The refugee home hunt

Over the last two years, some 75,700 people applied for asylum in Berlin. About half of them received it. Where do they live now? What does the future hold for them?

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The 180-occupant Tempohome in the remote Plattenbau landscape of Marzahn’s Zossener Straße had to be temporarily evacuated last month so that the electric wiring could be replaced. Photo by Sophie le Roux
Over the last two years, some 75,700 people applied for asylum in Berlin. About half of them received it. Where do they live now? What does the future hold for them? The two tiny former offices that Nessrin, Jamal and their four kids are sharing can hardly be called homey. There are two bunk beds and a cupboard in one room; two mattresses and a small table in the other. The door between the two spaces has been removed, replaced by a blanket hanging in the frame. Their makeshift flat is part of a refugee centre in Wilmersdorf’s old town hall near Fehrbelliner Platz, a disused office building with weak lights, linoleum floors, and not enough bathrooms for the 500 residents who live here. A security guard stands on every corner. The place is always loud, with an unpleasant smell lingering on the hallways. The rooms are not warm enough, and the children, aged between five and 13, are constantly getting sick. “The worst is that we cannot cook,” says Nessrin, a 32-year-old former nurse. The building has no kitchen; catering companies deliver three meals a day. “Also, I have to put my hijab on each time I need to go to the bathroom, because it’s outside of our room. I just feel very tired. I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep.” Nessrin points at her mouth, demonstrating the movement. The family of six has been living here for nearly a year. Originally from Idlib, Syria, they came to Germany in November 2015 and were placed in the town hall shortly after their registration. The kids are now attending various public schools and a kindergarten; Nessrin and Jamal are completing integration courses. In April of last year, after an asylum application interview with the Department of Migration and Refugees (BAMF), they were granted a three-year residence visa. This not only meant permission to work (after finishing their integration course and reaching German level B1), it meant permission to search for a permanent flat. A search that, so far, has proven fruitless. “I am happy to be here, I am happy to be safe, that so many people are helping us. I am happy that my children have a chance for a better future. I just want to find a proper home so badly!” says Nessrin. “There are still too many people in school gyms and other emergency accommodations all over town, and of course, everyone wants to get out as soon as possible,” sympathises Sascha Langenbach. As spokesperson for the State Office of Asylum Affairs (LAF, renamed from LaGeSo in August 2016), it’s his responsibility to demonstrate that his organisation is trying their best to accommodate the thousands of refugees who have come to Berlin in the last two years. “I tour gyms and centres and talk to the people, to show them that we care and to say sorry. They are all desperate, but they are also grown-ups. They understand how difficult the situation is.”
LAF: The refugee housing complex “Last year’s wave caught us unprepared, we had a thousand people coming in per day, and we struggled. But things have changed…” says Langenbach. It’s true that LAF’s task was Herculean a year ago, when thousands were queuing outside the mammoth building on Bundesallee for a chance to register with what everyone still knew as LaGeSo. The organisation is responsible not only for registering applications – a process that includes an interview and fingerprinting – but also for ensuring that each asylum applicant who remains in Berlin is provided with a health check, food, a daily money allowance and a place to stay. The rest are dispatched over to different German states in accordance with the Königsteiner Schlüssel, a country-wide quota system that allocates about five percent of asylum applicants to the capital. Today, the reception hall looks deserted – only a few families are lingering around, and the many office rooms over several floors are filled with more staffers than applicants. Only an average of 20 per day apply now, according to Langenbach. Few have been arriving from the Middle East since EU borders were shut in agreement with Turkey. “Right now most of the applications we receive are from Moldova.” In a curious bureaucratic quirk, Moldavians are only allowed to apply for asylum in Berlin, and nowhere else in Germany. “Of course, most of their requests will be rejected – the country has been declared safe.” As a matter of fact, the overall percentage of refugees in the country is meant to sharply decrease. Asylum applications have dropped from 6327 a month in 2015 to 1247 in November 2016, and with them, the numbers of applicants coming from countries eligible for asylum status – only Syrians are guaranteed protection now, with 99 percent accepted. Add to this that LAF’s staff has almost tripled over the past year, from 165 employees to over 500, and you might think the problem is soon to be solved. But this would be without taking into account that those Moldavians, like any other asylum seekers, will have to be housed for the whole duration that their application is being reviewed by the BAMF across the street, a process that lasted an average of 6.7 months last year, even if their ultimate fate is to be turned down. Of course, BAMF have also tripled their staff, from 3000 in October 2015 to 9781 now, and updated their computer system to hasten the asylum process. They claim the average processing time for asylum seekers who arrived after May 1, 2016 is now only 1.8 months (applicants from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia-Montenegro, Ghana and Senegal are immediately sent back). But although Langenbach’s happy to boast a well-staffed, swift-running operation – “since February, everyone is registered on the day they arrive!” – refugee accommodation remains a challenge in a city like Berlin, where public housing is scarce, forcing authorities to resort to gyms and former office buildings to find a ‘home’ for everyone. In December, LAF was officially accommodating 35,000 asylum seekers and refugees at diverse facilities across the German capital. Among them are many Syrians like Nessrin, who’ve already had their asylum granted. Officially eligible for housing benefits from LAF, they’re encouraged to look for a flat. But in a city where the flat rental market has become more and more competitive, refugees don’t have it easy.
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Photo by Anna Eckold
The frustrating flat search Full-fledged refugees can turn to the Christian charity organisation EJF (Evangelisches Jugendund Fürsorgewerk, also known as Haus K, after the LAF building they operate in), which offers some housing assistance. However, their hands are often tied too. State housing associations only provide 275 flats per year for refugees, nowhere near enough for the recent wave of arrivals. Families with infants and those with severe diseases are prioritised. But the waiting list is long, and so LAF is basically encouraging refugees to find an apartment themselves. Once they do, LAF has to approve according to their own rental scale and criteria. A family of six, like Nessrin’s, is entitled to up to €1080 “warm” a month. But the requirements are strict – a family of that size must find a home with five or more rooms and at least two toilets. A tall order in today’s Berlin.
I understand that most of them would rather live in a big city where there are others speaking their language, instead of a small village. But there is just not enough cheap housing left!
Currently, 3900 refugees were lucky enough to find a flat for themselves, while 5100 are still officially ‘flat hunting’. “The competition on the flat market in this city is huge!” says Langenbach. “Forty thousand people already move to this city a year, with newcomers and expats looking for a great cheap place to stay… Refugees have to compete with them. Understandably most of them would rather live in a big city where many others speak their language and they can buy the food they’re used to, instead of a small village somewhere else in Germany. But there is just not enough cheap housing left!” In reality, there is cheap housing in Berlin once you start searching outside the city centre. Many offers in less sought-after, remote neighbourhoods such as Marzahn or Spandau are still affordable (under €8/square metre) and would easily meet the LAF’s conditions. The problem is that, even there, it’s very difficult for refugee families to get a contract. Over the last seven months, Nessrin and Jamal were only invited to visit 12 flats out of the 100 they applied to, and were turned down each time. Justifications given to them ranged from “we want people with a stable regular income” to “the dynamics of the building wouldn’t fit” – a reason often heard by families with children. It’s often difficult to assess the real reasons a Hausverwaltung or realtor might have for turning down a refugee application, although of course it’s often speculated that the residents might just not want Muslim refugees in the neighbourhood. “The real estate market has changed a lot. There are so many applicants right now that landlords and companies can get away without having to make any kind of compromise,” says realtor Christian Baumeister*. But it seems that beyond irrational prejudices, very pragmatic business considerations might be at work. “Housing companies don’t trust that government money. What if it stops and they don’t have jobs? Also, LAF’s money often comes in late. I understand they’re overwhelmed, but a big private company doesn’t care. It’s not their problem.” Baumeister concludes: “I think refugee families have better chances if they find a private person who is willing to help and can survive if the rent comes a week late.” And that’s exactly how 28-year-old Fatimah* and her family got lucky: a volunteer in the refugee shelter where they were staying referred them to a landlord she knew who was looking for tenants. The family of four now lives in a tidy three-room apartment in Zehlendorf with a balcony and a kitchen where Fatimah cooks elaborate meals every day. Her two sons go to school nearby, but they say the kids are not very friendly to them. “I was told by one of the boys that his mother said he shouldn’t befriend us because we are dangerous,” says eight-year old Mohammed*. His mother admits, too, that she often gets suspicious looks when she goes shopping. But she hopes people will get used to her family. Aside from supermarket trips, she hardly leaves the house – her routine has quickly slipped into the one she had back in Daara, and she says her husband appreciates that as well. Neither is attending integration or language classes anymore. An insider at LAF acknowledges that even seemingly optimal solutions like individual flats might come with collateral damage in terms of integration: “The whole time they are in shelters, they’re forced to go to integration classes and mingle with Germans. When they move out… we don’t know what happens.”
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The MUF on Marzahn’s Märkische Allee is set to open in the spring. Photo by Sophie la Roux
(Non)temporary solutions Meanwhile for the government, time’s pressing. Whereas the state of Brandenburg had managed to relocate their refugees and had given gyms and recreational halls back to their original users by the end of 2015, Berlin is still struggling. In December, 37 sports halls were still used as “temporary” refugee homes for 2600 people. The goal was to have evacuated every one of them by the end of 2016. Now, the new target is spring of this year. While local politicians have been calling for a renegotiation of the five percent quota, Berlin was able to strike a deal with the neighboring state of Brandenburg to send 995 asylum seekers to the town of Wünsdorf  (not exceeding a quota of 300 single men!). But an efficient, cost effective long-term refugee housing plan is still sorely needed. Berlin’s eureka solution came in the shape of container homes and MUFS. The idea is to move refugees into so-called “Tempohomes” (for a maximum of three years), or longer lasting modular residential buildings (“MUFs”) to be erected ASAP on public land across the city. Following many debates surrounding the designation of adequate spots and endless delays linked to districts reluctant to allocate plots for fear of “refugee ghettos” in their midst, three Tempohomes were finally built in Marzhan, Pankow and Köpenick – out of the 30 in total planned. Meanwhile, 60 MUFs are in the pipeline. Two have already been completed in Marzahn, set to welcome some 900 refugees by spring. These permanent complexes are supposed to accommodate up to over 25,000 if everything goes according to plan. Imagined as solutions to quickly solve a lasting problem, MUFs and Tempohomes have encountered their share of setbacks. “We are facing so many difficulties, you can’t imagine! Local protests, ‘concerned’ mayors, even environmentalists,” says Langenbach. Tempohomes were planned in Charlottenburg’s Olympia Park for the end of December but had to be scrapped because “they found a very rare, protected flower species, Armeria [sea thrift], growing exactly on the land we wanted to build on. And that was that.” A miffed Langenbach shows a photo of the dainty purple flower on his smartphone. The container villages are not only a quick fix (it takes four to five months to set one up), they’re cheap – and it shows. The shed-like homes are made of 16 units of three containers: one kitchen and two twin bedrooms per unit, with the toilets outside. Surrounded by a light fence with security guards checking the residents on their way in and out, they look more like ghettos than “villages”. Still, for people like Rahim, it’s much better than the refugee centre. “There are almost 300 of us living in the containers, mostly men who arrived alone, like me,” says the 25-year-old. He came to Berlin from northern Iraq in October 2015 and now lives in Köpenick’s Tempohome in Quittenweg. “I’m doing fine here,” Rahim maintains. “Of course, it’s very different from what I’d wish for, but it’s a shelter. I just don’t like all the security so much – it feels a bit like a prison. But then, I understand that it’s also for our own safety. Not everybody is so welcoming around here…” Certainly not the 20.5 percent of locals who voted for the AfD. In Marzahn, where another Tempohome is located (see sidebar), it’s 23 percent. It’s just one of the reasons Rahim is hoping his stay here will be a short one. An aspiring engineer, the young man is dreaming of the day he’ll be able to leave his container for “a nice flat in Kreuzberg or Neukölln.”
Turning to DIY Not content to deal with the meagre options offered by the city of Berlin, others find their own way. Ahmed*, a man from Damascus, managed to score a one-room apartment near Treptower Park and now shares it with three good friends he met on the trek from Syria to Berlin, all of whom still officially live in a refugee shelter. They go back and forth every so often to check in and out of the building. The four friends sleep on individual sofa beds in the living room and do their German homework in the small kitchen. “I’m not lonely this way, it eases the homesickness a little. Of course, the others would get in trouble if they found out about them not staying in the camp anymore but we are being careful.” Volunteer organisations like Flüchtlinge Willkommen have been filling in the cracks of the LAF’s work by placing refugees with flat shares or families. Anyone can sign up to share their space, either for free or in exchange for rent money. So far, the organisation has connected over 7000 refugees and hosts in Germany. But these are often only temporary solutions offered by benevolent locals who have a spare room and are eager to help people in need. And the number of hosts is nowhere near the number of refugee applicants. Says an organiser, “The negative media coverage about refugee issues, the New Year’s events in Cologne and now the terrorist attack in Berlin… All these are giving people reasons to reconsider their willingness to help.” All the while, the lucky ones eligible for housing benefits are going for visit after visit in the hope of finding a new, LAF-approved home and starting their new life in Berlin. Nessrin often looks out of the window of her room, wondering who lives in the pink-painted building across the street. “I hope I’ll find a place just like that, where it’ll be warm and clean, peaceful but lively at the same time, with the smell of familiar food filling the air…” *Names changed.