Stiff upper lip and huge doses of patience

Mohammed, 33 from Aleppo Syria, in my flat, Berlin-Kreuzberg

Mohammed has arrived and is angry. Very angry. I know, because he is using swear words, even without apologising like he usually does before he says them. I cannot complain because I am sure he has picked up some of this colourful vocabulary from me. I have been swearing a lot over the past six months because even though there are many things to be happy about in 2016 Berlin, there are many more things to swear about. Take the office of health social security – LaGeSo – the place in Berlin where all new arrivals have to wait everyday sometimes even for months, often overnight in the cold, to get accommodation vouchers and money for food. Due to this disgusting situation that sees no sign of easing it is no longer possible for me to mention “LaGeSo”, without using a fixed prefix of a very bad swear word.

Whilst Mohammed stands in our hallway removing his warm second-hand Red Cross shop bargain coat and sturdy second-hand Caritas bargain boots, he elaborates on the latest problem he has had to face since arriving in Berlin almost eight months ago. And this really is a big one. It appears that the law being discussed for ages by politicians in Germany has just today been passed. “Asyl Packet II” includes new measures restricting people like Mohammed from inviting family members to join them.

His wife Maha and two-year old son mean the world to him, but he hasn’t seen them for nearly a year. I can’t even bear to try to empathise with him about this because the pain of separation they are suffering is far too much, and I really cannot spend every day crying about the awfulness of this. I guess like so many refugees and friends of refugees we all have to maintain some resemblance of “stiff upper lip” or whatever the German version of that is because we would all go to pieces otherwise. Up until now Mohammed has played the waiting game very well, requiring huge doses of patience and hoping every day for a letter to confirm his asylum has been processed. Unfortunately he regularly meets people who arrived after he did and hears they have got their asylum request processed. Where relevant, these people can finally start the family unification process. On his regular visits to me after his daily German lesson, he updates me with so-and-so who got their asylum and I can see it is always a kick in the teeth for him. We talk longer, often making a new plan or writing another letter and he always bounces back somehow able to remain positive despite everything. This time is different. I am unable to maintain my stiff upper lip but instead of crying I actually feel physically sick. Sick because I feel the knife turning, the salt in the wound, the straw breaking the camel’s back – any number of cliché sayings fit the bill. As he stands in my hallway telling me about this heartless change in the law I can see in my mind’s eye hundreds and thousands of other people behind him, somehow also fitting into my hallway, all of whom will also be devastated. That is why I feel sick. The last morsel of hope for all these people has just been extinguished. How will this help them get on with building a new life for themselves? How will this help the women and children stuck in war zones and refugee camps, waiting for a legal and safe passage to join their partners?

We sit down among the chaos of our flat (he is actually here to help us paint our living room) and he curses Merkel for inviting him to Germany in the first place and wishes that “excuse me for swearing ?!*”ing-Immigration Ministry” didn’t still have his passport so he could go somewhere else. I listen, and later risk defending Merkel –  saying that I still respect her stance – in fact she saw no alternative to her humanitarian response to the refugee crisis. However she probably expected that other countries would follow her brave, common sense lead but unfortunately the opposite has happened and we are arguably seeing a rise of right-wingers all over Europe. The fact that no other countries in Europe have made a significant contribution to solve this problem (apart from Sweden) means it is inevitable that Germany will have to make some U-turns. Had other countries chipped in maybe Germany would carry less of the burden, instead Germany is doing it all pretty much alone.


After a few hours of what I hope is therapeutic painting in our living room he is finished and I ask him if he has told Maha the bad news yet. Fearing her reaction he has avoided talking to her all day. Finally they talk and as I have got used to my small flat being filled with the sound of musical sounding Arabic conversations I tune out and continue my work. Suddenly though, Mohammed gives his phone to me and I am live with Maha in the Middle East. I feel so bad and I don’t know what to say – this time I am out of the solutions I normally offer to boost her mood and curb her worry. But she surprises and amazes me. “We must not give up we will keep going and I do not want to hear talk like this again from Mohammed, because there is always hope”. I feel guilty about our previous hopelessness and despair and I am again in awe of the strength and resilience of the people I am meeting who, in the face of the most desperate situations, manage to remain sensible and strong.

Later on, standing at the front door when we’d already said goodbye, but as is so often the case we continued talking for at least another thirty minutes, he tells me he’d been pondering on our earlier conversation about Merkel: “The more I think about it, the more I believe that men are the source of so many of the problems in the world. Look at Merkel – she welcomed the refugees and it is mainly macho men who have voted against helping refugees. Plus, it is men who are fighting and causing all the wars in Syria and other places. Meanwhile who are the people helping refugees everyday in Germany? It is nearly all women”.

As he leaves he adds, “men are, excuse-me-for-swearing, bastards”.