Could you briefly tell us about your personal political background and introduce us to the gym you are currently living in Berlin?

Since the beginnig of the Syrian demonstration movement in 2011, I have worked in a network of political activists, and also did social work with displaced persons in various parts of the country. For political reasons I had to leave the country. Since January 2016, I’ve been living in the gymnasium on the Treskowallee campus of the Berlin University of Applied Sciences (HTW) in Lichtenberg. We are a total of 190 men living in one hall, mostly young people from Syria and Iraq, with smaller groups from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Eritrea.

What did you and your friends do within the camp in order to improve living conditions?

We organize for both internal and external aims. Internally, we just try to improve our living conditions and make the decisions we take together in a more democratic way. Externally, our aim is to build up some communication between the camp inhabitants, the neighbourhood, and the HTW staff and students. As far as improving material living conditions is concerned, we have the support of camp management, which at least in our case is very open to all suggestions and ideas. The responsible institution is Sozdia, a small organization with only one camp in Berlin. We often sit together with management until midnight discussing how to make the camp a better place to live. For example, we asked for a community room, a reading room, and also a Mosque room – all these are small rooms within the part of the building where showers and bathrooms are located. And after devising a set of rules and responsibilities for how to use the rooms, we got them. Demands that depend on the decisions and finances of the LaGeSo (Berlin social services authorities) are more difficult. In some cases, takes took a couple of weeks, like the lockers and washing machines, but we finally got them. In other cases, we never get the demand at all: for example, we tried to establish some form of privacy within the gymnasium by constructing walls that were designed by a young engineer living here, in order to have separated four-bed cabins. But we never received permission to set them up. The hall is not at all made to be a residential space. Nevertheless, we’ve already been here for months and nobody knows how much longer we will stay.

Nearly everyone is depressed in some way or another. Living in such a closed situation without doing anything but sleeping, eating and waiting for a LaGeSo or for a BAMF (federal immigration authorities) appointment is horrible. Most of the people here have worked all their life and are not used to doing nothing but lying on a bed for weeks on end. One of the guys said to me: “We could have easily put together a team in this camp with all the necessarily skills to construct a fine building with everything in it by now.”

How did you try to change relationships and organize the camp in a more democratic way?

In the first months, one big problem was that the security guards would enter the hall at night and walk between the beds, ordering us to be silent in a very authoritative manner without showing any respect. Many of us were really upset about this situation, and we thought about how to find a better way for everybody to sleep, and also how to solve conflicts by ourselves more generally. There are a lot of different opinions and interests within the camp, which is quite understandable. Any place in the world where there people don’t enjoy privacy leads to these type of problems. One guy is speaking too loud, the other is talking on the phone too much, others want to sleep, and so on.

So me and my friends initiated a process of self-governance. We organised ourselves in a group, some fifteen guys who were most interested in organising and debating the issues. We gathered a group of seven or more friends around each of them, so that these fifteen – you could call them social delegates – debated everything with their friends and then reported back to common meetings. We also chose a group to walk the hall every night and ask people in a very kindly way either to keep quiet or to go up to the community room. We prepared and agreed on “new rules” and announced them publically. It was really like the Agora Square democracy in ancient Greece! The new rules involved issues such as a smoking ban, mandatory quiet hours at night, or setting up a ventilation system. We just wanted to express that we don’t need the security guards to solve our problems and dodge mandatory qonsequences.

Looking back on it now, I can say that we were partially successful, and more so than expected. In the dictatorships we come from, we are used to dealing with repression, and therefore there was a different current within our camp that strongly opposed our initiative. They argued that repression is the only way to solve problems, particularly when people had never tried democracy before. They wanted stronger punishments: For example, if someone smoked, he should be punished by spending the night in the camp yard – even in the middle of winter. In our common debates, we replaced this punishment, instead requiring that the offender perform some kind of social service in the camp. In the beginning I expected that only 20 guys would participate in this initiative, but now a lot of people in the camp like the idea of developing our own rules. The effect is less offenders, less harsh punishments, more responsibility and more cooperation, and security staying out of the camp at night.

What, generally, are people’s previous experiences of self-organisation or political activism like in the camp?

In our countries, “the government does everything”. Generally, people who are in our camp have lived this reality. There was no possibility to experience how to decide on a local or community level, and people therefore have generally no experiences in self-organisation, because nearly everything is forbidden. Most of social work activities, as for example in Syria, have developed in times of insurrection, against the will of the authorities. However, after some events we did together outside of the camp and after all our organising efforts inside the camp, there are a lot of people who are really interested in doing some kind of work for the community or for others

What events are you talking about, developing activities outside the camp?

Our other aim from the beginning was to get into touch with the neighbours in order to build up participatory relationships and to say that we want to play a role in our new local community. One first action was the idea of some guys in the camp, they suggested we do a street cleaning day on the first of January, when the streets are still full of the remains from New Year’s. It was a total success: a lot of guys, like 40, wanted to help out, and we even had to do a second shift so that everybody could participate. The feedback from the neighbours was also really good.

