Schönefeld: Za’atar day, December 17th, 2015

Every day, my Arabic speaking kids at school ask me which new Arabic word I learned. Today, it’s Za’atar (زَعْتَر) Za’atar is a mixture of spices, mainly thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and marjoram. One of the interpreters bought a jar full of this, added to olive oil. He tells us that people like to put it on the bread, and also on top of the cream cheese we’re spreading on the sandwiches. As he explains it to me, a soldier listens to us. He’s also trying to speak Arabic now. The interpreter is very diplomatic, you can see he’s annoyed at us as we can’t pronounce the Ayin letter and roll the “r” at the end of Za’atar, but he doesn’t say anything. One of the Iranian interpreters comes forward and I’m relieved when he says “Avishan” (“oregano”) to describe the mixed spices. That’s much easier to pronounce. The soldier is still working on his Arabic: that same man was asking me when we met if I was doing it in order to earn my place in Heaven. Since that day, he really changed his mind about the whole refugees crisis. About the people who come to us as well. He became one of our favourite soldiers to work with, while at first we couldn’t stand any of them.

Trains still arrive each day, but the number of people is decreasing. We’re welcoming between 200 and 300 people every day. Except last Saturday, where only 16 people arrived. We found out about that at 5 am on the said day. It meant that a special train was affected for just that amount of people, instead of sending these people to Berlin through regular trains. That also means that a full unit of each of the following: local police, national police, fire brigade, paramedics and interpreters, each comprising a minimum of ten members, was mobilized this day. Needless to say that this lot of newcomers must have been surprised by such an infrastructure deployed for them. Such an event is an isolated case (as far as we know), but it shows nonetheless the mishaps of an ever-chaotic governmental attempt to regulate the arrivals of refugees in Germany.

This morning, 16 is but a distant memory. We’re expecting about 300 people today. Five soldiers and a volunteer are preparing the sandwiches, they’re almost done. We have some bread left to try the Za’atar today, but most of our sandwiches will be with cheese. The spice will have to wait today. I go to the clothes rooms in order to sort out some stuff, but another volunteer is there. I don’t know her, but she seems to know the place well. Different shifts. She has been very efficient, all the shelves are full with donations newly arrived. So much so that when I grab some jumpers from a plastic bag to put them on the appropriate shelf, I realize that I have to forget about it. One more jumper and the whole lot will fall over. I feel useless, so I make my way to the children’s corner instead. One of the soldiers has specifically asked to be positioned there, he has decorated a table with sweets and toys, and is very particular about it. A volunteer comes over with three more teddy bears, I tell her to place them on the table. The soldiers says he prefers not to, because otherwise there will be too many of them. We don’t argue, but we debate the matter for like, five minutes, and I try very hard not to laugh as he doesn’t notice I’m giving him the runaround. He’s really passionate about those three teddys disturbing his carefully organized table, so we put them on another one. “Problem” solved.

Awaiting the train of hope, December 17th, 2015 © E Chaze

The volunteer who came with the teddies usually works in shelters, but she explains that she wanted to see how it worked here. She has two kids, volunteers in a children’s point in one of the shelters, and still has time to be here. Just like hundreds of Berliners without whom this situation would be even ten times worse. Each day passing, I think more about how we will remember those months in a few years from now. And how each European government will justify its action or lack thereof. I heard that Denmark wanted to confiscate refugees’ jewels upon their arrivals, I hope this is just a crazy rumor. Last time something like that happened in Europe is still well documented in history books. Maybe they aren’t open and read anymore.

