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 Antonina Mensah, who lived in the reception centre for asylum seekers Lindenstraße in Bremen during the COVID-19 pandemic, about the difficulties she faced during her pregnancy and her life with a new-born baby.
Where were you during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I was staying in Lindenstraße in Bremen. Initially, I lived with four pregnant ladies in a room on the fourth floor. After I gave birth, we were two mothers with two babies in one room. Some others shared a room between three mothers and three babies.
How was your experience with the staff at Lindenstraße?
Some of the AWO staff, who run the centre, are very nice. You have this great hospitality — they do not care what the colour of your skin is or where you are coming from. Others are very racist.
One problem I had was that I was living on the fourth floor while I was pregnant. I had to use the staircase. There is a lift, but it can only be operated with a key. You are only allowed to use it if you have a special permit. It was a very terrible experience. I had to walk all the stairs to the fourth floor. To climb the steps for me was very difficult during pregnancy. They did not open the lift for me, even when I said: “Please”. However, they let some other residents use it. If the staff had Arab or Turkish background and saw a young Turkish girl who was not even pregnant, who was not sick, they opened the lift for her.
In order to be able to access the lift, the doctor has to write you a paper that you are unhealthy, or cannot walk, or have a premature baby. You take this paper to the AWOs and they give you another paper with a stamp and sign on it. This paper allows you to take lift. You show it to the security or to the AWO on duty and tell them: “This is my paper” and they open the lift for you. On the paper they give you a specific date on which it expires.
Afterwards, you must go back to your doctor and tell your doctor: “These are the conditions: I cannot climb the steps still and I’m not strong still, so you need to examine me.” Then the doctor writes you another letter. I take to the AWOs again, they allow me to take the lift for a prolonged period. They will not just prolong it for you. Not even with a letter from my gynaecologist. One of the AWOs told me that usually they do not accept these letters but then she gave me a permission which expired the day I was supposed to give birth.
The canteen is open in the morning at 7:00. Then it is closed and then it is open again at 12:00 and it is closed, and it is open again 17:00 then it is closed. You cannot drink water in between there, so we usually buy packs of water from the shop. As a pregnant lady you are advised not to take heavy loads, so you are not supposed to take the water and climb the steps. So, you ask someone, “Please, only today can you open the lift for me because of my water?” He tells you: “No, where is your paper? If you have no paper, no lift.” He tells you to walk with the water. You must carry the water on your head like an African woman as you climb the stairs. Or you leave it downstairs. You see these black guys who are also refugees in Lindenstraße then you tell them: “Please can you help me with my water?” And they say: “Okay, yeah. I can help you with the water.”
What happened after you gave birth?
I gave birth three days after the due date which means my paper for the lift was expired already. When I arrived back at Lindenstraße it took one AWO to sympathize with me because I was carrying my baby in a car seat. He saw I was not that strong. After he registered my baby, I pleaded with him to open the lift for me because I am not strong enough to climb the stairs with the baby. So, he did it.
Afterwards I could not come down to eat because I was not strong enough. My baby was four and a half kilos heavy and it was a vaginal delivery. I thought: “If I don’t get anybody to sign me the permission for the lift, I have to starve.” I also had to go downstairs to check my mail, or if I wanted the AWOs to translate a letter for me or to buy water or to drink water. But they said: “You were not operated. You do not have any problem. Why should we give you a permission to use the lift?” I said: “My doctor told me not to lift anything.” They gave me another five days’ permission.
Afterwards, I always had to ask for help to climb down the stairs with my baby. Or I had to leave it behind alone or with somebody so I can go down. My gynaecologist advised me not to lift something which is more than five kilos, and my baby was already five kilos. It was not easy, because sometimes I had to leave my baby with a total stranger because I was not allowed to use the lift, even if it was only to go out and buy water. You are also not allowed to take your pushchair upstairs; you must leave it downstairs.
Another problem I encountered was that it was difficult to get a birth certificate for my baby. My case worker told me that until I come to him with the baby’s father, he is not going to issue it to me. So, I went to him with the baby’s father. He asked a whole lot of questions: how we met, why I came to Bremen to look for him. Then he interviewed us for almost an hour. He later requested for the original birth certificate of my baby’s father, which he did not have because he did not know where he placed it. So the case worker still did not give us the birth certificate for my baby.
The father did not find his birth certificate, so he had to request it from Ghana. It took a month or two before he received it and took it to the case worker who then issued the original birth certificate of our son to us. Because I did not have my son’s birth certificate, I did not receive a long-term residence permit but only a Duldung for three months. Once we received the birth certificate, I could not take it to immigration personally to receive my residence permit because they were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many people who are black, especially from Ghana or Nigeria, it is very difficult to get birth certificates for their children. Some children are one or two years old and they still do not have a birth certificate. Because of this, their parents do not have residency permits. Without birth certificates, the children do not have health insurance. Some people I know are having debts to pay because their children were not feeling well, and they needed to take them to hospital. They did not have insurance. They did not want their children to die so they took them to the doctor, and they gave them bills to pay.
How was the food in the reception centre?
In the morning we take coffee or Lipton or raw milk with bread rolls, then in the afternoon it is rice or potatoes, then in the evening we take another coffee. So, you eat rice or potatoes just in the afternoon and morning its tea. And in the evening, too, is also tea. Sometimes they cook food with a lot of onion. They cook German dishes that are way too strong for me to eat. You have breakfast at 7:00 in the morning, and as a mother I need nutrition to breastfeed my baby. I cannot wait until 12:00 or 13:00.
When COVID started, every floor or every room had their time to eat so when they open the canteen maybe at 12:00 this group of people will go from 12:00 to 12:30, then the others go at 12:30 to 13:00, so as a mother maybe I am supposed to go 13:30 to 14:00. I cannot take tea in the morning and then wait for 14:00, so I must go out and buy food. Also, sometimes when it gets to my time my baby is disturbing me or I have an appointment, so I cannot go to the canteen and must buy food. I receive only 139 euro per month, including the money I need to buy tickets for the bus.
You do not have the right to cook for yourself there. There are kitchens on each floor, but they are locked. You are not even allowed to use a kettle in your room. If you wanted to warm water to make milk for the baby, you had to hide the kettle. Sometimes they seize it, and you must buy another one because they said it is not allowed. But you cannot just starve your baby. I got myself a bottle warmer for the milk bottles, but some even seized those until we told them: “No, this is just a bottle warmer to warm the baby's food.” Some will seize it; some will leave it for you.
Due to the lack of food, I did not have enough breast milk. I tried to get my own food, get the proper nutrients, and then breastfeed my baby but it did not work out, so I had to stop breastfeeding. I was very disturbed because as a mother I want my baby to get the quality milk, which is the first mother milk, but it did not happen that way. But I coped with it and I managed because I had no option.
How did the situation change for you with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic?
One day I needed to take my son to the midwife to check him. That very day one lady who was also pregnant was attended by this same midwife. It happened that she had COVID, so we had sleepless nights. During the pandemic, we still shared a room with another mother and her baby. We do not know where our roommate goes, where she meets people, and she does not know where I go. We are all afraid of each other because we are sleeping in the same room. You cannot even open the windows in your room to have access to fresh air because the windows are locked. All you can do is to pray and tell God to see you through the situation.
My midwife was in quarantine but me and my son, we were still moving around. We did not know whether we are positive or negative. We were not showing any symptoms. I was mixing with other people, sleeping with an innocent person, so it was not easy. It was not easy until it became clear in the end that we do not have COVID.