Another action was for the HTW staff and students, in order to say thanks for hosting us and also for the party and dinners they had organised for us. We did an exposition for them, a collage with photos of historical and cultural sites in Syria and a little description about every one, we titled it „From Syria with love. The cultural language is the common language of the world.” It was a simple thing but it was amazing, we connected with a lot of students who asked questions about these places.

We also went to a demonstration in front of LaGeSo after there had been the rumour that someone had died waiting in the LaGeSo queues. This was not true, but it is true that people are suffering there. We don’t have to wait until someone dies. I saw people collapse from exhaustion or illness in the LaGeSo queues. When people have an appointment, it is normal to go there the night before and stand in the queue. You can imagine how this was during the winter. The security guards working there also behave very badly. Some Berlin activists organized this demonstration in January, and I went with some of our camp to participate.

There was another demonstration organized directly by the camp inhabitants, after the media reported about the events in Cologne in Silvester night. You told me that you didn’t participate. Why?

Some guys wanted to show the public that what happened in Cologne doesn’t express the attitudes of all refugees, and that they opposed sexual violence and harassment. So they wrote banners in English and German, they announced the demonstration in the camp and around and they went, like 50 people, to the Tierpark U-Bahn station. I didn’t participate because I don’t see why I should feel guilty or react to something wrong any Moroccan or Syrian or any other person does in another city far away from me. The problem is the media, which always connects criminal behaviour to one source, the refugees. I reject this category of refugees as one homogeneous group. In my opinion it promotes racism, increases isolation and leads to violence. It seems absurd to me to have to go to a demonstration in order to explain that I don’t like sexual violence. Besides, a German friend told me that sexual harassment is normal within German society and that she has been the victim of it three or four times at university, so it is nothing new in Germany.

You had another bad experience with these sorts of criminalising media images affecting your camp itself. On the 25th of February, your camp manager was injured by security guards, but the media claimed a massive brawl among refugees had been the cause. How did you confront these kinds of lies in reporting? 

It was important that we had a smartphone video made by one of the guys living in the camp proving that a security guard had injured the camp manager by throwing a heavy metal object at him from behind. Some of these guards had demonstrated very aggressive and discriminatory macho behaviour from the beginning. The conflict started when an Iranian man protested against the use of physical violence by one of the security guards. We reacted by writing everything down. Together with people from camp management, we wrote a detailed record of events and published a press release,  and later Sozdia also held a press conference. The media showed a lot of interest and we were quite successful in changing the slant of their coverage – a lot of Berlin newspapers published some sort of retraction. For the camp inhabitants, it was an experience that brought us closer together.

How do you connect to volunteers engaged in supporting your camp and the neighbourhood? Are there perspectives of politically organizing together and building alliances?

Actually, in our small camp we met a lot of volunteers working hard to improve the situation in the camp. In the beginning they brought clothes and food. Now they are still engaged, by offering German classes. Currently, the most important and also very helpful form of activity is that they support people they have established friendships with individually. However, we have to say that the capacities of volunteers are limited. What we need is a different government policy and financial support, which is not the responsibility of volunteers, who cannot change this. Concerning the neighbours more generally: We received positive feedback when we did our external events and we’ve noticed that they visit the camp more often after the events. Still, there is no stable relationship or kind of common political organizing between us and the neighbours or engaged volunteers.

Did you try to organize beyond the camp, connect with other camps or relate to older refugee struggles and the organizing structures still existing from these struggles?

We visited other camps, like one big camp nearby in Köpenicker Allee. But we did not get positive responses about working together, because every camp is so busy trying to alleviate their own daily emergencies.  We did not find people who wanted to struggle together for a more long-term perspective. Perhaps nobody believes that this would realistically bring tangible results. A general problem is that we know very little about existing organization structures here in Berlin. For example, we did not hear about the older refugee struggles. The only connections we have is with groups or organizations who come to visit the camp. Most of them are groups organizing exchanges between children or adolescents – like initiatives from schools or youth clubs.  There was also one delegation from the CDU who came to visit once, I would say on a kind of diplomatic thing.

But there is another reason why we do not think about political perspectives for organizing in the long term: this camp should be for the short term, but what they define as short term is really far too long. After three months of hard political organizing work within the camp, if someone asks me how to improve the situation, I can only tell them: The best initiative would be to close the camp. It is so absurd. The integration policies cost a lot as a long term project. Nevertheless, what is really happening in these camps in the short term, is the opposite – it is a policy of segregation, isolation and exclusion. In fact, people in our camp feel like they are still in Damascus, Baghdad or Aleppo. Why should they feel like they were living in Berlin? They still meet the same people, only much more closely, and with the difference that their former lives in Damascus, Baghdad or Aleppo were, despite war and repression, much more liberal than daily life in a camp like this.

Berlin, late April 2016

Interview by Susanne Schultz