The life of an Afghan refugee living in Germany in 2020
Originally published in Lemon Theory (now defunct).
Hadir arrives in Berlin, utterly exhausted, in late November 2015. He, his cousin and two friends have taken a high-speed ICE train from the German/Austrian border to the capital, the final stage of a journey that started weeks before in southern Iran. Out of decency, the ticket conductor policing the carriages has allowed the four men to travel free of charge; she wishes them good luck as they stumble onto the platform. As the only English speaker among them, Hadir leads the group to the police station at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where they declare themselves as refugees. After being transferred to a processing centre and waiting in a holding pen for six hours, Hadir manages to talk himself and his companions onto a bus heading to one of the main refugee shelters, located in the sprawling district of Moabit. Run by the aid organisation Berliner Stadtmission and known by the residents simply as ‘the Balloon’ due to its inflatable exterior, the huge shelter — complete with a sleeping block, reception, toilets, kitchen, recreation space, washroom and children’s play area — becomes Hadir’s home for the next 20 months.
For Hadir, the decision to leave his home and the rest of his family to come to Germany was not an easy one. Born in Afghanistan, he learned English at school before teaching himself to a much higher level in order to work as an interpreter with the US Army. After his grandfather was killed by members of Al-Qaeda, he moved to southern Iran together with his parents and two younger brothers (his older brother, also employed by the US Army, remained behind). Despite having attended school up to the age of 18, the subordinate status of Afghans in Iran prevented Hadir from enrolling at university. Instead of studying to become a cardiologist as he’d wanted, he found work as a labourer on a construction site. His decision to flee the country was prompted by a recruiter from the Iranian army who scoured such sites looking for young men to join ‘Liwa Fatemiyoun’, an Afghan Shia militia formed by Iran’s Armed Forces and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight on the side of the Syrian government in its civil war. After managing to avoid conscription on a technicality, the recruiter informed Hadir that he would return for him in a couple of months.
Hadir had a choice: he could either join the militia and fight or be imprisoned and probably deported to Afghanistan.
He settled on a third option: using the money he’d saved from his labourer’s job along with cash sent by his older brother, he left home with his cousin and three friends (all of whom had received the same ultimatum) in the middle of the night in July 2015. They headed north to Tehran and then west, over the Zagros mountains, to Turkey. It was here, in the mountains, that Hadir’s cousin jettisoned one of the bags he was carrying due to fatigue — what he didn’t realise until it was too late was that the bag contained Hadir’s passport, birth certificate and school records. After reaching Turkey they contacted a group of smugglers, who brought the five young men to the Aegean coast and bundled them into boats bound for Greece. It was during this perilous crossing that one member of the group was lost, drowned along with the rest of the passengers in his boat. The remaining four didn’t have time to mourn him: after landing in Greece, they travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria by taxi, bus, train and foot. Ultimately, they found sanctuary in Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Somalis, Eritreans, Nigerians and nationals from various Eastern European states. The entire trip lasted eight weeks.
While living in the Balloon, Hadir served in an unofficial capacity as a camp translator due to his skills in English and Farsi. He also devoted himself to learning German, quickly obtaining his A1, A2 and B1 certification (according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). He found a job as a mail sorter at Deutsche Post and started looking for an apartment of his own so that he could move out of the six-person dormitory in which he was billeted. Hadir was optimistic. Although he’d lost a friend, missed his family, and had to unpick a Gordian knot of red tape each time the authorities contacted him, he felt he’d made the right decision. In his first year in Germany, he’d managed to learn the language to a conversational level and find a job and earn money that he could send home to his parents. Above all, he was safe.
The optimism didn’t last long. After a year in the Balloon, Hadir received word from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees that his request for asylum had been refused and that he’d been granted only a ‘Duldung’, or a temporary suspension of deportation. The reasons given were that he had no acceptable way to confirm his identity, nor was he able to provide proof that his life was in danger while living in Iran. A work ban was imposed, forcing him to give up his job at Deutsche Post. He was no longer allowed to move out of the Balloon, and was not permitted to enrol on a B2 German course. He was put on standby and told he could be deported to Afghanistan at any time.
This purgatory persisted for several months until, with the intervention of a lawyer, the Duldung was lifted. The refusal to grant Hadir residence, however, remained. By this time it was July 2017 and the Balloon was scheduled for closure owing to a lack of refugees. The Syrians who had arrived during the great exodus of 2015 had all been placed in private accommodation and encouraged to start their lives afresh. Meanwhile, Hadir and the other remaining residents (mostly Afghans) packed up their belongings and were shuttled off to various addresses — requisitioned hotels, hastily converted office spaces and the like — in neighbourhoods across the city. Hadir found himself in a residential block where he was assigned a bed in a two-man room. And it was then that the state promptly forgot about him.
Now, three years later, Hadir is still living on the fringes of German society, not accepted but not yet outright rejected. While he still checks the post in the hope that he has received an ‘Aufenthaltserlaubnis’, or a temporary residence permit, he has long since given up trawling through ads for apartments to rent. Nobody will offer him a contract when his legal right to remain in the country remains unclear. He has now spent so long living in the same space as other people that he can only fall asleep when he hears his roommate switching on the kettle after returning home from the gym at night. Recently, when he went to Frankfurt with a group of other refugees to attend a trauma workshop (the first time he’d ever been on a plane), he was given a private room in the hotel. He couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet, and his eyes became heavy only when he turned on the radiator and listened to the air gurgling inside — as it approximated the sound of his roommate’s kettle.
Gaining a foothold in the education system has proven to be difficult, too. With his cousin having accidentally thrown all of his records away, Hadir has no way of demonstrating that he has completed 13 years of school. That is, aside from the fact that his intelligence becomes patently clear within the first 30 seconds of speaking to him.
But Germany is not always a place in which common sense thrives.
Paperwork is everything, and he doesn’t have it. Though he was desperate to attend university, he was refused on the grounds that he didn’t have the qualifications. When he conceded that he would have to complete his ‘Abitur’ (A Levels) if he was to stand the chance of doing a Bachelor’s degree, he found another obstacle in his path: in order to do the Abitur, he first had to attend a special middle school for a year. This man who taught himself English and German, who has worked as a shepherd, an interpreter, a factory hand, a bricklayer and a mail processor, who has studied the intricacies of the German legal system in the hope of finding a way out of his situation, who managed to make his way from deepest Iran to northern Germany on his wits alone, was ordered to complete beginner’s courses in mathematics, science and, above all things, French. For a couple of months he tried to do as the authorities asked, but he grew despondent when the classes made him feel like a child. Where his classmates struggled, he knew all the answers. He simply didn’t belong there. Now 30 years old, he’d be closer to 40 by the time he earned his Bachelor’s. Back in Iran, Hadir’s parents earn barely enough to live on. When he left to come to Europe, he assured them that once he found a job, he’d send them money. Spending seven or eight years working his way up the education pyramid won’t allow him to do this — that is, if he even lasts that long without being deported.
He has, however, been offered an alternative route by the government: an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship would allow Hadir to learn a trade and become an indispensable part of the workforce. According to the ‘Aufenthaltsgesetz’, or the Act on the Residence, Economic Activity and Integration of Foreigners in the Federal Territory, it would also protect him from deportation for the duration of the apprenticeship. The problem is that when it comes to the apprenticeships on offer, he doesn’t have much of a choice. In his second year in the country, he was told that he could train to become a mechanic in a small town in southern Germany and work on cars. Hadir declined, asking instead for a programme that would either allow him to put his languages to good use or work in the social sector. There were no such programmes, he was told. Germany needed craftsmen. Hadir told his interviewer that if he’d wanted to fix cars he would have stayed in Iran. So he waited. The next time he had an interview with an adviser, the choices were the same. Again he declined. The months dragged on. Finally, he had another interview. This time there was an apprenticeship to become a care provider for senior citizens. He put his name down. Now, once again, he has to wait to find out whether he’ll be cleared to attend the programme.
Despite his travails in education, Hadir recently obtained his C1 certificate in German. He was the only person in his class to do so. It was a struggle, though. The thought is always there in the back of his head: if he could be deported tomorrow, why bother? He lives in the knowledge that he could be told to present himself to the police within 48 hours, to be transferred to Tegel Airport and onto a flight to Kabul. It’s a city he’s visited only once in his life, in a country he hasn’t been to for many years and which is still rocked by bombings and shootings and death on a daily basis. His brother is no longer there, having severed his connections with the US Army in order to join his family in Iran. What would Hadir do in Afghanistan? Where would he go? How could he be expected to reintegrate himself into a society that is entirely foreign to him?
The German authorities have no answers. But they don’t ask these questions in the first place.
The situation is very different for Hadir’s cousin. Under 18 years of age when he arrived in Berlin, he was soon moved out of the Balloon and into a facility for unaccompanied minors. He was awarded a residence permit a while later. Now 21, he rents an apartment near Kottbusser Tor station and is currently preparing to take his Abitur exams. If his grades are adequate, he plans to attend university. He has a part-time job through which he earns enough money to buy clothes, furniture, whatever he needs, and sends the rest home to his family. In his free time he meets friends, goes to restaurants, plays sports and video games, and so on. The dream of starting a new, normal life in Europe has come true. Somehow, Hadir is pleased for him. Despite his cousin being the one who threw his documents away — documents that would have made his time in Germany much easier — he bears no grudges, holds no ill will. He only hopes it will happen for him, too, one day.
For Hadir, his time in Germany so far has proven to be more of a struggle than he envisioned. He surrendered any sense of personal privacy long ago. The threat of deportation waits around every corner. He has banged his head against the wall of bureaucracy so many times that it has left him numb. He misses his mother, his father and his brothers. He has been racially abused in the street more than once. Even so, he has had many positive experiences: he has made friends from all over the world, attended the Berlin Film Festival, mastered a new language, travelled on a plane, and spoken to a room of local politicians and businesspeople about the difficulties refugees like him face every single day. Above all, he has learned how to be supremely patient. Despite his setbacks, he, above all, knows how lucky he is compared to many other Afghans in his homeland, Iran, Greece and elsewhere. Though he sometimes becomes frustrated, he does not despair, because today could be the day when his residence permit finally comes through. And so every day he checks his mail. And he hopes.