In 2015/16, more than a million refugees sought asylum in Germany. The School of Journalism responded by creating Missoula to Berlin, a summer program designed to teach international journalism in a real-world, breaking-news setting. Under the guidance of Dean Larry Abramson, Associate Professor Henriette Löwisch and Berlin photographer/filmmaker Shane McMillan, 18 students set out to document the crisis and bring the stories back to their communities. The group included writers, photographers, designers and researchers with a passion for storytelling.
Students worked through fall to help pay for their international reporting trip, by organizing fundraising events in Missoula and online. In the spring they began picking topics to report on, and pitched their story ideas.
Learning by doing is the motto of Missoula to Berlin. For the first time, the J-School’s International Reporting course culminated in a three-week trip overseas. In addition to instruction and lectures by faculty and experts, the team investigated Germany’s response to the crisis through interviews with refugees, officials and locals. Students edited and produced their stories for publication as part of the trip.
These are the stories that emerged from three weeks of reporting in Berlin.
Humans of Berlin
Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York,” the Missoula to Berlin team created their own “Humans of Berlin” series. The people photographed here range from the characters in our stories to interesting people we met on the street. The captions below are a small snippet of their lives – a peek into the person behind the photo.
On two wheels
Syrian refugees discover bike freedom
Mariya Alesh swung her leg over her new bike for the first time and started pedaling, shaky at first, then more confident. She pulled the brakes, a huge smile spreading across her face.
“I learned to ride a bike as a child, but I’ve never owned one,” she said, excitedly.
Alesh, 20, arrived in Germany from Syria with her new husband in 2015. From a friend, she heard about Rückenwind, an organization in Berlin that collects bikes and bike parts to give to refugees. She signed up for the program and waited seven months. This summer, she finally had the chance to build herself a bike and take off.
Rückenwind is just one of many initiatives that sprung up in the German capital in response to the greatest migration of people in Europe since World War II. Its volunteers work with refugees to help them choose and repair bikes. The organization has only one paid employee; everyone else provides their time and services for free.
The project is the brainchild of Lukas Heidenreich, a young Berliner who describes himself as chronically overinvolved. A civil engineering student by day, he is also a booking agent for DJs in Berlin, unless he’s backpacking in Patagonia. He’s the type of person who sees an opportunity and takes action.
“It’s really hard for me to not get carried away,” he said.
Back in the winter of 2014, Heidenreich was one of the first Berliners to notice that the number of people seeking refuge in his city was rising dramatically. Online, he found a list of items that concerned German citizens might be able to provide to the newcomers. It was drawn up by Moabit Hilft, a local nonprofit that later became instrumental in caring for thousands of people arriving in the German capital in the summer of 2015. The list included items like clothes, shoes, food and bicycles.
For refugees aching to start over in Germany, bikes have the potential to boost mobility — especially for those who take a proactive approach to their future. Rather than having to rely on public transportation, they can cycle to their asylum-related interviews and appointments. They are also more flexible when it comes to attending German classes in places where mass transit is less frequent, especially in the evenings.
Alesh, who lives in a refugee shelter just outside Berlin, takes German lessons at Fachhochschule Potsdam, a college of applied sciences in a smaller city in the state of Brandenburg. Two trams run to the school, but they are often overcrowded, and she finds them nearly inaccessible during rush hour. She’s also wary of unscheduled delays.
“Sometimes you just have to be somewhere on time,” she said.
When Heidenreich saw that refugees needed bikes, he rallied his six best friends and together they started their initiative, which they named after the German term for tailwind. Rather than just handing out old bikes, at Rückenwind volunteers and refugees work together, building partnerships in which people from different cultures can learn about each other.
“It connects German people with refugees,” Heidenreich said.
The founders’ idea was popular. They won around $9,000 in a nonprofit contest, allowing them to rent a space for their workshop from the organization Refugio, which houses refugees and runs a café in Berlin. Soon after, Google held a competition for local tech projects with social applications. Rückenwind was a runner-up and received another $11,000. Then, private donations started to arrive and business took off.
In its first year, Rückenwind provided 365 bikes for refugees. In a country that saw 1.1 million asylum seekers cross its borders in 2015, that may not sound like many bikes. But for a tiny organization that, in its infancy, can only open its doors two days each week, fixing an average of one bike per day for a year was an impressive feat.
Success, however, brought new challenges. Running the organization was expensive, and as full-time students, the project’s founders simply didn’t have the time to serve everyone as quickly as they wanted to, so the waiting list grew. In the summer of 2016, it contained about 400 people, and Heidenreich estimates it will take the organization at least nine months to provide a bike to each person. They have temporarily stopped accepting new applicants.
“If any more refugees come, it would just be — I don’t know — too sad to tell them, yeah, you can come to our shop in one year,” Heidenreich said.
In order to address this challenge, Jakob Schult, a Berliner who met the Rückenwind founders while traveling in Thailand, is developing an app that will record where in Germany there is a need for bikes, and where there are bikes accessible. Since similar initiatives exist all across the country, the app will help direct refugees who need bikes to workshops that have the resources to provide bikes and labor without too long a wait.
“I think it might be a nice way to better settle out the demand and supply in order to fix all the bikes as soon as possible for the refugees,” Schult said.
The app is just one example of how young non-profits can extend their reach without becoming too big for their own good. Another is to spread and share concepts and knowledge.
Dennis Hoenig-Ohnsorg, who leads the corporate responsibility team for Zalando, a fast-growing e-commerce company based in Berlin, says organizations should seek to replicate the systems they know work.
“You should try to scale your solution, which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to scale the organization,” Hoenig-Ohnsorg said.
Rückenwind is working on a guide to help similar organizations succeed while avoiding some of the trials and errors it experienced. It also hopes the new app will create a network between the groups, which will in turn help them all become more efficient by directing the demand for bikes toward the supply.
Though one is still a volunteer while the other has arrived in the corporate world, Heidenreich and Hoenig-Ohnsorg share characteristics that have shaped a startup culture that separates Berlin from the rest of Germany. They are problem solvers. They also think creatively and constantly look for opportunities.
Mariya Alesh fits right in with this startup generation. She doesn’t wait for life to happen to her. Instead, she takes action.
Last year, in just one week, she decided to marry her then-boyfriend and board a small boat across the Mediterranean to escape the war in Syria and start a new life in Europe.
Today, she can’t wait to become proficient in German, so she can then take academic classes that prepare her for university. For her, the promise of an independent future is embodied in one blue bike.
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Ready to work
Highly qualified refugees struggle to gain employment in Germany
Each night, Alaa Kasaab stands in front of a mirror, practicing both her English and her German, desperately trying to remove any trace of an accent.
An English teacher by training, the 23-year-old is struggling to keep current in her first foreign language, while also acquiring the high level of German proficiency she needs. Once she reaches it she can apply for a teacher’s course in her new country.
“What job can I get here? Nothing,” Kasaab said, clasping her hand into a fist. ”In Aleppo, in Syria, an English literature certificate would qualify me to be a teacher because I would know English. I would be a teacher and get hired.”
In Germany, Kasaab is experiencing a complicated aspect of the current migration movement. With an aging society, the country has a need for qualified workers; in Berlin, for example, elementary school teachers are in high demand. Yet the language barrier and a rigid system of certifications make gaining employment particularly difficult for professionals, whether they are teachers, nurses, engineers or computer technicians.
As a result, of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in Germany in the past 12 months, very few have found work.
This April, the German federal labor office reported nearly 650,000 unfilled positions, a sign of a humming economy, but also of an ongoing labor shortage. The shrinking workforce is expected to remain a concern in the upcoming years, says Hannes Koch, a journalist who covers economics for several German newspapers.
“Some institutes say there’s only a gap of 2 million, but there’s some papers saying the gap will be 6 million,” Koch said. “We definitely need additional workers, employees, to keep up our economy and to keep up our gross national product.”
No wonder, then, that many German companies greeted the recent influx of refugees with hope. After all, almost 70 percent of the newcomers are estimated to have a secondary or university level of education. Nearly one-third of companies plan on hiring refugees in the future, according to an industry survey. But getting university degrees and previous work experience recognized is difficult.
Dennis Hoenig-Ohnsorg, head of corporate social responsibility at Zalando, an e-commerce company based in Berlin with nearly 10,000 employees, points to German laws and regulations as a reason why his firm has yet to hire one of the recent immigrants.
“Germany is a highly bureaucratic country, where it’s really difficult to hire someone without the prerequisites,” he said.
Others, like David Jacob, creator of an online job portal named Workeer, hope to triumph over bureaucracy by directly connecting qualified workers with potential employers.
“The crafts or IT companies, they’re struggling to find people,” Jacob said. “For them this is a chance to really reach out to a new group of people with new potentials and new backgrounds.”
The teaching profession, in particular, has experienced shortages in some areas of the country. For that reason, German states like Berlin have been actively trying to persuade workers from other professions to become teachers through a fast-track system that shortens the usual training period necessary for certification.
The fast track, however, generally isn’t open to refugees, even if they worked as teachers in their home countries. Kasaab estimates it will take her five to six years to qualify as a teacher in the public German school system, even though she already studied English Literature in her hometown of Aleppo for four years.
This spring, she was accepted into an intensive course at the University of Potsdam for refugees with a teaching background or an interest in becoming teachers. The course aims to introduce refugee teachers to the German educational system before they begin their formal training, and provides rigorous language lessons so participants can learn German as quickly as possible.
Students discuss topics such as the differences in culture when teaching and in the classroom, said Miriam Vock, an education researcher at the university. “It’s a very interesting perspective to bring Syrian teachers and German teachers together to educate students and exchange views on teaching.”
While the university focuses on intercultural exchange, Kasaab’s priority is to blend in. A Muslim woman, she decided to remove her head covering, eliminating a potential hurdle to entering the teaching force. Some German states, including Berlin, refuse to hire teachers wearing the hijab or any other religious symbol in school.
Kasaab says her decision was motivated by the desire to exercise her freedom of choice. “I don’t agree with forcing women teachers to remove their covers because that’s discrimination. I get why they say it, but I don’t agree with it,” she said, grabbing at her hair and twirling the dark brown curls between her fingertips. “It wasn’t because of that or anyone, I just wanted to be able to work again.”
Kasaab brought all of the necessary education documents and certification with her on her journey from Syria, even getting them translated to German to ease the process. Yet her degree and experience are not comparable to that of a German teaching diploma, which requires not only coursework in instructional methods and specific majors, but also 18 months of training in the classroom.
“I thought maybe I had wasted my certificates and studying for years for nothing because I am starting from scratch here,” she said. “But I know I have to keep trying to learn this system. My first step is to learn the language. I don’t want to give up.”
For the new generation of refugee children, Kasaab’s persistence might prove crucial. Silke Donath, vice-principal at Johanna-Eck-Schule, a secondary school in Berlin where many students are learning German as a second language, believes that refugee teachers could ease communication between immigrant parents and schools.
“We need people of those communities in schools, because it’s easier to communicate,” Donath said. “People who grew up in Berlin or Germany, they know the system, they know how to navigate it, but they don’t know the culture, the language. So there’s a cultural background that you need to use, too.”
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Refugee minors do it alone
Fahd Omar left Turkey for Greece under the cover of nightfall, in the company of a lone friend. Others had suggested he stick with a larger group that could keep him safe, but he thought, “No. I’m 16, they’re 20, 21, 23. Somehow they’re just going to take my money and run away.” During the dangerous sea crossing, he feared for his life. “It was really cold,” he said. “The waves were coming over and over.”
Fahd survived and has since become one of over 60,000 unaccompanied refugee minors currently living in Germany. Chances are he’ll live without a parent until he comes of age. While special protections are in place for underage refugees, the German government has recently made it harder for minors to apply for family members to join them in their new home.
Fahd is a gregarious teenager who is quick to smile. Now 17, he says he left Syria with $3,000 in his pocket, and without the protection of his family, in 2015. His father, he says, was an armament specialist who opposed the government of Bashar Assad, while his sister was forced to teach survival skills to loyalist soldiers. Both died in a rocket attack on their car.
Fahd’s mother survived and currently lives in Turkey. Fahd frets about her health and safety, and she would prefer for him to join her in Istanbul. But Fahd has chosen to remain in Berlin. “I care about my education, I care about my future,” he said.
Fahd was penniless by the time he arrived in Germany. He was assigned a bunk in a hostel and immediately began teaching himself German, while embarking on the procedures that would determine whether he’d be allowed to stay, and for how long.
The process can easily take months. By February, 2016, 4,252 unaccompanied refugee minors were living in Berlin, stretching available resources, Martina Kinzel, the city’s youth migration services coordinator, said. Asylum procedures for unaccompanied refugee minors are given priority, and asylum interviews are conducted in a gentler manner. But Fahd still compares the process to a “luck shot.” “You lose hope and you get it back,” he said. “It’s really confusing. You wait, you wait, you wait.”
All underage refugee minors applying for asylum in Germany are required by law to have a guardian before proceeding with an asylum application. There are two types of guardians, private ones and state-appointed ones. Fahd was lucky. In November, one month after arriving in Berlin, he met his private guardian, Thomas Fuhrmann, a journalist.
Fuhrmann largely relies on his own resources and contacts to help Fahd. “It’s a lot of waiting and wasted time if you depend on the government sources,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s the whole idea of this guardianship, that you don’t do the normal, average stuff, but try to help these minors.”
Fuhrmann compares his guardianship role to that of an uncle, very unlike the situation of state-appointed guardians who are responsible for up to 50 minors. “I wouldn’t be able to handle 15, even five would be difficult,” he said. Through a former schoolmate of his wife, Fuhrmann was able to enroll Fahd in a Catholic high school. “The normal way he would’ve wasted another two months of doing nothing because the system is too slow to put these minors directly into school.”
Fahd says he confides in his guardian a lot. “More than I had imagined,” he said. Not all unaccompanied refugee minors have that chance. For the first time in Berlin there is a severe shortage of guardians. Kinzel estimates that as many as 1,000 refugee minors haven’t been assigned a guardian.
The unaccompanied refugee minors who enter into the frustrating and complex asylum process are typically granted either refugee status or subsidiary protection. Asylum seekers granted refugee status are allowed three years of residence. Subsidiary protection, on the other hand, guarantees residence in Germany for one year, and it can be extended for an additional two years.
The difference between the two is crucial. In 2015, 77 percent of unaccompanied refugee minors were granted refugee status under the Geneva Convention on Refugees, according to Diakonie Deutschland, a church charity. Fahd, who entered Germany in August of 2015, was declared a refugee in December. This year, however, the vast majority of underage asylum seekers have been receiving subsidiary protection.
Advocates point to a new set of laws, known as the Second Asylum Package, that came into force in March, to explain what’s changed. The laws suspended the right to family reunification for those protected by subsidiary status for two years. This means that those who today are older than 16 will have very slim chances of getting their families to join them. The government changed the rules for one reason, Kinzel said. In her personal opinion, the government “doesn’t want the kids to get their parents here.”
Typically, the decision on refugee status hinges on the interview required of all applicants. Lawyers like Daniel Jasch, who works for BBZ, a leading counseling center for refugee minors in Berlin, advise against mentioning family reunification during the interview. “You should never say ... ‘I want to bring my family here,’” he said. “Then you don’t have any chance to get asylum status.”
Some cases are adjudicated on an emergency basis, but Fahd’s situation doesn’t fit this category. His mother does not plan to apply for refugee status in Germany; he says she prefers to live in a predominantly Muslim culture. Fahd is now 17. The first thing he wants to do when he turns 18 is to get a visa so he can visit his mother in Istanbul.
As soon as he finishes high school, Fahd wants to train to become a commercial pilot for Emirates Airline. He jokes about the fancy pilot suit he hopes to show off on Facebook one day in the future. Of Syria, he says that he hopes it will be a better place one day. “We’re going to build it in a more nice way and somehow we’ll be famous after the war.”
On the wall behind him, dried green leaves drape over a black-and-white portrait of his sister. He credits her with teaching him the skills to survive his trip to Germany. Next to the portrait hangs a white canvas with sketches of buildings she drew for him. Despite the fact that he walked with it for over 2,000 miles, the pencil marks haven’t smudged, and the white background remains bright.
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Sheltered without a home
Berlin refugees struggle to find permanent housing
Since they met in a Berlin gymnasium-turned-shelter seven months ago, Samim Noori, Ahmed Javed Hamdard and Hamed Hoseini have become inseparable.
“We’re just like a small family, we’re calling me big brother, him small brother,” says Hoseini, 31, pointing at Noori, 21, and Hamdard, 24.
The three young men from Afghanistan eat together, study together and hang out together. They’d like to stay together, but finding affordable housing in the city has proven daunting, especially for refugees like them.
Berlin had a shortage of housing even before the recent wave of migration. Some landlords and neighbors are prejudiced against foreigners, and there is a massive amount of paperwork involved.
“There’s a hierarchy for the renters,” said Eyad Agha, from Syria, who first lived in Berlin in 2013 as a student before he returned last year as a refugee.
“So you have to be working or ethnically German. There are standards. We are always at the bottom of their standards list,” he said.
When they first arrive in Berlin, refugees are housed in a temporary shelter, like the gymnasium in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood where Hoseini, Hamdard and Noori have been staying since last year. Once their initial asylum applications are processed, or asylum is granted, they are either moved to a more permanent camp or given permission to look for housing on the private rental market. This approval comes with a promise from the authorities to pay the rent, as long as it’s cheap. The ultimate prize is a Wohnberechtigungsschein, or WBS, which makes refugees eligible for subsidized housing or an apartment in a building owned by a semi-governmental cooperative.
The brothers, as fellow residents at their shelter call them, should have moved to a more permanent place, with real walls rather than sheets separating cots, several months ago, but so far, this hasn’t worked out. “We have a permit, but it is difficult to find a flat in Berlin,” Hoseini said.
A popular city, Berlin has grown at an average pace of more than 40,000 new residents per year since 2011. Last year’s refugee influx added an additional 50,000 people in need of housing. Even for Germans, finding a place to live in Berlin has become difficult.
Daniel Feher recently decided to move back to Berlin from Brussels, where he had been working with the European Parliament. It took him four months until he found an apartment, and in his opinion, it’s hard to imagine how he could have done so without a work and rental history in Germany. German landlords require securities that refugees are often unable to provide.
“When you come to Berlin and you don’t have a job yet, you don’t have a German bank account, you don’t have a German credit history, then you can basically forget about it, to find a permanent flat for rent,” Feher said.
The office that is supposed to help refugees navigate the rental market is the Evangelisches Jugend- und Fürsorgewerk, a Lutheran youth and welfare organization. The organization is often overworked and understaffed. Other organizations, however, have found ways to sidestep the rigid requirement.
Instead of presenting a payment slip, refugees can show proof that they will receive an allowance from the state that will cover the rent, said Ciaran Wrons-Passman, a volunteer at an initiative called AG Wohnungssuche, which works to find apartments for the refugees.
“And then the director of the shelter can give to the refugees a form saying that they’ve always paid their rent.”
This way the refugees have a rental history, even though they don’t pay rent at the shelter.
The volunteers help refugees to assemble the paperwork and identify available rentals. “And then you go there, you have a look, then you hand in your documents, ‘cause that’s the way you do it, and then you hope that they will give you the apartment,” Wrons-Passman said.
That hope often comes to naught because many landlords are unwilling to rent short-term. Many refugees are only granted a stay of six or 12 months in Germany while their asylum applications are processed. Fahima Mohammadi, 22, is from Afghanistan and the oldest of seven children. Her family of nine has a permit to stay for six months, but Give Back, another volunteer group, needs at least a year to find them a place. When their pass runs out, they’ll have to reapply to search. It is a long process, and the family has been living in the NUK Karlshorst, a Red Cross shelter, for ten months.
The shelter is far from comfortable. Nearly 1,000 people live there, which puts a strain on facilities. Families can wash laundry only once a month, the showers are far away from the actual rooms, and residents complain that the bathrooms are dirty. The food, they say, is horrible and residents aren’t allowed to cook for themselves.
Another challenge is racism, which Olaf Bruhn, of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, works to research and prevent. According to some surveys, one-third of Berliners have prejudices against Muslims. Though proving prejudice is difficult through the legal system, it is definitely present. Last year, a difficult case proved that a Turkish couple paid significantly higher rents than their neighbors, even though this is against the law. Refugees are just as likely to face racism when they try to find a place to live.
The government is hoping to address the underlying shortage of housing by trying to create housing fast. Stacking shipping containers converted into living space on top of each other is part of the state of Berlin’s master plan. However, in deploying these structures, the government has to deal with angry residents. At a recent rally in Altglienicke, a suburb of Berlin, several hundred residents protested against five container-style houses being built in the area, expressing concerns that a large influx of refugees will overwhelm the local schools.
The refugees themselves also fear that container villages might isolate them. Agha, the student from Syria, advocates building new neighborhoods for everyone instead. “Otherwise, it is not a good step for integration,” he said.
Community initiatives around the city agree. They are pushing to open abandoned buildings and renovating them to accommodate a mix of housing and community space.
Florian Schoettle, board member of one such initiative, wants to turn the Haus der Statistik, an old East German office building near Alexanderplatz, into a work-and-living space for 2,000 people. The space would include art studios, affordable apartments, group housing and offices.
“We see the housing crisis in this city and we know that the public housing companies are not able to plan and invest, all they are able to do is administrate the properties and raise the rent,” he said. Others have decided against waiting for renovations or new construction, which could take years. Sharehaus Refugio, a charitable organization started in Africa, opened its doors to refugees, and others, for as much as they can afford in exchange for participation in the community. The 40 people living in the community, half Germans and half refugees, live and cook together. They organize cultural events, offer German courses and tend to a rooftop garden. This is where Agha, who is working toward a master’s degree in Information Management Systems, has finally found a home.
The three friends from Afghanistan meanwhile attended their first open house. Packed 30 people tight, the four-room flat would have been ideal for them. Yet, when talking to the owner, the men received a negative response. The owner did not want to rent to them because he didn’t trust the social welfare office of Berlin to make good on its promise and pay the rent on time.
The newfound brothers don’t want to give up on making a home together, even if that means many more months of waiting, or even a move to another, more permanent refugee home.
“The main things that we are looking at are some nice place, some quiet place, where we can just live together, or study,” Hoseini said. “We’re just thinking about the future.”
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Social media affect how kids integrate
The glass wall of Julia Fath’s office looks out on the area where students take a 25-minute break between classes. She can watch them on their phones, playing YouTube videos of the war at home, or responding to text messages from their families.
Around the time when Fath started her job at Flucht nach vorn, a school for unaccompanied minors in Berlin, she found that one student watched videos of the carnage in his home country from 10 a.m., when he started class, until 12:40 p.m., when he got out.
“He never got upset, but occasionally he would stop watching and put his head down on the table because he was very sad,” Fath said.
Many of the refugees arriving in the EU are unaccompanied minors: 88,700 applied for asylum in 2015 alone. When children travel alone in an unknown country where they don’t speak the language, smart phones are their most important tool. They use Google Maps to navigate their way on foot through Europe, catch the right subway in Berlin, translate unknown phrases, or keep in contact with their family back home through various apps and social media on their devices, including WhatsApp and Skype.
The ubiquitous presence of smart phones and social media in their lives means they’re constantly bombarded by images and videos of the war and suffering they left in their home country.
“Sometimes we get the impression that they are not really here, but that their mind is with their parents and their friends back in Syria or Afghanistan,” Fath said.
A few weeks ago, the school decided not to allow students to use their phones in class anymore. But underage refugees — more than 4,000 of them live in Berlin alone — still have ample time to use social media or message friends at home, whether during break or after they return to their living quarters.
On a warm Thursday evening, Fahd Omar sits in his room in the Moabit district of Berlin, across from a wall covered in African masks and a tie-dye tapestry. He was placed in the apartment run by Evin, a social services provider, about eight months ago. Fahd’s couch is made of two wooden pallets. In the boards, he has installed a neon pink light. It illuminates his “puffy pants,” light, baggy pants he bought in Berlin.
The 17-year-old takes a puff from his Shisha and holds his phone up to his mouth, speaking in rapid Arabic.
“This is my friend in Syria and he is scared so I am trying to comfort him,” Fahd said. “I don’t want to call him because then I will hear the sounds of the war.”
One of two social workers assigned to Fahd and three other unaccompanied minors living in the apartment is Janina Herrmann. She works out of an office in the apartment during the week.
“Sometimes I see these boys watching these videos on YouTube, and it’s showing dead bodies and violence, and it is totally normal for them to see this,” she said.
Herrmann said she sometimes has to lock herself in her office and cry because these boys have been through so much. But she and her fellow social workers try not to exacerbate the feeling of drama by treating the boys like victims and telling them how sorry they feel for them.
“You have to be strict with them,” she said. “It is not about putting them in Pampers all the time.”
Fahd uses his phone to communicate with his mother. She has decided to stay in Turkey. Hermann believes it can also be a great tool to connect the newcomers to others in Berlin. They share homework assignments and plan events.
But Stephan Guerra, a manager at the Neukölln office of Evin, says he’s seen social media dependence grow in each generation of refugees, which is why he believes the cons outweigh the pros.
“If the two of us are talking to each other, there is a vibration, and you can’t communicate that over social media,” Guerra said. He’s convinced that when gestures, eyes, smiling and movement are not present, it reduces communication by about 20 or 30 percent.
On the other hand, Guerra acknowledges that for the children, Facebook and Skype are incredibly important for staying in contact with their families. They can reach out to people no matter where they are and figure out what is going on back home.
“When they hear something from mom and dad, and they know they are okay, it helps relax them. It is a huge weight off of their shoulders.” Guerra said.
Jafar YuSefi, a 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Iran, has been in Berlin for about five months. He started school for the first time in his life about two months ago. He said many uneducated people in his country can text but they can’t read a book.
Three days ago, Jafar was scrolling through his Facebook page.
“I look at Facebook whenever I have time,” Jafar said. He checks up on friends and said he wants to know what is going on in his country and the world.
He found a news article about a man in Afghanistan who was shot by the Taliban two days before his wedding.
“I know it is bad to keep looking at these things because they make me sad,” Jafar said.
A few days earlier, he was moved into a camp with 85 other unaccompanied minors that he doesn’t know. Only one or two German social workers are responsible for all of them.
“When I have a problem, I have no one to talk to, that is just the way it is,” Jafar said.
For him, his phone is the only way he communicates with his parents and his other refugee friends in Berlin.
In other cases, an ongoing connection to families is more of a burden than a blessing. Guerra recalls several instances where a child’s contact with their parents, who have decided not to go to Germany were having a lot of trouble, had a negative impact on the kids’ ability to be present and connect with the people around them.
Janina Herrmann used the example of a crisis Fahd had recently.
“He was feeling sad about his sister, and he said he would never feel like a Berliner, and he was ready to give up and go back to Turkey to join his mom,” she said.
Both Hermann and Fahd’s German legal guardian had to sit down with him and talk him out of leaving.
“We told him don’t leave, we will miss you, you have such a bright future ahead of you,” Hermann said. Carola Richter, an associate professor for international communications at the Free University of Berlin, recently ran a study that surveyed more than 400 refugees in Berlin about their use of social media and mobile phones. Richter, who has widely traveled in the Middle East, said she noticed a strong lack of social media literacy there.
“There is less private versus public sphere distinction, and these people share anything,” Richter said.
A lack of knowledge about what should and should not be posted and shared may lead to an unimpeded, uncensored flow of graphic videos and text messages on social media and through smartphones.
Guerra believes that kids will be traumatized all over again when they look at pictures related to the war all the time.
“I don’t want to condemn it, but I am still of the opinion that especially when taking care of unaccompanied minors you have to watch out what they use and how they use it and regulate the usage if necessary,” he said.
Fahd communicates with his friends in Syria mostly through Snapchat and Vine. They send him Ramadan snaps and shisha videos that say, “We miss you Fahd!” They never discuss the war or post about politics on Facebook.
“We are tired of everything, it makes no sense if we talk,” he said.
Fahd says he used to watch videos of the war because he was curious about what was going on.
“When I had time I would watch this stuff all the time, but then I got busy and I realized I just had to let it go.”
Fahd said the images he saw on social media would bring back good memories he had with friends and that would make him feel happy, but then he would see the war and bad stuff and he would feel very sad.
Though he’s seen many other refugees that are his age watching such videos and not being able to stop, he doesn’t think they should be regulated or censored.
“You can’t censor the TV, and we see the same stuff there,” Fahd said. “What is happening is a fact. They should know what is going on.”
Rebecca Keith | email@example.com | @beccasaurus21
Ramadan and refugees in Berlin
A small convoy of vehicles pulls into a refugee shelter at the end of a street in a residential area in Spandau, an outlying district of Berlin. Several women emerge from a Smart car, a small Toyota sedan and a Mercedes Benz cargo van. They huddle to the side of a small building for a brief moment, but then head straight to work.
The volunteers don vests in white and neon-yellow with the word “Hasene” on the back. Hasene is an Islamic charity organization with projects around the world. During the holy month of Ramadan, it distributes food in 52 countries, one of which is Germany.
More than a million asylum seekers crossed the German border last year, many of them Muslims. In Berlin’s Muslim community, people like Raziye Bagci, a student who has lived in Germany all her life, felt called upon to lend the newcomers a helping hand.
Hasene is affiliated with Milli Gorus, an umbrella organization for the Turkish-Muslim diaspora that has been fighting the fundamentalist label for years. The majority of its members live in Germany, which hosts the largest Turkish population in the world outside of Turkey. Most of the German Turks came as guest workers, in the 1960s and 1970s. It was meant to be a temporary living situation — do the job, then get out. But many chose to stay.
Last year, the German Turks were joined in Berlin by more than 50,000 refugees from mostly Muslim countries who chose to apply for asylum in the city. They’re divided up between 150 different camps and shelters. Some in the German Muslim community chose Ramadan as a good time to help their newly arrived brothers and sisters in faith.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Ramadan is the month during which it is put into practice. For 29 days, from June 6 to July 5, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As Islam follows the lunar calendar, the days are not the same each year on the Gregorian calendar. This year, 2016, marks the first time in 30 years that Ramadan has fallen on the summer solstice, meaning longer days without food.
While fasting, Raziye Bagci carries out her day as usual. Ramadan is not a chance to miss school or work. She adjusts her sleep schedule to be awake between sunset and sunrise to eat and then goes to sleep when the sun comes up. She later wakes up around noon and starts her day by going to school, where she studies economics.
Bagci had always wanted to help the refugees in some way, ever since they first started arriving in Berlin in large numbers. She volunteered at her school, the Free University of Berlin, where she also participates in an e-buddy program that pairs her with a student from Syria. Her first interaction with Hasene, however, did not happen in Berlin.
Umrah is similar to the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims should perform once in their lifetime. Unlike the Hajj, Umrah may occur at any time and is not mandatory.
Bagci met a woman from Hasene while completing her Umrah, and was told that if she wanted to help the refugees she could choose an area and program that she felt passionate about.
With Ramadan approaching, delivering food to refugee shelters seemed like the perfect opportunity.
In 2015, the Department for Health and Social Affairs of the State of Berlin had talked about doing something for the refugees, but in the end decided to leave it up to the Muslim community. Many different mosques would prepare iftar, the first evening meal after sunset, for refugees.
“This year, with thousands and thousands more, we could not rely on self-organization,” Monika Hebbinghaus, the department’s deputy spokesperson, said.
Each shelter in Berlin provides three meals per day, typically through catering companies selected by the non-governmental organizations that run the shelters. The organizations usually get a bit over $10 per refugee, per day, for food.
A few weeks before Ramadan, the department began thinking about the question of cultural integration and what should be done for Ramadan. Together with the NGOs running the shelters, it decided that the meal at night, iftar, and the meal in the morning, suhur, would raise costs.
“What we’ve learned is that people, during Ramadan, have very specific needs, like the need for foods with high calories,” Sascha Langenbach, another departmental spokesperson, said.
In addition to the cost, figuring out how to provide extra staff at night for an entire month became an issue.
There aren’t too many specifics for what must be eaten during iftar and suhur, but one custom requires that the fast must be broken each night with a date.
Tamaja Social Services, a non-profit whose range of influence includes the shelter in the abandoned Berlin-Tempelhof airport, ordered a total of 1.5 tons of dates for Ramadan. With 1,400 people currently housed in the hangars, that equals out to around two dates per person per day.
“We’re not talking about buying a GM car for every refugee. We’re talking about yogurt and muesli bars. There’s nothing to complain about. It’s a welcoming gesture to supply these things,” Langenbach said. “ You just accept that there are a million new people in this country and they have needs.” But not all shelters receive this food, and that’s where Hasene comes into the picture.
Some shelters, rather than serving three meals per day, simply give the refugees money for food. This is a way to give refugees agency so that they can have more of a say in what they are eating, but it also presents the problem of having to be self-sufficient at finding and buying food.
Buying in bulk is cheaper for the nongovernmental organizations and catering companies. For a single refugee, the same amount of money does not stretch quite as far.
Shelters that are further from the metropolitan area also face the struggle of transportation and a limited variety of foods.
A shelter in Spandau that Hasene recently delivered to is tucked away in a residential area. Though a small grocery store is within walking distance, there are no Turkish restaurants or produce stands nearby.
Hasene attempts to make finding food for Ramadan that much easier for refugees by providing them with packages that include everything they need.
One package of food weighs eight kilos and contains dates, fusilli noodles, cooking oil, lentils and rice. In addition, the helpers brought candy for the children: lollipops that were decorated to look like flowers by the children of the volunteers.
Hasene also supplies cans of halal meat. In Islamic culture, an animal must be slaughtered in a clean area, without pain in order to be Halal. Rather than serving prepared food, hot and ready to eat, Hasene provides the packages so that the refugees will have more than just one meal’s worth of food.
As charity is an important part of Islamic culture and faith, mosques were among the first to step forward when the refugees arrived in Germany.
At Dar Assalam mosque in Berlin’s Neukölln district, a third of the worshippers are refugees. Before the refugee crisis, attendance for the Friday service was around a thousand people. It now exceeds 1,500 for the afternoon prayer service, which is why extra prayer rugs routinely line the courtyard in front of the mosque, reaching out to the sidewalk beyond the gates.
As more refugees arrived, the mosque also opened its doors to offer shelter. It bought enough supplies for 40 people to sleep in the main prayer room for three months. A team was created specifically to help refugees with translation. And every new arrival was greeted with a celebration.
Imam Mohamed Taha Sabri still remembers his own experience when he first moved to Germany in 1988. He was a political refugee from Tunisia. The president ofTunisia at the time was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and many people protested against him as a corrupt leader. Sabri, a student at the time, took part in the protests. He was arrested at one point, and upon his release he left for Germany.
“When I came to Germany in 1988, the best thing I was offered was a feeling of belonging, and that I wasn’t being cut off from my culture,” Sabri said. “Integration is not giving up something, it’s like evolution. As long as you come and you choose to be here, then you have some duties, not just rights.”
Like Sabri, Bagci feels that it is her religious duty to help the refugees. But unlike him, she relates to them on another level: that of an outsider.
“I was born here, I am 21 years old, and I don’t know the area I live in. The German people are not always nice. They make you feel that you are not like them. Like you are the other. And so, if you have this feeling, you cannot ‘integrate’ into this group,” Bagci said.
Though born in Germany, she still does not feel entirely accepted by the German community. She understands the challenges that the refugees are going through in trying to gain acceptance, and this has inspired her to volunteer.
During Ramadan, while fasting throughout the day, she is still working to ensure that the refugees have everything they need.
She is also very happy to enjoy iftar at a Turkish restaurant in the Steglitz area ofBerlin at the end of a long day of volunteering and working on her thesis.
“You think the whole day about what you can eat, and you dream about it,” she said.
As she sits at her table, she patiently waits to eat. On the table is a small glass dish with four dates. Water, bread and a bowl of soup have already been served.
An alarm on her phone goes off, an app that tells her the direction of Mecca and notifies her when it is time for iftar. From her phone comes the sound of an imam singing the traditional chant, a reminder that the fasting is for God.
“We fast to know how the people living without food live, that is the reason why we do this,” she said.
And to break her 18-hour long fast, Bagci slowly places a date in her mouth.
Alyssa Gray | firstname.lastname@example.org | @AlyssaRGray
Adam McCaw | email@example.com | @adam.mccaw
Humans of Berlin: Religious observations
By Adam McCaw
Seeking freedom from religion
For atheists, refugee camps can prolong sense of isolation
The deep grooves she carves into the dirt with a broken stick mirror the white scars that climb up her arm, layered on top of one another from her wrist to the crease of her elbow. Some are pinker, more recent. Others healed years ago. Her hair is buzzed, and she wears a low-cut shirt with pink and white stripes. Her floral leggings look worn, with a hole in the knee, and her feet drown in a pair of black flip-flops.
By outward appearance, Sally Abazeed defies every cliché of a female refugee from Syria. She doesn’t wear a headscarf, but there’s something else that sets her apart.
At 19 years old, Abazeed made the decision to leave everything she knew in search of freedom from religion. In Berlin’s refugee shelters, however, atheists like her find themselves a tiny minority, and they often feel compelled to hide the fact that they’ve renounced their faith.
Abazeed says she was raised in a strict Muslim household. Every facet of her life was controlled by Islamic doctrine: her dress, whom she could love, when she could go outside. She says her faith dissolved gradually as she grew up.
“Before I was more like, Islam has some good points, some bad points,” she said. “But then I quit all the religions and said that most of them are not true.”
When she finally stopped identifying with religion altogether, living with her family became unbearable.
“I can’t be myself with them,” she said. “I have to pretend to be someone else.”
Coming out as an atheist in Syria is virtually unheard of. Nearly 90 percent of Syrians are Muslim, and while Syria calls itself a secular society, Islam is deeply embedded in its constitution and social structure. Article 3 of the Syrian Arab Republic Constitution states that the president’s religion must be Islam, and that Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.
With Islamic tradition so intertwined with politics, education and family, taking a stance against Islam means taking a stance against the very fabric of Syrian society.
Werner Schiffauer, a professor of Comparative Social and Cultural Anthropology at Europa-Universitaet Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder, says leaving Islam is judged more harshly than simple religious differences among groups.
“Apostates are generally considered to be traitors,” Schiffauer said. “So it evokes much stronger feelings than the others.”
Abazeed says she had some atheist friends in Damascus, with whom she could discuss her real interests: physics, the cosmos, language. Sharing ideas about the universe and physical properties offered them clues that God may not exist.
Yet coming to this conclusion meant little if she couldn’t live in a way that honored her new understanding of the world. She thus decided to leave home alone, without telling her family why.
For any young woman, making the journey to Europe would be dangerous and arduous. On top of this, Abazeed says she has suffered from borderline personality disorder since the age of 13. The layers of thin scars and still-healing cigarette burns on Abazeed’s inner forearms are physical manifestations of her inner mental turmoil. A release to deal with her fear of loneliness, she said.
Abazeed confronted these fears when she decided to travel alone to Europe. She carried a small backpack with some clothes, a blue-and-white striped journal, and a small purple pail with a seed inside, covered in saran wrap. The seed was a gift from a friend in Syria, for her to plant when she starts her new life in Germany. It still sits in her locker, waiting for a more stable home where roots can begin to grow.
When refugees arrive in Germany, they are placed into emergency shelters that provide food and basic amenities. The living conditions vary from camp to camp, but privacy is scarce. Some shelters use sheets tacked to the ceiling to imitate walls. Refugees’ mobility is controlled and monitored. Every mundane routine of daily life is performed together.
Zakarya Faizi, 30, says he fled Iran after the government caught wind of his participation in a Kurdish opposition group and interrogated him for three days.
Knowing the government would watch him and his family for his political activism, Faizi fled to Iraq, and has been transient ever since.
His gentle mannerisms make it hard to imagine him fighting in an opposition group. His shy apology for speaking broken English contrasts with the urgency with which he communicates his story. Clean-shaven, the left side of his face is expressionless, frozen in place by a birth defect.
Unlike Abazeed, Faizi was raised in a liberal Muslim family. He and his nine siblings were never pressured to pray or fast, though it was assumed that they were good Muslims.
Faizi says that, as a teenager, he began to question how a benevolent God could allow injustice to prevail with such indiscriminate wrath. The bullying he endured because of his appearance made it feel personal, he said.
“You know I have a problem with my left part of my face. That was a problem from birth. When I was a child that was so bad for me,” Faizi said. “When I grew up I think who is the God? And why must the God put a change between another culture and another people. Some people grow up in the rich family, and some people grow up in the poor family. Some people are handsome and some are ugly. It’s not balanced.”
Faizi prayed for solutions to his problems, to no avail. He eventually concluded that the teachings of Islam weren’t true. But he kept his renunciation of Islam secret. Islamic doctrine is too intimately interwoven with Iranian society for apostates like Faizi to live openly.
“In our culture, the first question is ‘Where are you from?’ and the second question is ‘What’s your religion?’ Faizi said.
Given the extreme political climates in both Syria and Iran, it makes sense for people to shift away from a religion that’s strictly imposed by the government, Schiffauer said.
“People will just get more secular if religion is mixing with politics—and repression, of course. So the ethos of religion is harmed by that,” he said. “And the result is a distancing from religion.”
On the other hand, finding solidarity in religion can be a common response to conflict and upheaval. For Muslim families in refugee camps, living with like-minded people whose social expectations and practices are familiar can be a comfort.
“The role of religion is much more loaded in situations of a war, when you feel you are interpreted as being persecuted for political reasons,” Schiffauer said. “An attachment to religion becomes an act of solidarity.”
For atheists or apostates, that sense of solidarity can be elusive within refugee shelters. Since arriving in Germany seven months ago, Abazeed has lived in four different refugee camps. The first was a basketball court in a school. The second was Germany’s largest refugee shelter at Tempelhof Airport.
Abazeed felt that pretending to be Muslim wasn’t an option for her anymore, and some of her practices made her stand out.
“I don’t say just like, ‘Yeah I’m an atheist,’ but sometimes just from my behavior they say, ‘the food is pork,’ and I say ‘I don’t care,’ or sometimes they say ‘why do you wear open shirts?’” Abazeed said.
She didn’t experience any physical violence for identifying as an atheist, but verbal attacks and arguments occurred frequently. Sometimes, revealing her lack of religion meant losing the only people she had to talk to in the camps, which heightened her sense of loneliness and which she says drove her deeper into the grips of depression and self-harm.
Germany has debated how to best accommodate people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds in refugee camps. Some argue that separating people based on these categories would eliminate conflict between groups. Schiffauer says that while it’s certainly easier to live with like-minded people, strict separation isn’t a practical solution.
By setting up separate camps from the beginning, you’re already drawing divisive lines, he said. “So in a way, you reaffirm these categories through your policies.”
Despite the difficulties Abazeed faced while living with Muslims, she also said that separating camps based on religious beliefs is a shortsighted solution to a complex issue. Teaching tolerance is the best way to effect change, she said.
“It’s not necessary to help me in person, but just to maybe teach the other people to be more open to different people,” Abazeed said.
While both Faizi and Abazeed believe in tolerance, and want to be part of improving relations between different belief-systems, their reason for coming to Germany was to start a new life free from the social confines imposed on them by Islamic society. And to achieve this, Faizi says, they must have contact with German culture and people.
Instead, they live isolated in a social limbo, trapped within a bubble that floats tauntingly close to the expressive freedom they seek.
While dividing refugees by religion may be an inadequate standard practice, having separate living options for minorities in certain cases can make all the difference.
Abazeed’s situation has slowly improved since she was accepted into a small LGBTQ camp run by a private organization called Schwulenberatung Berlin. Because she is bisexual, Abazeed was accepted into the center.
Being atheist doesn’t make someone eligible to live there, but for many Muslims, homosexuality and atheism often go hand-in-hand, Abazeed said. “The religion won’t accept you for who you are if you are gay.”
Abazeed said the camp offers regular counseling groups, and a doctor comes every week to check up on the roughly 70 people who live in the center. People are open-minded and mostly fairly young. Abazeed also recently became the proud new mother of a little black street mutt with big sad eyes and light brown spots for eyebrows. She named her Nova, inspired by her fascination with the cosmos.
Abazeed remains stuck, waiting for an overworked and convoluted bureaucratic system to process her asylum request. But her secular and non-religious beliefs may ultimately ease her integration into German society once she leaves the camps, Schiffauer said. While society certainly creates space and opportunity structures for incoming religious communities, it is also welcoming for secularists, he said.
“A lot of structures in Germany are very secular and anti-religious,” Schiffauer said, such as labor unions and political parties. “There are a lot of allies for secularists.”
Since moving into LGBTQ housing, Abazeed has begun to feel the freedom she left home for seven months ago. Slowly, she’s finding her solidarity.
“When I came here, first I wanted to be free, because in Syria I was wearing hijab, I was not allowed to go out, not to do anything,” Abazeed said. “And in the camps it was almost worse than Syria. But now it’s a little bit better, and I feel that here I am free.”
The purple pail in her locker holds a seed. And with each passing day, Abazeed cultivates the possibility of a new life.
Lucy Tompkins | firstname.lastname@example.org | @lucybtompkins
Verena Henners | email@example.com
Burying the dead
The business of death in the refugee crisis
The piece of plywood that props open the back door of the building serves two purposes. It lets the incense from the windowless room out, and the sounds of the busy Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln in. Inside, a sign in Arabic hangs on a large, metal door. Roughly translated it says: “This is God’s strength. God give us strength in this moment.”
On a June day, bicyclists and parents pushing strollers don’t seem to notice the white building tucked between a discount hair salon and an empty corner.
But Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung, an Islamic funeral home, is the last place where many Muslim families in Berlin see their loved ones.
This is where the bodies are kept.
At 9 a.m. on a Monday, the front office is busy. Muhamed Dahawich, the man behind the desk, looks more like a pop star than a mortician. His red Nikes and silver watch stand out in between the huddles of black-clad women shuffling past him.
Dahawich talks business. There are three bodies in the cooler today. Two of them, a woman and a child, will be buried the next morning in Berlin. The other corpse, a man, is being sent to Syria. Dahawich doesn’t know much about them, but then again, he doesn’t want to.
“This job is easier if you don’t know their stories,” he said.
Muhamed Dahawich and his father Ahmad are both Syrian immigrants from another time, before the war. Their family moved to Berlin in 2003, and Ahmad opened Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung in 2012. He said at the time there were Turkish-Muslim services in Berlin, but nothing for Syrians and Muslims who spoke Arabic.
In the last two years, the Dahawichs have seen the demand for Muslim burial services double. In 2015 alone, 79,000 refugees arrived in Berlin, and the city now counts 18,000 Syrian residents, more than twice as many as in 2014. The six-person body cooler at Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung is rarely empty.
“People hear we are Syrian, so Syrians come to us,” Muhamed Dahawich said.
For Muslims living in Berlin, burying loved ones has always been difficult. Only three cemeteries in Berlin have designated space for Muslims, and none are specifically for Muslims. On top of this, space is running out.
A cemetery plot costs around $1,700, and the total price tag for a funeral in Germany comes in at $3,000 to $5,600. German social services generally cover only $850 of this, depending on need. And even for those who can afford it, there is still the problem of German burial laws.
In Islam, Muslims must be buried in a shroud or a simple covering rather than a coffin. Germany only started allowing this practice in the last three years. Muslims’ gravestones must also point toward Mecca. This means that only specific areas and plots are suitable. Muslims must remain buried and undisturbed. This clashes with the rules of most cemeteries in Germany, where grave plot leases expire after 20 years and the bodies are then removed to make space.
When the refugees began arriving and dying at the doorstep of Europe, a new class of vulnerable Muslims emerged: families who had lost loved ones and were swept into a competitive burial market with limited regulations.
Badr Sharafeddin left war-torn Syria two years ago. Her son Anas had cancer most of his life and the medicine he needed was in short supply and rising in cost. When they finally arrived in Hamburg, he got better, and then worse. The 25-year-old died a year after arriving. Right away, Sharafeddin was offered a variety of services, offering to bury her son.
She didn’t think of anything but location. She left the rest to the funeral home.
“I wanted him here,” she said.
Funeral homes step in at some refugees’ most sensitive moments but for many without income or information, they often place their trust, and their wallets, in the hands of those who speak their native language and share their religious beliefs.
Iskikali Karayel is the owner of another Islamic burial home in Berlin, Markaz Islamische Bestattungen & Überführungen Weltweit. He says the business of death is often meant to exploit. Karayel is Turkish, but has lived in Germany most of his life. He opened Markaz in 2013, after working for a German funeral service.
“Burial services is one of the most criminal industries,” Karayel said.
He said it’s not a coincidence that many Islamic funeral homes opened at the start of the refugee crisis. These firms knew there would be people coming, and of course, people dying.
He said his biggest criticism is that there are few laws and regulations monitoring burial services in Germany.
“All you need is a certificate from the courthouse and a car,” Karayel said. “It’s a catastrophe.”
Karayel said he has also seen a sharp rise in people pretending to be imams or burial specialists.
“People get very religious at the end of their lives,” he said. “People take advantage of that.”
In 2014, German police mounted a large-scale investigation into the sale of Syrian passports, from funeral homes to smugglers, which in turn passed the documents to desperate refugees for a price tag of $5,000 or more. One funeral home accused of fraud at the time was Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung, though there’s no record they ever were charged. The Dahawichs insist they had nothing to do with the misuse of the passports.
Karayel said he didn’t think the police attention did much to remedy the problem. Het hinks passports are still sold frequently.
“I’d bet my store on it,” Karayel said. “People will be taken away in handcuffs and then back in business the next day.”
Karayel also said he has seen a 10 percent increase in the demand for Muslim funeral services. One reason is that fewer Muslims are choosing to send bodies back to their countries of origin due to rising costs. Shipping a body to Syria can cost almost twice as much as what a refugee has to pay in order to travel to Europe.
Issam Issa, however, is willing to shoulder the cost of repatriating his brother’s remains. His family has been in Germany for decades, but decided that the body should make the 1,800 mile trip to Syria.
That trip costs around $5,600 and every hour is crucial. Islam requires bodies to be interred within 24 hours, but this is nearly impossible in Germany, as even the most efficient paperwork couldn’t be processed in one day. Consequently, two days have already passed since the man died.
Giorgia Mirto, a researcher with Borderline Europe, an organization that tracks data surrounding missing and dead migrants, said the bodies of many migrants will never be found or identified.
Last May, Mirto, along with Tampara Last and Amelie Tempala, published a study on death management, called “Death at the Border: From International Carelessness to Private Concern.” In their research, Mirto and her colleagues found that while there was general concern in the countries where bodies were being discovered, there was a lack of procedure and regulations to organize and identify bodies.
In Italy, where many refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea are buried, there is no centralized database for tracking DNA or burial location. So, families searching for dead or missing loved ones are at a loss.
Mirto and her colleagues call these deaths “ungrievable,” as there is no way for families to find closure. The most important thing is to stop the cause of death, Mirto said. But, until then, the system of managing the remains must be improved. In the tiny municipalities in Greece and Italy, steps are often missed when examining and collecting information of the deceased.
“The government and the state should be responsible,” Mirto said. “We need to know who they are, and where, and how to give a response to their families.”
The women in black at Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung know the body in the back room as their grandmother, mother and sister. Today is the day they will bury her. In Islam, it’s tradition for designated family members to wash and prepare their deceased relatives for burial.
The women filter into the back room. Only women can wash women, and men wash men. Taking no notice of the open door and the noise outside, they approach the female corpse on the table. When they see her, lying under a white sheet, they begin kissing her face and feet.
They are striking in all black around the white linen and the white skin of the deceased.
One of the daughters cries gently, warming her dead mother’s hands by pressing them to her cheek. The attendants, two women hired by Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung to guide the process, begin to pray and run warm water into a bucket.
The women pray together as they dip cloths into the bucket. In the hour they spend they will think of a lifetime of memories. While they wash her they keep her covered in linens, one daughter braiding her wispy white hair. They do not ask where her passport is, or how much money they still owe.
When it is time for the body to be wrapped for the last time, they all say goodbye, whispering to her in Arabic and kissing her face and ears.
Tess Haas | firstname.lastname@example.org | @tesshaas
The controversy between German media and the right-wing
On a sunlit June afternoon, around 60 flag-bearing Germans have gathered in the shadow of Berlin Central Station to take a stand against what they call the “Islamization of Germany.” The demonstrators are members of Bärgida, the local offshoot of an organization known as Pegida. Translated, it stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
Perched on a makeshift stage, Manfred Rouhs, a greying politician, greets the crowd with a toothy smile. He wishes the demonstrators a “happy Ramadan,” which causes jeers and laughter.
In his speech, Rouhs references a recent newspaper article that depicted him and the participants of an earlier anti-refugee demonstration as neo-Nazis, and accused of inciting violent attacks on refugee shelters. The audience boos, then begins to chant, “Lügenpresse,” lying press.
The next day, neither the local nor the German national media make any mention of Rouhs and the Bärgida demonstrators; after all, the event has become routine. Bärgida has been holding rallies like this every Monday for months.
In the wake of the current European refugee crisis, skepticism and mistrust of the media has become part of everyday discourse, and no longer limited to the political fringes. Reporters in Germany face the challenge of addressing the politically charged, complex issues of flight, migration and integration while remaining unbiased. Many Germans believe that journalists have been unsuccessful thus far.
The term, Lügenpresse, meaning “lying press,” has become commonplace in the modern German vernacular. It is used by right-wing organizations like Pegida to express the belief that the German press is beholden to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-refugee policies. Infamously wielded by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda during the Nazi era, the term’s origins reach back to the 1800s. Once exclusive to the ideological fringes, the media skepticism it represents has recently established itself in the political mainstream. A study conducted by the Dortmund-based Forsa Institute showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that the media either partially, or wholly lies to the German public.
Cristina Gonzales, an American with a background in radio journalism, has been studying this phenomenon since the fall of 2015. Sipping a cappuccino in one of central Berlin’s historic cobblestoned courtyards, she says that even before the refugee crisis reached its peak, usage of the term “lying press” was on the rise.
“In 2014, Lügenpresse was named the un-word of the year in German,” she said, suppressing a smile as she explained that linguists in Germany award this title to the most offensive, new or recently popularized term every year.
Gonzales’ findings, which she presented at the American Academy in Berlin in May, indicate that the history of media manipulation in Germany has contributed significantly to media skepticism today.
During the Nazi era, the National Socialist propaganda ministry directly controlled the media. After World War II, American and British forces took over management of West Germany’s media outlets, before handing over the reins to the Germans in 1949. On the east side of the Berlin Wall, Soviets continued the legacy of suppression and manipulation until the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1990.
Because of this history of media control, Gonzales said she believes many Germans are suspicious of close relationships between the media and the government. At the same time, they receive most of their news from television, which is dominated by two public broadcasting services: ARD and ZDF. Unlike American public broadcasters like PBS, which are funded primarily through donations, these channels follow the BBC model and are largely financed by a mandatory fee of $20 per month.
In her research, Gonzales often came across accusations that ARD and ZDF are producing left-of-center programming.
“In my opinion, this concept of one-sided coverage is somewhat accurate,” she said. Studies have shown that those drawn to journalism tend to be liberal, whether in Germany or the U.S. Few agree with the positions of populist movements like Pegida, or share the concerns of the right.
Thomas Fuhrmann, the editor of Morgenmagazin, ZDF’s popular morning news program, argues that personal political orientation plays little role in his journalistic practice.
“I can distinguish between what I’m doing as a citizen of this country and what I’m doing as a professional,” he said. Media skeptics disagree with his assessment, and their criticism often takes a nasty or even violent tone.
Produced in an imposing office building, in the center of Berlin, Morgenmagazin features a mix of news and entertainment, comparable to ABC’s Good Morning America. Front and center are Fuhrmann’s two anchors, Dunja Hayali and Mitri Sirin, whose parents immigrated from Iraq and Syria respectively. Hayali has received overwhelming amounts of disturbing, and often threatening hate mail.
“I will pray every day that you die,” wrote one of her less vulgar critics.
Fuhrmann’s eyes light up in anger when the conversation turns to the insults against his team.
For the editor, much of what comes out of right field amounts to “prejudiced conspiracy theories.” Still, he says, “we have to show what is happening, and if something is not working.” He cites a twelve-part series on the integration of refugees in the small town of Templin as an example for what he considers his program’s multidimensional coverage of the issue.
In one instance, Fuhrmann said, twelve refugees were offered internships in Templin, but after just one day, nine had already dropped out of the program. The ZDF team reported the information, despite the recognition that it might perpetuate negative assumptions about the work ethic of refugees.
“It might harm the cause of integration, but it’s not our job to always calculate whether it harms of not,” Fuhrmann said.
In an uncommon gesture for the German media, Morgenmagazin has also devoted considerable resources to give Merkel’s opponents a voice in the debate. Earlier this year, Hayali won the prestigious Golden Camera award for ‘best information’ in recognition of a piece interviewing anti-immigrant demonstrators in East Germany.
“We have to talk with them,” Fuhrmann said of right-wing populists.
But while Hayali’s work has encouraged a dialogue with citizens on the right side of the political spectrum, Fuhrmann admits that the German media’s portrayal of the refugee situation has not been an unmitigated success.
The dysfunction of the German media became clear on December 31, 2015, when holiday revelers gathered before the iconic cathedral of Cologne to usher in the New Year. Jubilation abruptly turned to chaos when hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed amidst the holiday mayhem. The perpetrators were primarily migrants of North African descent, a politically significant fact considering many Germans’ uncertainty about the future of refugee integration.
What followed seemed to be an across-the-board failure of German journalists to report the news accurately, completely and in a timely fashion. For several days, ZDF’s primary news program failed to even mention the events.
“My colleagues in Mainz argued that we needed more time, which was just the wrong decision,” Fuhrmann said.
When the police finally released the ethnicity of the attackers, many Germans, already skeptical of public broadcast media, became convinced that ARD and ZDF newsrooms had intentionally concealed information about the identities of the perpetrators.
“That was a turning point for the trust in our work,” Fuhrmann said.
Deborah Cole, an American journalist with the AFP wire service in Berlin, said she believes that the events in Cologne forced Germans to reevaluate their trust in the media.
“Everyone was able to see what they wanted to in this story,” she said, “and the skeptics were able to say ‘you see, this really proves everything we’ve been saying all along.”’
Already, popular support for Merkel’s open-border policies had waned. “That night in Cologne the dream died,” Cole said. The German government’s policy on refugees began to shift, and a controversial new political party gained momentum in the polls.
In an unassuming, apartment-style building, far from the offices of Germany’s public broadcasters, Ronald Gläser sits in the conference room of Junge Freiheit, a niche newspaper of the far-right. He is a vocal leader of a new, right-wing populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Since the attacks in Cologne, Gläser’s party has experienced a drastic increase in popular support, evident in their strong showings in three state elections in March of 2016.
Like many right-wing politicians, the 43-year-old journalist sharply criticizes media coverage of what happened on New Year’s Eve.
“The media tried for three or four days to sweep it under the rug,” he said.
In his view, the mainstream German news did not begin reporting about everything until after online reports brought the issue to the political forefront.
As a journalist himself, Gläser’s understanding of media practice is slightly more nuanced than that of others in his political camp.
While reporting for Junge Freiheit, Gläser said that, “at least one time per month,” he begins research on a story that turns out to be based in rumor or, “completely untrue.” Gläser maintains that these stories are never published.
“Every journalist has the problem that they produce biased things,” he said, “everyone makes mistakes, but our assumption is, of course, that our colleagues in the Lügenpresse consistently report falsehoods.” When pressed to give additional examples of media bias, he cites two incidents from 2006.
Gläser is unapologetic when it comes to his racist convictions. He believes that if an open-border policy is pursued for the next 50 years, Germany will become “a third-world country,” and, “completely unrecognizable.” He cites the “terrifying example” of France, which, due to its colonial history, already counts, “very many North Africans” among its population. “They are, as a result of their cultural heritage, not as successful and capable as us white, middle Europeans” he said. “We don’t want to see this in Germany.”
Do these convictions make individuals with anti-foreigner sentiments, like Gläser, neo-Nazis? One expert on right-wing extremism who has been fighting racism for years says no.
Jonas Frykman’s institution, the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg, is a non-partisan organization devoted to combating violent extremism. Frykman has been studying the relationship between the media and the right-wing since 2009.
There are “problems with how leaders of the racist movement are portrayed,” Frykman said, explaining that employees of the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg only refer to people as neo-Nazis if they directly affiliate themselves with the National Socialism of Germany’s “Third Reich.” Others are more appropriately referred to as racists or xenophobes.
Because Naziism is so heavily stigmatized in modern German culture, many right-wing individuals, even those with much more obvious ties to National Socialism than Gläser, are deeply offended by the label of neo-Nazi. One significant factor contributing to media distrust among the political right is, therefore, the media’s misuse of terms associated with Germany’s Nazi past.
Journalists who ostracize right-wing politicians and protesters with loaded characterizations are likely to be labeled as members of the “lying press,” thereby perpetuating media skepticism. This partially explains why Manfred Rouhs and the Bärgida demonstrators were so dissatisfied with the German media.
Speeches over, the Bärgida demonstrators parade down shaded Invalidenstrasse in the Mitte district of Berlin. Nationalistic rap music is blaring from car speakers while passersby gawk.
Though prone to generalization, racial stereotyping and conspiracy theories, Bärgida and their AfD allies have made their mark by successfully pinpointing flaws in the German media system, and using these shortcomings to their political advantage.
The German media has not been completely transparent in its coverage of the refugee crisis, and media skepticism is a product of this reality. Almost a year after refugees started pouring into Germany, journalists still struggle with covering all sides of the debate.
Ian Strahn | email@example.com | @impsmontana
Namik app: Greg Arno | @grgarno | namik.co
Many people helped to make this project happen, but there are a few in particular whom we would like to give special thanks to.
During our time in Berlin, we had the amazing opportunity to work closely with four refugees. They were our translators for Arabic, Turkish and Farsi. They helped us break down the language barrier to get the story, and we couldn’t have done it without them! Many thanks to Anmar, Amir, Aimal and Obaidullah.
We would also like to thank our hosts during our three weeks in Berlin. The Evangelische Journalistenschule (EJS), KarLoh CoHousing and the Ecosia green search engine were all kind enough to lend us their space for research, interviews and production. Having a place to go to to get work done and focus was vital in creating this project.
We also would not be here without the generous support of our donors. During the fall and spring semesters we crowdfunded through Indiegogo and did several fundraising events.
Special thanks to the 20 donors who contributed through the University of Montana Foundation and our Indiegogo donors:
Christopher D Courtney
Shannon K Thomas
Jeffrey M Lauber
Allison L Franz
And, of course, this would not have been possible without the support and organization for the trip through the University of Montana School of Journalism. To follow more of the J-School’s projects, follow us on Twitter and Instagram.