On a recent blustery Sunday, I joined a tour group huddled by a schoolyard fence in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. A gust of wind pushed dead leaves across the basketball court as Ali, a Sudanese refugee, blew into his hands. He was showing us the Gerhart-Hauptmann School, an abandoned edifice from whose rooftop he had threatened to jump when, last summer, police tried to evict six hundred refugees who were living there. Ali continues to live at the school with twenty-three others; together with Mo, a guide from Somalia who was among the hundreds relocated from the school to a camp outside the city, he explained that the eviction effort had lasted more than nine days, involving more than seventeen hundred police officers and costing the city five million euros.
About a dozen of us were present outside the school, attracting uneasy glances from the security guards posted just inside the locked gate. We were participating in the inaugural outing of Refugee Voices, a donation-based “solidarity tour” that allows sympathetic locals and tourists a peek at Berlin’s subculture of asylum seekers and their allies. Other stops on our tour included Oranienplatz, a nearby square famous for activist gatherings, and Görlitzer Park, where young African refugees hang out and sell baggies of marijuana—for many newcomers the only work on offer. At each location, Ali and Mo shared stories of activism, police harassment, and efforts to study and find work. (All of the asylum seekers in this story asked to be identified only by their first names.)
Mo, a natural storyteller with an infectious laugh, described the journey he’d taken from Somalia to Germany four years ago, when he was twenty-six years old. He’d first left home to study business management at a Sudanese university, before finding a job as a manager at an oil company in Kuwait. When his visa expired, he was deported back to Somalia, where, he told me, members of Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, attempted to recruit him. “You can’t say no to these men,” he said. Mo’s family used their savings to send him to Syria. There, he paid a guide to lead him by foot across the mountains into Turkey. From Turkey, he was able to reach Athens, where he managed to board a plane to Germany using a Swedish passport he’d purchased for two thousand euros. His asylum status is still pending.
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