Today my friend Mary, whom I met on Lesvos, and I, go for the first time to a shelter in Neukölln, ran by the Maltesers. It’s one of these days when despite a bit of sun and increasing temperatures you would rather just stay under the cover because of a never-ending succession of bad news. But Mary came all the way from Canada to Lesvos, followed the Balkan route, just to help refugees trying to reach Europe, so I feel stupid about being worried about things that aren’t a matter of life and death. She hasn’t stopped volunteering and I’m glad she’s here, so I can put an end to my volunteering hiatus with someone who fully understands how one can come back emotionally drained from Lesvos. That’s not to say that people who haven’t been here can’t understand, but once you have, you do feel an invisible link towards people who have experienced it as well. It’s like being a veteran of some sort, except our war isn’t fought with weapons.
So we walk towards the shelter, and I’m wondering in which state we will find the place. I saw some sad and disorganized places, and more often than not volunteers that you wouldn’t talk to in any other situation because they just seem to be here on an ego-trip. So I’m a bit wary before arriving. But when I do, and we introduce ourselves to the security, I’m surprised to even find that they are really friendly. No suspicious look, no grumpiness, they open doors for us and greet us with a smile.
Once in, I discover what was a former shopping mall transformed into a shelter. A temporary welcome office has been set up in the middle of the room, couches are against the wall further away. An empty catering space is in another corner. Some guests (I’m tired of calling them refugees. They’re human beings. We are all that before being refugees, politicians, students, parents, lovers, idiots…) are sitting and having a cup of tea, others are playing on their electronic devices. We head for the welcome office where, again, we are greeted by very friendly volunteers and Malteser employees. We’re worried about where to sign, where to show our ID card. Nothing of the sort, we are just asked whether we signed up, and the responsible of our shift kindly offers to show us around. She shows us the four floors. The ground floor has a big “living room”, as well as a clothes room. Where all the clothes are so well sorted and organized, where guests can come in and choose what they want. There is also a meagre bookshelf which awaits donations (…? anyone?), as well as a beautiful piano, waiting for its musicians, and two foosball tables, awaiting their players.
The first floor, where prefabricated rooms have been built with four beds in each. Every room of that floor being occupied, we don’t enter any. There are four bunk beds in each room. There is also a laundry, where each guest can put on a basket with his wash in the morning and come back later in the day to get his clothes cleaned up. A note on the wall specifies that for newcomers, all clothes must be washed at 60°C. This reminds us the road they took and the infections they might have developed on the way because this road is so painful and uneasy to take, to put it mildly. The second floor is built on the same configuration, with the addition of bathrooms, but that floot is still under construction. We reach it and meet the builders, drilling away with music in the background. We visit the empty rooms. These days, 200 men live here. In two weeks, families will join them and the place will reach its full capacity of hosting 600 persons. Right now, there are no working showers in the buildings, so every half hour, five men are brought by a volunteer to the nearby swimming pool, where they are allowed to use the shower – but not the swimming pool.
The third and fourth floors are devoted to daytime activities. It sounds shallow but our guests come here and have to wait weeks and months on end till their situation is clarified and the asylum status granted or not. In the meantime, when one doesn’t have to queue the whole day long in the LaGeSo, there is absolutely nothing to do but wait. So daytime activities are crucial so that all the people involved keep a healthy state of mind. Despite what they experienced, witnessed, survived back home and on the way here.
There is a space devoted to German classes, and a project to build a cinema, as well as a playground for the children. In two weeks time, the place will be buzzing with people. I’m so happy to find this peaceful shelter, so convenient for me to access, so as to help as often as possible. When we come back downstairs, after having explained the administrative formalities awaiting us, the head of the volunteers tells us we can do whatever we want, today is quiet and people are pleased we’re interacting with them so we can decide what to do once the contact is established. A bit like with real people in real life, in other words. And just as it does in normal circumstances, being two women walking around groups of men and trying to establish contact is just as awkward! So Mary and I walk and look tentatively to the couple of people seated in the “living room”. Three men are playing pool, they’re about our age (or more likely Mary’s), and they see us not knowing what to do with ourselves. They gesture towards us and invite us to join. They’re actually quite good at pool. Which we are absolutely not. Mary has never, ever played. I played a couple of times. As in, two times, and if I’m able not to scratch the table anymore I’m still bad enough to make a fool of myself by not remembering how to hold a cue.
So here we are, two awkward girls, and three young men smiling (laughing at us, in other words) as we start to play in teams. One of the guys sits and watch, and each of the other ones took one apprentice with him. At first, Mary doesn’t want to try. I feels she’s worried about making a fool of herself. I would be if I played with friends, but I’m very happy to have something to learn from our guests. They are so often belittled, humiliated throughout the journey, treated like cattle, and here is a small occasion for them to take the upper hand and show us something. They’re not asking for anything, we are, and we’re both winning since they interact with people who want to see them here, and we witness people being safe, healthy and happy to be here.
They find our playing hilarious, but are very patient with us. They show us how to hold the cues, we don’t need to speak the same language (and Mary and I would be equally bad playing with English speakers, anyway). They speak broken English, so I ask them where they’re from. Afghanistan, Kabul. All of them, or so they say. Both Mary and I can’t help but checking their shoes, still in mode “we need to provide for those people”, before realizing they are, now, safe and taken care of. So we stop mothering them and are just two women poorly playing pool. We both wonder what they must think of women, playing pool. Is that ok with their culture? Who cares, we are having fun, and they’re having fun at us. They ask us where we’re from. They make appreciate sounds upon hearing “Canada” and “France”. The third man sitting in the armchair asks me: “Paris?”. “No”, I say. “Lille, Lille!”. He says. I wonder whether he’s been to Calais’ jungle.
At the end of the first party and of the first round of laughs, the men ask us “Again?”. We have a second go, I’m having a blast as I always wanted to learn how to play properly. I don’t, but it doesn’t matter, I never imagined I would have a teacher from Kabul, that city I was fascinated with as a teenager, when Commander Massoud was visiting France to implore our help for his country dominated by the talibans. I never had a chance to go to Afghanistan, but through the patching up of all the stories of my Afghan friends I can travel there in mind. Today, I learn that they must be quite into pool, at least those three guests. A part of me wishes to see them around the next times I’ll be here. Another part wishes them gone to proper houses, enjoying the real Berlin life, away from the shelters.