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‘Liberal, tolerant and diverse’: A Pakistani’s experience living in Berlin

Pakistani journalist Adnan Aamir experienced many culture shocks during his time working in Berlin - some very different than he had expected.

'Liberal, tolerant and diverse': A Pakistani's experience living in Berlin
The author in front of Berlin's 'Altes Museum'. Photo courtesy of Adnan Aamir.

In September last year, I visited Berlin for three days as a tourist. At that time, while admiring the graffiti at the famous East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall and today an open air gallery, I did not have the slightest idea that I would be returning very soon.

Earlier this year, I was among the nine journalists from all over the world who were selected to attend a digital security Fellowship with Reporter Ohne Grenzen (Reporters Without Borders).

In May, I found myself back in capital of Germany to experience life as a Berliner for almost four months.

Individual freedom

In Berlin, I lived in the fascinating neighborhood of Kreuzberg. My apartment was located halfway between Warschauer Straße and Kottbusser Tor and I could observe party-loving people every night just by opening the door of my balcony. So much was happening in Kreuzberg all the time that I was never bored despite being a very introverted person.

I enjoyed walking towards the Eastside Gallery in the evenings and sitting near the bank of Spree. Walking down the abandoned runway of Tempelhof Airport or watching the performances of entertainers at Alexanderplatz, spending a Sunday afternoon at Wannsee or taking a stroll near Brandenburger Tor.

There was so much to love about Berlin.

A photo collage adorns the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin for the Unity Festival in 2018. Photo: DPA

What I miss the most about living in Berlin is individual freedom in daily lives. I could go anywhere anytime, meet people, sit with them and talk to them without any fear of moral policing. I was living the life of a normal free human being with complete freedom to express myself.

Unfortunately, it’s a different universe back home in Pakistan and here not only the people but also the government considers it mandatory to interfere in the day to day affairs of the citizens.

A treasure trove of history

Interestingly, I am a history buff and Berlin is a treasure trove of history due to being the epicenter of World War II.

I took it upon myself to visit almost all the museums and attractions relating to World War II in any way.

Not only did I visit all the war museums in Berlin, I also visited the site of the post-war conference in Potsdam.

The most terrifying experience was the visit to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in north of Berlin, which was used by the Nazis from 1936 to 1945. I witnessed a lot of history, which I can now share with like-minded friends back home.

Language difficulties

However, one of the biggest problems I faced while living in Berlin was not being able to speak Deutsch. Last year, when I was in Berlin as a tourist, it never occurred to me that understanding German is important.

READ ALSO: Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

This time when I stayed for longer, I began to realize how essential it was. I struggled especially at the grocery stores, where every product was marked in German and not many attendants could speak English.

It was the same case when I had to tell a barber how to cut my hair or tell the janitor of my apartment to fix a light bulb. Generally, people in Berlin were friendly but if you do not speak the language then you can face a bit of unfriendly behaviour.

However, it was harmless unfriendliness and I never experienced any incident of racism in any way.

Visitors in August to the East Side Gallery. Photo: DPA

Defying stereotypes

In Pakistan, there is an impression that German people are perfectionists. They are always punctual and everything works impeccably in Germany. My experience of living in Berlin for few months made me realize that this impression is not completely accurate.

German colleagues I was dealing with were often late and ironically I was more punctual then them.

READ ALSO: Five things you need to know about German working culture

Not everything worked perfectly in Germany whether it was the government bureaucracy or the German rail server, Deutsche Bahn, my least favorite train service in western Europe.

Having said that, Germany is still a proverbial heaven when compared to Pakistan or any other third world country.

I do not know when I will get a chance to visit Berlin again but I will remember the four-month experience for the rest of my life.

The liberal, tolerant and diverse Berlin, as I know it, impressed me a lot and I have nothing but good wishes for the social and economic prosperity of the denizens of this beautiful city.

The author is a journalist, researcher, and trainer based in Quetta, Pakistan.

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Explained: How new poverty ‘problem regions’ are emerging in Germany

Overall poverty is declining slightly in Germany, a new report has found. But there are deep divides and new ‘problem regions’ emerging.

Explained: How new poverty ‘problem regions’ are emerging in Germany
A homeless man eating breakfast in Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA

The number of people living in poverty in Germany has dropped slightly, a new report by the Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband (Parity Welfare Association), has found. 

In 2018, 15.5 percent of the population was affected by poverty, a drop of 0.3 percentage points compared to the previous year. It means that 210,000 fewer people were living below the bread line in Germany in 2018 compared to 2017. 

Yet there are still big concerns. “Despite a welcome decline in the nationwide poverty rate to 15.5 percent, worrying developments and new problem regions are emerging, particularly in west Germany,” the report says.

Someone in Germany is generally deemed to be in poverty if they live in a household with an income below 60 per cent of the current median (or typical) household income, although other factors are taken into account. These are people whose monthly net income is typically less than around €905.

READ ALSO: How Germany plans to fight stark regional inequalities

Large inequalities

The research reveals stark inequalities throughout Germany nearly 30 years after reunification – and shows the divide is not just between eastern and western states.

The poverty rate ranges from 11.7 percent in prosperous Bavaria to 22.7 percent in Bremen, the smallest state in Germany.

Other states with a lower rate of poverty are Brandenburg, with 15.2 percent, as well as Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, which both have a 15.3 percent poverty rate.

As the graphic and map below shows, the areas with more problems are in the east of the country (particularly Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony-Anhalt) as well as Bremen, Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia.

Source: Der Paritätische Gesamtverband

'Deeply divided'

Ulrich Schneider, managing director of the Paritätische Gesamtverband, highlighted the problems.

“The gap between affluent regions on the one hand, and poor regions on the other, is growing steadily and clearly, and the divide is no longer just between east and west,” said Schneider.

On closer inspection, Germany now appears to be divided into four parts when it comes to poverty. The prosperous South (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg with a combined poverty rate of 11.8 percent) is contrasted by North Rhine-Westphalia with a poverty rate of 18.1 percent and the east, with a 17.5 percent rate.

The other regions of western Germany have a combined rate of 15.9 percent.

“The poverty report shows that the west of Germany is also deeply divided and far removed from uniformity or equal living conditions,” said Schneider.

The below map shows Germany split into four parts.

Source: Der Paritätische Gesamtverband

The study looked at poverty development at national and regional levels. According to the researchers, poverty fell in 35 out of 95 regions between 2008 and 2018, including predominantly eastern German regions.

But in over a quarter of regions, poverty increased by more than 20 percent over the same period. With a poverty rate of 21.1 percent and 5.8 million residents, the Ruhr region (Ruhrgebiet) in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populated state, remains the “number one problem region”, according to the study.

READ ALSO: Poverty rising in Germany's industrial Ruhr region

The industrial area, which includes cities like Dortmund and Essen, was one of Germany's richest throughout the 20th century on the back of a thriving coal mining industry. As the coal mines have closed however, wages have stagnated and poverty has trended upwards in the region.

The study also found a number of new problem regions, which were in a fairly good position in 2008 but now also have poverty rates above the national average.

Researchers pointed to the central state of Hesse where development is particularly poor: whereas 10 years ago the state was on par with the wealthy south, poverty levels in Hesse have risen by 24 per cent since then – an increase higher than in any other state.

Old-age poverty a big worry

There are also concerns about old-age poverty and the so-called 'working poor' in Germany.

The number of pensioners living in poverty has risen by 33 per cent in the last 10 years, an increase unparalleled by any other group. Of the adult poor, 29 per cent are retired and 32 per cent are employed. Meanwhile, every fifth child lives in poverty.

READ ALSO: Old-age poverty in Germany set to rise significantly

In its report, the association calls for, among other things, a “master plan” to tackle poverty that includes looking at housing, care for pensioners, health, family, education and inclusion. Authors want to see an increase of the minimum wage and the rates in Germany's Hartz IV unemployment benefits.

As The Local reported earlier this year, the German government is pledging to tackle poverty and reduce the gap between booming regions and those lagging behind.