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  • Writer's picturePetra Zlatevska

Darkness and Light. Time and Place in the life of a refugee

His body, lying flat. His arms and limbs, lifeless. This was the picture of that little boy whose life was taken by the sea, a little boy who compelled the world to sit up and take not just notice. But action. He was not just a photo. He was and always will be, a boy. His name was Aylan. His older brother Galip and his mama, they too were taken by the sea, for all the world to see. I was wondering how to approach this blog post, as I had started it a few days before the little boy’s death when news emerged of the plight of the Syrian refugees who perished in a truck at the hands of human traffickers .And now I have added in some other parts to reflect my anger, hope and pride not just as a writer, but also as a mama, at what is happening in Berlin and Germany with the tide of new refugee arrivals.

Escape at all costs

Refugees have been part of my family since I can remember.

My grandfather was a refugee, having fled a Europe in ruins. His homeland of Macedonia, once part of the Ottoman Empire then became part of the newly formed Yugoslavia (a federation of six states) following the end of the Second World War. He fled his village of Velusina in the mid 1950s,leaving behind my grandma and his three kids, as it was the time when much of his family’s and his neighbours’ large tracts of agricultural land and farms were being collectivised as part of Tito’s new 5 year plan. In neighbouring Greece, some 40km away, a civil war was raging between left-leaning partisans and those sympathetic to the right-wing colonels who had sided with the Nazis during the second world war.

I never really understood why he fled his home and family. My grandfather passed away two years ago and I wished I had asked him properly what had happened, but I always sensed it was a topic he didn’t want to delve into too deeply. I think I only ever asked him once. In his gentle manner, he simply replied “I escaped Macedonia, to apply for asylum in Greece, because doing it in Greece was the only way the Red Cross and the Americans could help me get to Australia”.

I remember the black and white photo of him with a few other men hanging in my grandparents cabinet for special china and family trinkets. They were all wearing hats and pants, as though they were getting ready for an adventure. They were proud but their fear must have been unfathomable. In my grandfather’s hand he was holding a worn leather bag with the word “United States Escapee Programme”. In a refugee camp in Greece, he applied through this programme, a legacy of the Truman Administration, designed to help resettle refugees or escapees from Soviet countries or those displaced persons who still had no where to go as a result of the Second World War. With the aid of the Red Cross, he made it to Genoa, Italy then boarded a boat bound for Sydney which would see him arrive after about 6 weeks at sea. His older brother was already in Sydney, having applied through the same programme.

In the few years he worked in Australia, he’d worked hard in several factories,learned basic English and saved enough to buy a house AND pay for the boat tickets for his wife and 3 kids to join him in Sydney, having not seen them for about three years.

Just one chance

Fast forward to August 2015.

His name is Eber.He had the softest, loveliest brown eyes you could imagine. And he had had some funky dance moves and made the yummiest hummus I had ever tasted. Eber was about 23 years old and I met him at my brother in law’s beach wedding a few weeks ago up on the Baltic Coast in the quaint sea-side town of Weissenhaus Strand. Eber was a guest of sorts at this wedding. He was a foster son of my sister-in-law’s aunt and uncle.

“Look, I’ve got a young boy here. Syrian. Been here about 8 months. He’s got a lot of promise, very motivated, smart. Eager to learn but his brother’s kind of lost the plot in here. Do you think you could help out for a few months by taking him to live with you? ”

This was more or less the conversion that took place in around Spring 2015 between the manager of the Fluchtlingsheim in Hamburg and a friend of his, my sister-in-law’s uncle. Let’s call the uncle Frank. So Frank and his wife decided to foster Eber and give him what so many other young people coming to Europe, escaping trauma,death and persecution have left behind – a loving family. I was so fascinated by Eber’s determination to be a boat captain and how his dream was to make it to Hamburg so he could be close to the ocean. He told me in near-perfect German how after only 8 months of living in Hamburg, he felt like he was making it.

That he was doing what he knew he could always do, because he only had one chance.

I didn’t dare ask him about how he got to Germany as I didn’t want him to think about that during the wedding. But Eber did tell my husband the horror of his escape from Syria to Germany and that his brother had kind of lost his mind whilst at the refugee shelter in Hamburg.

I was too absorbed by his experiences to even think about asking if we could take a selfie, it felt silly and childish. I kind of wish I had. But am also happy I didn’t because I don’t want him to feel like he was some kind of museum curiosity so I left it at that.

It was as if this was going to be the Summer of signals. After meeting Eber, then came news of the refugees trying to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, and the loss of yet another boat on the Mediterranean off the coast of the italian island Lampedusa, recounted through these amazing mini-documentaries filmed by an Italian journalist.

I feel like I have been watching something momentous unfolding in the last weeks.

Then came the horrific news of a truckload of 71 Syrian refugees who perished at the hands of human traffickers en route from Hungary to Austria. People started to at least sit up. A few days later, as if the world needed the most visual and disturbing reminder to not just sit up, but take action. The picture that spurned governments around the world into action on taking more refugees.

THAT picture.

As a mother, I remember thinking when I saw this photo (that I won’t publish on my blog) how my son also wears a red t-shirt and navy shorts, how he would also sleep on his tummy and how he loves to play soccer.

That little boy could have been anyone of our kids.

