Friday, 21 April 2017

We came with no name, but we leave as kings. Pt 1

Das Boot, by Ivan. Berlin, 2017

On the invitation of Kunstasyl arts organisation, Phil visited one of the largest refugee hostels in Berlin. In this two-part blog he goes on a walk-through of the building, and speaks with members of Kunstasyl, artists Barbara Caveng and Charlotte Danoy-Kent.


I'm inside of one of the biggest rooms I've ever entered. The word "inside" feels inappropriate for this space, which is the size of a football pitch. A big football pitch. The walls are springtime colours, crisp yellow, greens, and some sky blue. Day filters through ceiling skylights. It's the ground floor of a repurposed factory, now home to a whole community of people who've had to flee from war and leave their homes, to find temporary refuge here in Spandau, in Berlin. 

My guide around the building is Carlo Schenk, an intern who is studying social sciences. I must look overwhelmed because Carlo smiles at my expression. "Huge isn't it? The first time I came here it looked unbelievable to me. Even now, after working two weeks here, it still looks too big. This open place is the shared area, over there are the tables and the kitchens, then there are smaller areas like the kindergarten and the workshops at the edge."

We walk around, and Carlo points out things of interest, but it's impossible to focus. Continual human voices roll across the space like waves. Children's voices, high pitched and excited as they play, men chatting at tables, or in the barber shop, a woman scolding her kid, all of them echoing together. Enough dining tables to serve hundreds of people. There's a big gleaming metal kitchen at one end of the room, a corner has been fenced off for a kindergarten, another space is a gym, another is a textile studio. At the far end, rows of planters containing palm trees and wooden benches, made by occupants of this "heim". People stroll back and forth, as if they're in a park. 

"The barber shop is great isn't it? People socialise there, it's a really important part of Middle Eastern culture and most here are from the Middle East. We wish we could get more people cooking in the kitchens because cooking is important as well, but right now it's just too difficult to organise more than three families at once."

Next to the big hall are the sleeping rooms, another vast space divided into a grid of high-walled rooms with no ceilings, each sleeping six people. Carlo knocks on the wall of one of the shared sleeping rooms, where he knows the occupant, but no one is in. I peep briefly into the room, a stark box of stacked bunk beds.

We go briefly upstairs to look at the offices and quiet area. At every entrance or exit point is a security guard. Why is that? "To keep everybody safe, from outside and from each other. People have to sleep here so they must feel safe. There's got to be rules and they've got to be kept to. People have to feel secure and respected."

Carlo is researching the experience of LGBT refugees at the moment. "People who are lesbian or gay are in danger of experiencing the same prejudice in some refugee communities as they did at home. The same pressures that meant they had to leave might be here as well..."

We return to the gigantic hall on the ground floor. It's a big, big, big gathering point, like an airport or a stadium, where people shrink to little miniatures on the horizon of the room. A place where you might suspend ordinary life, hoping to return to it in an unspecified future. A place where you might lose yourself for awhile.

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 communities, connecting people across borders and boundaries. 

Berliner Stadmission is a social organisation with a Christian background, helping people in need. The Mertensstrasse building described here is currently being extended to take more people. Many thanks to Kunstasyl, Carlo Schenk, Berliner Stadmission.


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