Masoud* had sent me Ali’s* number and I had reached out to him over WhatsApp, the app that most of my Southasian friends use to stay in touch. One of the first notes he sent me was a document that began: “To Whom It May Concern.” It described in detail his work in Kabul as a filmmaker and how he was forced to leave in 2014, after receiving threats from the Taliban.
Since his English wasn’t strong (he said), we discussed our plans to meet through Masoud. It was decided I would go to meet him and his family in the small town they had been sent to by the authorities, on the border between Austria and Germany. Then he changed his mind and asked me to meet him in Frankfurt. And then suggested that he come to Hamburg. We were working out a date for this when Masoud told me Ali’s request for asylum in Germany had been deemed inadequate. He and his family had been asked to return to Serbia, where they had already spent two difficult years in a camp.
Several Afghans described to me the experience of living in a refugee camp– the frustrating uncertainty and the petty humiliations that came with it– to me. “It is as if we have committed a crime,” one of them had said, “and we must be punished for it.” Ali was now caught up with the work of an appeal – going to a doctor, a lawyer, finding anything that could work in his favour. He was alone in the small town and he did not speak the language. He was very troubled. He communicated all this via Masoud.
Tell him I understand, I responded, also through Masoud. Maybe we could find a way to talk later.
In 2015, when the refugees had started arriving in large numbers, I had watched, riveted, the outpouring of support and solidarity in Europe, especially in Germany. The heart of activity was the Hamburg train station, where many of the refugees arrived. Some stayed; others were on their way to different cities. All of them were guided by hundreds of volunteers, who gave them food and directed them to places to sleep, spending their own nights and days at the Hauptbahnhof. And when the station overflowed, institutions opened their doors to offer a roof to the asylum seekers. This included the beautiful Deutsches Schauspielhaus theatre–the largest in Germany –that is located across the road from the Hauptbahnhof, where refugees slept in the canteen. “Refugees Welcome,” declared the posters and the banners on the streets, at the rallies.
People still told stories of that time with awe, like they were recalling a version of themselves they could hardly believe had existed. It is a different country now, Masoud said.
Since 2015, the number of refugees arriving in Europe has fallen dramatically. In 2018 only 70,000 people had landed on Europe’s Mediterranean coastline up to October – a mere 12 per cent of what it had been in 2015 and about a third of 2017. This decline was created through bilateral and multilateral agreements and aid packages to different countries. With Turkey, which now hosts nearly 4 million refugees and with Libya, where the coastguard prevents boats carrying the refuge seekers from reaching Europe. And yet most of the conversations between Germans that I witnessed were about the refugees who were already here, those who were still coming, all the damage they had wrought and would bring, in their wake. These fears, I found, were not new. In 1978, Vietnamese refugees – the so called ‘boat people’ – who found refuge in (then) West Germany had met with a mixed reception. This was the first time a large number of refugees had arrived in Germany from outside Europe. In the 1990s, during the Balkan crisis, Der Spiegel magazine had used a cover image that echoed the slogan of the political right: “The Boat is full.” Decades later, the fear was the same – of a horizon filled with frail barques, a wave of people who did not stop coming.
I remembered what Masoud had told me about the slow shift in attitude towards refugees that he had witnessed. For many Germans I spoke to, an early flashpoint was the sexual assault and robbery of women in Cologne on New Year’s night in 2015/16. The perpetrators were recent arrivals to Germany, including asylum seekers. But what – I wanted to know from Masoud – about the slower shift, to indifference? “At some point, the people decided we were the government’s problem to solve,” he said. I had asked a German journalist what had changed in the reporting on refugees since 2015. “From reporting on people, we moved to talking about solutions,” he said. “Now we write about institutions rather than personal stories.” And when institutions speak, it is rarely in the voice of the vulnerable.
The boat was full. Chartered flights full of rejected asylum seekers had been transporting the excess humans back, from Germany to Kabul, since 2016, when Germany entered a bilateral agreement with Afghanistan. Some of the deported refugees had never been to Afghanistan before. Like Hosain, they had lived as refugees in Iran all their lives. In July 2018, one of the deportees committed suicide after arriving in Kabul. In August, Germany deported another 46 Afghans despite protests.
A friend told me about a family that had fled to Hamburg from Kabul in 2015. Their 12-year old daughter had learned German rapidly after their arrival and had taken on the role of translating her family’s daily life for the volunteers, doctors, social workers and all the other authorities they dealt with. While shouldering this adult-sized burden, she had come to understand how precarious her family’s situation was in Germany. My friend had gone to meet this child in a hospital, where she was being treated after attempting suicide. We had no way of knowing for sure, but the spectre of her family’s appeal and the possibility of their being ‘sent back’, hung over this situation.
Masoud had arranged to meet with Anwar at Altona Bahnhof, on the western edge of Hamburg. The summer was back. I walked along the waterfront and saw the port of Hamburg glittering, towards the east. The port of Altona used to be under Danish control until the 1860s and was an independent German city later until it was merged with Hamburg in1937. It developed as an industrial area that attracted working class migrants after the Second World War. Among these were Turkish ‘guest workers’ who provided labour to West Germany after the Second World War. Many worked at the docks in Hamburg. These migrants were tolerated as they contributed to the economic development of the war-torn nation. But the assumption behind their presence was that like ‘guests’, they would eventually depart. They now form a community that is more than 3 million strong.
Masoud had asked me to meet him and Anwar at the Media Markt, a spot I knew well by now, as it was repeatedly picked as a rendezvous by other refugees I spoke to. He led the way to Ikea, a massive blue and yellow monolith at the end of a pedestrian plaza, where they had decided to have coffee. We walked into the store and up to the coffee shop, which was warm with sunshine flooding through its large windows. Masoud filled our trays with coffee and cakes. By the windows I saw groups of older men and women reading the newspapers, chatting over their snacks.
Anwar took a chair besides me. I had known of him in Kabul as a director and an actor and we had spoken on the phone and over email. But this was our first meeting in person. Like others, Anwar was hesitant to share details of his decision to leave Afghanistan and his journey to Germany. He told me that he was married; his wife was related to Nargis* and lived in Denmark. Their son had turned one recently. But because of a bureaucratic snag, Anwar was stuck in Germany and his wife and son in Denmark. It was only recently that he had got the papers that allowed him to travel and visit them. Before that, each trip had been fraught, each expedition to see his son a decision he had to weigh minutely. After a few minutes of conversation, I realised that my questions about these things made him nervous. So, I asked him instead what was in the big backpack he was carrying around. He pulled out two large folders, packed with papers that were neatly punched and filed. “I take these around every day. You never know what they will ask for.”
Who were ‘they’, I asked? The social workers, the doctors, the government officials that he met on most days, he said, as he did the rounds of moving his application along. Anwar was terrified of losing a single scrap, one that could potentially be the piece that brought the jigsaw of his appeal together, that would turn out to be the key that opened the gate, which allowed him to finally, arrive.
Watching Anwar re-arrange his papers, I was struck by a memory from my hometown in northern India, where I had watched my father work with cycle rickshaw pullers. I would see these men take out carefully packed wads of paper from their breast pockets, wrapped in plastic, soaked with their sweat. The packets would contain whatever form of identity cards they had managed to acquire, whatever scrap promised even a slender claim to legitimacy, some kind of rights, a vestige of an argument to be in the city, to be allowed to have a livelihood, to not be sent to prison, or robbed of their money, or somehow harassed. I would watch them painstakingly engrave a phone number on one of the scraps in that packet, or in a small pocket diary, as an insurance against something, against anything. It was those men, carrying fragments of words they could not read next to their hearts, as passports to exist in their own country, that I thought of, when I saw Anwar packing away his folders.
In a nutshell, here is what I learned of Anwar’s situation. He had permission to stay in Germany, but for a few months at a time. He was appealing to be allowed to live and work there, to not be sent back to Denmark, from where he might be sent back to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, he couldn’t work and he was broke. I asked if he could get a lawyer and he said he couldn’t afford one. Even if he could, he said, he doubted a lawyer would be able to help him. He was trapped in a bureaucratic limbo that even the well-intentioned could not help him out of. “Nobody can find a way to help me,” he said, “Because nobody knows what to do with me.”
A life doled out in increments of 6 months was not an unusual state in the world that Anwar inhabited. Many of the young men I had met – at the football club for refugees, or the language class –- were in similar situations. Anwar had lived in a camp full of such teenage boys, he said. “They have no families, no future, they get desperate,” he said. And then there was the spectre of deportation, the planes full of ‘voluntary’ and involuntary returnees, cleaving their path back to Afghanistan.
And then there was also this: difficult as its process and laws were, Germany was one of the countries most sought-after by refugees. For all its flaws, loopholes and bureaucratic traps, an activist told me, it was still one of the better places to attempt to find refuge in Europe.
Masoud had already refilled our cups. “You get two coffees for the price of one here,” he said. I had assumed we were in Ikea because they needed to buy something for their homes. It was a place to find fault-free aesthetics for a house that was rented, or for student lodging – temporary arrangements before leaving for something more permanent. But they didn’t need to buy anything. We were there because the coffee was cheap and it was a nice place to spend an afternoon without spending too much money.
We left and wandered the flat plain of the shopping plaza, looking for a store where Anwar could buy another file for his application. I pointed out a shop but he moved ahead, like he hadn’t seen it. “Too expensive,” Masoud said quietly. We walked past stores selling shoes and clothes and fresh fruits and vegetables. The pedestrian street was lined with evidence of diversity, one of the spots that gave Hamburg its reputation for multiculturalism.
In my weeks in Hamburg, I had sensed my days dividing into time with the Afghans and with everyone else. It was a neat division, at least for the latter group. At parties and at gatherings, I would mention that I was writing about refugees and there would be nods and mentions of friends or neighbours working on refugee programmes, or with state programmes to support them. When I mentioned that a few of them were people I knew from Kabul, something would change. For many people, the thought of refugees before they became refugees was a novel one.
