'Who knew you could feel so uncomfortable?': A British-Indian's experience in east Berlin

Shafiq Abidin
Shafiq Abidin - [email protected]
'Who knew you could feel so uncomfortable?': A British-Indian's experience in east Berlin
The sun setting over Berlin's East Side Gallery. Photo: DPA

24-year-old British student Shafiq Abidin recounts a number of targeted incidents which happened in the east of Berlin, changing his perception of the city.


Berlin is unquestionably one of the most magnificent cities someone can visit. From the fascinating architecture such as the Brandenburg Gate or the Berliner Fernsehturm, to its unparalleled Döner. Berlin really does have it all.

It’s a shame then, that plenty of Berliners still cannot come to terms with multiculturalism and accept that the world is made up of colours.

I myself am of Indian origin and spent a few days in Berlin in early October to immerse myself in the local sights and way of life. Nothing could prepare me for the downright awkwardness I felt every time I stepped out of my apartment. 

Who knew you could feel so uncomfortable in your own skin?

'I do not wish to communicate with him'

On a Saturday morning, I strolled down the walkways of Ostbahnhof station to get on the Berlin S-Bahn, stopping to get a coffee alongside my girlfriend. 

“Two coffee’s please’’ I asked the vendor. I repeated my order and in response received a shrug of the shoulders. My partner, who is white, blonde and has blue eyes, asked the same question in German. 

The man stopped her and said, “I can speak English very well. I just do not wish to communicate with him, but I’m happy to serve you’’.

A train pulling up to Berlin's Ostbahnhof. Photo: DPA

As we got on another S-Bahn at Ostkreuz, a German woman sat opposite us took one look at me before storming off into another carriage, making her apparent displeasure very clear.

On one journey home, two locals began slamming windows shut all around the carriage and aggressively shouting in my direction. I didn’t need to understand German to know that they were angry at my presence. 

This became typical for me, a person of colour, in east Berlin. 

'I feared for my safety'

Whilst Berlin has long been a city which has shown pride in being multicultural and accepting of various races, it’s no secret that far-right movements have a presence the former East Germany. 

For example, the far-right political party AfD (the Alternative for Germany) took 94 seats in Germany’s State Parliament in 2017. They are believed to have gained momentum as a result of Merkel allowing close to a million refugees, predominantly those fleeing Syria, to seek asylum in Germany. 

Whilst Germans initially got onboard with this decision, AfD are known to have intentionally stoked racial bitterness and Islamophobia, with far-right politicians such as Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland publicly exploiting crimes committed by immigrants, demonising them and branding them “terrorists’’.

READ ALSO: Anti-foreigner attitudes on the rise in Germany, study finds

It goes without saying that Germany is not proud of its Nazi past and the majority of Germans seek to repeal the idea of anti-foreigner sentiment. However violence against minority groups has risen in recent years, as AfD have sought to play down the significance of Germany’s far-right Nazi history.

This context had me fearing for my safety every day whilst I was in east Berlin. But more importantly, do Asian migrants and Germans of Asian ancestry share this feeling on a daily basis?

'It felt like the Wall is still there'

The 9th of November, less than a month away, marks thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event was supposed to be the first step towards a new, stronger Germany, bringing about reunification 11 months later.

A remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall at the 'East Side Gallery'. Photo: DPA

Both sides of the wall experienced different histories, with the GDR Government closing off the country from foreign influence, whilst the former West Germany accepted immigrants to empower an already strong workforce.

From my experience, the west of Berlin has gone from strength to strength and truly embodies what Germany as a whole should be. I’d notice a different atmosphere every time I entered the western part of the city, feeling immediately more comfortable. 

READ ALSO: 'Liberal, tolerant and diverse': A Pakistani's experience living in Berlin

The east of Berlin felt like a reminder of what Germany used to be. In many ways, it felt like the Wall is very much still there, we just can’t see it.

'There are people that let Germany down'

Over the years, Germany has given me some absolutely glorious people and memories. It gave me Michael Schumacher and the 24 hours of Nürburgring. It gave me Philip Lahm and Germany’s victory in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. 

Be it architecturally, technologically or by any other algorithm you want to use to measure success, Germany almost certainly ranks high in every known category. 

I really believe it’s a superpower of the world and I am saddened that, although the vast majority of Germans aren’t corrupt or facist, there are people that really let the nation down as a whole. 

The new, post-wall Berlin is meant to be thriving, vibrant and cultured - yet, it feels only half the city is.


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