• 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)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
German of the Week
'Now I can grow cannabis at home'
Günter Weiglein. Photo: DPA

'Now I can grow cannabis at home'

Günter Weiglein is one of three men in Germany who is allowed to grow his own cannabis thanks to a court ruling last week. But he tells The Local he’s not celebrating just yet. READ  

Germany tops penis enlargement table
Do your wurst, doc. Photo: DPA

Germany tops penis enlargement table

Germany is the world’s leader in penis enlargements, with five times as many people in the country undergoing the procedure than anywhere else in the world. Globally, Germany carries out the fourth highest amount of cosmetic surgery operations. READ  

The Local List
The best words in Austrian German
Which one is the Austrian word for tomato? Photo: APA/dpa

The best words in Austrian German

If you’ve lived in Germany, or you learnt Hochdeutsch at school, you may be surprised by some of the language differences between Austria and parts of Germany. READ  

Turks in Germany vote for first time
Voters at Berlin's Olympic Stadium on Thursday. Photo: DPA

Turks in Germany vote for first time

Germany’s large Turkish community headed to polling stations on Thursday to vote for the first time in a Turkish election. The Local visits Berlin’s Olympic Stadium which has been turned into a giant voting booth. READ  

Ice Age lion gets its head back
The lion with the missing half of its head. Photo: Hilde Jensen, Universität Tübingen.

Ice Age lion gets its head back

A 40,000-year-old figurine of a lion has been reunited with its head, more than 80 years after it was first found in a cave in southern Germany, following an extraordinary discovery. READ  

German jobless rate rises in July
Photo: DPA

German jobless rate rises in July

Unemployment in Germany rose in July to 6.6 percent, the Federal Employment Agency said on Thursday, blaming the increase on "seasonal reasons". READ  

Your lottery numbers are 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13
The winning numbers in Wednesday night's lotto. Photo: DPA/Lotto

Your lottery numbers are 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13

Three lucky Germans will take home a six-figure prize after an extremely rare lottery draw. The lucky numbers on Wednesday night were 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 37. READ  

Germany denies 'land for gas' deal with Putin
Merkel with Poroshenko and Putin in June. Photo: DPA

Germany denies 'land for gas' deal with Putin

UPDATE: Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been working on a secret peace plan for Ukraine, The Independent newspaper reported on Thursday. The report was later denied by the German government. READ  

Space ship brings special cargo for astronaut
A cargo compartment on the ATV. Photo: ESA

Space ship brings special cargo for astronaut

The last European space freighter blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, carrying a special treat for the station’s German astronaut. The launch of the German-built supply ship marks the end of an era. READ  

World Cup victory makes Germans thirsty
Beer sales abroad and during the World Cup were behind the rise. Photo: DPA

World Cup victory makes Germans thirsty

Germany’s World Cup victory was also good news for the country’s brewers who saw a welcome reversal in the long-term trend of draining beer sales. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Five reasons to visit Oktoberfest (and five not to)
Photo: DPA
Society
Huge Bavarian crop circle puzzles crowds
Photo: DPA
Analysis & Opinion
Have Your Say: Should Germany legalize cannabis?
Photo: DPA
Education
Germany's students fail to graduate in time
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Hamburg harbour lit up in blue
Business & Money
JobTalk: 'Application process is failing'
Photo: Bundesarchiv/Bild 183-S45825
Culture
Germany puts 700,000 WWI docs online
Photo: DPA
Society
This man wants to give all of us €12,000 a year
Photo: DPA
Education
Top university switches master's courses to English
Travel
Plans unveiled for bike trail along former Iron Curtain
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The Local List: 12 best words in German
Photo: Europeana.de 1914 - 1918
Gallery
A German soldier's life behind WWI lines
Education
Raising the bar for law & business in Germany
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
Photo: DPA
Features
The Local List Archive - Your guide to all things German
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Sponsored Article
Bilingual school turning education on its head
Sponsored Article
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
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

3,250
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd