Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Selfie with pink wall

From left: Aymen, Charlotte, Yasir on the occasion of Yasir's first birthday

The arthur+martha international outreach project Heaven-Proof House is a collaboration with refugees in Berlin, devised by Phil. The project is based at an asylum seekers' centre in Spandau, where residents have kindly granted interviews, made poems and artworks. The artworks below were made by children at the centre, "da heim". 

My time in Berlin is built around meeting people and sharing conversations. Today I'm going to be introduced to Yasir. He has come from Iraq and is remaking his life, after escaping prison and torture.

The introduction is made by Aymen, who is kind enough to act as translator. Aymen and Charlotte both work with the Kunstasyl arts organisation and they want to give Yasir a small birthday party, to which I'm also invited. "He's not celebrated a birthday before, it's not traditional in Iraq. But I think it's important, embracing existence. Some of my favourite days in this place have been birthdays."

Yasir is a man whose warmth and humour shine. Everyone looks happy when they talk with him, or about him. But he's been badly hurt and there's also a delicacy in our conversation, we tread carefully. Much of the communication is eye contact, a smile.

Hearts, by Eva. Berlin, 2016

Aymen is an excellent Master of Ceremonies: "This is the first cake of the first birthday of Yasir," he announces happily. "It is also my birthday - ah, the people of December are special people! Today we don't talk of Mosul, because we want a nice day. I.S. is in there now. It's a difficult time. Sister, mother, father of Yasir, they are there but he has no contact. He hopes they are secure, but never knows if everything is alright."

This fact hangs in the air. We eat instead of discussing it further. The "cake" that Charlotte has made for this occasion is a wondrous fruit crumble. We crunch sugary mouthfuls. The apple and pear are soft and tangy. It is studded with coloured candles. This is the food of my childhood, a taste of home. Yasir crunches happily on the sugary concoction, he has a sweet tooth.

He says: "Next year when I have anniversary I will celebrate. You will all be invited. It will be a very big celebration."

I ask how to make new beginnings. Aymen says, "He was forced to leave his home country, to come here. He can never come back to Iraq. He is forced to live, learn, survive here..."

We pause to take some photos. Charlotte larks about as the pictures are taken and Yasir hoots with laughter. "He says: it's the day to start a new life, it's nice to be reborn. He has had a bad, bad time in Iraq. Now he is healing, is with therapist. But always he has the sense of humour."

Yasir, translated by Aymen: "I start again here. I want to get residence. Took a course in the language school for 600 hours... I'm a professional embroiderer, a stitcher. Embroidering with machines in the old city of Mosul, traditional things. And army badges. Learned this trade in Mosul though have no piece of paper for it, no diploma. But I have found love already!"

Aymen breaks off from translating to add some details: "His girlfriend speaks my dialect. He wants to go to Tunisia to be with her they met on Facebook, they play games and talk talk talk. Beautiful."

Charlotte says: "Love is the most important thing of all. It is power. It is what makes home. It is what makes you."

I ask Yasir what the best moment in his life has been. Aymen shakes his sadly head as he translates Yasir: "It is not easy to say what is the best thing, because I was born in 1986 and I live only in war in Iraq. I was living with my parents, I was the only child of my parents. Eating together, playing together. Until 2003 it was okay: working, coming back home to a simple life. From 2003 until now it was really bad. 

"These days in Germany are good. Here is normal people, no extremist. There everything is extreme. If one wants coffee and one wants tea they start different sides and oppose each other. This is why everything is extreme in Iraq."

Charlotte again: "For us who live our life in Western Europe, we can't really talk about war. But when somebody like Yasir describes this, you listen. When you are European you don't know about war and when it's discussed you feel like you're judging something you don't understand. It's a relief when someone speaks the reality."

My final question is to ask Yasir what makes home. Yasir: "I feel at home wherever I feel like a human being, whenever they treat me like a human. Until I came to Germany I didn't feel like a human, now I feel part of something good. I can change things, the big things and the little. Like the colour of this wall."

The wall has been painted with a shocking pink rectangle. A single joyful statement in colour. Yasir strokes it affectionately. Aymen explains: "Yasir was in prison two times for no reason. He was tortured. The colour of the corridor walls here is a bad colour, an unfortunate colour. It is the same colour that they have in the prison, and in Guantánamo and it is the same colour in Abu Ghraib. Yasir really loves colour and one day I asked him, 'OK what colour do you want?' and he told me pink so we did that. Some days when he's feeling bad he can't bear to look at the colour out in the hall, because it reminds him of the prisons and so he stays in his room, with his pink wall."

Yasir, interviewed by Philip Davenport 
Translation Aymen Montasser
Spandau, Berlin. December 2016

Butterfly, by Mahmood. Berlin, 2016

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