When it came out that the family was on their way to Canada, despite having had their asylum application initially rejected by the Minister because they weren’t in possession of passports,mounting pressure on the Canadian government made Prime Minister Harper give a nation-wide address on what in the hell happened.Likewise, in Britain, based on a public petition of Britons who believed that the UK should be taking more refugees than they currently are, Prime Minister Cameron bowed down and agreed that the UK would take on several thousand more refugees .

Right Place, Wrong Time

In my home country of Australia, a country which in the last decade or so has had a policy of turning back boat people and processing refugees who do enter Australian waters in off-shore processing centres, such as Nauru or Manus Island where there have been reports of abuse and violence against the detainees (note they are never referred to as refugees). This recent New York Times editoral singled Australia out for its inhumane treatment of refugees. Yet it is as though the world needed the cachet of an international publication to vindicate what many in the Australian public have been feeling for a long time.Ironically, Australia has a great record , third in the world for its refugee resettlement programme, that is, the refugees who come via the UNHCR system who are processed and documented before they arrive in Australia.

Australia was in fact one of the original proponents of the 1951 UN convention on Refugees and I remember feeling proud back in my international law class during law school.Now I often wonder what is the good of treaties, conventions, legalities, regulations and protocols when in the current situation, all these people need is some basic dignity.And hope.

I feel that as the grand daughter of a refugee, the compassion and generosity shown before this ridiculous and inhumane policy was introduced is sadly, gone. The original “boat people”, those escaping communist rule in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s were welcomed to Australia without the harsh measures that are in place today. So many of these boat people have since become successful doctors, lawyers, politicians and business people within the Australian community.

Thankfully, a large proportion of the Australian public is for accepting refugees and many vigils were held around Australia in memory of Aylan, drawing attention the fact that people welcome refugees.Since 2014, Australia accepted 11,570 resettled refugees which made it first on a per capita basis. However, this process provides protection to only a limited number of refugees each year and as UNHCR points out, “resettlement needs routinely far outstrip numbers of places made available” and that “Fewer than one per cent of refugees will ever be able to access a resettlement place.”

After the tragedy of Aylan and his family, the Australian government as of 9 September pledged to take 12,000 more.

Dark and Light

In Berlin, however, the wave of refugees this summer has become real for us ALL. Very real. My neighbours just last week hosted a Syrian husband and wife with two kids because the local health/social authority had to kick the family out of their temporary housing for 3 nights due to the IFA gadget fair in Berlin.The situation currently in Berlin and Germany, where you see refugees on your doorstep probably would never arise in Sydney, because people who are arrive by boat are invisible,away from the public eye and “processed” like cattle in off-shore “centres”or they are housed in immigration detention centres outside of Sydney like this one.

The recent burning of an emergency asylum shelter by neo-nazis in the town of Heidenau near Dresden prompted the visit of Chancellor Merkel and incurred her wrath that these people were “trying to spread their messages of hate around a refugee camp.” President Gauck spoke of a “dunckles Deutschland” a “dark Germany”.

But the people of this city have banded together – and it surprised me. And made me proud. People have been donating everything from food, to clothes, to prams and their time as volunteers at the emergency shelters. And the latest temporary refugee shelter is in Wilmersdorf, in a former council building and housing some 400 people from Syria, is about 900m away from where we live. Over the past weekend with the arrival of thousands of refugees from trains headed from Budapest or simply those who walked the 10 hours from Budapest to Vienna en route to Munich, images have again been flooding social media of families who are at last, at peace.

I personally never thought Berliners or Germans as being particularly interested in charity, as the State takes largely care of EVERYTHING and EVERYONE through generous welfare support. It is a kind of absolution for not having to worry about someone in a more precarious situation than your own. In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve rarely met anyone who willingly donates money, or raises funds for cancer, kids illnesses or any cause really. It’s a city where many people are struggling with their own problems. Charity and philanthropy are perceived as hobbies of the rich.Yet this crisis has transcended politics and class, people are helping where they can, when they can.

It’s funny how you can feel proud of a place where you were not born and have only lived a relatively short time, in comparison to the rest of your life. Yet this is a place where there is so much history coupled with sadness in every suburb, at every corner (in my own suburb of Schöneberg the daily reminder of the 6 million murdered Jews is through the lovely Stolpersteine golden bricks on the footpaths initiative). You can’t really right the wrongs of the past. But you can certainly try. Germany has not forgotten its moral imperative to help.Merkel herself has spoken of doing “what is right and moral”. Just a few days ago, there was bi-partisan support from all German political parties in the Bundestag to increase the budget for the refugees and housing them to 6 billion Euros.

There is that lovely German word “Mitmenschlichkeit”.


And that is the best and sometimes, the only thing, we have to offer.

Some great Berlin-based initatives if you want to help:

Start with a friend : a kind of a humanitarian matchmaking service enabling volunteers to register online to help a refugee with tips for how to navigate bureaurcracy, provide them with addresses for medical or other appointments or just have someone to chat to.

Lageso (health and social department for Berlin) If you want to donate clothes,food etc or phone (030)90229-3040

Moabit Hilft community-run emergency assistance for the refugee shelter at Moabit

Wilmersdorf Hilft community-run emergency assistance for the refugee shelter at Wilmersdorf, where you can also sign up to take on a volunteer shift at the shelter



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