Sunday, June 12, 2016

Out On my Own

When I was planning my trip to Berlin for this research, over and over I was asked, "Is Michael coming with you?" Now, this is a logical question. We are married. I would be gone for several weeks. But somehow the question always took me by surprise. When I answered, "No, he's not," most people were shocked and responded with gasps and exclamations of, "Really?!," "Aren't you scared?!," or "You're going to be so lonely!" This is troubling and kind of problematic to me. Although, yes, I have been so dependent on Michael as a source of comfort, love, and care for years as my best friend, my boyfriend, my fiance, and my husband, I've still always considered myself pretty independent. This isn't to say, "Oh, I don't need him." It's just to say, well, I consider myself to be very capable on my own. I've dealt with a lot in life, and while it's extremely comforting to have someone going through life by my side now, I still don't want to lose sight of myself as a strong and capable woman.

Anyways, I would have liked to have Michael come along, to be honest. He's my best friend and my husband; obviously I enjoy his company. But first, I thought I'd barely be able to afford to go on my own and was hoping for just enough funding to get by. Once I realized that a lot of different funding sources wanted to offer me funding and figured that I would definitely be able to afford my own trip, I thought that maybe we could swing it to buy him a plane ticket so he could come too. But, by that point, I was only a couple weeks out from my departure date, and it was a little late to start the process to get him a passport (which I didn't think about until then). Part of me was pretty disappointed that I'd be away from him for seven weeks, but part of me was excited to solo travel.

Once I got here, it was a different story though. The first few days were extremely rough. I cried. A lot. I felt like 50 days solo abroad was going to be impossible. I was scared, lonely, and overwhelmed. I don't know when exactly things started changing for me; it happened kind of slowly I guess. I read a quotation that said something like, "Traveling alone allows you to enjoy your own company," and I realized that I didn't much like my own company. So at that point, maybe about one week into my trip, I decided that a sort of sub-project during my time here would be to figure out how to enjoy my own company, to work on myself.

The Guy on the U

After taking the u-bahn for the first time to get to church on my first Sunday here, I also had to take it to get back to my apartment. I had gone to lunch with the pastor and his family after church, and I had a pizza box with my leftovers that I carried with me, which I think must have been what was getting me several strange looks on the u-bahn.

When I was about half way there, a man sitting in the car just across from me looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back, and he asked, "Do you speak English?" The question brought me a strange relief, maybe because I had been having a bit of difficulty navigating Berlin in English, only knowing a handful of German words. I answered, "yes," and he proceeded to ask me where I was from and how long I had been living in Berlin. Our short conversation before he exited the train led to me giving him my name as it appears on facebook so we could connect. Now, I'm not usually one to give a total stranger any information about me, but what can I say? I was kind of desperate to make friends since I'm in this city alone, and I felt like facebook was a safe enough way to connect.

And we did connect. We decided to meet at 2pm the following Friday, May 27, to go get coffee or something. When we met up, we got on the train and he asked me about what I was doing in Berlin. After telling him that I'm here to research about refugees, he stopped me and said that I have to meet his friend who is with Singa Deutschland. Instead of going to get coffee, we got off the train, got on another train, and went to Kottbusser Tor. When we got off the train, he began walking briskly as I took two steps for every one of his to keep up. We ended up at Betahaus, where I was able to meet the founder of Singa and set up a time to interview her. I was also able to go to Singa's Livingroom Storytelling event last Thursday, which I think was a great way to get to know some people and seems to be a wonderful part of Singa's work.

The Livingroom Storytelling events are open for usually fewer than 15 people (this includes "newcomers" and "locals") and have some topic that they work around. I was told that one past topic was the meaning of your name. Thursday, June 2, the topic was your earliest memory. So the topics do not focus on some aspect of "the refugee experience," but instead seem to be centered on the human experience more generally. Personally, I think this is so great. In my studies, I've come across the term "the refugee experience" over and over. As academics, it's a phrase that indicates the experience of being in conflict or instability, the experience of fleeing, the experience of being in camps, the experience of being in transit, and the experience of resettlement. "The refugee experience" refers to all that in a neat, three-word phrase. I think Singa's work really challenges this, though. Singa sees refugees as people, which is not necessarily the case for all organizations. That's part of why Singa refers to the people volunteering in and benefiting from their work as "newcomers" and "locals." It doesn't have the connotation of legal status - rather, it just indicates whether you're new in Berlin or not. I really appreciate this terminology, and I feel like it's really useful.

Note: Photo above from Singa's Livingroom Storytelling Facebook event.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The First Few Days, or The Welcoming

As I've said, I'm behind on blogging... This post will focus mainly on a few moments during my first week or so here in Berlin during which I felt particularly welcomed or just moved by an act of kindness.

After spending a couple days on my own, wandering around my neighborhood by foot and trying to work up the confidence to get on the u-bahn (I was terrified that I was going to get hopelessly lost the second I got on), I finally was forced to give public transportation a try. I had connected with the Pentecostal missionaries here in Berlin and decided that I would be going to their church while I'm here. Moment of honesty: Although church has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, in the last year, I realize it's really taken a much lower place on my list of priorities. I think this happened for a number of reasons... My pastor and his family, all of whom I loved dearly, moved away last February, this meant I was no longer as involved in that church since I didn't need to be around to coach their girls in Bible quizzing. We went through a period of looking for a new pastor, and I started skipping mid-week services with the excuse of being bust with school (which I really was in my last semester of my undergraduate degrees, finishing up two theses and classes). We got a new pastor by April or May, but then I had moved back to Denver for the summer before I would move up to Wyoming for graduate school in August. Since I was only going to be there for a short time, I didn't get involved in the church in Denver and sometimes I drove up to Loveland to go to church there instead. I felt like suddenly, I was no longer connected; for the first time in my life, I didn't have a church that I considered to be "my" church. Anyway, once I moved to Wyoming, I was coming to Denver almost every weekend to see my family, my fiance, and take care of wedding stuff. We got married in September, Michael moved to Wyoming, and we tried to figure out the church situation. Having both been in the Pentecostal church for years, we first went to the UPC church in Laramie. Without going into detail, I'll just say that we talked and decided we didn't want to be there. During the past school year, we spent a few Sundays visiting other churches, a couple Sundays at the UPC church, a couple at Loveland, several Sundays in Denver at our old church, and many Sundays at home. To be honest, although at one point in my life I would have been extremely convicted about missing so much church, during the school year, I didn't mind at all. I didn't feel bad. I kind of shrugged it off. Yet, I know that I want to be involved and connected in a church again, and I keep telling myself that I need to figure out where we need to be so we can reconnect. Anyway, although I haven't been consistently going to church for a while, I determined to do so while in Berlin both because I thought church would be good for me and because I knew I'd have a lot of alone time and could probably use the company.

So Sunday, May 22, I had to take two different underground trains to get to the church. And you know what? It wasn't hard at all! I had really worked myself up with nervousness about public transportation, but it was super simple. At the church, the pastor's family greeted me and asked about my research and how long I would be in Berlin before service started. After church, Pastor Suppan introduced me to a man in their congregation who he said was a refugee and might be able to help me. This man. Brother Sam, immediately said he would love to help and that we should meet the next Saturday and he'd take me to a refugee camp. I was really surprised how quickly he volunteered to help. We exchanged telephone numbers and agreed to meet the coming Saturday.

The next day, on Monday, May 23, I went to meet one of the two translators who will be working with me on my research as needed. We got together, and almost immediately, he volunteered to show me around Berlin a bit. We took the u to Alexanderplatz, where we walked around and got dinner at KFC (his suggestion as it's one of his favorite places). He told me about how he got to Berlin; he himself is a refugee from Syria, and in Syria, his family were refugees from Palestine. We then got on a bus that travels all around the city and passes some major tourist sites. We took the bus to the other end of town by the zoo and walked along the river for a while. Somewhere in conversation it came up that my phone wouldn't work to send texts to German numbers, and he suggested that he lend me an extra phone he had. I'd just have to buy minutes for it. So after walking around a bit more, we went across town again to go to his apartment. He welcomed me in, I met his roommate, and we all talked over some Coke while he charged the phone. I know these are kind of small gestures, showing me around, lending me a phone, pouring me a glass of Coke, but really, they meant the world to me.

The welcoming continued on Saturday when I met Brother Sam to go to the refugee camp. I took a train from Alexanderplatz to meet him, and then we got on a bus. When we got on, he motioned for where I should sit and stood in the aisle waiting for me to get into the seat nearest the window of the bus. He saw some people he apparently knew further back in the bus and took a few steps over to them to talk for a moment. When he came back and sat next to me, he asked how I was liking Berlin, checked that I got to K├Ângis Wusterhausen, the train station where we had met, with no problem. He explained that we had to pay extra for the bus because this was travelling within the C zone. I remembered reading about that on a website with information about public transportation in Berlin before coming. We talked as we rode along, and he commented that the camp was pretty far away from the train station. As we got closer, he noted, “I have not been to the camp since I left. Once I could get out, I never looked back.” I felt even more appreciative thinking about how it could be tough for him to return.

When we got off the bus, he approached three younger guys, probably about my own age, who had also gotten off the bus. He introduced me, and they each shook my hand and greeted me with smiles. As we waited for the cars that had stopped behind the bus to pass so we could cross the street, one passenger who was young and white, I assume German, leaned out of his rolled down window and made sort of loud, barking noises at us. A couple of the young men shook their heads, and Brother Sam told me, “You see, this kind of things happens to us. Some people will say bad things or yell at us, but we just must let it go. What can we do?” When we crossed the street, Brother Sam explained that I was a student at a university in America and I’m doing some research about refugees and then said, “Well, maybe you can explain better.” I told them that I was doing research about why refugees come to Germany and what kinds of challenges they have here.We walked a short distance along a fence to a gate, and one of the guys retrieved a key from his pocket. We entered the camp without a problem. It struck me as somehow odd that there was no procedural hassle getting in. I expected to have to check in, to have to tell someone who I was and why I was there, but the gate was unmanned, and as far as I could tell, no camp officials were present. Brother Sam had told me that I might be surprised by the camp as it wasn’t just tents or something. I thought that it might be like a large facility, a gymnasium or something, with makeshift cubicles within. However, the camp was much like dorms, the buildings resembling apartment buildings.

