December 8, day 1.
Walking with J in Spandau town centre, buying the necessities. The streets are decorated for the holidays and lined up with vendors selling various holiday fare out of wooden kiosks and carts, most of them painted in red and white with dashes of green here and there. Behind them, line up of stores on both sides. It’s mid-afternoon and a faint sunlight occasionally catches us through the gaps between buildings. The pedestrian path we’re passing through is very crowded and we are slowed by having to maneuver through the bodies standing and moving. We’re speaking in Farsi. I feel the occasional stare, but as soon as I turn to it the person looks away. Earlier, I had commented to J that I found it really strange that generally Germans avoided making eye contact. Except the immigration officer at the airport. I think he found it strange that I was smiling. That’s the other thing I’d commented on, that people did not smile even in response to a friendly smile. We overtake a small group composed of two men and a child. As we pass them, for some reason I turn around and catch the eyes of one of the men. He starts talking to me in Farsi:
ببخشید مزاحم میشم ولی چون فارسی صحبت میکنید یک سوال داشتم –
– Sorry to bother you, but because you’re speaking in Farsi I have a question.
We slow down and turn sideways toward them as we walk. He wants to know where they can get SIM cards. J, who is hosting me and has already researched the options for me, asks them how long they need it for. He says maybe for a month and adds that they have just arrived in Berlin. He also introduced the other man as his brother and the boy as his son. I say I got here last night too and my friend is helping me to get the right SIM card. J asks them if they are staying with someone who is a German resident because that person could get a better and cheaper SIM for them. He says they don’t have anybody. I ask his gently if they came as refugees. He says yes. I tell him that both J and I made a similar journey some thirty years ago. He gets more comfortable. I ask him what route they came through. From Iran to Turkey, on to Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Austria, and finally Germany. The journey has taken them 12 days. They were finally registered at the German border and encamped in Berlin. He says they had to buy Afghani documents to show because Iranians are not being let through the borders. His brother is keeping quiet and doesn’t seem very comfortable. I try to break the ice with the boy and ask him about his age and what he likes the most in all the displays. He is 8 and he likes toys the most. By now we’re at a mobile phone store. We go in and J asks about the options. She is not happy with any of them and thinks they are too expensive. We leave and walk to find another store. And then from there to another. There is only one sales person at the third store and there is a line up. I see some information on display near the counter and grab a couple of things to show to J to look at while we’re waiting. The clerk gets upset and asks me to put them down. We joke and laugh among ourselves, and wait for our turn.
As we inch our way to the sales counter, I see a couple of young men come into the store. They have dark hair and are very thin and small and clearly stressed. They come toward us and start talking to us in Farsi. It turns out they are also in the same camp as the brothers and the boy, and they too have arrived this morning. They say somebody has told them about a particular SIM card and give me a piece of paper with some writing on it. I state again that I am a visitor and don’t know German so I pass the paper to J. It’s written in bad hand, but J reads and translates it for them. “I want a SIM card and please make it active today.” One of them calls the person who had told him about the card so J can get the info from her directly. Meanwhile, I talk to the other one who has a dry cough and looks quite unwell. He is Afghani and was born of refugee parents in Iran. His Farsi accent has a faint hint of Dari. He says he also speaks Arabic which he’s learned by working in the southern provinces. I ask him if he has a cold. He says he thinks his cough is because of poor dry food he’s been eating while making his way to Europe. It was mostly canned tuna and bread. J finishes the phone conversation, talks to the sales clerk and then patiently explains the options to the guys. They all decide to get the SIM from the store we’re in. J helps them with the forms and explains the conditions. They get the SIMs.
We walk out. The young guys are nervous about finding their way back to the camp. J gives them directions. The two brothers also tell them not to worry because they’re all in the same camp and going in the same direction. But that doesn’t seem to bring more ease to the young guys. We say goodbye and wish them well. Earlier, while we were walking to the first store, the talkative brother had told me that at the borders there were some conflicts between refugees from different nationalities, and competition over getting ahead in the registration process. I also detect a class difference. From their clothing, the young guys seem to be working class poor. The brothers and the child are much better dressed in cold weather gear. They bought two SIMs for both of their phones, but the other two bought only one for one phone to share. As they walk toward the train station, the distance between them increases. J and I start in the direction that we were originally going to. It’s dark now. We’re quiet. I count the number of pan-handlers we see on our way to the Turkish grocery store. Five. They seem to be Roma or from Eastern Europe. Christmas music fills the air. So does tension. I can feel it emanating from people.
At home, J tells me about the volunteer work she’s done with groups assisting refugees. Of some 850,000 refugees who’ve arrived in Germany, over 50,000 have already been sent back. But more are coming every day. In some areas, they’re being housed in school gyms which has angered some parents because their kids are not getting their physical education. In the last elections, the far right party won nearly 12% of the votes.