The sun is shining today in Berlin, and the light is beautiful outside. I meet with Beatrice, a fellow volunteer, we’re on our way to visit a couple I met a month ago, at a train arrival. The woman comes from Morocco, it facilitates our communication since we both talk in French. Her husband is from Syria. Together, they took the Balkan road to Germany as he was trying to escape the atrocities he witnessed in Aleppo. They have been living for a month now in an inflatable shelter originally planned for homeless people as a last resort emergency shelter. Officially, people shouldn’t spend more than 5 days at the very maximum in such shelters.
Upon arriving in a shelter, you never know what to expect. Sometimes the security is not very cooperative, sometimes people working there are just like you, doing their best to somehow improve the situation. The same goes for volunteers, it’s the Russian roulette, and all depends on a group dynamics.
For the time being, people are really nice. The head of security warns us; we won’t be allowed to get in as we aren’t registered as volunteers here. It’s fair enough, and there is an area where “visitors” can sit. My friends arrive, they’re really happy to see us and look in a much better state as before. Fatima explains to me that they are separated at nights, because men and women sleep in different parts of the…balloon. It’s so absurd to depict what it is. Again, I see the point in having two distinct areas, in terms of security, but don’t understand why couples and families can’t have their own space. They do in regular shelters. In that particular case, it means that Fatima and Hassan, who know absolutely no one else in Germany, have to be separated each evening, even if from the outside it’s obvious they will reunite in the morning. I had asked her before what she needed the most. Some medicine, because she had had an operation back in Morocco, and no doctor deemed her case urgent enough here. Some clothes, for her husband. Beatrice brought her a full bag of items. Normal clothes, things that she would like to wear. Fatima says she’ll distribute the things that won’t fit her to the other women in her dormitory.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Hassan a pair of shoes. We didn’t know he was wearing a pair three sizes smaller than his shoe size. It looks painful, I feel bad about having bypassed the shoes. Hassan speaks very little at first, because of the barrier language, so his wife explains us everything. Because of her operation, she needs special food. Basically, she’s forbidden to eat too many carbs. She tells me their meals here consist in potatoes, pasta and rice. She asks me whether it is possible for them to go to another camp, if I know how it works. I have no idea how the procedure works, we have to see to that. Their next appointment with the German authorities being next week, I offer to accompany them. Last time they went there, there was no Arabic translator as they were granted a provisional residence permit. So despite both having legal passports, they were registered with the mention “nationality unknown”. All the people they met at the shelter had the same mention on their temporary papers. I can only guess – and hope – that this proceeding is employed so as to give time to the relevant authorities to verify the authenticity of the documents.
After an hour, we get out of the shelter and the couple share the story of their journey. Turkey, the boat, the gasoline shortage in the middle of the Mediterranean, the long hours in the dark of the night, at sea, the big waves, the threats of the smugglers if they tried to use their phones. The rescue, at last. The Greek island. The ferry to Athens. The night walks in the mud through the Balkans. The same remarks on border guards. And Germany, finally. Hassan flicks through his phone, showing us pictures of their journey. The worst moments aren’t documented, naturally. Fatima presses him to show us pictures showing the places, rather than his selfies. We laugh and say we’re equally interested in both. Through pictures, we can finally communicate directly with Hassan. They both allow me to tell this story because they want the world to know. The following pictures are Hassan’s.
Hassan also wants to take a picture of us four together. In the dark, we take a selfie and now we’ve all been blinded by the flash. But they’re nice pictures, happy ones. The two of them look better than the selfies taken along the journey for certain. These pictures show us beginning to form a bond, between human beings, no matter where they come from, no matter their differences. They will one day show that we acted, and that in spite of the surrounding chaotic situation we stand together. For now, they are our happy memory of that moment.
Fatima and Hassan walk us back to the subway. We tell them Berlin isn’t usually that mild at that time of the year – they say some divine protection must bestow upon us this year so that refugees won’t freeze to death. I silently wish the said divine entity could send some of his protection above the Mediterranean as well. While we walk, Hassan thanks us again for having taken the time to visit them. He tells his wife to tell us we are his sisters, his family now, and that anyway he lost all of his back in Syria. Fatima doesn’t need to translate it entirely – his face bears the marks of one who has seen and lived through too many horrors. He begins to cry. We walk silently. After a while, I think: “He also needs shoes”, as if it was the most important thing just now. We say goodbye, hugging Fatima and shaking Hassan’s hand. I will see them again very soon: we will spend Christmas together, as families do.