Crossing the line

How far would you go to help a refugee? These Berliners (all names changed) were willing to do whatever it took – even if it meant breaking the law.

Image for Crossing the line
Illustrations by Agata Sasiuk
How far would you go to help a refugee? These Berliners (all names changed) were willing to do whatever it took – even if it meant breaking the law. “I MARRIED A REFUGEE” Maik, a twentysomething Berliner, entered into a civil union with Paolo to help the illegal South American immigrant stay in the country. MAIK: I met Paolo about three years ago, when I moved into the house project where he was living – he had just recently moved to Germany, and he was staying there with his aunt and her family. I would always see him in the small kitchen on the first floor, deep-frying stuff. He deep-fried pork belly, he deep-fried chicken… the whole floor had a two- or three-centimetre layer of oil on it. I became increasingly curious, and started to sit there and talk to him a little. At some point I also cooked for him, and gradually, we became friends. He started to open up and tell me about his life here, selling food and knick-knacks at market stands. One evening, my girlfriend was sitting with us, we were having a few drinks and Paolo got very emotional and told me his whole story. PAOLO: I came to Germany for my family, mainly my daughters. We are very poor in my country. It was a very difficult decision because my wife said she wouldn’t come with me. So I’d be all by myself, but on the other hand my aunt was already in Berlin. I thought that if I could make it there, I’d find a job as a cook and could send money to my family. But when I arrived here all my plans vanished: without proper papers, I just couldn’t find proper work. Once I worked in a restaurant for two days, and the owner didn’t pay me. When I complained, he just said, “Why don’t you go to the police?” I never considered what it would be like to be illegal. I was on the lookout all the time, always watching ahead one or two blocks and often just running back home. I changed hairstyles all the time. Once, two undercover policemen came to my market stand and asked if I worked there. “No, I don’t,” I answered. They controlled the others, but they let me go. I didn’t go back there for three days, for fear they’d come again and recognise me. MAIK: I felt so sorry to hear about all this… That’s when I said I’d marry him, so he wouldn’t have to hide from the police any longer. We’d already had quite a few drinks, and to celebrate my proposal we drank more sparkling wine – and then another four bottles! My girlfriend thought it was a great idea, and I think she was a little proud. All my friends were very supportive. Only my father wasn’t impressed. He had a massive problem with me marrying another man. My mom first told me that I shouldn’t always take a bullet for other people, that I should concentrate on my own life, but after I showed her a picture she just said, “Oh, he is a handsome one, a real cutie!” But clearly I wasn’t really aware of what I’d gotten myself into. I slowly realised how complicated it was. We had to collect all his documents and translate them and authenticate them – a friend who’d done the same thing helped us out, and we had to involve a lawyer as well. Then we had to work on making our story credible – for example, we always acted super-campy and wore bright-coloured caps and jumpers with teddies on them in front of the officials. We also had to train to kiss like lovers, which was not so simple. The first time I tried to kiss Paolo, he ran out of the room.
It is not common for two men to kiss in my country, so Maik and I had to practice for a long time.
PAOLO: My country, and South America in general, is very conservative. It is not common for two men or women to marry, or kiss, so Maik and I had to practice for a long time. I wasn’t very good. Maik always told me, “Come on, we are friends, we are brothers, this has to look natural.” I would kiss him, but only really quickly. Then Maik’s girlfriend was over and she told me that wasn’t enough. And I realised she was right. So we kept practicing, with her as the jury – “No, this doesn’t look natural, do it again!” MAIK: Eventually we had an appointment at the registry office. We’d made up a whole story: how we met in a punk bar and agreed to go to a rave together on Father’s Day (which we actually did), how we cooked together and stuff… but as it turned out, they never even asked us. They just asked when we wanted to marry. We were so confused because at this point we’d never thought about an actual date – we just said, “Soon, but not too soon.” They proposed a date and we agreed. PAOLO: The night before the wedding I told Maik, “This is no dream, this is real, tomorrow we will be married.” The wedding itself was amazing, so many people came. Afterwards, Maik and I sat in the car on the way to a little after-party and he turned to me and said, “Okay, now you are free.” MAIK: The hardest thing for me was going to the immigration office a month after the wedding. I’d never really cared about the consequences for myself. But suddenly I thought: “If you fuck this up, if you make one mistake, then he is gone.” They grilled him with detailed questions about his whole immigration story, his passport, etc. Then they sent us back to the waiting room without a word. We sat there for the longest 30 minutes of my whole life, looking around to see if they’d called the police. Then they called us back in and said, okay, you can go downstairs and pay the fee. Paolo was given back his passport with a one-year residency and work visa. We couldn’t believe it had been so easy! We stopped at the first Späti we found to celebrate – we bought some drinks and did the Pachamama ritual on the street, when you give the first sip to your ancestors. It was 1pm, and we were drinking and having so much fun… Paolo had never crossed the street on a red light when he was illegal – even late at night with no traffic, he’d always wait there, scared that there would be police or a control. But now we were done with the immigration office and his passport had the right sticker on it – and there was this traffic light, so I turned to him and said “Come on Paolo, we gotta run across the red light, fuck them!” PAOLO: This has totally changed my life. Now I can walk in the streets without fear. I got controlled three times, and they just asked me to show my passport – no problem. Now I have a three-year residency and work permit and I’m learning German. My plan is to train as a cook and find work in a restaurant. This is something I want for myself, but also in order to be able to send money and support to my daughters and my mother. I miss my children a lot and hope I’ll eventually be reunited with my family, but I feel so lucky to have met someone like Maik. Even if we married for the papers, our relationship has become a very strong one – like family. MAIK: My motivation originally was a friendly one, as I generally believe every person should be able to live wherever they want to. Only during the whole process did I become aware of the fact that marrying Paolo was also an act of resistance against the prevailing system and the shortcomings in asylum policy. We basically said, fuck you, he is staying, you’re not gonna deport him. We beat you with your own weapons. As for my relationship to Paolo, it’s changed a lot since we got married. We are not only best friends – we’re like brothers. I hope Paolo will now be able to learn good German, find a proper job and lead the normal life he deserves. VS
“I WAS A HUMAN TRAFFICKER” Marie, a 23-year-old Berlinerin, helped get Dhakil, a Syrian in his mid-twenties, over the German border. Image for Crossing the line I got to know Dhakil during a semester studying Arabic in Jordan. We fell in love. After I went back to Germany, we kept in touch via Skype several times a week. When he told me he was setting off for Europe, I decided to help. So I enlisted a friend and borrowed my father’s car. Next thing we were heading towards Munich, trying to meet him halfway. We were on the Autobahn between Berlin and Munich when Dhakil called to say he was in Vienna. He had paid $1000 to take a boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. When the boat sank, he was picked up by the Greek coast guard. He had been detained in Hungary for three days, but now his group had finally reached the Austrian border, and someone had given them a ride to the capital. From there he only had to get on a train to Munich, where we’d meet up. We got to Munich on a Saturday. Dhakil and three other refugees were supposed to arrive at the Hauptbahnhof the same day. When I saw all the volunteers, I was overwhelmed by feelings of joy. I guess I was naïve – I asked a police officer what would happen when the refugees arrived. I wanted to know if Dhakil could come to Berlin and stay with us. No, he said, the refugees would be escorted to a sealed-off area in the train station.
I decided: under no circumstances can Dhakil take the train to Munich. I called him and told him to get off in Salzburg, Austria.
I decided: under no circumstances can Dhakil take the train to Munich. What if he got led away by the police and I couldn’t even see him? So I called him and told him to get off the train in Salzburg, Austria, right before the German border. We met there, right on the platform. It was midnight and they were the only group of refugees getting off the train. Seeing him again wasn’t like you would expect. Dhakil had always been tall and thin, but his journey had left him emaciated – his cheekbones were very prominent. We were still a long ways from home, and I was somewhere between happy and stressed-out. Ten minutes before the train arrived, I’d been shaking so much I couldn’t hold onto my cell phone. Normally the Austrian police were supposed to escort the refugees to a special area. But when I ran towards Dhakil, full of excitement, the officers held back. They didn’t say a thing. We spent the night in a Red Cross tent at the station, sleeping on cardboard as ‘beds’… Strangely, there were countless volunteers here to help, but almost no refugees. Fifteen young men were going around offering their services as Arabic translators, but there was no one to translate for. The original plan was to drive across the border, but my father had spoken to a lawyer and was agitated that that would make us Schleuser, human traffickers. The authorities have mostly been going after people who transport refugees for money, but there have also been cases of normal citizens picking up a hitchhiker and then getting arrested. So I decided to take Dhakil with me on the S-Bahn. First thing in the morning, we took the 10-minute ride across the border (my friend drove the car back alone). I was beyond nervous. But soon we saw the first Bavarian houses – it felt like a grey, rainy ghost town. Dhakil was exhausted and didn’t seem to register that he had finally reached his goal. (It was only much later, when he saw shops with alcohol and female employees, that he said, “Now I know I’m in Germany.”) My dad’s lawyer said Dhakil needed to go straight to the federal police and claim asylum. We wanted to do things by the book, so we called them and they sent a patrol car. They took us to the police station, where the officers confirmed every stereotype I had of Bavaria: “He has a long beard. He must be from the Islamic State.” They informed us that he’d have to be registered and sent to a reception centre somewhere in Germany – he couldn’t come back with us to Berlin. I had to leave him alone there. A while later, my cell phone rang. Dhakil had been shoved into a taxi and taken back to the train station. He got a piece of paper with instructions, but as he doesn’t speak German or English, he had no idea what to do. So I explained to him how to get to Munich. We met there, and instead of going straight to the reception centre, decided to spend the night in a hotel together – a little bit of peace. Tears swelled up when I realised he’d come almost 3000km and was finally here. The next day, we went to the reception centre in an industrial area near the motorway. When we arrived, I offered to take Dhakil off their hands, but again they refused. He’d have to stay there for a few days. Then he’d be sent on to a random refugee centre somewhere in Germany. In the end, they sent him to Saxony – not so far away, thankfully. These days I visit him quite often, and we talk on the phone all the time. Everyone in his building is scared of racist attacks: after all, this is the home of Pegida and Legida. He told me one old woman on the street spat on him. But he’s also met some nice people – even though he has absolutely no way to communicate with them. In three months his Residenzpflicht expires and he’ll be free to move around the country – but I hope he gets his papers before then. In half a year at the latest, I want us to be living together in Berlin. JR
“WE’RE SHELTERING ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS” Judith, a young Hungarian, and her German fiancé Tim share their three-room Berlin apartment with four refugees: one Syrian, one Serbian and two Iranians. Image for Crossing the line Tim and I went to Munich at the beginning of September, when so many trains were arriving, packed with refugees. Our friends there had told us how overwhelming things were and knowing about the situation in Hungary, I really wanted to help. At the train station, I shared food and water while Tim – as a native German – helped out with orientation. A young man drew my attention in the crowd. He was pale, sweating, clearly panicking. He kept asking everyone how he could find his family. I went to ask if he needed anything. As we started talking, I learned that his name was Nabil, and that he’d fled his home in Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, alongside his brother Saad and Saad’s wife and two children. But he’d lost them before reaching the Serbian-Hungarian border, when they got a transport from locals and were seated in different cars. He hadn’t been in touch with them ever since, and he didn’t want to be registered in Munich because he still wasn’t sure whether his family was in Germany at all. This young guy was so devastated by the thought of not being able to reunite with “the only people I have left on this planet” that I called Tim and asked him what we could do. Since we’d moved to a three-room flat not long ago, we decided he could come to Berlin and stay with us for a while, until we figured out something better. We knew that it was a risky move – he should register with the authorities, and taking him was illegal – but neither of us gave much thought to it at the moment. Thinking back, I understand it was a rather irresponsible move. But it felt right at the time. Nabil has now been living with us for over two months. He speaks fluent English, which helped with the awkwardness of the first few days. We’ve talked a lot, explained to him what risks he was taking by not registering at LaGeSo and what it’d mean for us if anyone knew we were sheltering him. He offered to leave, not to cause us any trouble, but he’s somehow become part of the family. He reads a lot – he was studying engineering in Syria. He likes to help fix things around the house while Tim teaches him the names of the tools in German. Otherwise he’s busy touring the many refugee homes in the city, looking for his brother Saad. I’m not happy about that because he could easily get controlled. We agreed that if he got caught, he would not mention us. About two weeks after Nabil moved in, on our way home from shopping, I saw a beautiful girl begging. She didn’t seem like an addict or homeless person. We went up to her, and it turned out she was from Serbia and her asylum request had been rejected, but she couldn’t go home. She comes from a violent, poor family; she was raped and beaten up on several occasions by her own uncle, who was trying to force her into prostitution to make money for the family. At this point, I was overcome by some kind of scary but wonderful urge to help. The next thing I know, I’m telling Jovana to come with us. Tim said I was crazy. Nabil immediately offered her his bedroom and he moved to the sofa in the living room. Suddenly, we were four. Jovana turned out to be an incredible cook. She looks for all kinds of recipes and makes them for dinner by the time we are all home. She definitely likes to make spicy food! Nabil is a Muslim, therefore he only eats halal, which was a bit hard to understand for Jovana at the beginning – I still don’t think she gets why someone would refuse pork – but she has learned to cope with it. As we have with seeing someone jump up and pray several times a day…!
One day, Nabil returned from his trip to the refugee centres with an Iranian woman and her 10-year-old son. Could they also stay with us, just for a few days?
One day, Nabil returned from his trip to the refugee centres with an Iranian woman, Zareen, and her 10-year-old son, Hamid. He’d met them in front of a street kitchen that was already closed. Nabil asked if we’d give them something to eat, and explained that they’d left Iran after Zareen’s husband was killed and were on their way to relatives in Sweden. However, it’d take some time before they could actually go on. Could they also stay with us, just for a few days? We got two extra mattresses and Jovana and Zareen are now sleeping in the guest room while Nabil shares the living room with Hamid, so that men and women don’t have to sleep in the same space. It feels like we’re living in a college dorm. Tim and I are both in IT and we are earning well, but I can’t say it’s easy. They all want to chip in, but we try not to take any money from them. Who knows what lies ahead… Of course, I’m worried – mostly for them. How will they find their place, their peace, their families? People ask me how am I not afraid that ‘these people’ will steal our money or hurt us. But you know what? I own nothing that I wouldn’t happily give to them. We’re looking at possibilities for Jovana to apply for asylum again, and trying to convince Nabil to register. They just need a bit more time. The only thing I am scared of is that someone might report us to the police. I don’t know what I’d do then. All I know is that tonight we will be eating all together, five nations’ favourite meals! All in halal versions, of course. AGG