I met Masoud and Anwar with their families one Sunday in a well-known Hamburg park called Planten un Blomen (Plants and Flowers). The sprawling grounds contained several water bodies – with ponds, waterfalls and bridges in different spots. The water gleamed here, like a reflection of the river. The green seemed to go on forever.
I walked with Nargis and Sufia* (Anwar’s wife), who were wheeling their younger children in prams. The two women were cousins and spoke with the intimacy that only a shared childhood can bring. Nargis had grown up in Qom, the largest centre for Shia learning in Iran and the hometown of Ayatollah Khomeini. It is a conservative place and when they were kids, Nargis said, they couldn’t leave their homes without wearing a chador (veil). If someone did that, the other women would pull at their clothes in admonishment. I heard this story as we sat under a beautiful tree, enjoying the shade and the sound of children splashing in a pond nearby. Nargis is in her late 20s. In her young life, she had been a refugee several times, moving between entirely different worlds. I asked where she thought of as home.
“I don’t know,” she said. “And it’s not a good feeling to not know.” She watched her son wait for his turn at the slide, behind two little girls. “I don’t want my children to feel like that. That why for them, this has to be home.” “Our own country was good, but we had to leave,” Nargis was still talking by my side. “Some people think we want to come here just to ruin their country. Perhaps because they don’t know us very well,” she added, her words an echo of what I had been told in the language class by the former journalist. As we watched, two little girls had waded out into the water in the pond and were splashing around happily, attempting to swim. Their father watched them from a little way off. Sufia and Nargis were amazed. “See how they leave the kids on their own here,” they said. In an Afghan family, that would never happen, they agreed. For migrants, everything has to be learnt all over again.
It was evening and for dinner we settled on a restaurant that Sufia liked from previous visits and where she knew exactly what she wanted to eat. We walked to the S Bahn stop and as I helped carry the strollers on the escalators, I noticed Anwar’s heavy backpack wedged in the carrier of his son’s pram, under the diaper bag, under his toys and jacket. We got off near Steindamm, near the Hauptbahnhof. The road was a well-known hub of ‘ethnic’ food. When the asylum seekers had arrived in 2015, I had been told, they had not been able to cook. So, they would come to this area to spend their allowances, where they found a somewhat familiar diet.
The road was lined with sex shops and Turkish and Afghan restaurants, an Indian supermarket, a theatre. There were also mosques on this stretch, along with cheap department stores and shops stocking varieties of hijab. At the exit of the subway was a white tent, with a plaque announcing ‘Lampedusa Platz’. It was a centre providing information about the demands of the group of refugees, as well as their meeting ground. A few steps from this spot stood three Jehovah’s Witnesses, handing out pamphlets with determined smiles.
We walked into a back street, pushing the strollers over the pavestones. Ahead, two police officers were checking the papers of a short, thin man. A woman waited patiently besides him. We walked past quietly. Nothing happened but something changed in the carriage and energy of our group of brown-skinned adult and three children. We ate at the Iranian restaurant that Sufia had selected, where large TV screens played a football match on mute. After the meal, there was the familiar Southasian ritual of arguing over who got to pay the bill. The sisters appealed to the cashier, a young woman of Iranian heritage. “I really don’t care,” she said unsmiling. “You should settle it among yourselves.”
We decided to have ice cream further down the road, at a place where Nargis told me it was served just like in Kabul. It came wrapped in foil, frozen in milky layers. Just like in Kabul. We ate sitting by the large windows that overlooked the sex shops of Steindamm, listening to the Bollywood film songs playing on the shop’s speakers.
The sun was turning pink when we walked to the station together, shivering a bit from the chill in the air. On a corner before the Hauptbahnhof, a pile of trash surrounded a dustbin. Sufia pointed to it and teased Nargis and Masoud. “You wouldn’t find this in Denmark,” she laughed, a jibe that was part of a long-running jest between the two couples. “It’s because of the refugees,” Nargis responded. They giggled merrily, falling against each other in their mirth. “The refugees ruined everything!”
As we walked towards the Hauptbahnhof, Masoud told me about an Afghan film festival that was being organised in a small town in southern Germany. He and Anwar had both been invited Andale was planning to attend too. A few other friends would be there, from Berlin, France, Denmark. It would be a reunion, the first time this group of friends would be together since they had left Kabul; the first time they would be doing nothing but talking about films. Could I come? Masoud asked. I couldn’t, but we could Skype when they were there, we decided. He would also help me talk to Ali, who remained elusive.
I was going to walk towards the Alster Lake, so I said goodbye to my friends across the road from the Hauptbahnhof. We had plans to meet again, soon, so our hugs and farewells were casual. I would not see Nargis and Sufia again before I left, but we did not know that then.
I watched the four adults usher the three children across the street, towards the escalators that led into the station. I tried to watch as they joined the multitudes being pulled underground, into Hamburg’s subterranean channels. But in the swirl and thrust of the evening crowd, I lost sight of them long before they stepped on to the stairs. I tried to follow them with my eyes but they had vanished, mingling with all the other families taking their children home.
~Cover illustration by Paul Aitchison.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed.