• 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
Sudeten Germans give up 'right to homeland'
Sudeten Germans practising traditional dance at a gathering in 2014. Photo: DPA

Sudeten Germans give up 'right to homeland'

The Sudeten German Homeland Association has given up its claim to the group's former home in parts of the Czech Republic, quieting one of the final echoes of the Second World War. READ  

Minister draws fire over wage transparency plan
Families Minister Manuela Schwesig. Photo: DPA

Minister draws fire over wage transparency plan

Families Minister Manuela Schwesig confirmed on Sunday that she wants a new law allowing women to compare their wages with men doing similar work, provoking angry reactions from employers. READ  

Police wind down Bremen terror response
Heavily-armed police on patrol outside Bremen cathedral. Photo: DPA

Police wind down Bremen terror response

Police in Bremen said that the risk of a terrorist attack had been reduced in the city after they arrested two suspected arms dealers. The city remains under high alert, with special protection for the Jewish community. READ  

Germany's Schäuble softens Greece tone
Photo: DPA

Germany's Schäuble softens Greece tone

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Sunday Greece's new hard-left government needs "a bit of time" but is committed to implementing necessary reforms to resolve its debt crisis. READ  

UK Pegida rally dwarfed by counter-demo
Photo: DPA

UK Pegida rally dwarfed by counter-demo

An estimated 375 people turned out for the Germany-based PEGIDA movement's first demonstration in Britain on Saturday, but were outnumbered by a 2,000-strong crowd of counter-protesters, police said. READ  

Greek PM vows to 'start working hard' after vote
Photo: DPA

Greek PM vows to 'start working hard' after vote

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras vowed Friday to "start working hard" to implement vital reforms in the stricken eurozone country, after Germany's parliament approved a four month extension to its bailout. READ  

Ukraine: troop deaths 'serious breach' of truce
Photo: DPA

Ukraine: troop deaths 'serious breach' of truce

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the killing of three government troops by pro Moscow rebels a "serious breach of the ceasefire", during a telephone call Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her office said. READ  

Man wins court battle over loud footsteps
Trouble at the top. Photo: DPA

Man wins court battle over loud footsteps

Germany's highest civil court ruled in favour of a man who swapped the carpet in his new apartment for parquet flooring, incurring the wrath of the retired couple who lived below him over his loud footsteps. READ  

Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday
Photo: DPA

Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday

Teachers all over the country are expected to stike starting Monday, German education trade union GEW said, after negotiations with the wage commission of the federal states (TdL) failed to achieve results. READ  

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes
Andre Shepherd at the European Court of Justice in June 2014. Photo: DPA

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes

American soldier Andre Shepherd, who applied for asylum in Germany as a conscientious objector against the war in Iraq after going AWOL from his unit, saw a judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) go against him on Thursday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Germany
Politics
Surprise! Germans love feeling like they run the EU
Politics
Anger over plan to show women what men earn
Travel
Munich tram fans bicker over new bell
Features
Kafka: puzzling translators 100 years on
Business & Money
France or Germany: Which country really is the best country to work in?
Photo: Police
Rhineland
Student driver crashes tank into family garden.
Photo: DPA
Politics
There was a notable absence at the Anti-Semitism Commission
Sponsored Article
Tourist or lifer: what sort of expat are you?
National
How Dresden bombing still divides Germany, 70 years on
Sponsored Article
Are you an American expat? How to face FATCA
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Take a cute break with this gallery of baby animals
International
What's keeping UK expats from voting?
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
All you ever needed to know about Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
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

3,157
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd