I recently moved in with a friend from Berlin. She is part of the Malteser Hilfsdienst, one of the largest welfare organisations in Germany, which is concerned primarily with providing emergency and medical services. With the recent influx of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, her main job is helping out at one of the refugee centres in Berlin.
Having followed the refugee crisis for a long time and being horrified by the attitudes of certain countries (including my own) towards the refugees, I came to Berlin wondering if there was a way I could possibly help out, be it donations, handing out food, or playing with the younger children. I happened to mention this to my friend, who immediately offered me the choice to assist the Malteser organisation.
And so on Monday, at eight thirty in the morning, the car arrived to pick us up. The first shock in store for me was the location of the refugee centre: The Messegelände of Berlin – ten minutes from where my bus from Prague arrives and departs. I had almost walked by the centre five times, and never noticed it was there. Two places, so close in proximity, yet worlds apart.
As we started reaching the Messegelände I glanced out of the car window. Several men were walking along the road, some with shoes and backpacks, some barefoot. They were on their way to the registration offices. I had seen pictures like this countless times on the news, but until this point, that’s all they had been: images on a screen. Since pictures like these are everywhere, on our television screens, filling up our Facebook feeds, glaring at us from newspapers, our brain stops reacting to them. Pictures of refugees fleeing have become so normal that our brain now just accepts them as part of our surroundings and dismisses them. But seeing this without the barrier of a screen between me and them was a completely different experience. You don’t realise the problem actually exists until it’s staring you right in the face.
We got dropped off in front of the main gates. I asked my friend what the centre looked like, but she just shook her head. “I’m not going to describe it to you. I am just going to let you see it for yourself, ok? I don’t think it will be anything like you imagined it.”
She was right. I only had abstract ideas of what it would look like. All I knew was that there was a doctor’s office, a children’s play room and a main area, where food was served. When we entered all I saw was a large, dim, bleak hall with rows of fold out tables and benches lined up at one end. Makeshift walls separated part of the hall into an area for the children. Families were sitting and eating, men and women were standing around staring into space and children were running around, clutching toys in their arms. To the left and right of the main area the hall expanded, the floor covered in bunkbeds. The mauve sheets that covered every bed stood out amongst the grey walls.
My friend had been right, there had been nothing she could have said to prepare me for what I saw. It may have been clean, but these were horrible conditions. Surroundings were bleak, there was very little natural light, no proper personal space or privacy. These were people like us, they had come from furnished houses, and now they were stuck in this warehouse, with nothing to do but to wait.
We walked past the many bunk beds until we reached a small room: the medical station. This area consisted of a small waiting room, with three chairs and a desk, a bigger room with a bed and various medical equipment, and an office. The waiting room was my room; it was my job to make lists of the patients; their registration number, gender, whether they were a child or an adult, their symptoms and whether they had to been seen by a doctor or not. Alongside the list, the same information had to be put into an official protocol, to be filled out by the doctor. The wall of the waiting room was covered in bright water colour paintings. They had been painted and brought in by some of the children as presents for the medical staff the day before. None of them reflected their suffering. I had been expecting dark themes in the pictures, but all I saw were rainbows and smiling faces.
As my friend got everything ready, we let in our first patients. I wish I could remember who they were and where they were from. Thinking back on it, all I remember was seeing two young children, both with a cough.
One of the first things that strikes me now in hindsight is that I never asked for anybody’s name and how dehumanising it is to only ask for someone’s registration number. I saw so many different faces and yet I cannot attribute a name to one of them. The only time I ever asked for a name was in order to determine the gender of an infant.
As people continued filling in, what surprised me was their positivity. They all came into the waiting room and returned my smile. Some of the ones who could speak English started up a conversation with me, asking me where I was from and how my day was going. Those who couldn’t speak English communicated through smiles and body language. I saw one man who had come in the morning later on in the day; he gave me a bright smile and put a hand over his heart and bowed in greeting.
My friend had warned me at the beginning that some of the men might be reluctant to or even angry about having to accept help and direction from me; they would want a male instead. Even though such occurrences weren’t common, I did have a walkie talkie with me in case I needed to call security. I went into the waiting room fully prepared that this might be the case, but I never had to use it once. Everyone seemed only grateful that they could receive help.
At some point a young boy, maybe seven years old came in, showing me the shallow (and almost healed) cut on his finger. He was invited in and given a Band-Aid. During the day, he visited many times, always presenting his finger to me with a hopeful grin. At some point he brought his scooter and started whizzing around in the waiting room. At the end of the day he seemed to have decided that the waiting room was where the most entertainment was to be found, sat down, and (after some encouragement) started drawing picture after picture with me. Thinking of him still makes me smile. He must have been bored and lonely, but he had the brightest, sweetest and most hopeful grin on his face every time I saw him.
In fact, seeing the children was the most heartbreaking and yet still the most motivating thing I have witnessed in a long time. Some of them were just infants, sleeping in their parents’ arms, others were older, running around, clutching toys, drawing pictures or assembling puzzles. Some of them were simply staring into the distance, most were laughing. I can’t even properly articulate how incredibly moving it is to see this as an outsider: these poor children, who have made such a long, terrifying journey to escape conflicts they were in no way responsible for, running around in this dim concrete hall, somehow still smiling and joyous.
While the children ran around, most adults just sat there, waiting. They too had made this long, horrible and in many cases, life threatening journey hoping for a better life, and now they were stuck here. I saw a lot of young men just lying on the bed, sleeping or staring into space. Some of them looked up as I passed through, most didn’t even notice. They were lying there with nothing to do, only metres apart on their respective beds, stuck in this bleak concrete space, waiting, hoping for a future they had fought so hard to assure for themselves. The image of these men just lying in their beds has probably stayed with me the most.
During the morning hours people came and went with a wide array of symptoms and injuries. Some, who only had mild and short colds, were quickly checked up, but all we could do was to tell them to drink lots of tea and sleep. Others with more serious injuries or symptoms were taken to hospital. During the time that no one needed a doctor, I and the rest of the team sat around in the office, drinking coffee and eating the lunch we had brought with us. It seemed insane to me that I could sit there, eating, chatting and comfortable while on the other side of the wall those men were lying hopelessly in their bunk beds. Two different worlds, me in the sunny, comfortable white room, and them, in the dim, grey hall. At some point during lunch I went to sit outside in the sun. A family with two young children, one kicking a soccer ball, the other holding her father’s hand, were walking around the compound, also enjoying the sunny weather. It seemed absurd that only a few hundred metres away life was continuing as normal.
At around one or two in the afternoon a bus carrying approximately two hundred new refugees arrived. Volunteers started preparing. Small arm bands with numbers on them lay in boxes and served as the official form of registration for the refugees. People started putting on gloves, passing around pens and papers. My friend and one other volunteer stood at the entrance of the centre with thermometers, in order to be able to determine who needed to see a doctor and who needed to be placed in quarantine. I sat at my desk in the waiting room, hands also encased in rubber gloves, ready to write protocols. All of a sudden masses of people started arriving in the waiting room, mostly men and young children. We only had translators occasionally so communication with some was difficult. Some people of middle eastern descent who worked as security guards on the site stayed on to translate. Some patients came accompanied by friends who spoke English. Sometimes it was necessary for the patients themselves to stay on to help us with translation.
Although we still had plenty of relatively harmless symptoms, there was a fair amount of cases where things became a lot more serious. One man had already been checked over by the doctor and sat in the waiting room with his information sheet waiting for an ambulance. It was only after he had left that I was informed that he was thought to have tuberculosis. It was at this point I started to get worried. It was a very selfish thing to think, but I began to wonder what I had got myself into. I may not have had direct contact with any of these people, but the reality was that I was in very close quarters with them. Tuberculosis was not something I had been expecting. During that day, we had four other suspected cases of tuberculosis. I spent my free time in the waiting room looking up symptoms with some worry.
The other major cases we had were scabies, a highly contagious parasitical infection where mites burrow into the skin and cause intense itching. Just like with the tuberculosis my first reaction was worry about myself. I had come to help these people of course, but once again I hadn’t properly thought about the risk. However, at some point during the afternoon my fears suddenly became secondary and then almost irrelevant. After all, I could just go home and shower, and even if I had been infected with something, I had hospital treatment pretty much immediately available to me. What about these people who had no insurance and who faced the possibilities of being turned away from hospitals? Compared to them, I had nothing to worry about.
The other major problem that existed was lack of drugs and medication. The medicine cabinet was small and running very low on even the bare essentials. So many people came to us either with medical prescriptions or with pleas for pain medication but we could do nothing except ask them to come back on another day, when a medication delivery would arrive.
At around six in the evening the number of patients began to decrease. By that time, I was exhausted: we had managed to lose a patient with tuberculosis and couldn’t find him, we were completely out of medication and had to start sending people away, and the reality of what I had seen started catching up with me. I left the centre at seven in the evening, completely drained. My friend stayed on, she didn’t get home until after ten pm.
When I got home the first thing I did was call my mum. She, along with several other friends were primarily concerned with my well-being and with how I was managing after witnessing everything. I’m not going to lie, it was tough. I spent the first few days after it feeling slightly numb. It was my brother who suggested I write about what I saw, both as a way to process it and in order to describe and share my experiences with other people. But while it may have been a shock for me, what I felt is nothing compared to what these people have and are going through. After seeing them in this hopeless situation, an uncertain fate awaiting them despite the extreme struggles and pain they have been through and the sacrifices they have made, you realise how small your own problems are and how lucky you are. I am so incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to help, and am so incredibly humbled and moved.
And while my day was tiring and draining, I was the fortunate one. I could go home to a large, clean house, take a hot shower, make as much food as I wanted, and fall asleep in my own bed. I had my family and friends waiting to make sure that I was ok. Unlike the people at the centre I could switch between my own world and theirs. But they didn’t have that option. The next day I could go out and enjoy Berlin, while they would still be in the centre, just waiting. The centre might have been large, clean and equipped with the essentials. There were toys and food and water. But it was a horrible, dim, dark and depressing place.
For all of you now who may be reading this and thinking that the conditions these people are living in don’t sound that bad, let me remind you once again: These are people, who went to school, had jobs and friends. These are people, who had lives not that different to us. And now they have been forced to come here, desperate for food, shelter, safety and the opportunity to start anew. Today, where xenophobic, anti-Islam right wing groups are starting to slowly, but surely win a significant portion of the public vote, where a strong anti-immigrant and anti-Islam sentiment is settling over Europe, it’s very easy to dismiss these people as terrorists and opportunists. For someone who hasn’t seen the situation these people are in its easy to tell them to go back to where they came from. It’s easy to use their ethnicity and religion to make them seem like a different species that could never assimilate. But when you see them, see the simultaneous desperation and hope, the sadness and joy on their faces, you realise (even if you already did before) that these are people just like you and me. They are not terrorists. They haven’t come here to wreak havoc or to Islamise the west. They have come because they have no other place to go. Their homes have been torn apart by conflict that they are in no way responsible for.
So next time you find yourself watching the news and seeing all these images of people fleeing, don’t dismiss them as terrorists. Don’t let your brain categorise their suffering as normal. Don’t let the screen separate you. Go and help out, in whatever way you can. Donate food, clothes or toys. Support organisations who help these people. Or if you can’t do that, then at least educate yourself and raise awareness of why these people are here. Try to see them as humans just like yourself, instead of labelling them as terrorists. And lastly, ask yourself: if the situation were reversed, wouldn’t we too flee, in the hope of finding a better life?