Five Kilometres, Two Worlds, One Conviction

“There’s rice, a lot of rice”, says Nadine, to which Lubna laughs warmly. It’s a calm Saturday morning in the home of a family living on the outskirts of Saarbrücken. In the front one is greeted by two garden gnomes. Written on the wall: “Happiness is a home where laughter lives”. Inside Nadine, her husband, and her daughter Noelle are enjoying a full banquet breakfast with Lubna from Syria and their Peruvian neighbour. Six people from four different countries are having a lively discussion. This is an ordinary day for Nadine, and the most normal thing in the world.

Lubna and her new friend Noelle. Photo: Anna Rakhmanko.

Lubna, who first arrived from Syria in the Saxon city of Bautzen, wound up in a temporary communal-living setup at Nadine’s family home after the first eight months of being here. She has to take care of a lot of paperwork – bank documents, health insurance papers, and papers for the job centre – and of course she has to find herself an flat. But she’s beaming when she tells of her first impressions when she moved in here: “I love this house. Everything here is a work of art”. Along the walls of the spacious living and dining rooms are old wine crates turned into storage space; on the wall along the stairs hang blue squares – DIY constructions from old pizza boxes. Everything is made of glass, and the few doors there are don't have locks.

Contrasts

Just five kilometres south, in the French town of Forbach, an older Albanian woman turns on a large red crêpe oven and carefully brushes a palette with butter. She’s making Tavë Elbasani, a dish from her home, but French-style. Next to her a father of four from Afghanistan tinkers with his pot, for which he uses a frying pan as a makeshift lid. Not much is said in the narrow kitchen – a common language is missing – but every now and then they cast each other a glance that seems to communicate: “we’ll make this work somehow”.

The kitchen lies behind a “hôtel social”, as Madou* calls it. Today he’s the only one working in the building, which hasn't been a hotel in three years, but rather an emergency shelter for refugees. He’s very calm first time I talked to him over the phone, and I’m surprised: “just come by tomorrow and ring the bell, we’ll be here either way”. Unexpected openness in a region in which very little is spoken of immigration, and even less about refugee numbers.

Photo: Anna Rakhmanko.

At a first glance there’s nothing that would give away that refugees are staying in what used to be a two-star hotel. Through a neon sign at the entrance I'm made aware that free W-LAN and cable are offered here. But the reception desk is empty. The three Albanian women in the lobby point to a door that’s veiled by a heavy curtain. Madou isn't an easy person to find on this day, but when I find him, he immediately greets me and offers me a coffee. The hotel is completely booked: here 63 refugees from the western Balkans, from Armenia, and from Afghanistan share a roof over their heads.

Two worlds, one welcoming culture 

At a first glance, Nadine and Madou couldn't be any more different from each other. She’s married to a Swiss IT consultant, and decided five weeks ago of her own free will to let a young Syrian woman live with her and her. Madou has to figure out a way to manage in a hotel located in a region lacking infrastructure, and has seen dozens of families, from the western Balkans in particular, come and go over the course of his one and a half years here.

But with every double take it becomes clear that there’s a lot that connects them. Nadine and Madou are parts of a European welcoming culture, which, regardless of how different approaches may be, is build on openness, engagement, and an uncompromisingly positive worldview. A culture which – regardless of what happens in Berlin and Paris – continues on each and every day. And in which the handling of migration has become the crux of everyday life.

At the right place and time

Nadine works as a social worker, but emphasises that her profession had nothing to do with her decision to welcome Lubna into her home. The perfect circumstances simply presented themselves: Her son, 18, had just moved out, his room was empty, and she read an ad on Facebook: “I just don't think it's okay that people aren't offered places to live and that they have to live in shelters, despite the fact that there is plenty of living space here”. Lubna is officially a tenant and has all the freedoms she could need. The family tries its best to make sure that she feels comfortable and that she has opportunities to assimilate into German society.

Madou dropped out of law school after just two years: “not everyone is made for university”. A couple years later he left Paris to wind up in the province of Lorraine. But he is very satisfied with his job, can make a living, and simultaneously be involved in a social initiative. He has only very few people working together with him on site. Those who have move here – who through the French asylum system are forced to do nothing for one or tweak years – don't have anyone with whom they could play football or from whom they could learn a few words of French. Of course there are social workers who help them fill out forms, but Madou is their only point of contact to France “out there”.

Friendships and a new language

Nadine (middle) speaking with author Oliver. Photo: Anna Rakhmanko

Before the civil war in Syria, Lubna worked for many years as a journalist. Noelle, Nadine’s daughter, is in the second grade. Between them are 21 years. But today Lubna listens attentively to Noelle’s remarks – they're playing the card game Uno. Noelle pronounces the names of the colours slowly, explains the rules of the game patiently, and Lubna understands and nods. The family only speaks German with Lubna, who has been making progress and who is motivated to learn. “Language is like a wall. But Nadine has tried everything to break that wall”, says Noelle in retrospect.

If he wanted to, Madou could just sit out the remainder of his shift, wile away the time, watch television, and look at his watch every couple of hours. But I sensed immediately that that’s not his thing. There’s a large sofa in the faculty room, where he often talks with his grind Miloš* about God and the world. For the young Montenegrin, the hotel was also the first place in France where he arrived. Recently his asylum application came back with positive results, and he now holds an employment contract. Miloš disappears shortly into the back room and comes back a few moments later with a cup of fresh, dark-roasted coffee. He speaks French decently, and Madou now speaks fluent Montenegrin. Both of them have learned from each other, without a language course, without any books, but rather simply by communicating with each other and with the other hotel guests. Madou is relentless in learning something new each and every day.

Optimism

When Nadine talks about her experiences, she goes on for a long time criticising the officials, the organisations who can't seem to be capable of making the many abandoned buildings available to refugees, and the agencies that pay little regard to the lack of German language skills. When Madou share his experiences, he first falls silent and then says: “up there are politicians. Down here are simply powerless citizens. There’s nothing we can do about it”.

But all of a sudden they’re filled again with positive energy, with optimism. It isn't a limitless idealism that binds them; it’s the real-life knowledge that everything always works out somehow. And that life isn't so different than it was before.

You can read more in “Like an Old Married Couple” about the various accommodation initiatives that exist for refugees.

Oliver Mehling
19 years old, Freiburg
. . . and photographer Anna wanted to walk the five kilometres back home, before an elderly woman at the border offered to drive them back.