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Photo by Piero Chiussi
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As part of The Refugees, Nuri Ismailov spits truth about Germany’s asylum system.
“From the very first track to the very last, this album will aim a huge blow at the face of German politics,” Nuri Ismailov says. Though the 21-year-old is soft-spoken in conversation, listen to his lyrics – recorded in his makeshift bedroom studio in Gifhorn, Lower Saxony – and hear him burst into a fervour: “When you’re locked up in this asylum camp, you only wish one thing: to be a free human… It’s worse here than prison ‘cos you don’t know when you’ll be free,” he raps in fluent German. “I have to let it out and talk about what I’ve lived through,” Nuri says. “People say, ‘You should all be happy that you’re here!’ But how refugees are treated in Germany is in no way humane… the world needs to find out what it’s like.”
Nuri was born in Dagestan, a small republic in Russia’s North Caucasus marked by decades of conflict and terrorism. “There was a war there when I was growing up, and if you didn’t work with the terrorists, they’d come into your apartment and plant a bomb. Kill entire families.” In 2002, nine-year-old Nuri along with his mother and 10-year-old sister Nurjana fled to Germany to join his father, who had left in 2000.
Joining the 91,471 refugees who filed an asylum claim in Germany that year, Nuri and his family were first sent to a central asylum centre in Braunschweig, where the three of them lived for three months in one room. “I experienced such awful things in the short time we were there. Brawls, police violence, drug dealing... I even saw a murder there. I still haven’t forgotten it.”
Reunited with Nuri’s father, the Ismailovs were transferred from Braunschweig to another home in the Lower Saxony town of Gifhorn to await judgement on their applications. The family of four were to remain in prison-like conditions for eight years, kept there by their district’s draconian application of Germany’s Residenzpflicht (obligation for refugees to live within certain boundaries defined by the local Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) – since a reform last year, usually the state borders).
Nuri grew up surrounded by barbed wire fences, sharing two 11sqm rooms with his mother, sister and father. Authorities cranked up the pressure on his parents to leave by taking away their cash allowance and clothes vouchers. “We had four showers for 100 people, but three of them were broken,” he remembers. “Everything was dirty, the floors crawling with insects...”
In 2010 Nuri’s family was awoken by police in the middle of the night and forcibly taken to another camp some 12km away in the city of Meinersen, where they lived for an additional two years. “The conditions were so much worse,” Nuri recalls. “We had to go to the Ausländerbehörde every week, but it was 15km away, and we needed the money from them to get the bus to go there in the first place.” Unlike his classmates, the recently graduated 18-year-old was also forbidden from working. Struck by how desperate his family’s situation had become, he started writing songs and posting them online.
Coming to Meinersen also incited Nuri and Nurjana to begin working with the Flüchtlingsrat refugee support network and Hamburg-based activist organisation Karawane to protest for refugee rights. “Most people in the camp were too scared to say anything. The immigration office always made threats, saying that anyone who marched would be sanctioned or deported.” At their first protest, 80 refugees marched through Gifhorn. That’s when Nuri performed on stage for the first time. Not long afterwards, the Ismailovs were awarded their own flat back in Gifhorn.
It was at another demonstration in 2011 that Nuri was spotted by musician and social activist Heinz Ratz, who had recently toured 80 of Germany’s refugee camps that year. Horrified by the conditions he had witnessed, Ratz brought together some of the musicians he had met: Nuri, Iranian-Afghani Hosein, Sam from Gambia and Jacques and Revelino from the Ivory Coast. The newly formed Refugees recorded an album, completed a European tour and found themselves the subject of Julia Oelkers’ 2013 documentary Can’t Be Silent. “What drove me to do this tour wasn’t to be a musician,” Nuri says, “but to let the world know the truth.”
Nuri and his parents received good news last month: despite a deportation order in 2012, they were finally granted permission to remain in Germany for three years on October 7, 2013. Nuri is now doing an apprenticeship as a mechanic and is learning how to drive – which “is all happening so late”. The fate of his sister Nurjana, now 21, still hangs in the balance though. Falling short of eligibility for the same protections for minors that saved her brother by seven days, she could still be sent back to Dagestan. But Nuri remains hopeful. “We need to speak out. Publicity makes things difficult for them. Then they have to do something.”
Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.