Prager frühling spoke to Tina and Sina from Refugees Welcome Karoviertel (RWKaro) and Patrick, one of refugee-activists, who occupied Oranienplatz from October 2012 to April 2014, about the political impact of welcome initatives, paternalism and the long-term perspective of antiracist struggles.
RWKaro was founded in the beginning of August 2015, when about 1200 refugees were accomodated by the local administration in an exibition hall in Hamburg. After the eviction of the Oranienplatz’ protesters, several acts of protest took place. Nevertheless the dispute about a “compromise” with the Senate, that turned out to be a deception, left the protests disrupted.
prager frühling: These days we can see that a lot of people donate clothes, spend their time and share their knowledge. Why does this happen right now and not before?
Sina: Speaking about RWKaro, it’s because now refugees arrived in our quarter. It is not just in the media anymore, it is happening in our neighbourhood. I think this was the point when people realized that it turned into an urgent subject where everybody had to react.
Tina: I think in addition to Sina’s point, for quite a long time there had been pictures in the media, of people drowning in the sea. Many people felt powerless watching this and for years had no idea what to do. And now - suddenly - there was the chance to show practical solidarity.
Patrick: … or is it just because Angela Merkel did a public call?
Tina (laughing): Honestly? I don't know. But I think the third reason was, that in the same time there were these racist attacks in Heidenau. People wanted to show that they do not agree with Neo-Nazis. This was a kind of mobilisation as well. But of course there were many reasons in the years before to become active. But now several things come together. What do you think?
Patrick: I might have a different point of view, especially on the call from Angela Merkel. It is not true that people really didn’t know how to support or how to react to the situations of refugees. It is not new that refugees come to Germany or Europe. We have been coming! I came here in 2010 and I lived in on of these Lagers in Passau. No one from our neighbourhood asked what they could do for the refugees. They asked: “Why are the refugees here? Why do they look at my wife?” One young man bought a house near our Lager. He said: “I don’t want these people to look at us. I want you to build a fence.” He gave this as a requirement to the Heimleiter and finally they built one. We were really shocked.
Also in other places there were people, who ignored us completely. We were not allowed to enter the disco. People even used to slap us. On the bus they talked in German about us. “These people eat with rats.”
Tina: ... pure racism.
Patrick: We were eager to be integrated in the community – but there was no chance. Apart from a few people, students and local activists. They supported us. What happens now on the national level is propaganda.
Tina: I agree that there is a huge appropriation of the Welcome-Initiatives. When the so called train of hope arrived in Hamburg, nothing was prepared so we thought we should organize support very quickly via social networks. Hundreds of people came there. The next day it was all over the news – and it was celebrated as the kindness of the German people. That was definitely not the plan, but it shows how volunteer support is been pocketed by those who are interested in presenting Germany as a friendly, open, liberal country. For example the municipality of Hamburg is really eager to present itself as the open, tolerant and broad minded metropole – not least because of their application for the Olympic Games. We as anti-olympic and pro-refugees activists say: The youth of the world is already here, we do not need the Olympic Games.
Patrick: The people forget that Germany has a stake in this crisis and in the reasons why refugees are leaving their countries. Germany is one of the European member states, that make our economies “kaputt”. These are the precise reasons why we are coming here, especially us African refugees.
The Germans don’t ask: “Why have refugees to live in Lagers? Why are refugees not allowed to move from one city to another? Why is it not possible for refugees to learn Deutsch?” We wanted to learn Deutsch but no one requested this from the government.
Today they use that to criminalise us, to say: “You don’t even want to integrate.” I went to the the Volkshochschule in Passau and asked if I could take German lessons. Then they asked me if I had a passport. I said I had none and presented my ID. They said: “No, with this you can’t.” I said I am ready to pay but there was no chance.
Some people say that there is a disparity between Syrian refugees and African refugees. People think these refugees are easier to integrate but we are the criminals who just look for something to eat.
Tina: We definitely have to reject the division between “real refugees” and alleged “economic migrants”. I encountered a situation, when a supporter refused to provide an Albanian man with food and drinks. It was an isolated case but it shows how strong these discourses shape the mind even of supporters. Anyway, because of our massive growth and the heterogenity we have really strange discussions from time to time. There are lot’s of people, who have problems to name their support as a political act. They say: I want to sort some clothes, but if it gets political, I am out. Well, I think some of those people might change their mind when they realize how refugees are treated. Practising solidarity will hopefully strengthen their political awareness.
prager frühling: Patrick, from your experience of the O-Platz protests: In a way the struggles there failed. But in a way it has also changed society. Right now society is changing again ...
Patrick: Of course. I agree. Society is changing – but in which way?
Tina: You described your situation in Passau. Since then some things changed. Did anything change for you?
Patrick: On a personal level? Nothing! Apart from the good friends I met. In Passau I had no friends. My life changed in the way that I became more active in the refugee struggle. I became more powerful. Until today I have no Bleiberecht. Only a temporary refrain from beeing deported … Some friends I mobilised they got a Bleiberecht. They gave me an Ausweisung because of my political activism but still I feel motivated.
Tina: With more refugees are coming to Germany do you think this could strengthen your struggle?
Patrick: Exactly. Whatever their reasons are they are coming to Germany. This is the right place. More and more should come.
pf: A lot of refugee supporters claim they do work, that should be done by the state. You, Patrick, said the state structure excluded you from education, when you went to the Volkshochschule. When the state provides a service, it alway asks for papers. When we appeal to the state that always means there will be exclusions. Which role should the state take? Where should the state get in and where do we have to keep it out?
Patrick: For me it is clear not to appeal to the state because it won’t change everything unless you people come around and say: “No, we can’t tolerate this.” There is no more trust after the eviction of Oranienplatz. We have to force the state to change things. We went to Humboldt University to question them to open their space for refugees. They did not answer.
Due to the big mass of refugees and the German propaganda, Humboldt University offered classes for refugees. They said we could attend classes freely, without any education certificates, but they want to see our status. After this they would issue a card that allows you to attend the classes. But we will get nothing: No certificate for the attendance, no certificate of recognition. Why do they want to check my ID? Why do they want to register me? There is no need to register me, as long there is nothing I am going to get. At the end I am just a guest. This is not correct. This is University propaganda taking advantage of the current situation. The refugees should be aware. They should work on themselves not to take things for granted: “People are welcoming us?” People are not welcoming us! They are welcoming their jobs. We give job platforms for the Germans. I can’t ask money for my political work. But those who are helping refugees get a lot of money. How many new Lagers are there now? And who is welcome there to work? German people.
Tina: That’s right: Working with Refugees might get a job and money. But our initiative acted because we realized a humanitarian state of emergency. The Government is not willing or able to do the necessary things to provide shelter for living, food and medicine. In the end of course this can’t be a volunteer task forever. I totally agree with you. I think our task as activists is to open the spaces for migrants — spaces for education, for living, for work, not to stay in the state of helping or imagination of helping. As german activists we want to support the struggles of refugees arriving and are willing to stay here.
Sina: That is what our initiative is trying right now, bringing it from the first emergency humanitarian help to a level where we started to apply political pressure and to build up long term structures. We also want to give refugees the opportunity to help themselves, to find ways to get connected, maybe to use the internet to get information about local activities, contact points and possibilities.
pf: Where is the line between solidarity and charity?
Patrick: People should stop giving things that they do not like themselves.
Tina: Good point! (laughs)
Sina: A lot of people take it for granted that refugees should be happy about everything they get, for example when it comes to the food they get in the ZEAs (Zentrale Erstaufnahmeeinrichtungen). You hear things like “Why don't they like the pita bread? I mean, they're from Arabia, they have to like it!” It's like feeding Germans with Sauerkraut everyday, they would complain, too.
Patrick: Those who are just arriving, clap their hands. Those that get more aware of the struggle, are not happy.
Tina: The act of helping implicates the expectation to receive gratitude. This is a problem for the personal relationship at eye level. But the help itself is important. Don’t you think so?
Patrick: People have to stop these questions: “Where do you come from? Why did you come? Why did you choose Germany?” These are strange questions. Those that were active in their home countries they feel that this is not right. This creates a gap and shows the other one that he is not supposed to be here. One does not have to justify oneself for being in Germany.
prager frühling: Is there an opportunity in your initiative for refugees to be part of the inner group that organises the refugee help?
Sina: Some refugees are part of the working groups. There are refugees in child care and in the sports-group. They are in the team and do not only receive help but also take an active part and try to help others. I think this is a topic how we can structure it that refugees can become part of the whole thing and not just be the helping receiver.
Patrick: Refugees should make their own decisions what they want to work on.
Tina: That’s the thing with the Lampedusa-people. They are in Hamburg since 2 years and there is a practice of speaking out loud, self organizing and not helping, but staying beside.
Patrick: Here it is quite different. Most people stay within the idea of helping. I have been active in trying to bring out ideas. But supporters don’t focus on them. Among the supporters these ideas were turnt into: Oh we are doing this for refugees. Sometimes they even present these ideas without us refugees. So if we want to make our ideas more effective and part of the solution, we have to be on frontline. Not just the escort.
We refugees have turned into commodities. In my country there are seasons of corn, coffee, cotton, banana. During corn-season everyone is hunting for corn. Same story with the refugees here. Those refugees who are struggeling for a change of laws, we are not longer wanted. Because we expired. New refugees arrived and those who started the struggle are forgotten. Even people I knew who used to call me all the time no do so. But if you go to LaGeSo, they are there. Doing the same thing, they do at O-Platz. Because there is a public place and the Germans can see they are helping.
That is my frustration here in Berlin. We refugees occupied the Oranienplatz and the school. There are hundreds of white organisations supporting refugees now. They are very happy that there new people, coming in.
Tina: There is a lot of disappointment and anger on your side, isn’t it?
Patrick: Exactly. If you go to LaGeSo – you see tons of food. But if others will come, you will see – no more talk about Syrian refugees. You will wonder: Where they are. The government is doing everything that is possible to get rid of us. They are tightening laws and finding new strategies to divide the refugees. And no one is talking how to react to this. How to put pressure on this, how to become visible. Why is there this silence? And at the end of they day, even the one we have welcomed. We will have no one. We know this government: They will say: Syrians must go back.
We need to empower each other and stop the tendency of helping. Solidarity has been misused and turned into humanitarian aid. We have to fetch it back.
The Interview was recorded by Lena Kreck and Stefan Gerbing.