Like an Old Married Couple

“I don't see Ahmad as a refugee anymore. I simply told myself to ask a friend if he’d be down to live with me”, says Fabian Winkler. In December 2015 Fabian and five of this flatmates turned one of his parents’ former houses into a shared-living space. Ahmad Ibrahim is one of his flatmates. He is Syrian and one of the more than 4,500 new asylum seekers that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees registered for the city of Bremen in 2015. Because Bremen is pushing past its quota of how many people it can care for – according to senator for social affairs Anja Stahmann – private households could not only be a viable solution for the housing problem, but also serve as a first step towards integration. 

Shared Living: Intense Characters Cross Paths 

Ahmad and Fabian in their living room. Photo: Lukas J. Herbers.

Fabian works as a volunteer helping refugees in Bremen. The 26-year-old supports the 90 different shelters in the Hanseatic city. His and Ahmad’s paths crossed in one of these shelters. After meeting each other in the camp, they began meeting privately, which resulted in a close friendship: “some people say we’re like an old couple”, says Fabian. Although Ahmad can't attend university in Bremen like he could back home, the 30-year-old sports student does take part in student life. The things he does during the day varies considerably – cooking get-togethers, participation in football clubs, and university projects, just to name a few. Of course there are the usual issues associated with shared living spaces: “we’re both intense characters with a lot of potential for conflict”, says Ahmad, laughing.

The One-Bedroom Flat: Everyone RSVPed but no one shows up

Wael Shaban has been in Germany for the past 13 months. The 29-year-old’s face is beaming as he tells of having completed the B1 language certificate. A Syrian friend of his helped him get a flat on the first floor of a block of flats. It’s small and cosy. Since November 2015, he has been calling Bremen his home. But the beginning was hard, he says. “I introduced myself to the neighbourhood and invited my neighbours to dinner. They RSVPed. I went shopping and cooked a Syrian meal, but no one showed up”. In meantime he’s built up contact with one of his neighbours. He also met an older woman at church; they even cooked together during Christmas. “Living alone also means feeling lonely. But in spite of that I still feel welcomed. Some people simply don't have much contact to their immediate neighbours”, says the doctor from Syria.

Wael in his living room. Photo: Lukas J. Herbers.

The Sublessee: Private Space Despite Shared Living

“They're like a family to me”, says Abdou O. The 30-year-old has been living in Germany since November 2015. The majority of that time since then he spent in collective housing. But since the end of January 2015, he's been living in a granny flat in Rebecca Aleff and her wife’s house. Expressing relief, Abdou tells of how happy he is to have a private space. Naturally there are interesting situations that arise because of cultural differences, says Rebecca who, grinning, continues: “there are moments, for example, when both wait in front of the door until the other walks through it, or when he won’t let me carry my own bags, even though I'm used to being self-reliant”. They don't have a lot of experience living with other people, but Abdou is confident: “there isn't anything that can't be resolved through discussion”. Moreover, Rebecca spends a lot of time volunteering her time to refugees. “It’s not a matter of ‘we’re helping you’, but rather ‘we’re doing something together’”. For the 32-year-old, communication and doing things together are the key to a functioning society. 

Staying with a Friend, German Lessons from the Neighbour

Soumar Abd Ullah, like Ahmad and Abdou, comes from Syria. He was lucky, because after speaking with the central reception centre for asylum seekers and refugees, he was immediately able to move into his friend’s private flat. They’d met each other through a mutual friend in Turkey, and soon after they developed a friendship. He’s been living with her in Bremen since November 2015 and enjoys living together. “The neighbours’ willingness to help out is enormous”, says the 29-year-old. One of his neighbours even offered to give him German lessons. Fitness training, spending time with friends and learning German – he always has something to keep him busy. Even generally, Soumar is content with his living situation and sees his flatmate as a good friend with whom he has good times, despite not sharing any of the same hobbies. About living with a woman, Soumar says jokingly, “it’s always clean”. But of course he also helps out with the household. It’s all about give and take.

All Together: Finally Living

Origin is a secondary concern for Ahmad, Wael, Abdou, and Somar in their current homes. But Ahmad says this isn't the case everywhere: “I see a lot of racism. I remember going out with a bunch of friends and me being the only one who had to open up my bag at the entrance”. Incidents like this aside, all four are happy in their new homes. That beautiful moments prevail mentions Fabian: “one time we were sitting on a couch in a bar. Ahmad turned to me and said, ‘I finally feel like I'm living’”.

You can read more in “Together in a Small Space” about what it's like to live in refugee housing. You can see in this video how love can blossom out of a friendship.

Anna Warda & Lea Stratmann
17 years old, Oldenburg & 16 years old, Hildesheim
. . . think living together is an essential form of integration.