The Longest Day, Schönefeld, Spandau, December 11th, 2015

There are things I would like to do, like going to sleep just know, and things I need to do, like writing this because it’s the only way to let the steam off a little bit after such a day.
Where am I today? Maybe it will be easier to just narrate it hour by hour.

I get up. A friend of mine is joining us today for the first time. We meet in the train. I think we’re both struggling to keep our eyes open. But we’re talking so that’s fine.

Schönefeld. We have 40 minutes to prepare the sandwiches. “Super Suze” is already all action, spreading cheese on the bread. I was there yesterday but somehow still feel out of place as I haven’t been here last week-end. Same place, same people, yet each time a bit different. I keep on asking Suze how many sandwiches she thinks we should do, whether we should make jam as well as cheese ones. I’ve been doing that for months now, I don’t even know why I ask, I just feel like my energy level is so low that I can only function if someone tells me exactly what to do. I feel very dizzy from the lack of sleep. Now all my friends are warning me that I’m heading for another burn out if I don’t get to sleep. Message received. Only it’s hard to stay away, even for one day, because trains keep on arriving. And this chaos never stops. As we’re making sandwiches, I put some music on. A few minutes later, the army unit arrives, all the soldiers gather around the coffee thermos and share a cuppa while putting their own music so loud we don’t hear ours anymore. They’re a new unit arrived this week, we don’t know them and don’t really feel like making friends just now. Some of them put a scarf on their faces, so that the only thing we see from them are their eyes. I wonder who they are afraid of. Fortunately, our favourite head of operations is here today.

First clash. The sandwiches are ready, the train hasn’t arrived yet. I see the soldiers helping themselves to cereal bars and sandwiches. I find that revolting that they actually don’t even ask beforehand, and what’s worse, have no shame in eating food paid with the donations we receive. I go over and ask them not so diplomatically if they would please at least wait till the last refugee left before helping themselves. I say that I’m also hungry in the morning, and that’s why I have breakfast at home or after the shift, and not at the station on food destined to exhausted people escaping war. It all comes out wrong and confused but they hear me. Only it doesn’t stop them from picking up “our” food. The firemen arrive as well. They have a sweet tooth, they rather have biscuits. It’s infuriating. Even one of the nicest interpreters take a sandwich. I give out to him, he’s really shocked and I apologize it fell on him. He just followed what all the others were doing. I’m shivering and dizzy from the lack of sleep, and deeply annoyed. We talk about that self-service issue between us volunteers and make the decision to talk about it during the debriefing. We are the only ones not getting paid to wake up when most people are still asleep and it’s not to put butter on soldier’s toasts. I’ll attend the meeting, so I’m already trying to form a coherent and diplomatic sentence in German.

Second clash. They’re here. 300 people, many many children. I go grab a pack of sandwiches to offer them to single men, who are always whisked away within minutes without having a lot of time to get food and drinks. The responsible of the supplies provided by the LaGeSo, who fell out with all of us volunteers one after the other, sneers at me and rolls his eyes when he sees I take the pack. He’s laughing at me with the soldiers, so I can’t help but asking “Do you have a problem with that?” Not so brave anymore now, he doesn’t know what to say so he just turns to a soldier and says “She asks if I have a problem”. “Yes, she does ask”, I continue “do you have a problem with me interacting with people unlike you?”. I’m really annoyed now but refugees are coming our way and I don’t want to stress them out any further. They don’t trust the officials but they trust me, so I don’t want to jinx that just because of some idiot. Up until now I avoided naming and shaming but there isn’t anyone who actually still is on good terms with him so I don’t think I care anymore.

When the food distribution is finished, we start to give away WiFi from our phones. We’re both using our last bits of data. I need to contact the Freifunkers again to see what’s happening on that front. I’ll do that later. People don’t look as bad as we’ve already seen them, clothes-wise. So it gives us more time to interact with them and answer their questions. Sweden, Holland. What to say? Yes, the borders are closed. But yes, as long as you’re not registered…A man asks me what I think he should do. Germany? Berlin even? Or any other city, country? Apart from “not being Syrian right now” I can’t think of any easy option. And I don’t want to take the responsibility of making things worse. So I just tell him the truth about the chaos that awaits him in Berlin. That much I know, and at least he knows what he’s getting into. I don’t know how I end up in the children’s corner but they now have a table and some chairs, as well as paper and pencils to draw as they wait for the buses. A grab some chalks and begin to draw on the ground, at first the kids look but aren’t convinced. One of these days, it doesn’t matter. I keep drawing so little by little some of them come as well. As long as it takes their mind off from that chaos I’m happy. A boy draws a house, I trace a ground below it. I draw a little boy, show him it’s him. He draws a girl, it’s me apparently.

I give out city maps to the people who will take buses bringing them to shelters in Berlin. As far as I know we’re allowed to give directions. And people are allowed to know their whereabouts. Hopefully that hasn’t changed. A woman comes up to me and starts by apologizing “Excuse me miss, I know it’s not your job to answer my question, but my son is in Sweden, do you know if I have any chance to get there?”. I answer: “I’m not paid to be here, so this is not my job, hence I can answer questions, don’t worry about that”. We laugh, and I tell her the truth about Sweden having closed the borders for the time being. She asks me if it’s really bad. I say I hope it’s not like what I hear about the Balkan borders. She tells me she’s anyway very happy to be here already and that German people are awesome. I’m still French so I take it for my fellow volunteers, who taught me that indeed, there were plenty of amazing people in Berlin and in this country which isn’t mine either, and which took me a long time to figure. We talk for a while as I explain to her that things are ever changing in each country so that nothing is certain anymore. I don’t want to convey false information but I want her to know why I’m not telling her a proper “yes” or “no”. Other people want to go to France, and from there to Britain. To my shame, I have to tell them that I strongly advise against heading for my own country, where the infrastructures for refugees are near to non-existent compared to what could logistically and economically be done. They’re not deterred: they just want to reach Calais to go to Britain. I tell them that’s even a worse idea. Anyone who knows about Calais knows why it is called a jungle. And I’m not even sure animals in the jungle are living in worse conditions than Calais’ refugees do. Again, I advise against it for the time being. Because I’m French, they seem to believe me. I hope they won’t attempt to go, for their own sake, and so they’ll never find out about the inaction of my own government.

9:30 am
The last bus departs. It’s time for the debriefing. I’m rehearsing my few remarks in German with Martina, another “core” volunteer. We’re about fifteen people in the room, most of them in uniforms. The head of operations asks for the official figures. We welcomed about 300 people. He then asks whether anyone has remarks. The head of the firemen asks why it is so slow to put people in buses. A million cynical answers run in my mind but fortunately one of the interpreter, whose German and diplomatic skills is way more developed than mine, simply explains to him that people arriving are actually tired and need some time to eat, drink, realize where they are, etc. I cease to be annoyed when I realize the fireman actually listens to these points and takes good note. Apparently it just hadn’t crossed his mind. Now that it has I hope it will stay as well.

The head of operations asks whether there are any other remarks, or advices. You bet. I ask to talk. My heart sinks as he says yes. I try to talk in an even voice but I feel I’m shivering from fear of being interrupted and told to shut up. But no, I’m able to make my point. I say that we volunteers understand that we all come early in the morning and that all of the officials might be hungry when they arrived. But we are also deeply perplexed by the behaviour of both the army and the firemen (yes, I named and shamed, that was that kind of day), who seemed to believe we were running some kind of self-service restaurant, paid for by the donations we spend time to collect. Then I ask if it’s true that there is no train on Sunday because I fear the backlash and I’m not so brave after all. I raise my head again, every other official keeping theirs down, apart from the police who nods approvingly. The head of operations, to my surprise, comes back to my first point. He fully backs me up, going even further, saying with harsher words what I first formulated. He talks about responsibility to behave and that this image given by the officials isn’t really what they should want to be giving, and he calls for more discernment, also stating that he’s really annoyed when all that seems to matter to them is whether the coffee is ready, and not what remains to be done. Right now I’d like to give him a high five. Of course I can’t. The blame sinks in, and the head of firemen is the first to reply. He begins by apologizing on the firemen’s behalf and talk about it being a misunderstanding as they probably didn’t know they were doing wrong. I tell him it seems pretty obvious to me that we’re not preparing breakfast for firemen and soldiers when we come. He can’t but agree and suggest that we volunteers make sure to tell every person that the food is reserved to refugees as units tend to change from one week to another. I tell him that I have been regularly doing so to no avail. I would like to tell him that in my opinion it’s also simply a matter of good manners but don’t want to rub it in. He apologized again and the head of operations says he hopes such discussions won’t have a reason to be in the future. The meeting is over and I quickly go to the kitchen to count what’s left food-wise for tomorrow. I’m very emotional about what just happened and can’t quite believe we won that battle. And I’m sad we have to even have that kind of childish discussions.

10:00 am
Back in town. Now is time for more debriefing, before going to work. Today is the school’s Christmas Market and I can’t skip it. I’m only mildly interested in the event but happy to see “my” kids there. For the time being, I got a message from the Freifunker I wanted to contact. Good news: we were given the all clear by all people involved for the WiFi, and he got free routers for us. We’re just waiting for the Telekom to open our line and we’ll be able to provide the refugees with a decent mean to contact their loved ones.

2:00 pm – 6:30 pm
Spandau, School. In the teacher’s room I meet a colleague to whom I say I won’t be able to stay for the whole evening, she remarks that I’ve got “no excuse because the event was noted in the calendar since August”. Good I started school later on this year. I don’t even see why she’s being petty since we don’t even interact with each other. Or maybe I just badly need sleep. Anyway, I go over to the kids from my two “Welcome classes”. We’re setting up some tables, cutting the many cakes. Each child brought a speciality from his/her own country. Our stand is – obviously – the best of the market. And we’re the only ones inside, which doesn’t go amiss as it’s getting cold outside. We take some pictures together, joke around, they’re really easy to talk to. Before I worked with them I was a bit anxious about having classes full of teenagers but they’re really adorable. I will miss them an awful lot when my contract will end.

7:00 pm
On the way to meet a friend at the opera. A volunteer announces she received a huge amount of donations from a shop – mostly for babies. She’d like to know who could come pick it up with a car. I tell her I’ll try and organize that tomorrow. It’s relieving to know that people are still working on collecting stuff. When I reach the opera, I’m dizzy with tiredness but so happy to meet my friend. We haven’t seen each other in three years so I wasn’t going to call that off. But he knows about my involvement with refugees so we talk about it and are in for a quiet night anyway. For the time being, I just want to enjoy listening to La Bohême. The stage production is amazing, we have the feeling we’re in Paris, in a fairy tale. It’s very Christmassy as well. I’m not totally there because I think of the day but midway through I manage to let go off refugees. During the intermission, my friend and I are briefly separated and when I find him back, he’s chatting to a tall man. The man barely speaks English and my Canadian friend is at a loss to help him. The man seems very shy, he apparently needs to find back the friend he came here with. I curse myself for thinking so, and writing so, but he looks like a Syrian. As I offer my phone for him to call his friend, I see that everything is written in Arabic on his phone. I ask him “Arabi?”. “Yes, I’m Syrian, do you speak Arabic?” he says in Arabic, full of hope. “Still not! But you’re with the right person”, I smile. He calls his friend, and a nice German woman comes a minute later. As we introduce ourselves, it appears that she volunteers at the LaGeSo, and took a dozen refugees out to the opera tonight on free tickets. I can now talk with the man through the interpreter who came along. He arrived in Berlin four months ago. The volunteer asks me where I volunteer, I say Schönefeld. “Hey, you’re “Train of Hope!””, she says. “Yes, was in LaGeSo before, same battle, different field!” I reply. We high five each other as we laugh and the Syrian man looks at us, wondering what’s happening. He looks relieved knowing I’m a volunteer too.  His German friend invites me to come and party with them afterwards. I would if I could but I can barely keep my eyes open no matter how beautiful Mimi and Rodolfo sing on stage. We decide to keep in touch nonetheless, to see if we can solve other refugee-related issues together. As we part, my Canadian friend says “That was great!”, speaking of the encounter. “It just never stops”, I sigh. But I’m happy I met them anyway.

11:00 pm
I’m in the U-Bahn heading home. My eyes are burning and crying because of the lack of sleep. I look worse for wear and get weird looks from people around. I suppose I look a bit desperate but it’s Friday evening so I probably just blend in with party-goers. As I reach home, I answer to the Freifunker and check with the others from the organization team in Schönefeld what is needed, and who is coming tomorrow. And I start writing this, because my head is still buzzing and it won’t stop until I have put it into words.

1:00 am
Sleep. At last. I feel like I don’t want to wake up anytime before Monday morning.

The day after

5:30 am
I’m exhausted, but wake up anyway, out of habit. Only to see that the head of operations has texted me. He just got the news that only 16 – sixteen, sechzehn, seize – people are in this morning’s train. A train specially chartered from Austria to Berlin. In a panic, I text the other volunteers, who are obviously skeptical about the info. Once they know, I want to sleep again. Only I think about the waste of time and money such a travel incurs. Apparently, the Senate knew it as early as yesterday 8pm. But they saw fit not to inform us.   

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