• Germany edition
 
New fears, same desires: refugees then and now
Then and now, the Marienfelde camp. Photo: DPA and EMM

New fears, same desires: refugees then and now

Published: 22 Nov 2012 14:43 GMT+01:00
Updated: 22 Nov 2012 14:43 GMT+01:00

The Marienfelde refugee centre, a sprawling concrete complex in the suburban south of the city, has been housing those fleeing to safety since 1953 - and looks it. Walking through on a quiet Wednesday morning, it was easy to imagine being there during the Cold War.

People were always leaving East Germany - in floods during the 1950s, and trickles later when it became more difficult. By the time the Berlin Wall came down and the country was reunited, around four million are thought to have left the East.

Marienfelde was a stop-over home for around 1.35 million of them over the decades. At its busiest point in the mid-1950s there were 1,200 people living there, generally five to a room, sleeping in bunk-beds.

Standards are better now - only around 600 people are supposed to be housed there, although in November there were more than 700 people staying, said director Uta Sternal.

“It's okay at the moment but we really cannot take any more people in,” she said, adding that over half of those living there were children. Some can be seen through from her office windows, playing football.

Marienfelde has private kitchens and bathrooms and is thus considered one of the better places for a person seeking asylum in Germany. But life is still tough, said Sternal.

'They have left everything behind'

"They have a little money, aren't going to get murdered and have heating - but then again they have left everything behind," she said.

For those who have landed a room at this, one of Germany's better refugee camps, life for involves a lot of patiently doing very little - by law refugees cannot work until they are granted residence. They receive a basic allowance which is the same as the lowest level of state welfare. Many of the facilities which house them do not offer German lessons, although Marienfelde does.

Just 10 percent of people who pass through the complex end up securing a life in Germany. “The rest appeal their rejection, go to another country or return home,” said Sternal.

Nationwide 43,362 people applied for asylum in Germany in 2011. Just 652 were accepted, and 33,687 were rejected, according to statistics from the federal office for migration and refugees (BAMF).

A quarter of applications are thought to be turned down without even being examined by the authorities, according to the exhibition that has opened at the small museum at the Marienfelde complex.

It says that at least 4,300 people are in Berlin at various stages of the asylum process - yet technically the city only has room to house 4,120.

Although they and their families are living in the same squat, sparse buildings as their East German predecessors, the problems faced by people who have fled Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, are significantly different.

'Skin colour and language are barriers'

“Refugees coming from the GDR could speak German and they were mostly Caucasian, meaning they were less noticeable than current immigrants,” said Sternal. Skin colour and language, she said, present considerable barriers for a refugee in 2012.

The museum primarily covers what life was like for refugees during the Cold War, complete with a recreated dorm room decked out in 1950s furniture. Black and white photos of the outside look as if they could have been taken yesterday.

But it is the new temporary exhibition which takes the focus away from the past and towards today.

Click here to see pictures taken around the Marienfelde centre

Museum curator Kathrin Steinhausen worked with four groups of refugees currently living at the centre to create the exhibition which tells their stories. They are being shown for three months at a time - the first features a Chechen family of six.

Usman Gedaev and Luisa Muslimova and their four children aged between 11 and 19, came to Germany last October after war tore apart their country. The government has given them leave to stay until April 2013 and with legal help offered at Marienfelde, they are trying to get their permit extended.

A video installation shows an interview with them in which they talk about what they do each day and their previous lives in Chechnya.

"It is hard to sit and do nothing everyday," says Muslimova, who used to sell vegetables at a local market. Her partner, Gedaev, explains how each week since they arrived he has been taking their children aside to ask them how they were feeling and whether they want to leave.

The family are filmed in their shared bedroom, where they demonstrate a traditional dance for the cameras.

“There are preconceptions when it comes to refugees in Germany,” said Steinhausen. “Lots of Germans seem to think that they can just arrive and stay but we are trying to show it isn't as easy as that.”

'GDR and modern refugees both wanted a safer, better life'

For Steinhausen, the project goes further beyond showing what living in a refugee camp is like. She hopes that by putting the past and present side by side, visitors would notice the similarity between the two.

“Marienfelde is a historical place with contemporary importance,” she said, standing next to a photo taken in the early 1950s of hundreds of East German refugees queuing outside the entrance, all hoping for a place to stay.

“Questions raised when the GDR refugees are the same as many being asked today,” Steinhausen explained, adding that looking to the past to solve current problems could be helpful, especially when it came down to who would or would not be classed as an asylum seeker.

Both Steinhausen and Sternal were clear on one point in particular, that “refugees want the same thing as they did in the Cold War - escape from war and a safer, better life.”

A group of refugees are currently pushing for the government to acknowledge the often squalid conditions refugees are made to live in while applying for asylum.

Several hundred left refugee centres in Bavaria in September and walked to Berlin where they have been camping out and demonstrating since – thus far with little political reaction.

“It would be nice if things were to change and what they [the protesters] are doing is a prod at the government,” said Sternal. “But any actual changes would take a long time,” she added.

The Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum, which is one of the few in Berlin with no entrance fee, will be showing the "After the escape. Life in the residential home Marienfelder Allee" until July 2013.

Jessica Ware (jessica.ware@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Fourth time lucky for free Berlin WiFi?
Coming soon? Photo: DPA

Fourth time lucky for free Berlin WiFi?

Berlin's bid to set up a free city-wide wireless network has so far come to nothing. But city bosses are now trying for a fourth time - and hope to have the project running next year. READ  

Opinion
Do German unions have too much power?
Lufthansa passengers rush to change their flights at Frankfurt Airport on Monday. Photo: DPA

Do German unions have too much power?

Germany's pilots and train drivers are taking it in turns to bring the country to a standstill with strikes that have cost the economy tens of millions of euros in the last two weeks. Are unions abusing their power or standing up for their rights? READ  

Older workers can have extra days off, court says
Photo: Workers in a German shoe factory. Photo: DPA

Older workers can have extra days off, court says

Older workers in Germany are allowed more time off than younger ones, a court ruled on Tuesday, saying the difference was not discriminatory. READ  

Expat's family battles for answers four years on
Matthew Fitzpatrick died in 2010 in Mannheim. Photo: Fitzpatrick family

Expat's family battles for answers four years on

In 2010 an Irish computer engineer was found dead in his apartment in Baden-Württemberg. Four years on, his family are still pressing the German justice system for answers. They feel badly let down by police who they say have refused to examine evidence of foul play. READ  

Court: Germany can keep arms deals secret
The judges of the Supreme Court announce their decision about weapons exports on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Court: Germany can keep arms deals secret

The government can keep arms deals secret and only tell the public about them after contracts have been signed, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. READ  

Tourist finds €7,500 instead of cheesecake

Tourist finds €7,500 instead of cheesecake

Just how honest would you have to be to return €7,500 that you found in a box supposed to contain your favourite cheesecake? READ  

Tanker fills up gas station with wrong fuel
Photo: DPA

Tanker fills up gas station with wrong fuel

Around 160 car owners are stuck after a gas station's storage tanks were filled with the wrong fuel, causing an estimated €100,000 in damage. READ  

Lufthansa strike hits 1,500 flights
Photo: DPA

Lufthansa strike hits 1,500 flights

UPDATE: In the second day of their strike, Lufthansa pilots have, as promised, extended their industrial action to include long-haul international flights until the end of Tuesday. READ  

Merkel tells allies to pay Ukraine's gas debts
Chancellor Angela Merkel in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Monday. Photo: DPA

Merkel tells allies to pay Ukraine's gas debts

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called on Ukraine's allies to help the war-scarred nation pay off its gas debts to Russia, amid concern over gas supplies this winter. READ  

Steinmeier wants epidemic task force
Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks at the World Health Summit in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Steinmeier wants epidemic task force

At the World Health Summit in Berlin, the Ebola crisis took centre stage at talks meant to create plans for how to handle future outbreaks. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: Mariana Schroeder
Munich
Special Report: Hope and chaos at Munich's refugee shelters
Photo: DPA
Berlin
Robbers blow up Berlin bank
Photo: DPA
Culture
Can you top our history quiz leaderboard?
Photo: Facebook
Society
German motorcycle gang joins Isis fight
Photo: DPA
Politics
UKIP ‘seeks EU pact’ with German satirical party
Photo: DPA
Gallery
PHOTOS: World's biggest erotic fair opens in Berlin
Photo: DPA/Shutterstock
Gallery
11 things Germans are afraid of...
Sponsored Article
International School on the Rhine: a legacy
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The ten richest people in Germany
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd