One year at Tempelhof

Hania Hakiel marks one year running the GSBTB Open Art Shelter in the refugee shelter at the former Tempelhof airport, a creative community of women and children who meet at least twice each week to paint, dance, cook, knit and spend time together.

There is something not so obvious about life at a refugee camp. The happiness of toddlers and very little kids, their trust and joy touches the core of what life is about every time I enter gloomy refugee homes.

This little boy was just a few months old when he crossed many borders with human traffickers, passed over the Mediterranean on a rubber boat on a stormy night, stayed in a Greek camp… and has finally arrived in Berlin to spend what has been almost a year now growing up in the cold hangars of the former Tempelhof airport, now a refugee camp. This is his world. The only world he knows so far.


It is normal for him to eat in a big canteen with many other people. It is normal that home is 12 square metres and it is shared with another family and there is no real roof. The roof feels like a sky because is so far away and it is the roof of a huge hangar. You can observe pigeons flying above your head. They try to fight pigeons but they always come back. Like mice. Mice are also animals of this home. It is normal that food comes three times a day, always at the same time. It is normal that the light goes off at 10 pm and you’re supposed to be silent.

Maybe the inner peace of theses little babies in the camp comes from these routines? Life seems predictable and safe. There is always the same white roll in the morning with a bit of marmalade in a little plastic box. His parents can’t yet work. They are always together. Each day there are hours of quality father-son and mother-son time, plus dozens of good aunties and uncles, and other kids. Just as there are many languages; he learns them all and above all learns to express emotions and wishes without words.

Thank you little Mohammad for reminding me what really matters in this crazy world. I just hope that nobody reads this post as “you see, life at camps is good for people”.

Babies don’t stay babies forever. And they have parents who need privacy and to be able to control daily routines. They need to be able to turn off the light when they want to and cook food they like when they feel hungry. Husband-wife quality time does not come so easily here, even when you put your bunk beds together and use a bed sheet as a curtain.
Today is exactly one year since I started working at Tempelhof refugee camp. The residents are still the same people. I praise them for their patience, determination, love and acceptance. I worry how much more noise and disempowerment they can take.

I grow calmer when I meet Mohammad’s parents, people who can find meaning and purpose in stress and suffering. What helps them most is their faith, Islam. What helps me most to find sense in my work is my faith, my belief in humanity. We’re often talking about the same thing. We just use different languages.

But little Mohammad’s got it. He laughs and cries really loud and his face is honest, his emotions vivid.