Refugee families at Tempelhof write to the Immigration Minister

When on my way to visit people in the refugee camp located at the old Tempelhof Airport I walk through the former airfield, a vast green space. I avoid asphalt paths and always walk on the grass – it feels both more challenging and softer, as if I am getting ready for the upcoming experience, when softness and warmth come with accepting differences, pain and insecurity.

There is a poem by the 13th century poet Rumi that, like a mantra, pops into my mind as I come closer to the cold, concrete building that has become a temporary home for more than 1500 people fleeing war, persecution and poverty:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”

I imagine Tempelhof to be this field where I come without ready concepts of what people should or should not believe, do or feel. I hope they will meet me there and language, culture, life stories will not suspend love and connection. As long as I am in the field of pure and unconditional acceptance I am able to listen and contain, and, in appropriate moments, initiate a dialogue on differences.

It’s not always easy. Like when I hear a woman saying, “I don’t know, I need to ask my husband for permission”, or when a mother is searching for a husband for her 13-year-old daughter. People sense when they can be themselves: they share controversial stories only when I am waiting out there, in the rich grass, “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing”, where confronting worldviews, values and perspectives seems to be growing and blooming naturally, even if the process means a struggle with an uncertain end.

The original poem by Rumi looks like this:

از کفر و ز اسلام برون صحرائی است

ما را به میان آن فضا سودائی است

عارف چو بدان رسید سر را بنهد

نه کفر و نه اسلام و نه آنجا جائی است

I write “looks” because, not knowing the Persian language myself, the poem can be to me just a beautiful pattern, a decorative motif. My Iranian friends say that it is impossible to translate it properly, that the multilayered poem loses its power in English. I trust them and become even more humble when entering the camp where people speak Farsi, Arabic, Russian or Kurdish. I give my trust to moments of silence, eye contact and drawings.

At the beginning of September my friends from Tempelhof camp wrote letters to Aydan Özoguz, the Minister of State in the German Chancellery and Commissioner for Immigration, Refugees and Integration. Our volunteers translated them into German and English.

One very grateful letter writer: “I know many refugees have come to Berlin and the management is difficult. Thank you for all your help.”

I have felt so anxious about delivering the letters. How can you translate fear, despair, hope, dreams? How can you help the reader see past differences in culture, religion, level of education?

When a Roma woman from Moldova writes, “Dear Minister, I would like to ask you for a house”, it can be easily met with irony: “That’s so immature. What else would you like? A pink pony?” But when you meet her out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, you find a long journey of many generations of Roma living in extreme poverty, having their traditions ridiculed and groups persecuted, and you can see this woman as a daring character taking a risky road to find a land with better opportunities for her children.

When a Syrian mother writes, “please help us find an apartment or at least a private room”, it could be met with “there are no more apartments in Berlin, do it yourself”. But there is a field where you can hear a trembling, traumatized soul that calls for a quiet place to recover, for space to love, kiss and hug to restore broken family bonds, and a safe space where a woman can abandon her veil and feel at home. When she continues, “my children do not like the food here. They have lost weight. Please help us with better and more food”, you can hear her desperation, what she hasn’t written but is certainly saying: “my children have suffered so much, they have seen their house destroyed, their education suspended, their friends dying. I feel that I have not succeeded as a mother, that I did not protect them well enough. And even now I do not have the resources to be the mother I want to be”.

In these letters there are also stories that are tragic and abhorrent. Sexual abuse, bombardment, death of loved ones, lost property, IS terror, crossing dangerous roads to Europe. In this context, the people’s complaints about lack of privacy and bad food at the camp may sound banal, almost like asking for excessive luxury. Or, on the flipside, like much more easily grantable wishes.

But there are 21 letters. Each of them different.

And I see this letter writing as a social experiment. Can you expect a politician to meet a refugee in a field out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and lay down together in the grass? Actually… why not?

I pack all the letters into a huge envelope and take them down the road to the Minister’s office.

Hania Hakiel is the manager of GSBTB Open Art Shelter, which runs a weekly Frauenzimmer at Tempelhof, a safe space for women and children to enjoy art and craft projects, chat, and have access to professional therapy.