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

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.

'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

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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Black people in Germany face ‘widespread’ racism, survey finds

In the Afrocensus, a first-of-its-kind survey charting the lived experiences of black people in Germany, the vast majority revealed they experienced 'extensive' discrimination in almost all aspects of public life.

Dr Karamba Diaby
Dr Karamba Diaby, an SPD politician and anti-racism advocate, carries out voluntary work in his constituency of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

“The results of the Afrocensus indicate that anti-Black racism is widespread in Germany and anchored in institutions,” the authors of the new report said in a press release on Tuesday. “There is no area of life in which discrimination and racism are not extensive problems.”

Though the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had experienced discrimination at least ‘sometimes’ in almost all areas of life, housing was the area where they said they were discriminated against most often.

Just two percent of respondents to the Afrocensus said they had ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced racism in the housing market, compared to more than 90 percent who said they had experienced it ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Experiences with police and security personnel also counted among areas of life where racism was particularly prevalent: 88 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from security staff ‘often’ or ‘very often’, while around 85 percent had had the same experience with police.

More than 85 percent had also experienced racism in their education or in the workplace ‘often’ or ‘very often’ in Germany. One in seven had lost their job during the Covid crisis. 

According to the report, 90 percent of respondents had also experienced having their hair grabbed, while more than half (56 percent) had been stopped by the police or asked for drugs by strangers.

Meanwhile, 80 percent said people had made comments about the colour of their skin or sexualised comments about their race on dating apps. A vast majority – 90 percent – also revealed they hadn’t been believed when they’d spoken out about racism in the past, or that people had said they were “too sensitive”. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: My experiences of everyday racism in Germany

In spite of widespread discrimination, almost half (47 percent) of the respondents were engaged and active in their community – mostly carrying out some form of social or voluntary work.

First of its kind

Based on wide-ranging data, the findings paint a vivid and concerning picture of what life is like for the one million or so black people living in Germany today.

To produce the report, researchers from Berlin-based Black community group Each One Teach One and Citizens for Europe conducted an extended survey of 6,000 black people from the Africans and Afrodiasporic community to try and discover more about on the everyday lives and experiences of this group. The survey was carried out between July and September 2020. 

It represents one of the first attempts to gather a wealth of quantitative data on this subject, and as such offers some of the first truly scientific insights into anti-Black racism in modern Germany.

“With the Afrocensus, we have succeeded in doing exactly what has long been demanded within the black community for a long time: making the realities of our lives visible within the framework of qualitative, but above all quantitative research,” Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana und Dr. Karamba Diaby wrote in a foreword to the report. 

Diaby, a high-profile politician within the centre-left SPD party, was one of only two Afro-German politicians in parliament when he first took his seat in 2013. He has since become known for promoting political engagement and empowerment within the migrant and black community. 

In January 2020, an unknown gunman fired shots through the window of his constituency office in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a suspected racially motivated attack. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Since the Second World War, Germany has avoided gathering data that allows people to be traced by ethnicity as a means of protecting persecuted groups.

However, critics say this approach only works to make the issues faced by these groups invisible. 

Writing on Twitter, Daniel Gyamerah, Division Lead at Citizens For Europe, called for an “action plan for tackling anti-Black racism and for empowering black, African and Afrodiasporic people” and the establishment of advice centres for people facing racism and discrimination.

More research into the intersectional experience of black people in Germany is needed, he added.