• Germany's news in English
 

New fears, same desires: refugees then and now

Published: 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.

Related links:

Jessica Ware (jessica.ware@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Amazon 'paying local tax on sales in Germany'
Photo: Uli Deck/dpa

Amazon 'paying local tax on sales in Germany'

According to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, online retailer Amazon has started paying tax on profits from its sales to German customers in Germany instead of in Luxembourg READ  

German woman, 65, has quadruplets
Photo: DPA

German woman, 65, has quadruplets

A 65-year-old German woman, who already has 13 children, has given birth to quadruplets after undergoing an artificial insemination procedure in Ukraine. READ  

German WWII remains exhumed in Bosnia
Photo: DPA

German WWII remains exhumed in Bosnia

The remains of about 20 people, thought to be German and Italian soldiers killed in Bosnia during World War II, have been exhumed in the east of the country, officials said Friday. READ  

Sotheby's sells Nazi-era art trove find
Some 1,600 works of art were found behind this door in 2012. Photo: DPA

Sotheby's sells Nazi-era art trove find

A painting by Max Liebermann from a Nazi-era art trove found in Germany last year will go on sale in London next month, the first from the collection to be sold off, Sotheby's said on Friday. READ  

Family's ten-year quest for truth about dead son
Jeremiah Duggan. Photo: Justice for Jeremy

Family's ten-year quest for truth about dead son

The family of a British student killed in Wiesbaden over 12 years ago made a fresh step towards justice on Thursday, after a London coroner disagreed with German authorities' belief that he killed himself. READ  

Property of the week
Property of the Week: May 22nd
Photo: Mr Lodge

Property of the Week: May 22nd

Modern and sophisticated: This week’s property combines classic architecture with chic furnishings to create an elegant and luxurious living experience. READ  

83-year-old gets second drug dealing sentence
The judge said, given his age, he was not the ideal candidate for therapy. Photo:DPA

83-year-old gets second drug dealing sentence

An 83-year-old man was handed a six month suspended sentence on Thursday after being caught carrying seven bags of heroin in Düsseldorf. READ  

Carnival of Cultures in Berlin: six top picks
The dazzling colour of 2014's festival parade. Photo: Karneval der Kulturen

Carnival of Cultures in Berlin: six top picks

This weekend Berlin will be lit up by the vibrancy and colour of the Carnival of Cultures, an annual four-day urban festival that celebrates the diversity of Germany's capital. Here are six things not to miss. READ  

Bayern fans bring club's earliest years to light
FC Bayern's first team in 1925, the year of the commemorative publication. Photo: Jewish Museum

Bayern fans bring club's earliest years to light

For decades the early history of FC Bayern München was forgotten, but FCB fans have re-discovered a book from 1925 documenting the club's founding moments. READ  

Top spy admits: We're 'dependent' on NSA
Gerhard Schindler admitted that the BND had made mistakes in its handling of NSA requests. Photo: DPA

Top spy admits: We're 'dependent' on NSA

The head of the German Intelligence Agency (BND) told a special parliamentary committee on Thursday that his agency is 'dependent on' the American National Security Agency (NSA). READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Travel
Why the train strike is bad for passengers and workers
National
Meet Germany's Eurovision hope
Business & Money
Is 2015 a new moment for jobsharing?
Features
How the LGBT rights movement was born in Germany
National
Why you don't make bomb jokes at the airport
National
Why Germany needs a little less tipple
National
Who Germans and Americans trust... and don't
Politics
What the UK election means for Germany
National
Why Germany is great for mums
Features
The Germans with GI dads
Five ways Germany falls short on gay rights
Travel
Giant tortoise found riding Munich rail
National
FCK CPS? A-OK with court
Politics
Opinion: Brexit's dangers for Germany
Features
Smart kids all want to work for BMW
National
Minister shows off top Denglisch
National
Germany's 'other genocide' in Africa
National
Arms firms get a 'must do better' mark on ethics
Sport
Bayern's anticlimactic 25th Bundesliga win
Politics
A Greek learning politics in Germany
Features
The battle of the "Gates of Berlin"
National
Germany's 'very poor' lobbying record
National
Germany's favourite baby names of 2014
Politics
Merkel's 15 years at the top of German politics
Travel
Lowest of the low: how woman exploited Germanwings crash
Features
Spice up asparagus season with The Local's serving suggestions
Sport
Football and the €30,000 firework
Technology
Why scientists oppose killer robots
National
'Cannibal cop' gets 8 years
National
Which city is Germany's worst for drivers?
Technology
Electrifying 'Ostalgia'
National
Cologne Cathedral returns from space
Pupils mourn lost classmates
National
Freed after 25 years on death row
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
10 things you didn’t know about Zagreb (and why you should go)
Is your workload 'out of control'? You're not alone...
Sponsored Article
What expat parents should ask before choosing a school
Features
Paddy's Day, Berlin style
National
Why east Germans are happy to get it on on camera
National
Uplifting thoughts to get you through the last week of winter
National
What would you do with a 250-year-old pretzel?
National
Who wants the Olympics more - Hamburg or Berlin?
Features
Just why is the German flag Schwarz, Rot, Gold?
Business & Money
Getting German workers and bosses thinking positive
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

6,744
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd