely dressed, on their chest. I wish I was inventing this part because it sounds so unreal. As we walk towards the Platz der Luftbrücke, some Berliners pass by and look at us with wide eyes. Sometimes, I feel I have to tell them “It’s ok don’t worry”, because they look so frightened.

People being let go off the streets, Tempelhof, 1.11.2015

When we get into the subway, it’s totally chaotic. They don’t wear armbands so I’m not sure whether they can travel for free. Beatrice and I buy maybe 20 or 30 tickets. We quickly give up, all the refugees hand us 100 or even 500€ banknotes. That’s all they have, and they completely trust us with it. We board on the next subway, for one stop. I make a sign to the train driver who nicely keeps the doors open longer for us. In the subway, it’s another story.


On the way out of Tempelhof, 1.11.2015

Elderly German people look totally panicked. and disgusted, be it by the people or by the smell. The smell of people on the roads for weeks. To me it is the smell of shame, Europe’s shame. I can’t help but tell one of the disgusted woman “Don’t worry, they won’t bite if you stop looking”. We get off two stops afterwards, it’s another adventure to reach the S-Bahn platform. I almost took the wrong exit, we have to turn around, they all laugh at me when I make my U-Turn and apologize, and I feel so embarrassed but they still call me sweet names and we all laugh together. They know that as bad as it is now, at least they don’t have bombs falling on their heads.

On the way out of Tempelhof, 1.11.2015

A Syrian doctor helps Beatrice and I to give people directions. He’s the only one speaking German. At first, he was miffed that I always replied to him in English, until he understood I was doing so so the other two Arabic-speaking people having some notions of English could also understand. He’s very helpful indeed, the two of us can hardly manage. The old Yemenite couple look like a thousand years old. We enter a carriage in a train, again, weird looks from passengers, but this time also people showing sympathy. I’m usually shy but since there is no other way I shout to the crowd that we’ll stay here for about ten stations. My nice helpers translate it into Arabic. The Yemenite couple sits on the floor. Khaled watches out for me, he saw I was very emotional and every time I’m on the verge to cry he gives me a fatherly look. I thank him silently. When finally a sitting place is free I take the Yemenite woman in my arms, she lets herself being carried, and I sit her there. Luckily, a second place is freed and I take her husband as well. They could be my great-grand-parents, yet they have children who could be mine. The woman’s face bares old blue tattoos, I wish we had time to discuss her culture, to exchange words other than those dictated by the urgency of the situation.

Twenty minutes later, we reach the station. It’s another adventurous walk with the crowd until we reach the bus station. The kids are exhausted. We organize the people per destination. Those for Dortmund, those for Frankfurt, those for Sweden (they’ll have to do with Kiel or Hamburg for now), those for Holland. Beatrice and I are the only ones able to buy tickets, I get in first and explain the situation to one of the ticket sellers. They are super helpful, and empathize greatly with us. Since they have 5 sellers, they decide to close a line to the public and keep it open just for us. One by one, we buy the tickets. Some people want to pay with dollars, there is no exchange office and they’re stuck with foreign money and no means to go further. Both Beatrice and I buy tickets when there is no other possibility. Fortunately we find a solution for most of the people. The down side: no child under 4 is allowed to travel without…a baby seat. The ticket seller is adamant he can’t sell us tickets “if the people didn’t bring a baby car seat with them”. I ask him whether he realizes these people almost drowned on dinghies at sea in order to reach Europe. Does he really think their main worry was a car seat? The seller is sorry, but the rules are the rules. When I explain that to refugees, they look at me in total disbelief. I feel the need to apologize again, on behalf of good sense.

Yemenite children in the S-Bahn, Berlin, 1.11.2015

We need to find a solution to drive the Yemenite family to Erfurt, where they have a relative. Only they can’t travel with this company which forbids children without baby car seats on board. Another ticket seller took over, he leans over and tells me to go to their direct concurrent, where we won’t be asked to bring our own baby seat. Perfect, Beatrice will go there while I keep on buying places for Hamburg, Kiel, etc. But five minutes later, she comes up to me. “We have a problem”, she says. “Oh, yet again?”, why am I not surprised…She keeps on “The Yemenite woman doesn’t want to follow me, she only wants you”. People who come to Europe don’t have anyone to trust. They do so blindly if they see someone behaving nicely towards them but they are still very much afraid of people they don’t know. I have to come over and I take Beatrice by the arm in a friendly way to show the Yemenite woman she can trust her too. I tell her with signs to follow her. She ends up by agreeing, that’s 7 people sorted and on their way to Erfurt. Khaled has long got his ticket to join his family back to Munich, but since his bus departs in an hour he does his utmost to help us out.

