Survival Stories: We are the same

My friend Shayma from Aleppo invited me to meet her family in their emergency home in Berlin, one of around 100 mass accommodation buildings in a city that has accommodated an extra 80,000 people in just one year.

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In October 2015 I started a cycling class for women in my local park. One of my most determined students, Shayma from Aleppo, returned week-after-week until she could cycle without the need for me running beside her. On that special day I surprised her with her very own bike, crowdfunded by my friends and family. Through our shared experience we became friends and I was invited to meet her family at their temporary home. On the short walk from the underground station I remember my first visit to the condemned old council offices where Shayma and her family have lived in one room for the past six months - it was actually the first refugee home in which I volunteered. I am not sure what I expected on that day but it certainly wasn’t the outpouring of warmth and friendliness I received around every corner from all the residents. I also wasn’t ready for the task of looking after 20 children aged from 10 months to 10 years, together with just one other volunteer who also had no previous experience of childcare. We spent an entire day attempting to entertain, placate and control (unsuccessfully) the group, utilising the only shared languages we had: hugs, dancing, painting, singing, miming and love - with kids from Afghanistan, Romania, Syria, Iran and who knows where else. It was total chaos but lots of fun. Afterwards I was ready to collapse. Looking back, the fact that two inexperienced, basically random people with no police check were allowed to do this, reminds me of the extreme situation we were, and still are experiencing.

This time I am on a social visit and Shayma greets me outside with her usual beaming smile, somehow sporting a stylish outfit as always, despite the fact that she ‘lives out of a suitcase’. Releasing me from a massive hug she signs me in as a visitor with the jovial security guards on the main door and takes me to her room. As we enter, her parents and brother stand to greet me. Mama gives me a big, warm hug and lots of kisses whilst Papa stands back, shy, but then reaches out to me and we shake hands. I remove my shoes and after unloading the fruit and pastries I brought I am offered a seat on a single bed in the room. Mama sits opposite me with her son on a mattress on the floor, next to a huge pile of suitcases and boxes all piled up in the corner of the room. There is nothing else in the room apart from a kettle and a few basic items of food on a metal shelf where Shayma is able to make us tea. She makes a joke about being in her “Küche” (kitchen) and looks at me questioningly, unsure if she has pronounced it correctly. “Don’t ask me” I say, “I still have a problem with the difference in pronunciation of Küche (kitchen) and Kuchen (cakes).” Shayma translates for her parents and when they realise I am also not German there is a lot of laughter. Papa clearly finds this hilarious yelling “We are all not German! We are all the same!” We laugh together some more but I can’t help thinking about the truth of his words. We. Are. All. The. Same. And I wonder, how it would be if roles were reversed and I were living in a room with my mum, dad, sister and her husband. Sharing a shower and bathroom with 100s of other people from different countries and cultures, eating out of silver-foil trays everyday and not knowing when or whether I would get asylum allowing me to move on with my life, at least a little bit.

Tea is served whilst we continue chatting in a mixture of German, English, Arabic and Kurdish. I get asked lots of questions, mainly about how to find permanent accommodation and jobs. All sorts of official looking papers are handed to me to read and Shayma’s brother even brings a poster he has found on the wall in the home and asks me what it means. I say, “An event to help you find a job in Germany, I think?” His face lights up as he says he is bored sitting around and wants to work. I tell him at the moment, because of his papers, he is only able to do an internship. “Work for free and maybe it leads to something in the future”. He does not seem convinced about this idea and tells me he worked in a shoe factory managing 20 people. Papa was the manager of the business and they had several factories in Syria. I do my impressed face and Mama looks proud.

Shayma was studying law in Aleppo but wants to get a job before studying again. We talk a bit more about work before being interrupted by insistent banging at the door. Before anyone has the chance to answer, a security guard marches straight in telling us the police will do a check. He walks briskly across the room to the window and removes the plastic bag hanging outside – a bag that I discover is a very make-shift ‘fridge’. No-one understands why we have to remove it, especially as when we look out to the courtyard we see many other ‘fridges’ still hanging outside all the windows and no sign of the police. “Things don’t seem to make sense, do they?” I ask Shayma and she nods back at me, also confused. We continue hanging out the window, watching children playing below, her with her arm around me, until it gets too cold and we stick our heads back in again.

Katie Griggs

Manager, Home for Refugees in Berlin

Working life began aged 14 in a local pub kitchen on Saturdays followed by a position as waitress at Pizza Hut one year later. Part-time work (WHSmiths, Somerfield, HSBC) continued throughout A'levels and University before landing a full-time position at Richard Branson's newly launched Virgin Finance company in Norwich. A few years later London was calling: a job in marketing at Sky TV awaited. After another few years there, it was time to move away from corporate life so the Amex-card, the car, the phone and laptop were exchanged for a bicycle and second-hand computer. Ten years of self-employed work followed - in London and Berlin with a portfolio of clients in organisations with a social, cultural and environmental focus including Greenpeace, an electric car company and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Then in 2015, 100,000 refugees arrived in Berlin requiring all-hands-on-deck. That included working in several huge emergency camps, hosting refugees at home and setting up Cycling Lessons for Ladies: providing cycling tuition for women refugees in the milder months and in the Winter preparing food together for homeless people at an emergency shelter. So far over 14,000 meals have been prepared as a team. In 2017, a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 41 meant there was even more to learn about life (and also time to launch a fundraising initiative "Cancer Care for Aleppo"). Returned to work at Friends of the Earth, as a project manager of environmental projects designed by refugees to finish that project. October 2018 started working for Berlin government managing a home for refugees.