Fatimeh and I

Fatimeh’s Not Learning German – And I’m at My Wits’ End

Various & Gould, screen-print collage, Berlin 2016
Various & Gould, screen-print collage, Berlin 2016

Since September 2015 I’ve been volunteering twice a week at the local refugee tent. About twenty families live in a tent city here in my Bavarian village; heated and under a roof, it consists of a large tent in the middle, surrounded by five smaller tents and containers for kitchens and sanitary facilities. Each smaller tent houses three families, who have to live under very cramped conditions. They have no privacy – makeshift curtain constructions divide the tents but everyone can hear everything. Many of the residents complain of headaches, probably because the permanent heating above their heads dries out their noses and throats. The Afghan family I work with are wonderful people and enrich my life, but it’s not all plain sailing. When I get annoyed with them I immediately feel unfair and arrogant, because the feeling simply doesn’t seem to fit in with my wish to help.

What is it that annoys me? The fact that we volunteers take care of everything here – and the local authorities of nothing – investing our time, collecting donations, handing out clothing, organizing activities, finally arranging the first jobs. And Fatimeh, the mother of my Afghan refugee family? She doesn’t go to the German lessons held every day in her tent, for which she’d only need to walk ten metres. It annoys me all the more because I have to keep trying hard to communicate with her.
She can’t really find her way around the village. I accompany her to doctors and the authorities but I can’t help much because she doesn’t understand me and we rarely have a translator available. When the doctors tell me important things about her illnesses, I often can’t explain it to her properly. When I see her little boys playing sport in the club we sponsor, I can’t tell her about it. Whenever I try to, despite the odds of her understanding, she smiles at me with a look that says: I have no idea what you’re talking about – would you like another cup of tea?

She wants me to adopt her son Amir if her asylum application is rejected. I can’t explain to her that that’s not even legally possible. That I don’t actually want to is another story entirely. I wish I could tell her all this. Communicating on the same level only works when people have a common language. Then they can laugh, trust, help and act together. But because Fatimeh is testing my patience so much by not learning German, I’ve been asking myself the following questions:

Are my expectations typically German?
My annoyance at her not learning German seems to reveal my expectation that the refugees should adapt to our language and culture. But how does that fit in with my ostensibly liberal views and my wish that everyone should be able to lead free lives? Does that not include accepting that people should be able to decide freely against learning the language of the country to which they have fled? Should I not set an example by learning Farsi or Dari? Yes – to build a genuine relationship with this Afghan family, I probably should.

Is it about the German performance principle?
Other volunteers have advised me to “educate” Fatimeh by only giving her attention, time or material goods when she can say something in German. But wouldn’t that be exactly what has made many Germans so arrogant – if you work hard you’re a good person, if you don’t work you’re worth less? Isn’t that absolutely crazy?

Should we really only give in order to get back?
The capitalist approach of only giving when you get something back in return is false, because it reveals that it’s obviously not a question of helping others, but about actions aiming for success and the gain that they bring. But don’t the effects of this capitalist thinking lead to exactly the madness we’re in around the world right now? 62 people own more than the rest of the world put together.

All in all, I’m very grateful for the personal experiences I’ve had so far. The refugee situation is a chance for me to mature. I’m overwhelmed by the boundless hospitality of the families in the tents, who make tea at all times of the day and night, cook food and ply me with sweets as though my sugar consumption sweetened their own waiting time. But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, people are living in tents or freezing outside of registration points and the decisions drawn out to tortuous length – which then aren’t made after all – lame and reduce the enthusiasm of those who want to help.

Today I started learning a few words of Farsi – only by phonetic spelling, of course, because I can’t read the characters. Why should I have it any easier than Fatimeh, who can’t make out the German language? That’s one of the things I’d love to be able to talk to her about – then the whole thing would feel much less like helping. Instead, it might be more like genuinely living together.

Astrid from Bavaria