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 Shahriar Sabazad about his time at the Bargkoppelstieg initial reception centre for refugees in Hamburg. He speaks about short trousers because the laundry was washed too hot, cockroaches, and the consequences of the high stress levels for children and families.
How did you experience your first night in an accommodation for refugees?
It was very strange, very new for me. We were only in this accommodation for one night. So, I did not have that much time to explore the whole thing. But it was different, I did not know anything like that before. The rooms were only separated by the walls and you did not have a roof over your head. When I was there and thinking about it, it felt like a detention centre. It felt like I was in a cell because there was no roof, it was all open. That was very strange for me.
What disturbed me or us that night was that the security guards were listening to the Koran very loudly over loudspeakers in the evening. I asked politely: “We are exhausted and want to relax with my family, would it be possible for you to use headphones?” Then we got into an argument because he said: “But aren’t you a Muslim? Why should that bother you?” However, we only stayed in this accommodation for one day, during which we waited for our Corona test. The next day we started with the registration. That means initial interview, fingerprints, all the usual things.
Where were you transferred to afterwards and what were the conditions like there?
After we were temporarily in another accommodation, we lived in the reception centre for asylum seekers in Bargkoppelstieg. Single men have two rooms with one entrance. There are six people per room. No room has a ceiling. That means the walls of the rooms are open at the top. Families have one room.
When you arrive, you first end up in a temporary area until you have had the medical examinations, bureaucratic issues have been dealt with, all that must be completed before you are even transferred to the permanent wards. There, single people, and families are separated. The people in the shelter are on the verge of going crazy because no one has any kind of peace and quiet. You hear everything that happens in your neighbourhood. Children are screaming, families are talking on the phone very loudly, listening to music. It is creepy. It is scary. And that is why a lot of people become mentally ill. That is why I have always called the facility a polite jail.
There are also conflicts between residents because of this. For example, some families hear the muezzin very loudly at four in the morning. Although they neither get up nor pray at that time. Out of habit or for whatever reason. That means you must get up at 4:00 in the morning, go to the social workers and ask them to knock on the door and say: “Can you please turn it off?” Eventually I gave up on that. I covered my ears and now I have earplugs.
The sanitary facilities are another problem. The shower cubicles for the ladies were in a section where only single men lived. Single women lived in the family section. This means that if a woman wanted to shower, she had to go through the whole men’s section, shower, and back again. In the shower cubicles, all the water from the different showers flows together on the floor. It is a flat level that has been separated with walls. So, the water from the people showering next to you always flows to your feet. This is not very hygienic if you are standing in your neighbours’ leftover shampoo. This is especially fatal for small children. Everyone looks for a shower cubicle where no one is showering next to you. Neither the toilets nor the showers are designed for small children.
The mini-kitchen is also in the section where single men live. That means kettles and very, very banal little things that you also need for small children are all there. You must go through the whole corridor and back again. Because when you have small children, you often need hot water. I suggested to the social workers that it would be good to put a table by the securities. Under supervision, of course, with a kettle and a microwave. When children suddenly get hungry, you can get something small and heat it up and give it to the child. Just a table, I stressed, that is small and with a microwave, and under supervision, not unsupervised. The answer was that it was too expensive, that it was time-consuming, and we heard excuses like that. As far as the social workers are concerned, it is not just me but many residents here, or rather all of them, who have the feeling that you have to be like a woodpecker. Knocking again and again without end, without pause, until it gets through, and whether anything is achieved at all, that is the second question.
There was the problem with the cockroaches. We had a lot of cockroaches in the room. I mentioned this several times to the social workers. In the end, the statement was, “Well, but why is it only you who complains? No one else comes with the complaint.” I asked in the neighbourhood, they said, “Yes, we have too, but it doesn’t bother us.” Many of the residents have the attitude: do not complain, otherwise you will be branded with a negative stamp. And therefore, do not move from the spot or complain.
I had to somehow prove that there were a lot of cockroaches in my room. Finally, they said, “Okay, we’ll give you one of these cockroach traps.” So, I caught a few and showed them. And they said, "Okay, we’ll take care of it, we’ll put some kind of agent in there.” And because we had a lot of problems with cockroaches in Tehran, I know about them, I have been fighting with cockroaches for a very long time. You always must find out where it comes from, the source of origin. And then I found that out and I also showed that to the social management. There we also had something like a trap and there were thousands of cockroaches. And only then were they prepared to do something about it, or to call an exterminator.
Another problem was the washing machine and washing clothes. In Bargkoppelstieg you are not allowed to operate the washing machines yourself. There is a security guard who does your laundry. To make it easier, they do it like this: everything they get their hands on is washed at the highest temperature. Colourful and white, everything is thrown together and then washed at the highest temperature. All the people here wear clothes that are too short and too small because everything was washed hot. I am a size M, but my clothes are all S now. You can see that very clearly when people walk around the accommodation, that their trousers are always short and tight.
How is the food supply in the accommodation?
I find the mealtimes especially problematic. There are five hours between lunch and dinner, so I am always hungry beforehand. The evening meal always consists of sausage. Only twice a week do we have soup. With two slices of bread, you are always hungry again by 23:00. And that means that around 23:00 you can always hear people nibbling on biscuits in every room. Also, the food is not suitable for small children. That is, either the food is spicy or there is sausage, which is not easy for a small child to digest. There is not enough money to buy food for the child itself. Moreover, there are no cooking facilities to prepare food for our children.
How long do people live in this accommodation?
Elderly people and people who are ill are moved immediately. For the others, this camp is only intended for six months. Most of them end up there with a Dublin procedure, during which they must be available until the procedure is finally over. That is the whole point. People living in the shelter feel that the conditions are deliberately made uncomfortable. So that at some point you voluntarily say: I cannot take it anymore. That is their theory. For this reason, there are very few residents who complain, raise their voices, and say anything.
When it comes to conflicts between families, there are two categories here: quiet families and loud families, very conspicuous families, and more reserved ones. And if the families have a conflict with each other, then the families that were loud are moved. But the families who are quiet must stay in the shelter. That is a paradox. Families who are noisy are moved to Altona or to Sportallee, where it is much more comfortable and better. In Altona they even have separate sanitary rooms. And that is incomprehensible to us and very stressful. Why do they make such differences? Why are the families who are noisy moved to better places? My family, who is quiet and who does not bother anyone, why do we have to stay here?
How has living in the shelter affected you and your family?
The situation has meant that our daughter, who was always very relaxed and calm, has become very restless because of all the quarrels and insults she overhears in the families. She is very jumpy at night and wakes up screaming loudly. She has also become aggressive. Our child was not like that before. I then looked for a German-speaking therapist for her and had a counselling session. The therapist said, “Your child needs to sleep twelve hours a day.” So, I said to her, “Try to fall asleep here even for one hour.”
How has COVID changed your life?
Now, we are in a never-ending cycle. When someone tests positive, we are moved to the quarantine accommodation. Then we are all tested several times until our test results are negative again and transferred back to Bargkoppelstieg. Then the same thing happens again, someone is infected, we are moved here again. The move is always very stressful and exhausting. At the end of the day, we are only human, and how much patience and strength does a person need to get through all that? It should be an alarm signal that 280 people are in quarantine here. In other camps there are a lot less cases.
There are two sections in the quarantine camp, one for people who are COVID-positive and then for those who are COVID-negative. For those who are negative, the conditions are a bit better, the children can also play outside. We do have an indoor playground for the children, but it is not like outside. It is difficult because you are sort of locked in. All the people who are here must keep themselves busy somehow. Occupation always means the internet, reading something, watching something. We are lucky that we have Wi-Fi in our room until early in the morning. There are families who do not have internet. They go around the buildings and everyone stands in front of the windowsill and tries to download a film and see if they can keep themselves busy somehow.
I tested positive for COVID, but I do not have any symptoms. That means neither headache, nor fever, nor anything. We have been in quarantine here for 25 days now. The conditions here are better than in Bargkoppelstieg. The staff who work here are very good. The building itself is good. The way humanity applies here, and responsibility is taken, that is very great. For example, a staff member who works as a doctor in the camp, when he sees that you have heavy bags, he takes them and helps you up to your room. The people here are very accommodating. Everyone has their own room with a blanket over their head. The rooms are small, compact, and not open. We are not allowed to eat in the dining room now because of COVID. That means everyone takes their food with them and goes to the room. And then you can eat there.
Nevertheless, the long period of quarantine is very exhausting. We worry a lot that our child will get sick. The stress puts a massive psychological strain on us, which also leads to conflicts within the family. I have conflicts with my wife several times a week because we live in the same room all the time and we are both worried and stressed. We have been here for 25 days now and my wife and daughter have been tested several times, each time negative. And today their result was also negative, but they must be tested again in five days. We are now being temporarily moved somewhere else until my family’s test result is negative again.
What happened when you returned to Bargkoppelstieg?
When we were moved to the quarantine camp, they said it is just for two weeks, so we just took our luggage for two weeks and not all our luggage and all our equipment and accessories. In the end we stayed one month in the quarantine camp. When we returned to Bargkoppelstieg they had broken the locks of our wardrobe. By mismanagement, they had lost our belongings and did not find them anymore.