The Definition of Patience: An Afghan Refugee Living in Germany in 2019

Guest Writer: Grant Price; Berlin, Germany

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Hadir arrived in Berlin, utterly exhausted, in late November 2015. He, his cousin and two friends had taken a high-speed ICE train from the German/Austrian border to the capital. Out of decency, the ticket conductor policing the carriages had allowed the four of them to travel free of charge; she even wished them good luck as they stumbled onto the platform. As the only English speaker among them, Hadir led the group to the police station at the Hauptbahnhof, where they declared themselves as refugees. After being transferred to a processing centre and waiting in a holding pen for six hours, Hadir managed to talk himself and his companions onto a bus heading to one of the main refugee shelters, which was located in the sprawling district of Moabit. Run by the aid organization Berliner Stadtmission and known by the residents simply as ‘the Balloon’ due to its inflatable exterior, the huge shelter – complete with a sleeping block, reception, toilets, kitchen, recreation space, washroom and children’s play area – would become Hadir’s home for the next 20 months.

For Hadir, the decision to leave his home and the rest of his family to come to Germany was not an easy one. Born in Afghanistan, he learned some English at school before teaching himself to a much higher level in order to work as an interpreter with the US Army. After his grandfather was killed by members of Al-Qaeda, he moved to southern Iran together with his parents and two younger brothers (his older brother, also employed by the US Army, remained behind). Despite having attended school up to the age of 18, the subordinate status of Afghans in Iran prevented Hadir from enrolling at university. Instead of studying to become a cardiologist as he’d wanted, he found work as a labourer on a construction site. His decision to flee the country was prompted by a recruiter from the Iranian army who scoured such sites looking for young men to join ‘Liwa Fatemiyoun’, an Afghan Shia militia that was formed by Iran’s Armed Forces and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fight on the side of the Syrian government in its civil war. After managing to avoid conscription on a technicality, the recruiter informed Hadir that he would return for him in a couple of months. Hadir had a choice: he could either join the militia and fight or be imprisoned and probably deported to Afghanistan.

Hadir settled on a third option: using the money he’d saved from his labourer’s job along some cash sent from his older brother, he left home with his cousin and three friends (all of whom had received the same ultimatum) in the middle of the night in July 2015. They first headed north to Tehran and then west, over the Zagros mountains, to Turkey. It was here, in the mountains, that Hadir’s cousin jettisoned one of the bags they were carrying due to fatigue – what his cousin didn’t realise until it was too late was that the bag contained Hadir’s passport, birth certificate and school records. After reaching Turkey they contacted a group of smugglers, who brought the five young men to the Aegean coast and then bundled them into boats heading to Greece. It was during this perilous crossing that one member of the group was lost, drowned along with the rest of the passengers on his boat. The remaining four didn’t have time to mourn him: after landing in Greece, they travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria by taxi, bus, train and foot. Ultimately, they found sanctuary in Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Somalis, Eritreans, Nigerians and nationals from various Eastern European states. The entire trip lasted three months.

While living in the Balloon, Hadir served in an unofficial capacity as a camp translator due to his skills in English and Farsi. He also devoted himself to learning German, quickly obtaining his A1, A2 and B1 certification (according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). He found a job as a mail sorter at Deutsche Post and started looking for an apartment of his own so that he could move out of the six-person dormitory in which he was billeted. Hadir was optimistic. Although he had lost a friend, missed his family, and had to unpick a Gordian knot of red tape each time the authorities contacted him, he felt he had made the right decision. In his first year in Germany, he’d managed to learn the language to a conversational level and find a job and earn money that he could send home to his parents. Above all, he was safe.

The optimism didn’t last long. After a year in the Balloon, Hadir received word from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees that his request for asylum had been refused and that he’d been granted a ‘Duldung’, or a temporary suspension of deportation, only. The reasons given were that he had no acceptable way to confirm his identity, nor was he able to provide proof that his life was in danger while living in Iran. A work ban was imposed, forcing him to give up his job at the Deutsche Post. He was no longer allowed to move out of the Balloon either, and was not permitted to enrol on a B2 German course. He was put on standby and told that he could be deported to Afghanistan at any time.

This purgatory persisted for several months until, with the intervention of a lawyer, the Duldung was lifted. The refusal to grant Hadir residence, however, remained. By this time it was July 2017 and the Balloon was scheduled for closure owing to a lack of refugees. The Syrians who had arrived in the great exodus of 2015 had all been placed in private accommodation and encouraged to start their lives anew. Meanwhile, Hadir and the other remaining residents (mostly Afghans) packed up their belongings and were shuttled off to various addresses – requisitioned hotels, hastily converted office spaces and the like – in neighbourhoods across the city. Hadir found himself in a residential block where he was assigned a bed in a two-man room. And it was here that the state promptly forgot about him.

 Now, almost two years after moving to the residential block and three years after having his request for asylum turned down, Hadir is still living on the fringes of German society, not accepted but not yet outright rejected. While he still checks the post in the hope that he has received an ‘Aufenthaltserlaubnis’, or a temporary residence permit, he has long since given up trawling through ads for apartments to rent. Nobody will offer him a contract when his legal right to remain in the country remains unclear. He has now spent so long living in the same space as other people that he can only fall asleep when he hears his roommate switching on the kettle after returning home from the gym at midnight. Recently, when he went to Frankfurt with a group of other refugees to attend a trauma workshop (the first time he’d ever been on a plane), he was given a private room in the hotel. But he couldn’t sleep. It was too quiet. Only when he turned on the radiator and listened to the air gurgling inside it – which approximated the sound of his roommate’s kettle – did his eyes become heavy.

Gaining a foothold in the education system has proven to be difficult, too. With his cousin having accidentally thrown all of his records away, Hadir has no way of demonstrating that he has completed 13 years of school. That is, aside from the fact that his intelligence becomes patently clear within the first 30 seconds of speaking to him. But Germany is not always a place in which common sense thrives. Paperwork is everything, and he doesn’t have it. Though he was desperate to attend university, he was refused on the grounds that he didn’t have the qualifications. When he conceded that he would have to take the ‘Abitur’ (A Levels) if he was to stand the chance of doing a Bachelor’s degree, he found another obstacle in his path: in order to do the Abitur, he first had to attend a special middle school for a year. This man who taught himself English and German, who has worked as a shepherd, an interpreter, a factory hand, a bricklayer and a mail processor, who has studied the intricacies of the German legal system in the vain hope of finding a way out of his situation, who managed to make his way from deepest Iran to northern Germany on his wits alone, must complete beginner’s courses in mathematics, science and, above all things, French. For a couple of months he tried to do as the authorities asked, but he grew despondent. He is nearing 28 years of age; the classes make him feel like a child. Where his classmates struggle, he knows all the answers. He simply doesn’t belong there. By the time he finishes jumping through the hoops and earns his Bachelor’s, he’ll be comfortably in his mid-30s. Back in Iran, Hadir’s parents earn barely enough to live on. When he left to come to Europe, he assured them that once he found a job, he would send them money so that they could buy food and clothes and make their lives a little easier. Spending the next seven or eight years working his way up the education pyramid won’t allow him to do this – that is, if he even lasts that long without being deported.

He has, however, been offered an alternative route by the government: an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship would allow Hadir to learn a trade, become an indispensible part of the workforce and hopefully earn enough money to support his family. According to the ‘Aufenthaltsgesetz’, or the Act on the Residence, Economic Activity and Integration of Foreigners in the Federal Territory, it would also protect him from deportation for the duration of the apprenticeship. The problem is that when it comes to the apprenticeships on offer, he doesn’t have much of a choice. In his second year in the country, he was told that he could train to become a mechanic in a small town in southern Germany and work on cars. Hadir declined, asking instead for a programme that would either allow him to put his languages to good use or work in the social sector. There were no such programmes, he was told. Germany needed craftsmen. Hadir told his interviewer that if he’d wanted to be a manual worker he would have stayed in Iran. So he waited. The next time he had an interview with an advisor, the choices were the same. Again he declined. The months dragged on. Finally, a couple of weeks after quitting middle school, he had another interview. This time there was an apprenticeship for fixing aircraft engines for Boeing with the potential to do a degree in engineering later on. He put his name down. Now, once again, he has to wait to find out whether he’ll be cleared for the programme or whether his lack of residence will be held against him.

Despite his travails in education, Hadir recently obtained his B2 certificate in German. He was the only person in his class to do so. C1 courses are thin on the ground, so now he has to wait. In the meantime, he struggles to find the motivation to keep learning German in his free hours. If he could be deported tomorrow, why bother? He lives in the knowledge that he could be told to present himself to the police within 48 hours, so that he may be transferred to Tegel Airport and onto a flight to Kabul. It’s a city he’s visited only once in his life, in a country he hasn’t been to for many years and which is still rocked by bombings and shootings and death on a daily basis. Even his brother is no longer there, having severed his connections with the US Army in order to join his family in Iran. What would Hadir do in Afghanistan? Where would he go? How could he be expected to reintegrate himself into a society that is now foreign to him?

The German authorities have no answers. But they don’t ask the questions in the first place.

The situation is very different for Hadir’s cousin. As he was under 18 years of age when he arrived in Berlin, he was soon moved out of the Balloon and into a facility for unaccompanied minors. He was awarded a residence permit some time later. Now 19, he rents an apartment near Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station and is currently preparing to take his Abitur exams. If his grades are adequate, he plans to attend university. He has a part-time job through which he earns enough money to buy clothes, furniture and anything else he needs, and sends the rest home to his family. In his free time he meets friends, goes to restaurants, plays sports and videogames, and so on. The dream of starting a new, normal life in Europe has come true. Somehow, Hadir is pleased for him. Despite his cousin being the one who threw his documents away – documents that might have made his time in Germany much easier – he bears no grudge, holds no ill will. He only hopes it will happen for him, too, one day.

For Hadir, his time in Germany so far has proven to be more of a struggle than he envisioned. He surrendered any sense of personal privacy long ago. The threat of deportation waits around every corner. He has banged his head against the wall of bureaucracy so many times that it has left him numb. He misses his mother, his father and his brothers. He has been racially abused in the street more than once. Even so, he has had many positive experiences: he has made friends from all over the world, attended the Berlin Film Festival, mastered a new language, travelled on a plane, and spoken to a room of local politicians and businesspeople about the difficulties refugees like him face every single day. Above all, he has learned how to be supremely patient. Despite his setbacks, he, above all, knows how lucky he is compared to many other Afghans in his homeland, Iran and elsewhere. Though he sometimes becomes frustrated, he does not despair, because today could be the day when his residence permit finally comes through. And so every day he checks his mail. And he hopes.

About Grant Price:

Grant Price is the author of Static Age and By the Feet of Men, which is due to be published by Cosmic Egg Books in September 2019. He lives in Berlin, Germany.