Visiting Home

Afghan newcomers find an unexpected bridge to the past at a photo exhibition.

von Priya Basil

Freundeskreis Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin 2015 © Holger Biermann
An afghan girl obviously touched by the image of her homeland; Freundeskreis Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin 2015 © Holger Biermann

“I wanted to give them a piece of home.” That was the impulse behind the outing Heike arranged for Afghan newcomers to an exhibition of photographs from Afghanistan at the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin. She took some leaflets about the show to the Home in Fehrbellinerplatz, where she volunteers, and asked one of the Farsi translators to explain what it was all about. The reaction from all those who were asked was positive. The trip was on!

The following week, Heike and her friend Hend, a Syrian newcomer who is also resident at the home, headed to the vernissage accompanied by around thirty Afghanis, twelve women, three men, several babies and dozens of children – or, at least Heike confesses, that’s how it felt to her as they got on the U-bahn. “Afghan women seem to be very relaxed,” Heike observes. “They don’t fuss over their kids, enforcing discipline. They leave the kids to figure out their own order, usually the older ones keep an eye one the younger ones, and mothers only intervene if there’s a real problem. I guess that’s a good solution when you have lots of children.” Still, it’s not ideal when you’re changing trains on the underground. “I was terrified we would lose someone,” Heike says. “I was so glad Hend was there. Not only does she already know the Berlin train routes better than me, she was also great at keeping everyone together.”

Introductory speeches were still going on when the group got to the Willy-Brandt-Haus. They sat through thirty minutes of talk. Nothing was said in Farsi, Heike noted, not even hello. The Afghan ambassador, who surely noticed a contingent of his fellow country(wo)men come in, didn’t offer a greeting either.

Later, the newcomers joined other visitors, spreading out over the two floors of the show. One level was devoted to a series, by journalist Lela Ahmadzai, depicting the lives of four women in Kabul. The other displayed a collection of photos titled, Beloved Afghanistan, by Anja Niedringhaus, who died while working in the country. Heike cannot recall a single image from the exhibition. Her abiding impression from that evening is of her Afghan friends moved to tears by pictures of their homeland. She recalls how they walked around with their hands on their hearts, how long some of them sat watching the video installations, how often they said – eyes filling – “I love my country.”

The kids meanwhile were busy making their own order. They helped themselves to pretzels, and picked happily from the falafel tower, glad for a change from the food at the Home. They raced each other around the two floors and then took turns commandeering the lift. There were disapproving looks from some of the visitors, but the kids were elated. Heike, however, felt a little bad when she spotted the curator picking up bits of falafel in the wake of her little charges. “It’s easier to look at pictures of poor children, than having them around, throwing food, and eating as much as possible….” Heike reflects. At the same time, she noticed, many of the visitors were keenly snapping pictures of the little ones with their phones.

Freundeskreis Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin 2015 © Holger Biermann
The afghan children had some happy moments at the exhibition opening; Freundeskreis Willy-Brandt-Haus, Berlin 2015 © Holger Biermann

Of course, the kids were thirsty after all that activity, but drinks had to be paid for and no one had money. So they all headed to the bathrooms to drink some water and wash their hands. The way back to the Home was calmer. The older kids threw bits of pretzel to the rats in the underground, while the tired younger ones clung to their mothers who could not stop hugging and kissing Heike. “Dankeschön,” all the adults kept repeating. And they kept saying it, even weeks afterwards, every time they saw Heike.