We followed the three guys we were with into one of the buildings, and we went up the stairs into one of their rooms. It was small, but not much smaller than the main room of the apartment I have here. There were two beds on the left, and closets, a table and chairs on the right. The guy, Mesfin, pulled a chair out and told me to sit there, so I did. He asked if Brother Sam and I would like water, orange juice, or Coke and pulled out a few cups. I thanked him and told him I had a water bottle, but he poured me some water anyway. Mesfin took another chair, and Brother Sam took a seat on the bed. My interviews would start with Mesfin and Tesfay, two of the three guys. The third, who didn’t seem to be understanding much of our conversation before, kind of disappeared when we got to Mesfin’s room. Brother Sam was also there, and part of the way through, Mesfin’s roommate, Merhawi, came in. After we finished up in Mesfin’s room, Mesfin and Brother Sam took me down the hallway to see the community bathroom and kitchen and then down the stairs to another room where I met Marwan, a Syrian man. Mesfin stayed during this interview, but Brother Sam left to try to find more people.  Brother Sam sent in three more people, and after finishing up with that group, Brother Sam took me to a family room where we talked with a lady, Sanura, for a few minutes before running to catch the bus. We ran up to say good bye to Mesfin before leaving, and he had made us a pizza, which he insisted we take with us. It amazes me how people with so little can be so generous.

From Brother Sam's generous offer to take me back to the refugee camp he used to live in, to my translator's several hours spent chatting with me, showing me around Berlin, and giving me Coke and a cell phone, to Mesfin's hospitality in his small room in the refugee camp, in the first few days of my time in Berlin, I was warmly welcomed again and again in several small ways that I will always remember.

Note: As many of the people I referred to in this post are research participants, several names are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Kottbusser Tor

A few days after I arrived here in Berlin, on Tuesday, May 24, I visited Kottbusser Tor for the first time. If the rest of Berlin is loud and crowded, Kottbusser Tor is deafening and bursting. The place is overflowing with life. People hurry past to and from the U-Bahn station, a grocery store, restaurants, cafes, other small shops, and apartments seem to be piled on top of each other, people are shouting, intersections are full of traffic.

I went to Kottbusser Tor on that Tuesday to meet one of the students from the Freie University of Berlin who will be working with me as a translator as needed. I had only Skyped and emailed her before, but once I got here we decided to meet up, and she suggested Kottbusser Tor. We would meet in front of the Kaiser's (a grocery store), where some apparently homeless people sat, where people came up from and went down to the U, and where I stood awkwardly waiting for about 15 minutes. As she was running late, she ended up texting me to go to Cafe Kotti, which was just a bit down Adalbertstrasse and up some stairs.I found it pretty easily, which surprised me, and I sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke and ordered a chai tea.

Since that Tuesday, Kottbusser Tor has become a favorite area of mine to stop and wander around. The stop is on my way to my apartment most times (it depends of which U-Bahn I'm taking), and if I have extra time, I actually enjoy getting off there and wandering around. I thought the part of Schoneberg where I live was diverse, but Kottbusser Tor is even more so. Japanese, Singaporean, Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Indian, and even Mexican restaurants line Oranienstrasse, a street close by the U-Bahn stop. An array of smaller cafes, clothing stores, electronic stores, random knickknack stores, book stores, etc. are crammed together. People crowd the sidewalks and cars pack the streets. People sit on the curbs, against buildings, or in the middle of the sidewalks begging, eating, or just taking a break. According to the Wikipedia page, the area is known for drug-related crime and is also affectionately referred to as "Kotti."

And there at Kottbusser Tor, this busy, bustling, brimming corner of the world, is Betahaus. Betahaus is probably the coolest working environment I've ever seen. I went there for the first time on May 27, when I met up with a guy who I had randomly met on the U-Bahn the previous Sunday afternoon. I told him a bit about what I was doing here, and just like that, he decided I had to meet a friend of his who runs an organization called Singa Deutschland (more about them in an upcoming post). We went there and talked to her briefly, and I'm getting at least one interview and also meeting some more fantastic people as a result! The second time I went to Betahaus was to meet someone who works with MigrantHire, which is a fantastic organization that is striving to help newcomers coming to Berlin as refugees and migrants find jobs. I had the opportunity to interview someone involved in this work, which was just inspiring.

Clearly, I'm a little behind on posting about how things are going, but more about my trip to come soon!