I was outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church for the second time, intending to go to a concert featuring the Berlin Orchestra. I was sitting on the steps outside, waiting for the doors to open, and I tried (and failed at) taking a selfie with the church in the background. I quickly gave up and started people watching, just waiting until the doors opened an I could go in. I was still feeling pretty homesick and still just shocked that I was actually here doing this research. It was all so surreal. I was lost in my thoughts when a man approached me and asked me something in German.
Not understanding, I shook my head. "I'm sorry --" I started.
He cut in and asked, "English?" When I said yes, and he asked, "Can you take a picture of me here?" and held out his phone to me.
"Oh, sure." I said, getting up. He put down the bags he was holding right next to me, and he went up the steps to pose for the picture I would take.
Since moments before I had been struggling to take a selfie, I asked him if he would take a photo of me as well. I remembered reading on a solo female travel blog about Berlin to not hand people your camera or phone and ask them to take a photo of you. It said that people often run off with cameras and phones so if you must, to ask a solo traveler like yourself. Since this guy had left his bags at my feet and phone in my hand, I figured I could trust him with my phone as well (although had I thought about it more, I would have probably taken my credit cards and id out of the slots on my phone case before handing it to him). But I handed him my phone, posed for the photo, and walked over and got it back.
Then he asked me, "Where are you from?," a question I was already used to hearing in Berlin.
"I'm from the U.S.," I answered.
"U.S.A.?!" he asked. "Why you come to Berlin?"
"I'm here for research for my master's degree."
"Ah, nice!" he exclaimed. "What do you research?"
"I'm researching about the challenges for refugees coming to Germany," I answered. This was the short, over-simplified version I'd been telling people to start off.
"I am a refugee!" he told me. "I am from Afghanistan."
"Oh really?" I was glad for this serendipitous meeting.
"Yes, and my friend, here she comes," he pointed behind me, where a woman was running towards us.
Initially, I was supposed to make the trip on June 5, my birthday, as it was a Sunday with absolutely nothing to do and the church service at the church where I had been going was canceled. I got up early, took the u-bahn to Alexanderplatz, and waited to catch the RE1 train... and it never came. After a difficult conversation - if you could even call it that - with a man at the information desk who barely spoke any English, I realized that train wouldn't be coming at all that day.
I didn't end up getting to Kyritz until June 27. I took a regional train, and when Zaker met me at the station, we took another train, this one a little one-car train smaller than most buses. We went to a stop called Wusterhausen where we walked a bit before reaching a building where Zaker attends a German class. After observing the class for a while, we took the little train again to the main part of Kyritz where Zaker and Amena both have apartments.
I went with Zaker up to his apartment. There was a small hallway and three doors, one of which we went through. The room had metal lockers and drawers along the right wall, a table with four chairs just in front of that, and a sitting area with two couches on either side of a coffee table. Two of the walls were lined with beds, two on either side for a total of four, although Zaker informed me that only three men lived in the room at the moment. I sat on one of the couches, and he took a seat next to it on his bed. He gave me juice and placed a small cake on a plate before me. Although he was fasting for Ramadan, he insisted that I eat and cut a piece of the cake. We sat and talked, and soon Zaker said he had things he wanted to show me. He went over to one of the lockers and withdrew a large, yellow envelope. He took out different certificates, reports, and documents and showed them each to me, explaining what they were. This was a report card showing his high school grades (which were all very high), this was a photocopy of his id card, this was a certificate of completion of a training program for translators, this was a book from his university which included a photograph of him and some work he did, this was his id when he was working as a translator with the United States military in Afghanistan. He seemed proud of each thing he showed me, and he handled his papers very carefully. I thought about how fortunate he was to have been able to carry so many documents with him to Germany; many refugees leave without being able to gather birth certificates, id cards, and passports or lose such documents along the way, which becomes problematic when they file for asylum in Europe.
After talking a little more, I was able to interview both Zaker and another man who was living in one of the other rooms of the apartment about their experiences and challenges in Germany. Shortly before the second interview was finished, Amena showed up with a little girl.
"Ah, come here, my daughter," Zaker said as he hugged the little girl and put her on his lap.
"Don't say that!" Amena shouted at him. "She is not your daughter!"
Zaker gave the little girl some colored pencils and paper to entertain herself. I couldn't help but notice that Amena, who upon our first meeting had seemed excited and energetic, seemed like a light had gone from her eyes. She seemed rather lethargic, tired, and weighed down. Smiling seemed to take a great effort as she greeted me, and she sat on the couch kind of slumping as if she was exhausted or defeated. When I finished up the second interview, I asked Amena if she would be okay with me interviewing her too. She said she didn't think so, and when Zaker tried to convince her, she asked what kind of things I would ask her.
"I'll just ask you questions about your experiences in Germany so far, what it's like here, what kinds of things are difficult, the things you like and don't like about being here..." I explained.
"Nothing is good! Nothing is easy!" she exclaimed. "Here, you need the permission for everything. And I am so boring here. I cannot do anything. I cannot work or take the German class or anything. It is not good."
That was as much as I got from her before she asked Zaker if we could all go out to Seestraße. Zaker, Amena, Amena's daughter, and I went outside. Amena put her daughter in a seat on her bicycle, and we walked, Zaker and Amena pushing their bicycles. We encountered an older, German woman who shouted and waved as she saw Zaker and Amena and greeted them with hugs when we were closer. She asked Amena about taking a plot of a garden, and Amena said she wouldn't have the time to tend to it since she was starting a German course soon, and the only course the job center could place her in was in Neuruppin, which required her to take a bus for over an hour each way. The woman was very understanding, but she wanted Amena to figure out a way she could still take care of the garden and suggested that maybe she and some friends could do it together. They said they would talk more about it later. Zaker introduced me to the woman, and she was surprised that I would come from the U.S. all the way to little Kyritz to research.
It was quite a distance to Seestraße, and during the last stretch, Amena rode her bicycle with her daughter on the back and I rode on the back of Zaker's bicycle. During the journey, Zaker informed me that Amena was here without her husband, just she and her daughter, and that her husband was back in Syria. He said that he tries to be her friend and help her as much as he can because he knows it's hard for a woman to come alone. When we got to the end of Seestraße, we reached our destination, a lake called Untersee. The map below shows the train station where the little train stops with a red star next to it, part of our route, including Seestraße, in red, and the lake with an arrow over it.
Once we arrived, Zaker suggested that we take a paddle boat out on the water and paid the few euros required to do so. We spent about two hours out paddling around on the lake. We stopped and docked out tiny boat at the little island you can see in the map above, and we spent some time walking around and swinging there. Afterwards, we paddled around some more, and Zaker even jumped in for a swim.
When we got back to the shore, we met a few other men who Zaker and Amena know, and we spent some time by the lake. There was a small playground that Amena's daughter enjoyed. Zaker and I walked the lake and talked while Amena sat beside an older, Syrian man.
Zaker told me about wanting to get a SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) and go to the United States. He told me about working as a translator with the military and about how when the unit he was working with left Afghanistan, he was totally unprotected and the Taliban threatened him and his family. He was seen as a traitor for working with people from the United States. He told me about how the situation got worse and worse and how finally, his father told him that he thought it would be best if he left Afghanistan. Zaker made his way to Europe and ended up in Germany, but there was no guarantee that he would be granted refugee status. I learned from various people while I was in Germany that Syrians are pretty much guaranteed refugee status and that the whole process for them usually goes relatively quickly and smoothly. The same is true for most people from Iraq, and people from certain parts of Iran and Eritrea. But the fate of people from other countries is less certain. Where you are fleeing from might determine whether you have an actual shot at getting to stay in Germany or whether you will be deported. If your country is recognized as a safe country, your chances are slim. Zaker told me that the Afghan government met with the German government and told them that Afghanistan was safe and that they would take Afghans who tried to claim refugee status in Germany back, and that severely minimizes the chances of an Afghan getting to stay in Germany. Zaker was doing everything he could to show that he should be allowed to stay in Germany. He found a way to enroll in a German class even though most refugees are not allowed to until their case has been closed and they have been granted full status. He had already worked up to the intermediate level, and he studied constantly. He tried to help other refugees as much as possible, often going with them to translate. He was not allowed to work because of his status, but he wanted to. I could tell he was terrified of the thought of returning to Afghanistan, and with good reason. Meanwhile, Zaker informed me, "You see these men?" referring to the three Syrian men we had met on shore. "They already had their cases heard. Now they can stay here, they can enroll in a German course, they can work. But what do they do? They take the money from the job center. Here they are every day, just fishing. They wake up and hang around, they come here to the water, they take some fish, they go home and cook the fish, and they do it again the next day. If the job center asks him, 'Why you not have a job?' he will say, 'How can I find a job. I don't speak the language' but he doesn't want to learn either." It seemed that Zaker felt that the Syrian men were wasting their opportunity, and I think if he were given the same opportunity, he would probably use it better.
Before we went back into town, we decided I would stay with Amena that night and go back to Berlin the next day. I was a little hesitant to agree to this at first, but after spending the day with them, I felt like it would be okay. Plus, we would have had to rush to get to the train station before the last little train went to the main station where I could catch a regional train back to Berlin. We stopped at a grocery store on our way back to get food for dinner, and a man outside the store greeted Zaker and showed him some papers. He and Zaker spoke for several minutes while I waited. Amena and her daughter had gone in. After a while, Zaker apologized and told me that the man had to go to an appointment at the school but that the paper explaining all this was in German so he couldn't read it. Zaker told me that he would go to the appointment, which was in just under an hour, with the man to help him by translating and that he would come to Amena's apartment and eat with us later.
Amena's apartment was much larger than where Zaker stayed. There was a bathroom and a good sized kitchen, a living room with two couches and a table, and a bedroom with a queen sized bed that she and her daughter shared. Amena gave me some clothes that I could sleep in, and I watched "Baba Sanfwr" (The Smurfs in Arabic) with her daughter on her laptop while she cooked dinner. She made a delicious meal, and when Zaker arrived around 9:30, we ate. Amena put her daughter to bed, but the three of us stayed up talking until well after midnight. When Zaker left, we went to bed.
The next morning, Amena fixed breakfast of some hummus and bread and some tomatoes, and we ate before she and her daughter walked me to the train station. As I left Kyritz, I was overwhelmed with heartache. I didn't feel it so much on the little train, but once I was on the regional train and settled in for the hour-long ride back to Berlin, I even got teary. I spent just over 24 hours in that place with those people, and it felt more like home than my apartment in Berlin did. On my way there, I was nervous, uncertain, unsure about being so far out of Berlin and in the company of people who were basically strangers who I had met only briefly once. But as I left, I felt like Zaker and Amena were my dear friends. Still now, my heart breaks at the thought that I really might never see them again.
Note: As the people I referred to in this post are also research participants, pseudonyms were used to protect confidentiality.