Monday, August 02, 2004

Shadows of Sunshinehouse-Berlin

I had to go to the Postal Customs office today, which is a whole other story I'll sauerkraut about one of these days, but on my way, I saw something remarkable.

Postal Customs is on Wexstr., way down in the Friedenau district, and the facility itself lies in the shadow of the RIAS building, where Radio In Allied Sector broadcast American propaganda and pop music for years, as well as subsidizing one of Europe's better symphony orchestras. It's a sort of nowhere part of town, with Wexstr. parallelling a big Autobahn, but with good public transportation to the rest of the city just a short walk away.

But one of the things I always dreaded about visiting Postal Customs -- besides the narcotized, xenophobic bureaucrats inside it -- was the refugee camp. Behind tall fences garnished with several strands of barbed wire, a hastily-constructed series of two-story buildings housed very scared-looking people, most of whom I assumed were refugees from Bosnia. Most seemed to be Muslim, and all were very, very poor. Burned-out autos lined Wexstr., as well as burst-open bags of garbage, and there was always at least one smashed TV, no doubt a piece of dying second-hand crap sold to someone in the camp by a fellow-countryman or one of the other low-end dealers who prey on the very poor here. There was only one way in, past a guard-house with a second barbed-wire-adorned gate between the visitor and the inhabitants. Someone had, in that annoyingly cheery German social-worker way, painted scenes of sunshine and flowers on one of the blank walls of one of the houses, but the paint faded almost immediately, and in mid-winter, it was very hard to see it as anything but an irritation, or at the very least a cruel joke aimed at the people trudging around inside.

Germany has always had a very ambivalent attitude towards foreigners, as I well know, but for many years there was a clause in the constitution here that said that anyone could come for asylum and be accepted. Just before I moved here in 1993, this clause was amended, a major triumph of the Kohl government, and the rules for asylum-seekers were made much harder. The reasoning the right-wingers used was that there were too many poor people in East Germany who hadn't been assimilated yet (yeah, and whose fault was that?) and that Germany was for Germans, like the repatriated Russian Germans, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of German Hanseatic and other merchants who'd set up trading posts in Czarist Russia and stayed. With a war on our doorstep in the former Yugoslavia, there was a potential for an unlimited flood of these poor, mostly Muslim, dark-skinned, asylum-seekers.

Not that this stopped them. After all, your country is on fire, you're going to run. You've heard that ten years ago someone's uncle got treated nicely in Germany, you're not going to stop to buy today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to see what the current situation is. So they came. And they were put in camps. And, a lot of them, they got deported. Lots of Romanian gypsies mixed themselves in with the Bosnians, too, which really got the right-wingers' backs up, and I'd see them begging with a piece of paper purporting to show their Bosnian citizenship, a fifth-generation Xerox of some document in some foreign language or another, with no photo. There was a woman who made her way with a wheeled shopping cart through my neighborhood early every morning, hitting every garbage can she could, knocking apples off the apple tree behind my house before they got a chance to get ripe, and, in blackberry season, showing up with four of her kids to denude the blackberry bushes. That's the reason there's a padlock on the garbage can for my building.

But today, Wexstr. had a surprise. It had been cleaned up a lot, and, where the camp had been, there was a sign reading Sunshinehouse-Berlin. A coat of yellowish paint had been slapped on the buildings, the mural was gone, someone had planted some flowers, and the sign also added "Rentals for construction-workers and young visitors to Berlin." Photos showed a model sitting on a bed, a small but efficient kitchen.

Yes, folks for as low as €22 per night, you can rent a tiny apartment -- 18 to 20 square meters -- in a former refugee camp, nearly all of them non-smoking rooms (which you can bet they didn't use to be), a shower stall between every two rooms, and in the middle of each complex of four, a small kitchen with stainless steel sink, electric stove, refrigerator, and cooking implements. Looking at the pictures on the website, you wonder how you could fit Mom, Dad, and four kids in one of these rooms and keep them there for years at a time. But this is where they lived.

Interestingly, the web-page shows options for German, English, Dutch and Polish, with only German and Polish being up as of this afternoon. But then, there are likely more construction workers than Dutch and English tourists looking for a place here.

Frankly, it creeped me out, because the immediate though that leapt to my mind was what had become of the previous residents. Had they been successfully integrated into German society, at least by the lights of the social agencies? Or, as was more likely, were they told that there was no more war in the Balkans, herded to Schönefeld Airport, and put on one of those cargo planes and deported? Maybe some of the ones who got to stay are working as maids and maintenance men. I've got to say, it makes the surrounding area look nicer, what with all that yellowish paint and all, but I remember when sunshine was at a distinct premium around what is now Sunshinehouse-Berlin.

And, Sunshinehouse folks? Lose the barbed wire: there's still some on the fence over on the corner by Innsbrucker Platz.

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