Everyone keeps on asking me where they can buy SIM cards. I have to tell people off. One thing at a time. But we all get along and they understand we’re under pressure. Two hours later, nearly 50 people are either provided with a ticket or already gone. It’s time for Khaled to go. He thanks me so many times, while I keep on explaining that I’m only a human being just like any of them. It makes me feel awkward to be thanked so often. I know there is always a selfish dimension to helping other and of course it makes me feel good, but I never feel I deserve to be thanked for providing only the most basic needs. Not when people arrive in such a mess.

Beatrice and I haven’t drunk anything since the morning. We’ve both reached our limits. Khaled gives us both a cereal bar that we gave him in the morning when the train arrived in Schönefeld. He says we look like we need it. This is all so absurd. We bite in, but feel bad as soon as we do so, as we notice hungry babies two steps away. The rest of the bars is quickly given to the families.

We’re now left with 15 people. 10 of them, five adults and five children want to go to Rostock. Same as with the Yemenite family, they aren’t allowed to board on a bus without baby seats. As it’s getting late, we decide to bring them to the main station, where they will be able to travel to Rostock. One of them was actually just a Syrian passer-by, who stopped, having heard people talking in Arabic. He kindly accepts to come with us, which is good as he’s the only English-speaker who can translate what I say into Arabic. Beatrice brings another family into an emergency shelter, has they failed to get a bus ticket (no baby seat…) for tonight. We go our own ways, wish each other good luck, and off we are on the roads again.

An hour later, at Berlin main station, our little procession wanders through the escalators. The children find it very funny. One little girl keeps on crying, she is so very tired. Another one holds my hand firmly. A baby girl giggles every time I look at her. The two boys follow very patiently. Another half hour later, my 4 adults and 5 children are provided with train tickets to Rostock. The Syrian helper tells them to wait the following train once we bring them on the platform. It’s time to say goodbye. I shake hands with the men (I hugged Khaled earlier on and realized it wasn’t culturally the thing to do, so I restrain myself, although I would like to take them all in my arms), the women take me in their arms in long embraces. I hug the kids very strong and wish them all good luck.
I leave them there, I can’t feel reassured about that, but the Syrian helper drags me away. “You have done all you could, and you need to stay strong. Please don’t cry now!”. He saw I was about to. I stay strong a little bit longer. Then I come home and my only way to try and make sense of it all is to write these lines, wondering when this will ever get better.


6 thoughts on “Tempelhof and the streets of Berlin, November 1st, 2015

  1. While reading this i feel like crying myself i'm just controlling it, i don't know exactly how does it feel to be in that situation as you, but i just want to say you are so brave helping others is not easy the pressure and all the demands but then in my opinion you've done everything that you can and i know that they are thankful and they will never forget all the things that you've done for them. I just hope I have the same courage as you in helping other people so that i can contribute to this situation that we have right now.


  2. Thank you very much for your kind words. I didn't know either before I started, whether I'll have enough strength to do what I'm doing right now. I still don't know, but I do it because there is no other choice. I don't want a medal for it, I just really deeply believe that we owe it to our world and to future generations to show humanity to people coming to us. Especially when we have the means, but make bad use of it, to welcome them here. I can't look the other way.
    If you feel touched by such testimonies I'm sure you will have the strength to do something out there – of course it's not an easy thing, but the reward you get by getting to know amazing people, both helpers and refugees, is worth all the hardship.
    Thanks again for taking the time to read it.


  3. You were right seeing them happy is the best reward ever.. 🙂 I really admire you for what you've done i know, and i believe that this will inspire and touch the heart of more people the same way that it touches mine.
    Thank you so much for what you've said i hope i can do more.


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