I can’t stay very long today as I’m teaching later on. Suse, another volunteer, also has to go an hour after the train arrival. As we find out that the train is delayed by 20 minutes, we start to grumble. “It’s not good! I have the feeling I’m not doing anything when I don’t stay long!” she says. Knowing she’s coming almost everyday between 6 and 7 am. Still, I know what she means. We’re used to stay with the newcomers until the last of them gets on the last bus. It’s a weird feeling, to leave when the hall is still buzzing and people are still sitting around.  When people arrive, we quickly notice we haven’t prepared enough sandwiches, and a volunteer goes in our kitchen to prepare some more. The dozen sandwiches we made with the Za’atar are welcomed by Syrian, Iraqis and Afghans alike. And apparently, we’re not pronouncing it all too bad, they manage to understand what we mean.

A family of six Iraqis arrive, towards the end of the sandwiches distribution. They’re facing the fruit boxes, where the soldier stands. I overhear: “Excuse me sir, do you know how I can go to another city from here?”. I can’t believe the guy just asked that to a soldier. No official is allowed to communicate that kind of information, as far as I know. The soldier can’t believe his ears either, so he asks the man to repeat the question. I barge in, gesticulating with my sandwich and shouting in an over-enthusiastic high-pitched voice: “hey! come over here, what’s your question!!!” The man understands and moves over. I ask him to wait until I’m done with the food sharing. The soldiers looks at me, I smile, he smiles, and looks away. Once the sharing over, I bring the people on the side and listen to their story. Their father came to Germany six years ago, only not in Berlin. They want to go live with him, understandably. I give them a map of Berlin and explain to them where they are brought and where is the station. Giving them directions, that’s all I can do. But the communication is difficult. As soon as the man addressing me understands he’s being brought to a camp, he interrupts: “No, we don’t want to go to camp, we want to go to that city!”. I tell him the passage to the camp is the procedure to follow. I also tell him that he is free to leave the camp should he chose to do so. He doesn’t listen, doesn’t let me explain it, he’s terrified at the idea of being put in a camp. I understand completely, but it’s terribly frustrating not being able to finish my sentences. If he listened to it entirely, he would calm down. I’m getting stressed out, because what usually takes me five to ten minutes to explain has already taken me twenty, and other people are waiting to ask me various things. They’re getting impatient too. I’m trying to explain that I have no interest whatsoever in lying to him, that I’m not an official and that I’m trying to do my best. He interrupts me, over and over. Even his wife tells him to shut up and listen. Luckily, an interpreter comes over, and repeats exactly what I said in Arabic. To no avail, the man likewise interrupts the interpreter before this one manages to finish his sentences. Half an hour later, the man has finally, reluctantly, agreed to let us talk. When I accept to talk to his father on the phone he calms down and seems to be a bit more trusting. Mission accomplished, but it was really nerve-wracking.

I only have time to help one other family, from Syria. They have Greek SIM cards, they ask me how to activate them. Not only have I no idea about where to go on Internet to activate the SIM card, but the leaflet is written in Greek, Bulgarian, Serb and Croatian. Luckily, the text messages received by the operator are, once out of five, written in English. They activated their cards but used up all their credit already. The interpreter from before tells them the shelter will give away free SIM cards when they’ll arrive. I had trusted him at first but now am a bit suspicious. I have been to Glockenturmstr. before, and there was barely enough food to give to the people. Now, apparently, they are giving away SIM cards. I hope it’s true, it would mean that things have improved. Or maybe it’s better if I don’t find out.

I let people use my own phone credit to download all their What’s App messages, but I have to go teaching so I make my way out of the hall. As I sit on the train, which isn’t due to depart just yet, a couple of English tourists and another single traveler are looking at the clothes room with curiosity. They wonder what they are, why some people sort out clothes in this unlikely place. I hesitate to tell them, I don’t want to intrude, but they really seem intrigued, so I come over and explain to them that we’re welcoming refugees daily and try to give them some essential supplies. The woman exclaims, enthusiastically: “awww, wicked!”. That’s an adjective I had never thought of using talking about this whole situation, but why not. Our action might as well be qualified as such. I leave them at that, and return to my seat. I have an hour ahead of me before my next encounter with refugees, this time within a classroom.

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