Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Illustration: Paul Aitchison

A map of arriving

The Making of a Refugee: Part 1 – A series on Afghans in Germany

The global news cycle has been inundated with stories of refugees arriving on the shores of Europe in recent years, with the words 'refugees' and 'crisis' entwined almost symbiotically. What is less explored, however, are the stories that lie behind the headlines. In series of longform reports by writer Taran N Khan – 'The Making of a Refugee' we take a deep dive into the lives of artists, writers, musicians and other Afghan refugees and migrants living in Germany.

Here are stories of individuals making new lives, the lives they have left behind, the process of turning into a refugee, and the larger canvas of conflict, migration, politics and populism.  Reported from Hamburg, this eight-part series captures diverse Afghan voices – of filmmakers, rappers, poets and singers – who have arrived there over a span of 40 years – and maps "the textures of the everyday of the refugee lives".


In a hotel room in Hamburg, my phone buzzed with a text from a German number I didn't recognise. "Salam Taran jan, happy to know you are here."

I had last spoken to Masoud in Kabul, in 2013, five years earlier. He had been about to leave for Mazar-e-Sharif, where he was working with an international film crew. When he returned to Kabul, he would cook me an Afghan meal, he had promised. "Anything you like". But I had returned home to Mumbai before that and, a few months later, I heard Masoud had left for Europe. I wasn't surprised at the news. The air had been thick with departures that spring in Kabul. In 2014, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition was due to end its combat operations in the country. A reduced number of foreign soldiers would remain to support Afghan security forces in maintaining the precarious peace. It was the closing of the arc that had started with the US-led overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001. The insurgency had gained ground, and, after twelve years of reconstruction efforts and being in the centre of attention of the world's media, the future seemed uncertain again for Afghanistan. Many people I met in Kabul that spring seemed to be only half present – contemplating other cities as sanctuaries. Masoud's absence was part of this season of vanishings.

I tried to reach out to him a few times in the years in between, but all my attempts led to dead ends.  His Facebook profile was silent. There was no reply to my emails. Through friends, I heard he was in Germany. I thought of him, and of other Kabulis who had fallen silent, as news of 'the refugees' took over the media in the summer of 2015.

That year, a million migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Europe. Images of these refugees were everywhere – clinging to fragile rafts, walking on the motorways, sleeping in railway stations. Among them were people like Masoud.

I thought of him when I arrived in Germany last June. Within a few days, I had heard from a friend – another filmmaker from Kabul – who told me: "You know Masoud is here too?" And within a few hours of that, Masoud was on my phone screen, holding the promise he had made in Kabul five years ago. "I will cook the Afghan meal for you. Anything you like."

People like Masoud were part of the reason I had found Kabul fascinating since I first travelled there in 2006 to teach video production at a government-run TV channel. I had returned several times in subsequent years to work with media producers and filmmakers. Masoud was part of a group of young directors and actors I encountered over this time. Many of them had been born and raised as refugees in Iran or Pakistan. To learn the city, they recorded it, making documentaries and short fiction films. In their company, and in the company of writers, actors and musicians, I had seen Kabul IN its complexity and history. In their work, I found intimacy and insight, like a window opening into a familiar room.

Afghans like Masoud were the faces of the post-2001 democracy. They were young, creative, and committed to the new state, to its future. And as 2014 loomed, they began leaving.

I had come to Germany seeking to map the journeys of these Afghans, to write of this transformation of artists into refugees.  When writers, or musicians or filmmakers flee a city do they do it differently, I wondered? Do they cleave to their creative identities as they leave, or is it excess baggage shed along the way, like bags thrust into the sea from fragile crafts?  These journeys fascinated me – they seemed more than physical voyages, involving internal odysseys.

I knew I was on complicated terrain, one that seemed both densely mapped and yet maddeningly unknown.  The 'refugee issue' was ubiquitous, something we all knew about. But it was equally something that remained hard to understand, a shapeshifter that expanded even as I tried to pin it down. What remained constant was its scale.  I often found myself confronting massive ideas and emotions, daunting in their heft, but revealing little of how refugees actually lived, or felt.

I began picking at the small stories, the unremarkable details. I mapped the textures of the everyday of refugee lives – the things that do not seem to matter, the ordinary moments that accumulate to form our lives. If the barrage of news on the 'refugee issue' mapped bodies in flight, I was seeking maps of the process of arriving.


I was in Hamburg, on the edge of a river that fanned into the North Sea. The Elbe is the vein on which Hamburg has built its prosperity, through shipping and commerce. It is also the fluid edifice of its tradition of cosmopolitanism, a legacy of being open to the world that is embedded in its title of 'free city'.

A map of Hamburg and Altona circa 1910. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
A map of Hamburg and Altona circa 1910. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hamburg is also home to the single largest urban community of Afghans in Europe.  In 2015, this numbered around 35,000 people. This is a population deposited over decades – like sediment arriving with each wave of displacement, each tide of war.  The community spans generations, the arrivals in 2015 were merely the most recent additions. In Hamburg, I knew I could find the many ways in which it is possible to be an Afghan in Europe.

The summer I spent in the city was one of the warmest in living memory. "It's not always like this," I was told everywhere I went, about the bright sunshine and cloudless sky. With the weather came an air of cheeriness, a loosening of restraint, an openness to emotions. The exultation was marked by urgency, as such glorious days were sure to be short-lived.

The FIFA World Cup proceeded through its early stages, and there were gatherings around giant screens all over the city's parks and pubs.  Several refugees told me they preferred to stay away from such spots, however, as nationalist tempers ran high there. An unfavourable result could lead to random consequences, for someone who happened to look the wrong way, who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Through these halcyon mornings and mellow evenings, the German government lurched from crisis to crisis.  For a nation used to a placid state of political affairs, the instability of Angela Merkel's coalition was unnerving. Even the international press seemed wrong-footed by the faceoffs. At the heart of each flashpoint lay the question of refugees.

In 2015, Europe's strict border regime was challenged by the arrival of asylum seekers who sought refuge from war and the complicated aftermath of conflicts.  The majority of these refugees ended up being admitted by Germany, which took in close to 890,000 people. In the early days, they were welcomed by large crowds. Processions cheered arrivals at train stations. Calls for donations received overwhelming responses. Volunteers turned up in record numbers. The media carried glowing stories of this "welcome culture". By the time I arrived in Hamburg three years later, this euphoria had long since faded. Merkel's "Open Doors Policy" – a misnomer, as she had not opened doors but had simply not closed down already open borders – was held to be responsible for destabilising the nation's economy and society. The language used to describe the migration derived from the vocabulary of natural disasters: the refugees were a wave, a tsunami, a flood. Soon, they were enmeshed into a perennial embrace with a single, significant word – crisis. The two were bound.

In fact, the number of asylum seekers entering the country had fallen soon after 2015, due to European Union (EU) agreements with countries like Libya and Turkey, that kept the 'wave' of humanity at bay. By 2018, the number of refugees entering Germany had returned to pre-2015 levels. Despite these facts, the 'refugee crisis' was an emotional flashpoint in the country and beyond. It threatened the bonds that tied the world's most prosperous nations together. As the beleaguered Merkel herself pointed out, migration could be a 'make or break' issue for the EU. By the end of 2018, Merkel had stepped down as the head of the Christian Democratic Party. The 'refugee crisis' continued to dominate the discourse in the run-up to the European Parliament elections that are due in May 2019.


It was in the midst of these crises that I sat in on a language class run by volunteers for refugees. The group met at a public library, near the train station, a few minutes' walk from the river.  My guide was a retired journalist, one of the many Germans who had stepped up in 2015, offering her time as part of the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people across the country. She had continued volunteering even as the mood had shifted. She turned up for her classes, guiding refugees in the intricacies of her language, as a way to find a new life.

A refugee's notebook at a German-language class in Hamburg. Photo: Taran N Khan.
A refugee's notebook at a German-language class in Hamburg. Photo: Taran N Khan.

That day, all but one of the refugees seated at the long table in a small ante-room were Afghans. Afghans were the largest community of refugees in the world until 2014, when they were overtaken by Syrians fleeing the war. The Afghans' arrival has grown more complicated too. In theory, all asylum seekers are evaluated on an individual basis, regardless of their nationality. But over the years, Afghans seem to have become what several reports call 'second-class' asylum seekers in Germany.

As early as October 2015, the then German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière had said at a news conference, "large amounts of development aid have gone to Afghanistan—so we can expect that Afghans stay in their country." He recommended that the middle class should stay home and work to rebuild their government. "In Afghanistan itself, the government (like the Australian and the Austrian ones) launched campaigns to discourage more Afghans from leaving the country," wrote Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organisation. By 2018, Afghans seeking refuge in Germany not only faced stricter rules, but the terms of their asylum process were made less attractive. Because the German government assessed parts of Afghanistan to be safe, it could also send asylum seekers back with fewer qualms.

In 2016, Germany signed a bilateral agreement with Afghanistan on deportation. But it also encouraged so-called voluntary returns, with the implicit message that refugees could leave with some benefits, or forego them when later sent back forcibly.

According to a report by AAN, of the 255,000 Afghan nationals in Germany in 2017, "Only 6.4 per cent… have been given the right to stay permanently, with another 24.8 per cent given a temporary right to stay. This means that seven out of ten Afghans in Germany live under precarious circumstances, either still waiting for a decision or already rejected, with most of the latter being prevented from deportation on humanitarian grounds."

Many of the Afghans I met in the library that morning existed in this state of limbo.

Each of the people seated around the table had a different legal status. They came from different backgrounds, had different levels of education and different skills. A few had to renew their permission to live in Germany every few months. Others had proceeded further on the path that would allow them to stay. But regardless of the status of their paperwork, they were all united by uncertainty. The truth, every asylum seeker in Germany knows, is that everything can change in an instant. That being safe is an evasive idea. That arrival is a forever shifting state.

The room was filled with temporariness, manifested in small details I was learning to recognise. For instance, each person had at least two phones and switched between different SIM cards while making calls (because it is cheaper to get a new connection than to top up an old one, I learned). I had experienced friends suddenly becoming untraceable. Their phones would be out of reach and messages would remain unanswered, until they reappeared equally suddenly.  "No balance," one of them said. "Had to move house," said another. This unpredictability was a part of their existence as refugees. It was part of their relationship with their new homes, a part of the emotion they carried in their wake. "A lot of talk about refugees", a young journalist told me, "is just feelings". But in the maelstrom of emotions that defined the summer, there were few accounts of the feelings of refugees themselves.

I watched as the group practised conversational skills. The volunteer teacher had brought along a clipping from a local newspaper that each of the refugees read aloud one by one.  A woman transcribed the German words phonetically in her native Dari (the version of Persian used in Afghanistan) in a notebook. The newspaper report was about a theatre performance in Hamburg, that told the stories of refugees and how they had arrived in Germany. The refugees in the library read about this performance, as a way to learn the new language that would offer them a better chance at security, a way to begin arriving.

Before the lesson began, I had asked the former journalist why some people were unhappy with refugees now. "Maybe they don't know any refugees themselves," she had shrugged. The linking of asylum seekers to a state of perennial crisis in Germany, it seemed, depended on people remaining ignorant of each other.

So, to my list of questions, I added another: what is it like to be living through this era of transformation, to be at the heart of this storm, and to be simultaneously invisible in it?

In all the chatter and discussions about refugees that blazed across Europe, the voices of refugees themselves were almost completely missing. In the news, in political debates, in conversations in homes and offices, few refugees were asked for their opinions, or their views, or their feelings. As I explored the spaces occupied by refugees in Hamburg, I often thought of the language class in the library – as a metaphor for the reality the people in that room faced. Of being everywhere, and nowhere. The maps that marked the paths of refugees were also maps of their absence.


Walking the streets of Hamburg, I was dazzled by all the water that seemed to be perennially close at hand. Hamburgers (yes, they really are called that) are fond of telling visitors that their city has more bridges than Venice. I crossed as many of these bridges as I could, watching the canals emerge and vanish with the curve of the streets. Water swirled between these channels that marked the earth like lines on paper. It appeared even in places where it was not present: a bright office room high up in a building, floating on a ship's siren or borne on the cries of seagulls hovering over a football field. The city was built on water, I realised, a foundation of shifting currents. That summer, the water shone like a mirror.

Wandering the spaces occupied by Hamburg's refugees, I found they were like the eddies in these waterways. Swirling through the city, shaping it and being shaped by it. Invisible, but inferred, if you could read the signs.  A city built on water has many reflections. Which of them is real, and which imagined?

That morning, I set forth into this shimmering terrain. I texted a reply to Masoud. "Send me your address," I wrote. "Let's meet."


~Cover illustration by Paul Aitchison.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian