Thursday, 24 November 2016


I'm in the queue for permission. Julia is beside me, on a long old-fashioned wooden bench in the town hall (Rathaus) in Schöneberg, Berlin. We are queueing for a form that means we are officially "here". Without the correct documentation we aren’t legal citizens. We've been told to come at least an hour before the doors open because the line can get very long. 

Schöneberg Town Hall is most known for a visit by JFK in 1963, when he made his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. The crowd of Berliners hanging desperately onto his words filled the plaza around the town hall. The reason for long queues today is that Berlin is a more-than-popular destination, it's famously become a place of safety, a haven, for refugees, fleeing the vicious wars in the Middle East.

It's not a happy queue. To be without rights is a limbo: even with my cosy (pre-Brexit) EU citizenship, a safe home, secure life, I feel uneasy. People sit quietly, with carefully blank faces. I wonder why they are here, what their stories might be? A man in a bright sports coat mumbles to himself and gesticulates angrily, worrying away at some troublesome idea.

We’d been told to come an hour early, to improve our chances. As I look back more people are collecting at the end of the line. Instead of 25 people we are suddenly 50. The door of Room 116 opens and a young clerk ushers us to the reception desks. We apologise for our bad German and ask if the conversation can be in English. He nods, apologises in turn: "Unfortunately we have many people who want this piece of paper. We cannot offer you an interview until January."

That's in two months time. Julia and I look at him aghast. And then we are handed a very big slice of bureaucratic sunshine. One of his co-workers mutters something and he says: "Because we are just starting this morning, my colleague says we can give you an unplanned appointment in 10 minutes time."

We leave 20 minutes later clutching our fresh-stamped permits. Now there are 100 in the queue, spilling back out through the door and into the echoing corridor of the Rathaus. 100 quiet, careful faces, all hoping.

Heaven-Proof House is a poetry project based in Berlin, devised by Philip Davenport from arthur+martha CIC and supported by the British Council and Arts Council England. The project continues the arthur+martha strand of international work with marginalised people, connecting across borders and boundaries. 

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