New people come from outside, they register them, and they come straight to dining to eat with us. We were afraid of each other. You go through a time where your friends come and see you. You are not happy to see them because you do not know what is going on. You do not know how safe she is especially when the person is coughing or there are any symptoms of flu. If this person is coughing, I say: “Hey, COVID! Hey, don’t give me COVID.” We are using it as a joke, but we are serious. For instance, I have a little bit of allergy to perfumes. Anything that has perfume in it I have to cough. During that time, I thought any time I had these symptoms people would think I have corona. That they are going to quarantine me and my son. So I was like: “Oh God, please don’t let me have flu at this time in this pandemic.”
I was very scared because it was new disease. In Africa we have malaria but at least I know malaria and I have had malaria at some time in my life. We know HIV, we know how deadly it is. We have learned about HIV since we were children. We learn about a whole lot of diseases, but COVID is something that just came all of a sudden. In Lindenstraße you are not allowed to use anything electronic, you are not even allowed a television. So, it was only on our phone on the internet that we saw people are dying of it, that it is happening in China, that the economy is going down, that there is a lockdown. We were like: “What is this?” We were very much afraid. A lot more than just afraid.
When did you decide to take part in protests against the conditions in Lindenstraße?
I had not participated in a demonstration before, but I had to put the life of my baby first, of course. I was scared and told the people: “They don’t want to listen to us. If we wake up and COVID has killed me, and my baby is still alive, I am begging you to give my baby to social care because that is the only option I have. I do not have any family members here except the father of my baby. He is a man, I’m not sure he’s going to be able to take care of my baby.”
One evening we were just like: “No, we need to do this, we need to demonstrate for people to hear our voice.” In Lindenstraße, the fire alarm goes off regularly. You always must leave the building, even if there is no sign of a fire. Sometimes it happens twice a day and sometimes midnight, at one or two in the night. The alarms start and you must get out. You just pick your baby and go and stand outside. Then the fire service will come and check if everything is okay before you can re-enter.
This fateful day there was this alarm. All of us came out and then we were like: “Oh, we are not going inside. We need to do a demonstration because here we have the police and then they would hear all of us.” When we saw the police and the ambulance we were like: “There are people here, let us do this demonstration now.” So, we started a demonstration and people with contacts called these people from Together We Are Bremen.
They immediately came to help us. They got some media people to cover it. We were interviewed on the situation. We told them it is not easy with the babies, no lifts, the food situation and that some AWOs are nice, some are not nice. We started shouting for our rights. We were shouting: “Shut down Lindenstraße.” We were saying they should quarantine us, they should transfer us. The police waited to see what we were doing. They saw it was just a peaceful demonstration. They waited to see us through our demonstration and then they left.
After this demonstration, the AWOs put fear in us: “That is what you have done, and we will take you back to your country. We are taking your pictures to the police, we are taking your pictures to immigration, you’re not going to get residency permit for disobeying the rules.” Other people from AWO said: “Why did you do this? We saw you, you were talking and now you have a problem. We transfer you to a place where you are not going to get people like us who translate your letters for you.” We were afraid after that. After the demonstration some of us were afraid.
What happened then?
I was transferred to another accommodation. It is far better than Lindenstraße even though we still sleep together in a room with another mother and her child. But here you can cook whatever food you want to cook. Here you can use the lifts, we can take the pushchair to our room. We have people who help us with our letters’ translation. When you need to fix anything, maybe your pushchair, and you cannot fix it, they will be here to help you. They are so nice.
I have a friend I left behind in Lindenstraße. When she was in quarantine, I brought her food, because I can cook here. I gave it to the securities. You get to the gate and securities will come out dressed in masks, everything, you are also with your mask, they tell you: “What do you want here?” You tell him, you give him the room number, the name. He will give you a pen. Then you write down everything and he places it on the food or the package you have for that person. Then they take everything inside. Some of my friends needed baby food, some of them needed sanitary pads. They call you: “We are hungry, we need this, we need that, if you can be of help.” As a mother, I am pushing a pushchair and I cannot do much, but I try my best. I cook and buy stuff for them and leave it with the securities. Later they call you: “They have delivered it to us.”