Refugee shelters in Germany took on prison-like characteristics in many places during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed into hotspots of dynamic infection events. For many residents, the pandemic significantly worsened their already stressful living conditions. The protest of the residents, however—despite repeated resistance to the lack of infection protection in various shelters—often received little public attention.
As part of the research project “Endangered Lives. Everyday Life and Protest in Refugee Shelters in the Wake of the Corona Pandemic”, Nikolai Huke conducted 16 interviews with residents in German, English, French, and Farsi. The interviews reveal an appalling picture of living conditions in refugee shelters in many respects. The problems described range from racism, inadequate medical care, noise pollution and lack of privacy, to traumatic experiences due to deportations and violence from security forces. In this interview, Huke spoke with Albina Akhmedova on the situation of women, children and people with disabilities or chronic diseases in the reception centre for asylum seekers in Suhl, where she lived during the pandemic.
How did you experience your first day in the reception centre?
The first thing I heard were shots. Next to the refugee accommodation there is a big shooting range. I panicked, I had lived without that noise for two years before and suddenly it was there again, quite loud. I did not even know where I had landed. It was a psychological reaction to the noise. You understand that there is no war in Germany, and it should not be dangerous, but this noise alone puts you under stress. The sound was there every day, even with the window closed.
My first wish was: get out of here. I do not know who came up with such an idea. From the reception centre it takes about 30 or 40 minutes to walk to the city. You do not really have the option of using the bus very often, because you only get 50 euro every two weeks. But that includes everything you need. For example, if someone has come without clothes, he must buy these for that money. That means most people walk through the forest to the city.
What happened afterwards?
I landed directly in quarantine, in a so-called “cohort quarantine”. This means that people are separated floor by floor and each floor is only allowed to communicate with each other. Nevertheless, everyone stands in line together to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All people share a very narrow courtyard. There is actually very little space. The people remained in quarantine for up to three weeks, even if they tested negative twice. At the same time everyone was in constant contact. So, it was not a real quarantine.
An example of this is the distribution of money: every two weeks, everyone must wait in a huge hall from 13:00 to 16:00. There are social distancing rules, everyone has masks on, whether pregnant women or children. Everyone is placed in the same hall at the same time and then ten people are called and receive their money and go back to the residential building. And so on. Again, ten people. Why does everyone have to sit together in one hall, instead of somehow having times for different floors and levels, that people do not have to sit there with masks on for four hours?
What was the room situation like?
A very big problem is that you usually do not get a key for your room. I always pushed a wardrobe in front of the door at night because I was scared. It was heavy. This was a building that housed families, but there were also men in the families with whom I felt insecure. I was actually afraid that someone would come, and I had to push the wardrobe in front of the door every time.
There were about 20 men among the 600 or so people in the accommodation who were constantly drinking and using drugs. Once at the entrance men tried to insult me, making jokes. I then told them to go home to their rooms and sleep it off. Then they got upset and tried to touch me. I put up a fight and bent the hand of one man. He then felt offended because a woman had hurt him. I and the security guards who were there tried to calm him and his friends. But afterwards there were always aggressive moments and they tried to insult me.
During the day I can somehow protect myself, but at night, when you sleep and you cannot close your door, that's a pretty big problem for women.
How is everyday life for children in the accommodation?
This place is not suitable for children. There are children, about 12, six, and two years old, and they do not have any toys. There is no playground for the quarantine building, there is only one next to the family building. During the quarantine of two or three weeks, the children cannot even play or do anything else. The adults in quarantine have no books either. Nothing. So, in quarantine you have no possibility to keep yourself busy. You can only walk back and forth. It is like in prison, like in jail. You just walk back and forth and the only possibility you have is maybe if you have a cell phone you can surf the internet or read something. That is the only possibility.
In the family building there is a playroom for children. There are six rooms that are designed for the children to spend time in. There are children’s books, toys, everything is ready, wonderful. The only problem: the playroom is always closed. It is only opened when people from outside come, and then it is shown: “we have a wonderful playroom here, it is clean, there are toys.”
During the two months I spent in the reception centre for asylum seekers, only once a social worker was there for two hours per day for a week and the room was open for that long. But all the other time the children are without activity. Some children are there for seven months. They are not allowed to go to school, not allowed to go to kindergarten, nothing. They spit on every child’s right.
In the quarantine building there were two footballs for all the children who lived there. No other toys. When I was transferred to another accommodation, I collected toys and was very happy to send them to the children. I thought it would help me improve this shitty situation at least in one way.
Because of the COVID regulations I was not allowed to go to the accommodation to distribute the toys myself. The toys were therefore given to the social workers. I wanted them to hand them out to the children. The social workers were told that they should not just put them in the children’s room, they should be gifts that go directly to the children. There were four bags of toys. This means that each child could get at least one toy. The toys are now still in a so-called distribution room. They said: “We have too few employees. We only have one employee who can sort these things.”
The food is also a problem: until they are one-and-a-half or two years old, children get the same things that German children eat. From two years on, they have to eat the food for adults. This is often spicy and over-salted. I have often seen children just sitting and crying while eating. Even for me the food was very spicy. For those who come from countries where spicy food is normal, I can imagine that men eat that kind of food. But for children it was quite bad.
How is the medical care?
When I arrived, I had a terrible toothache. I said: “I can't suffer this pain anymore. I can’t take it anymore.” They gave me ibuprofen and said, “You are in quarantine, you are not allowed to see a doctor. You must wait two weeks.” For six days I begged for a doctor’s appointment. The doctor then said, “Okay, we’ll do a test here to see if you’re COVID-positive. I then asked myself: If I were positive, would I not get a doctor's appointment? We do not have health insurance here, so we cannot choose our own doctor and be treated normally.
When the COVID tests were done, they also did a tuberculosis test on me. But the result was not handed over. I waited to get my results but did not get any. I then went to the nurse and asked, “Can you please give me my test results?” She said, “Why? Who told you to get them? We don’t give out results.” I had to come every day for three days until I finally got the results in writing.
I do not think you could do something like that with a German, because you know, a German knows his rights. Here people do not know the German language. That means that if you do not know German, you cannot complain. Whoever does not know the laws, regulations here and does not know what rights one has here, will not complain. That is the reason why they act that way.
The situation is worst for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, they are second-class asylum seekers. They do not get a transfer. A handicapped girl was here in the accommodation for seven months and did not even have the bed she needed, that is, one that can be moved up and down. Her old mother almost had to carry her. I was told by the accommodation management that the municipalities decide which people they accept. That is why people who are disabled are accepted last, because well, disability costs money. They do not like to take on this responsibility. It is also difficult to transfer large families somewhere else because it is a problem to find housing for families. For example, if a family of seven comes, they often must stay in the accommodation for many months.
In the case of chronic illnesses, the care is just as bad. There is this family of seven. The grandmother has diabetes and is in a wheelchair. And do you know what she has been given to eat? White bread, for example — for breakfast! White bread and jam. Diabetics are hardly allowed to eat any of it. The person then came and said, “Do you want my wife to eat this? Is this the breakfast for my wife, who has diabetes?” You can get a certificate from the doctor, but either it is not told or not explained to the people. They do not know all this. They come to the canteen and get the food that is being distributed.
Another example: within a short time, there were two women who had a stillbirth. The husband of one of the two women had said before, “My wife does not feel the child anymore. The child is not moving. We must go to the hospital. Please call the ambulance.” The doctor replied: “No, everything is okay, everything is fine.”