Afraid of terrorism? A Tempelhof case study on how NOT to make democratic citizens out of refugees

Following the Tempelhof refugee camp residents’ petition on their living conditions, a meeting was set up between the residents and the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs. But what could have been a positive opportunity for the residents’ empowerment turned into a painful example of how they feel stereotyped and pushed around by the authorities. 

GSBTB Open Art Shelter volunteers have been growing trust with residents at Tempelhof refugee camp since 2015. In April residents of the Tempelhof refugee camp, with the support of GSBTB Open Art Shelter volunteers, created a petition.

The residents produced a set of specific requests on the living conditions in the container village they had been expected to move into this summer when they are shifted out of their current accommodation at the former airport.

Currently in the airport accommodation there are problems with mice, inadequate food and facilities. A recent report highlighted the sexual abuse of female residents at the camp. At the women’s safe space of GSBTB Open Art Shelter women have frequently discussed their lack of personal security and the offensive sexualisation of their living space. Single women and teenage girls are the most vulnerable to unwanted comments and looks and not having any doors in their cubicles that they are able to close for privacy and protection only fuels their discomfort.

Residents want to advocate for themselves, for their rights to be respected, but also their dignity. They are concerned about becoming stuck in mass accommodation, possibly for years, and want to be consulted so they can have a say in making their time in the container village more bearable. The requests they set out in the petition laid out their wishes in detail, making it easy for the authorities to understand how best to help.

Hania Haniel, who runs GSBTB Open Art Shelter, explains:

“The idea of moving to the isolated, fenced-in container village caused much confusion among the residents of Tempelhof camp. On one hand everybody just wanted to get out of the airport hangars. On the other hand, the option proposed felt like being pushed into isolation. People’s emotions were swinging with anxiety and frustration between the excitement of finally having a place to cook their own meals and anger at their prolonged imprisonment, just in a nicer cage.”

“It has taken us as a team long hours of pure listening to understand the camp residents’ complex emotions and at the end very down to earth expectations. And then it has taken hours to encourage the belief that their voice counts and that, on top of having the right to express concerns and suggest solutions,  this voice must not be ignored by the authorities.”

“People who came from Afghanistan or Syria do not necessarily have experience with living in democratic society and they are understandably sceptical about the ‘power of the people’. They have tragic stories of the ones who dared to protest against the regime or any other authority.”

Therefore, it was a huge step for residents to participate in the process of creating a petition and asking fellow residents to sign it. Some residents declared they were “on strike” within their living conditions. It was exciting to see people advocating for themselves, and feeling safe to do so.

“To me, it was one of the most crucial moments in our work,” says Hania. “I observed how scepticism had been transformed into hope and solidarity. It made me happy but also anxious. I knew that if the petition would be met with disdain or mere ignorance, our democratic ideal would become just another empty slogan and many people would trust the system even less. Without trust there is no chance for a compromise or dialogue.”

A practical, positive result of the petition was that the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs (Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten, or “LaF”) agreed to hold a meeting with the residents. On 17 May LaF representative and spokesperson Sascha Langenbach visited the camp.

Unfortunately, the residents were frustrated with how the meeting went and many left the meeting with a bad taste in their mouths.

Sadly, many were not surprised by the ignorance shown to them and the contradiction between this expectation of them integrate as an active member of German society versus the politics of isolation that continue to take away many of their basic powers.

AT GSBTB we believe that what happens behind the closed doors of refugee accomodation should be added to the ongoing discussion on how to build a safe, multicultural society. Here we share some impressions of the meeting from residents and our volunteers.

Fatima*, a resident:

“Many residents left the room after just 15 minutes or so. They were angry about the way he talked to us. In Arabic we say that “when you talk to people who you consider to be stupid, you end up talking stupid yourself”. And he was talking in exactly this way. People felt offended, that we were being treated like idiots.

I felt humiliated when he said that we would enjoy living in the containers because there is a kitchen and a light switch, so we can turn the lights on and off. He repeated this with gestures, showing us how to turn on the light. We are people that had normal, good lives. He cannot imagine my beautiful home that I lost. Why does he treat us like we are people from a worse civilisation? Our only fault is that we were born in Syria or Afghanistan. But he did nothing special to be born in Germany. He does not want to feel that we are the same, that we are all human, because he thinks we are something less.”

Having an official representative of the migration system speak to them in ways that portray them as stereotypes understandably put residents on self-protection alert. It only confirmed their belief that there are not only individuals who look down on newcomers like them, but that the whole system that allows them to live here considers them as less trustworthy and consequently less independent than Germany’s other inhabitants.

The anger that day at Tempelhof refugee camp was loud. But the question arises: how much more anger are people able to contain? How can they invest anger in building positive change when they are so often crushed against the wall of discrimination, ignorance and rigid bureaucracy?

These questions also left the volunteers of GSBTB Open Art Shelter wondering. They not only attended, but also recorded, the meeting and stayed afterwards to comfort their disappointed friends, confirming the respect they have towards their culture and how much belief they have in their ability to live independent, fruitful lives.

Lisa*, a volunteer:

“For me the worst thing was when he ridiculed a man who had asked for WiFi in the containers. WiFi is really important for people to contact their families who are far away – often you can only contact them on Skype or WhatsApp. The answer he got was full of sarcasm, saying that there wouldn’t be any internet for people to watch movies online.

I also watch movies online and I am still a good person, I study, I have friends. That same right belongs to refugees. It is silly that we even need to discuss something so obvious. This for refugees important representative seemed to have an image of refugees from an encyclopedia of stereotypes. For example, it was said that the residents would be happy in the container village because there they can smoke as much shisha as they want. It is scary that a person representing LaF sees refugees as lazy Arabs from a bad joke.”

Annick, a volunteer:

“There was very little empathy and understanding shown of the situation and the problems the residents are facing. For instance, the question of when they will be moving is very important. One resident talking about it compared it to his stay in jail in his country. He said at least there he knew he had been sentenced to one year. Here he doesn’t know how long it is going to go on like this. I understood that this is a form of torture for him.”

How innocent jokes and asides can destabilise trust and security

“There is some irony in the reason why I was not able to attend the meeting myself,” says Hania Hakiel, who runs GSBTB open Art Shelter. “Instead I was at the International Conference of Transcultural Psychiatry. There professionals from all over the world who specialise in working with refugees collectively agreed (from strong research and practice evidence) that the time asylum seekers and refugees spend in mass refugee accommodation is more a form of ongoing trauma than ‘safe arrival’ or ‘protection’.”

“It is a mistake to think that refugees deal only with post-traumatic symptoms related to war or persecution. They also deal with the uncertainty of a new place, stigma, discrimination, longing, separation from family, living conditions depriving them of privacy and freedom. Something so obvious for anybody who has ever engaged in an intimate talk with a newcomer to Europe, as a professional or as a friend, seems to be so terribly neglected by the policy makers and people with more direct decision-making power.”

“One of the sources of anxiety, depression and learnt helplessness is the feeling like a ‘nobody’ in a new land, feeling that your past and culture are not recognised or are ridiculed, and that your basic notion of control has been cut. So what upset me the most about this particular encounter, that my colleague recorded so I could watch it later with full attention, is not the lack of the precise dates or numbers related to the planned container village, but how once again the newcomers had to hear how little trust the authorities of their new home have in them. How can they trust their own ability to establish a new life here? How can they build trust in the new place? It’s not for nothing that chronic anxiety is sometimes referred to as a symptom of lost control, and depression a symptom of losing the last light of hope.”

“The message of superiority of the locals over the newcomers was transferred at the meeting through the most innocent rules and conceptualisations. For example, the belief that it is the system that is responsible for ensuring that children have a good sleep and go to school on time, is the one that disempowers and debilitates the parents. The same system that so eagerly expects the parents to be active players in integration processes of their children does not sound like it places much hope in the parents.”

“The same parents who are expected to actively learn German, participate in the life of their new local community, learn new skills, and find work have been presented by the representative of the system as people who are lazy, easily satisfied with shisha and online movies, people who will find novelty in being able to use a light switch. This is by all means humiliating and shaming, and it is also daring to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“When we choose not to see potential in people we push them down into helplessness and passivity based on anger. Watching the video recording of the meeting, I was struck by the lack of acknowledgment that the LaF official uses when speaking to heavily traumatised and potentially vulnerable people, for whom it is already difficult enough to find physical and psychological stability and often motivation to get out of bed. Not out of laziness, but out of depression and feeling lost in a new life. It reminded me of an old school I learned about during my studies that believed in motivating people to grow by shaming them in front of others (which is what happened at the meeting when sarcasm was used to answer the residents’ questions), rather than using motivation based on empathy, solidarity and acknowledgment of personal capabilities.”

How not to prevent terrorism

“After following media coverage on refugee politics and being in contact with local organisations and policy makers, it’s easy to have the impression that their main principle is cutting costs and trying to prevent extremism and terrorism,” says Hania.

“If this is what the officials are expected to do, then it’s quite obvious that the proposed solutions (like the container village) and dominant style of communication towards the residents are only going to be counter productive.”

“It is much more expensive to control every aspect of human life (from what people eat in the current Tempelhof hangars to who can visit them, also in the containers). People deprived of contact with their family members, people living behind fences, sons seeing their mothers being shamed by German men in a public space or being stereotyped as nothing more than shisha smokers: those people are much more likely to turn frustration into revenge and radicalism, or to fall into mental or psychosomatic sickness that would bring much higher costs for the system.”

“One could wish all these important people who claim the right to deprive people of their basic freedoms would be able to look further then the next election, or the next contest for a management position, even if all they care about is money and crime prevention.”

Some positive outcomes of the meeting 

The meeting did have a couple of positive outcomes.

Deep disappointment following the meeting pushed some residents to more actively look for places in some of the better refugee homes since the lost hope of the containers being better than the hangars. Some social workers at the camp supported them by issuing papers confirming the very poor living conditions in the camp, which made it easier for some residents to go to local authorities and demand better accommodation for them and their families.

This worked for some residents, but unfortunately not for everyone who tried it. The inconsistencies in support is an ongoing stress for the residents (and volunteers) who cannot understand why only some residents would be allowed to have this paper, when they all live with mice running through their beds.

And there is a new running joke among the residents and the volunteers. “What did you do last night?” “Oh I spent a few hours turning my lights on and off and on and off…” The fact that some residents make this joke with the volunteers and find it funny might seem sad, but it shows their capacity to overcome great darkness, if only they’re given the chance.

People desperately want to gain control over their own situation and narrative, and laughing at how LaF seems to look at them is their latest way to shape what is otherwise a very grim story of their lives in Berlin.

*Names have been changed