Schönefeld, November 6th, 2015

Today I break my own rule of not going to Schönefeld before work, but my fellow volunteers are all exhausted and I feel I ought to be there. Besides, I feel useless helping only two days out of seven in a week. The train is on time, which is perfect  for me, I can stay for two hours before work.
When I arrive, two volunteers I don’t know are already here. Soon, my colleagues arrive. The atmosphere is gloomy. Apparently, this week, everything went wrong. Not on the refugees’ side, but on an organizational level. What I feared would happen is slowly beginning to creep in – helpers, exhausted, are on the edge, and aren’t helped by the “officials” who render our work difficult by deciding new useless rules each passing day. Every time I come, the baby changing table is in another corner, surrounded by red and white rubber. This is a rectangular place so I ask myself what is the use of switching places so often.
I heard from my friends working here during the week that the officials had been particularly nasty. Perhaps it’s because I had time to take a breath since Sunday, but today’s one look fine to me at first.

It lasts for about fifteen minutes, during which three of us spread soft cheese on toasts. It’s going on easy, we get along very well. Then a paramedic barges in, telling us she’ll help. I soon find myself in such a narrow corner of the table that I can’t spread properly. I don’t say anything because she’s here to help. A moment later, she leans in front of me, blocking me the entire way to the table, to reach a box where we put the sandwiches. I observe that it’s not going to work like that, and am about to suggest that instead, she passes the sandwich behind me so as to not disturb our little sandwich assembly-line. I don’t have time, as she snaps: “Well if you prefer I won’t help you at all!”. Since she’s rather slowing us down I have to bite my tongue hard not to tell her to bugger off, fortunately my co-volunteers are more diplomatic and the crisis dies at quick as it appeared as we keep on making sandwiches.

Once the sandwiches are ready, I go over to an interpreter, whom I talked to before and with whom I never had any issues. I know there have been tensions between volunteers and interpreters this week and I want to calm things down. I ask him to make sure people get a chance to grab a sandwich before they board on the buses. We’ve been having a recurring issue about that with them, because they are themselves urged to proceed as quick as possible. That means that most of the people arriving first, don’t get a chance to have a drink or something to eat as they’re ushered towards the buses. Others have to wait up to an hour in the room until buses come and pick them up. Since they have been traveling for more than ten hours in the train, with no food or drink, we are trying our best to make sure the people leave the station with a full stomach.

8:10. The people start flowing in. Ignoring our conversation, the interpreter urges people towards the waiting lines. I ask him once again to clearly announce that people are allowed to grab a sandwich before they queue. In the meantime, as I see he doesn’t, I grab piles of sandwiches and run up and down the forming line to provide people with food. Everyone seems happy to get something to eat, which reassures me as I thought I was maybe being over-zealous. A few moments later, the same interpreter comes up to me and tells me I’m slowing down the process. I can’t take it anymore and I snap at him: “Can’t you just let people grab something first! They are hungry for God’s sake!”. I’m about to cry and he notices it, seems to be sorry. He wants to say something but I know that if I stay one moment more I’m going to break down so I just walk away. As I grab more sandwiches, and start to feel desperate facing the continuous flow of people, I notice that now a line is forming in front of our food stand. The interpreter had told people they could help themselves. Things can now continue on a bit quieter. People are now queuing at the three food stands. I give away a couple of more sandwiches and decide to grab some city maps in Arabic that another volunteer picked up at a train station so people would know how to go from point A to point B throughout the city.

As I walk along the queuing line and give away the maps, I suddenly feel like a tour guide as I open map after map to indicate with my ballpoint pen “we are here now”, and “here there is a camp” [at this point I draw a little tent]. People want to know where is the main station. I point it out and draw a little train and an arrow on that station. Soon, an official comes up to me. “What exactly are you doing…?” she asks. I explain to her that those were maps designed by the BVG (Berlin public transport’s services) to help refugees finding their way through the city. I’m wondering whether I’m doing something wrong but once she sees the map she just smiles and walk away. My experience as a tour guide is cut short when I reach a group of Afghans who roll their eyes in disbelief when they see the map isn’t in Farsi. They look at me reproachfully until they notice it’s also in English and agree to grab a map.

A lot of people don’t want to stay in Germany. They ask me whether they still have to go to the camp. I explain that it’s compulsory to take those buses first.

It’s time again to be an ambulant WiFi provider, and I walk from group to group. I stop by a family, where a 4 year old girl just got a small board and a chalk from one of the volunteers. She comes from Damascus, so I write “Welcome” in Arabic on the board. It is my first attempt to write in the language to a native speaker and she rewards me with a huge smile. All the family gathers around the board and laugh, which was my goal. I give them the codes to use my phone’s WiFi and soon they can reach their loved ones either in Syria or already in Germany. This family is composed of two brothers are traveling with their wives and children. I had been asking myself for quite some time whether I’ll ever see one of the refugees who came with their pets, and at this moment I realize that this family came with two yellow and green budgies. I look at the kids, they’re all wearing rescue hats given on the Greek Islands. I can’t believe these people found it in their heart to bring along a bird’s cage all the way. I can’t fathom either who on Earth these two birds are still alive, but they seem well.

Two budgies from Damascus made it to Berlin today, November 6th, 2015 © Emmanuelle Chaze

Past my first happy impression, I suddenly fear that German authorities won’t allow the birds to remain in whatever camp this family will end up in. I just hope no one will notice them. As I talk to one brother, the second one comes over to ask me to show him something on the map. He doesn’t know my name yet, so he comes over and asks “Sister?”, and all of a sudden I feel I have become one of them. I’m no longer a miss or a madam, and even as he was simply asking something the way he always does at home, I feel I have positively crossed a cultural line.

Now a woman comes over, she looks very young. She asks me whether I can help the man next to her to reach his brother whom he has been separated from at the border. The said brother is now in Frankfurt. I give my phone to him because his doesn’t work, but the brother doesn’t pick up. In the meantime, I talk to the woman and she tells me she came here with her 6 year old and her 17 year old daughters. I nod as I listen but suddenly realize the woman must then be much older than she looked. We joke around as I tell her she must be lying and be her daughter’s sister. It’s another one of this blessed moments where, despite everything that surrounds us, we are just here, she and I, woman to woman. I tell her a few words in Arabic, getting more comfortable even if I make mistakes. Her younger daughter comes over and I stroke her cheek. Back in August, I had tried to keep some distance, out of respect for the families. Now whenever I get a chance to show a mark of affection I don’t hesitate long before giving it. This time, my new friend smiles and strokes my cheek back. The mother asks me whether I have children. I show her around: “These are plenty!”. She laughs and tells me she also has a 17 year old son but that they have also been separated at the border and “dispatched” in other cities. Fortunately she’s in touch with him and she is fluent in English so I’m sure they’ll soon be reunited.

She’s beginning to be cold and asks me whether we have gloves. Today was the day I brought all of my childhood’s wollen hats and gloves so I’m only too happy to fetch them. I distribute them to the family with the birds as well. Upon finding out they were mine, the woman first categorically refuses to take them. I have to insist a dozen times telling her I wouldn’t wear them again anyway in order for her to accept. We’re in each others arms at this stage and we exchange a long hug.

It’s time for me to go, she says she hopes to come back to Berlin after having fetched her son, and that she’d love to stay in touch. I give her my number and, because I’m still answering questions around, forget to ask hers before I leave. Despite meeting hundreds of people each week-end, they aren’t just phantom faces we see once and never hear from again: I do think about them wondering where they are now, so as I make my way to work I hope she, as well as others from other trains, will get in touch soon to tell me they’re alright.


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