…there’s Jasmin*. She doesn’t speak or understand German yet, and her knowledge of English consists of about five words. We still try to talk. She wants to find out about me. She gestures at herself, forms a huge belly with her hands, points at me and asks, “Family?” It sounds like ‘fummily’, but I understand. Using hands and feet, I tell her about my children. She smiles.
There’s Cala. She tells me she’s been here for half a year. “Undershtand Girmin,” she says. “Not shpeak yet. But undershtand.” She does both, and much more than she gives herself credit for. We can talk with only a few difficulties. She applied for asylum upon arrival, and is still waiting for the decision. Back in Syria – Sooria, she pronounces it – she used to be a nurse. She wants to get on with her life. She’s bored. Asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work until the decision is through. Only a few weeks ago did she get the offer to at least do some voluntary work. Now she spends five days a week at the clothing counter, distributing used clothes to other refugees. She has a rash. The doctor told her she needs sun. She points at the dreary, gray, German sky. “No sun in Girminy.”
Cala and Jasmin show me the rings on their hands. Their faces grow envious when they hear about my children. They want children of their own. Both got married just briefly before they were forced to flee. Now they live in an old gym hall, little cubicles of non-existent privacy cordoned off behind plastic tarpaulins stretched over what looks like the temporary fences you have around construction sites. 120 people, none of them allowed to work, nothing to do all day, not even a TV or Wifi. No routine, no reason to get up, but not much sleep. There’s a constant murmur, someone on the phone, someone playing music, some child crying, 24/7. Everybody’s exhausted.
There’s Ali. He’s full of life and energy. He wants to learn German, proper classes five days a week. But he can’t. To sign up for classes, you need ID. He doesn’t have any. All he can do is go to the classes offered by volunteers, once a week, with no certificate at the end. He, too, can only wait for a decision. For some official to issue him some sort of ID.
There’s Mia. She’s only eight years old. She goes to school. You can watch her grasp of the German language grow with every second. She’s here with her mom and dad. “My brother is in Sweden,” she says. I want to know why he isn’t with the rest of the family. She frowns, looking for the right words, but she doesn’t find them. So she presses her thumb against the table, mimicking someone having their fingerprints taken. “He’s 24,” she adds. The gesture and the number tell me all I need to know. He got registered there, and being an adult, the laws about family reunification don’t really apply. A week later I hear that her mother is sick, and got transfered to a bigger town, to a specialist hospital, and her brother was allowed to come after all to help look after her.
There’s Ahmed. At some point, I see him running to catch up with his wife, a tiny, precious woman with a hijab covering her head. It’s made from some warm, silky material, and appears to be worn for warmth more than any other purpose. She’s freezing, badly. Ahmed holds out his hand, and she links arms with him. It looks sweet, old-fashioned, and somehow protective. He points at my husband and me, with our arms wrapped around each other, then at himself and his wife. “Girminy,” he says, and, “Sooria.” We laugh about this most minuscule of culture clashes, but I can’t help thinking how possessive we must look in comparison.
Lisa is another volunteer. She comes with a bag full of Easter presents for Mia. Chocolate, crayons, a coloring book. No one can tell us where Mia is, not even the security guy at the entrance. It’s a holiday, so she can’t be at school. We wonder if she got transfered to the bigger city, too, to be with her mom. Lisa leaves her bag with the security guy.
And I read an interview with the Austrian minister of defense, where he talks about visiting a refugee camp in Lebanon. “Of course those images move you,” he says. “But you mustn’t let yourself be influenced by them.” I wonder how he, or anyone, manages that.
*I’ve changed all the names. The rest is true.