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 Ibrahim Korkmaz, who lived in several refugee shelters in Hesse during the pandemic.
Where did you live as an asylum seeker?
I spent 14 months in a shelter in Kassel. On the very first day, the management of the accommodation said, “This is not a hotel here.” Okay, I know that. But sometimes I think, “Unfortunately, we are not animals.” Because animals have more rights. That is not good.
They do not do anything for integration. During the whole time I only had a German course for three months, that was before COVID. Even during the pandemic, something could have been offered via the internet, for example via Zoom. There is no integration when you live in the accommodation. It would be very good if there were integration courses or something, because people will stay in Germany. Integration measures would be very important. Unfortunately, the social workers are very passive: they wait for people to come to them and sit in their chair instead of being proactive.
The asylum procedure involves a lot of bureaucracy. You submit documents, then you must write an email, then submit documents again and wait. The bureaucracy is very hard and very slow. The long wait in the asylum procedure makes you sad, angry and annoys me. In the end, I did not get a residence permit, even though I was politically persecuted in Turkey as a follower of the Gülen movement.
Since my asylum application was rejected, the situation has been very difficult for me: I want to attend a German course and I want to work, but unfortunately, I don’t have access to a German course. I have lost a lot of time because of this. I was a manager in Turkey, a CEO. I do not want to lose time. Time is money. I had a lot of money in Turkey. I owned flats, but now I have nothing. It is very difficult for me to get benefits from the state here in Germany now. I want to work. I want to pay taxes and not live off other people’s taxes. That is hard for me. I want to be useful. I want to give something, not take something.
What was your experience with the staff at the shelter in Kassel?
The management and social workers in Kassel were very friendly. They looked after the children and treated us with respect. You could always reach them easily. For example, you had the opportunity to talk to the management every day.
How was the medical care?
One day I got problems with my foot. It took three or four months before I got an appointment with a specialist. When I was in the shelter, there were always problems when I wanted medical treatment. I could not walk. It hurt. I was in pain. I said, “We are human beings, but you treat us like we are worthless. We are not important to you. This is not good! I am a human being.”
How has COVID changed your life?
The reaction to COVID was neither fast enough nor good. We were tested. I was negative. But there were three of us in one room. One tested positive and moved to another room. To me they said I was negative. They said the same to my friend who was in the same room with me. Then five days later they told him, “Sorry. You have COVID.” My God. We were in the same room together for five days. That is not good. This is a very important thing, why are mistakes made?
I was then transferred to the accommodation in Wolfhagen, where I was also in a room with two others. The showers in Wolfhagen were a problem: there was only one room with no partition between the individual showers. My God, I can’t shower like that. I always got up very early in the morning to take a shower. Why does it have to be like that? You should still be able to sleep then. They tested us again and after two or three days they said we were infected with COVID. We were then transferred back to Kassel. It is very exhausting to move between shelters because I have a lot of things and a lot of bags. We were first in quarantine in Wolfhagen and then again in Kassel. After a week or ten days we were then moved to Neustadt.
What experiences did you have in Neustadt?
My God, it was really bad. The securities were very bad and the staff. There was no way to talk to the management. The social workers were also badly accessible. They would not let you into the building. You always had to stand outside in a queue and wait to speak to them. It took an hour to get in. It was cold outside, and I am 55 years old. If you wait in the cold, it is not good for your health.
Communication was very bad. In the room there was only one very small cupboard for everyone, maybe twenty, thirty centimetres wide. I had lived in shelters for 14 months before. I had clothes for spring, summer, autumn, and winter. How could I put them in such a small closet?
What were the hygienic conditions like?
In the pandemic, health and hygiene are very important. But in Neustadt the food was bad and so was the hygiene. There was no hand soap, there were notices everywhere saying “Wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds”, but there was no soap. I could not understand that. Why don’t they provide good hygiene measures in the accommodation? Your hands will be very dirty, and you can only wash them with water without soap. That is certainly how you get COVID.
The sanitary facilities were often very dirty. Some people did not flush after going to the toilet. I often went to the toilet and saw that the toilet was full of toilet paper and then I cleaned. I used to clean and think, “God, do you want me to clean here?” I just did it. But by the evening, everything was very dirty again. If hygiene is not taken care of, people in the shelter can be very dangerous for others and transmit COVID to them.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think it is important to reach out to our German neighbours. For example, we can bring them a cake at New Year or Christmas. Invite them to dinner. I always say: “If we assume there are 1,000 topics, then we have at least 700 of these in common. We might be different on the other 300. Let us just leave those aside. They are not important. What is important is that we share 700. That is enough to understand each other, enough to live together.”