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 Mariama Jatta on her experiences with racism, COVID, and protest during her time in the initial reception centre for asylum seekers Lindenstraße in Bremen.
How did you experience your arrival at Lindenstraße?
I had no experience in traveling alone, especially to a foreign land. Anytime I travelled before, I had somebody to guide me and to welcome me and to show me how everything works. I was alone for the first time, which was strange for me. I could not do anything for myself because I had no contact with anybody. I did not know anybody. I did not feel comfortable at the beginning when I came to Bremen, as it was a bit hard for me to know where to go, who to talk to, how to do this. It was not easy.
When I arrived at Lindenstraße, from the very first moment it felt like something is wrong. In entered together with another lady. I asked her three times, “Are you sure we are in the right place?” And she was like, “Yes.” I am like, “Are you sure this is where I am going to be? And for how long?” Because I knew nothing about the system. She was like, “For a maximum of two months.” I entered and I am like, “Are you sure we are not in a hospital?” And she is like, “No.” So, I am like, “Are people living here?” She is like, “Yes.” But I am like, “This is like a prison or a hospital.” And she is like, “No, no, no. It is a camp.” I am like, “Okay, is this how camps look like?” Because I have never been into any camp before. So, I was a bit surprised. And I was like, “This is not a place for people to live.”
What happened afterwards?
We went to the office and we had to sit and wait for registration for three hours, just for our names to be taken. After the registration was done, I was put in a room with four other people. For the first time I stayed in a single room with so many different people, you know different nationalities, completely different people. And our beds were just, let us say, 20 centimetres apart. It was just strange. I stayed there for three days without sleep. I could not eat; I just could not eat. And I could not sleep.
The walls of the room have a gap at the top. In the next room were two ladies with their children. One had three children, and the other one had a new-born baby and another little boy. And in the one on the other side were also two women. One was pregnant and one was with her new baby. So, you could hear everything, the noise in the other rooms. Because there are no real walls. Whatever you say here, somebody else in the other room is going to hear. Everything was just noisy. There is no privacy.
How was your first contact with the people who worked at Lindenstraße?
The social workers were so arrogant. The first day I came was my first encounter with one of the social workers there. They took me to this room, and in this room we are five people, and there is only one key to the door. I went out to the toilet and when I came back, the room was locked. I did not know where I should go and get the key. I met a security and I asked him, and he was like, “Okay, you go down and then you ask the social workers”. So, I went to the office. I was not well-dressed, and I had to go all the way down to the first floor to ask for a key.
I went to the social workers’ office there and I was like, “Hello sir, can I talk to you?”. And the guy was just staring at me without saying a word. He was not doing anything; he was drinking a coffee. He just put his hand like this. Like, stay out. So, I stayed there for like 30 minutes. And I am like, “I cannot stay longer. I just need to ask you something, and you do not even know what. I am not well-dressed, and you want me to stay here. And everybody is just passing. I cannot stay like this over here.” And he was like, “You have to wait until I am done.” I am like, “Okay, fine.” And then I stay for like another five minutes. And he was like, “Okay, what do you want?” I am like, “Okay. I want to know where to get the key to the room that you took me to, because it is locked.” And he is like, “I do not know where your key is right now.” I said, “Okay. So, how should I get in?” “You have to wait at the door until the person that locked the door comes back. You are supposed to leave the key with the securities. And when you come in, you should ask the securities for the key in case nobody is in your room. If the key is not with the securities, then you know that someone is in the room.” I was like, “Okay, what if somebody forgets and takes the key with him in town? And then I happen to have an urgent thing to do in the room?” He was like, “You have to wait until the person comes back. It needs to be a coordination between you people.” And I did not even have contact with anyone from the room, I do not have their telephone number, I barely even know their names. So, how do I contact them that I need the key?
Another thing that annoyed me a lot later, was that sometimes the social workers will just open your door and then just walk in without a knock or anything, invading your privacy and then start to search under your bed to search for whether you have any electrical items. They just to search without your permission, start to move beds. Even animals are not treated like that. Everyone needs to have a little privacy. You cannot just walk into somebodies’ room and start to move everything or to search for things without his or her permission.
How did your hearing with the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) go?
In the first interview I had here, they interviewed me for six hours. It was too much. At some point I was like, “I cannot do this anymore. I cannot go on. We have to stop this interview.” They are just like pushing this button that makes you, you know makes you get out of hand. For me, it is not like an interview. It is like an interrogation. And I felt like, “What crime did I commit for you to just impose those things on me?” The worst part was after all this interview they were like, “Okay, now we will believe what we want to believe, or we will accept what we want to accept.” So, what is the point of you calling me, asking me questions about myself? And if I tell you, you will take what you want to take, and then leave what is not in your favour out. Why is it necessarily for you to call me? Just make your decision without calling me. Because with, or without asking me, without making me to tell you the whole story of my life from the beginning till the end, and at the end of it, you will just take what you want to take, the bits that suit you. So, I ended the interview. And that was it.
Did you experience racism?
Every day. If I walk down right now from here to the bus stop, I will experience racism that is for sure. Sometimes you just see somebody with this eye, this racist eye you know. At first, I could not handle it. It really ate me up. I felt scared to go into buses. I was like, “Why? Why? Why?” But it does not make sense for me to ask this question all over again, it is just pure hate. But now I think I have figured out ways of handling racism. I learned to accept it. Still, it is so hard. It is so hard when somebody is looking at you like you do not belong here. It is not easy, but we will find ways to survive. Now I am using the I-do-not-care method. Look at me, if you do not hit me, I am okay. One thing I do when you stare at me, I stare at you.
What happened when the pandemic broke out?
At that time, I was living in a different room with three other women. For me, it was very hard because I had a different way of life and a different sleeping pattern than my roommates. I could not sleep when the light was off, and they also could not sleep when the light is on. So, I could not sleep all night, and during the day when I went to sleep, there was always someone playing music, or having a visitor from the camp. Visitors from outside were not allowed. But within the building we had friends. So, we went to each other’s room. So, when I wanted to sleep during the day, someone is always on the phone talking, and someone is playing music, or had some people visiting. So, I barely had good sleep. I could not sleep. For this, I sustained migraines every single day, I had constant headaches. The longer I stayed, the more things were getting worse.
When COVID started, people started to get scared, they started to get uncomfortable. Well, not really started, because the uncomfortableness starts immediately you come into the building, but it got worse. Corona time came and with the regulations on social distancing, none of them were in line with what was going on in the Bremen, we all went to the kitchen at once. This is 700 people living under one roof. We use the same toilets. Apart from mealtimes, you must go to the toilet and fetch water there to drink it, which was not healthy. Women with little kids were not allowed to have kettles in the rooms to make hot water. But to make babies food, you need hot water.
When the pandemic started, they announced in the city that, “Okay, there is this new regulation in Germany that only a few people are allowed to be together. And if you are more, it must be that you are from the same household." I was like, “Okay, this law was made, and they have completely forgotten about us.” They have completely forgotten that this is one household with 700 people. Because this is a household. We share the kitchen, we share the bathroom, we mingle, kids play together in the floors. And there were no precautions taken. We had no sanitizers, no information. We were not correctly informed about COVID rules and everything. There was no communication.
New people were still arriving. When they come in, they should be isolated. And then they should take a test and then be in quarantine until their test is out. Then they should let them inside to join us. But they did not do any of that. People were coming in and they were potential COVID cases and still they kept them within us. If they became positive, they let the ambulance come to the back door and then smuggled the people into the ambulance, taking them out of the building. We were never informed. It felt weird, the ambulance coming to the back door and then this guy or this lady protected with an overall comes in. Like there is something fishy going on that we are not told about. It meant that the virus was really coming into the building. That meant everybody is at risk, because we use the same door, the same door to leave the building. So, you cannot tell me that the person that is infected that walked through the door did not touch anything. It is impossible.
Hundreds of people were infected the time that they locked us in. They locked us in to make things go down, but things went bad. Things went worse. When we were free to go out and to take care of our own selves, the cases were not that high. But immediately after they locked us in, things became worse. What they did was, they tested us. I was tested for three times. And I was negative. They tested on of the floors. And they said, “Somebody is positive there.” So, they have to go on the lockdown. They lock them up. And then two weeks after, they test them again. And this time, they said all of them became positive. The whole floor became positive. Now they said okay, they will stay for an extra two weeks.
On my floor, they said, “Okay, we have one single person that is positive. So, you have to go on the two weeks quarantine.” We are like, “Okay, no problem. We will go on the two weeks quarantine.” And after this two-week quarantine, they tested us. But during these two weeks quarantine, they brought somebody in from another floor. And we were like, “Okay.” We asked the guy, “Are you tested?” The guy said, “No.” So, we said, “This guy cannot enter here because he is not tested.” And they said they tested the guy. We were like, “Okay. But the results has to come out before we allow this guy to come in, because we are about to finish our quarantine. So, we will not allow you to bring somebody who is untested to our floor. We do not know if he is positive.” And they said, “He is tested, and he is negative.” So, he joined us and lived in one wing of the floor. And then when the quarantine was about to finish, they said, “We have to do another test.” So, when they tested this time they said, everybody in his wing of the floor was positive.
How did the quarantine affect you personally?
We were locked in for one month and two weeks. Each time the two weeks of quarantine are about to end, they will tell you, “Oh, somebody is positive again, you have to stay for two weeks again.” Until it was one month and two weeks. One time, the guy in the room next to me tried to commit suicide. He drank poison. And luckily for him, he did not die.
I could not take it anymore. When the doctors came into my room, I told them plain, “If I spend any other day in this room, if you lock me one more day again, you will find my corpse inside the room.” Because it was too much. I was devastated with what this guy did. Because he was next to me. And at that point, I did not know if the guy survived or not. I did not know if he made it or not. I felt guilty about what happened to him. This guy was isolated in the room next to mine and he was treated badly, so he asked me, “What is the easiest way to commit suicide?” And we were just talking, I did not know that he was serious about it. So, we talked about that. And then the next morning he did it. The next day, I was transferred from the camp to another accommodation.
Before you were transferred, were there any protests against the situation in Lindenstraße?
Yes, there were. I was like, “This is wrong.” I met some people in my fourth floor who were members of Together We Are Bremen. I walked up to them, I am like, “Are you guys really comfortable with what is going on here?” They are like, “No, nobody is comfortable. But what can we do?” I was like, “If we just sit around, we can do nothing obviously, but something needs to be done.”
So, I wrote a message in the Together We Are Bremen messenger group. I was like, “The situation in the camp here it is horrible.” They said, “It is difficult to do a protest. The regulations allow just few people together.” I am like, “That is not a problem for us.” Because as I see the rules, it is like we are completely out of the rules. Because we are 700 people in one household. So, if we go together to protest with 100 or 200 people, the rules do not apply because we live in the same place. And they were like, “Okay, that makes sense.” That was the time that they considered to do a protest during the pandemic. So, we went out to protest, but there were not too many people participating.
Why was that?
I have noticed something that is when you come to this camp, the first thing they impose on you is fear. Fear that makes you stay silent, because you are threatened, “If you talk, whatever you say it is going to be held against you in your case.” So, this is why people are so scared. They do not want to come out for a protest, especially women. I understand their fear, because when you go out there, sure there are consequences. Because the system will want to make an example of to shut other people up.
In this protest I was the only woman among all these men. And I spoke my mind, but I was not speaking only for myself, but on behalf of the children there. I am not into politics at all, the only thing that triggered me to do this was the children. What they were doing to them was not fair, because they were innocent. I worked in a health facility before and anything that has to do with health is also my concern, because I was a nurse. So, to see kids not able to protect themselves, it was something that I could not deal with. The children were not allowed to mingle with other kids. They were isolated. They were schooling from the camp. It was a small classroom.
The kids should have the right at least to mingle with others. They should not be held accountable for coming into this world in this kind of situation. So, I was like, “I am going there to speak for the children, because they are my concern.” But the protest did not really change things. Nobody listened to us. Nobody did anything. No changes, no nothing.
Things even became worse, especially for me. Because I was the only woman and the first woman to speak out. When I was walking around the building, I would see security following me, because they think, “That is her. That is her, follow her, maybe she is making a video.” Because they did not want what was going on in the building to go out. They thought I am sending out information. So, I got followed everywhere I walked. And it was so uncomfortable for me.
What happened afterwards?
People became more scared. Because they were like, “Okay wow, this is COVID. And it is deadly.” It was horrifying. So, I started to go to women, women’s rooms. I start to go from door to door to talk to them. And I noticed that these people were fearful. Afraid to speak. They were like, “Okay, we know it is not right. But if we speak, you know it will be bad for our case?” They were like, “Okay, please do not talk. Because if you talk on our behalf, you know they will also make something bad for you.” I am like, “It is okay. Let them make everything bad for me. But at least somebody will benefit at the end of it. Even if I as a single person, if I should go through a lot of hardship because of this, but I will be happy that something good will come out of it.”
And then at the end of the day, there were some people that I was able to convince. Women, especially mothers. And if the mothers are in, obviously their children are in. And these are the most important people that should be the ones to speak out. I started to talk to them in the camp. And then they started to gain confidence and started to have the strength to come out and speak.
I was like, “Okay, I am okay with your silence. If you are completely silent that is your choice, but I would rather speak and stay alive than to choose to keep quiet and die. Because Corona is killing people. And if you live in this kind of condition and COVID is coming into the building, your kids are here, I can protect myself, you can protect yourself, but your children cannot protect themselves.” Because in some cases you see like a mother a heavily pregnant mother with three other children. So, you have issues with yourself already. So, the second protest was the women and the babies. And when we speak out, we started to see positive responses. Although, not everything was fixed, but at least something was done.
I am glad that Together We Are Bremen exists. Because these are things that we cannot do alone. The group feels like home. It is a place that you can really share your problems and although not all is solved, something is partially solved. They will ensure that at least something positive comes out. Participating in the protests, I have become more relaxed. Even if I am not directly benefiting from the actions of our group, but some people around me, seeing the smile on their faces and then seeing that because of a single step I have done, at least a little thing has been achieved, makes me feel really okay.