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Germany

Refugee families in Germany face isolation and hopelessness

Refugees arriving in Germany face an uncomfortable time. Housing policy often concentrates them in isolated neighborhoods like Billstieg in Hamburg, which are plagued by high crime, unemployment and despair.

apartment housing for refugees

200 more refugees will move into Billstieg in March of 2011

Thirteen-year-old Enis, whose name has been changed, has lived in the Billstieg refugee housing block in Hamburg for four years. His parents have lived in Germany for 16 years. Up until now, Enis has only ever lived in housing for refugees.

With his hands in his pockets and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his face, Enis stands in the middle of the housing block that lies in an industrial area. 450 people live here, half of whom are kids. Most of the residents come from the former Yugoslavia, every third person is from Afghanistan. Almost every balcony has a satellite dish.

"My dream is exactly the opposite of this place here," Enis says. That means less graffiti, less garbage, less ruckus.

The police are frequent visitors to Billstieg. There are regularly violent disputes among the youth here. They grow up in strictly hierarchical families in which the parents are demoralized after years of not doing anything. Most of the families here are tolerated, meaning they are not allowed to work. That is the case with Enis’ family.

Damps walls, little room

There are no name labels next to the buzzers here, just names scribbled onto the doors. There are no post boxes either; residents pick up their mail twice a day from an office. Enis lives with his parents and his three older siblings in a three-room apartment.

destroyed chair

Destroyed property litters the grounds of the apartment block

He shares his room with his older brother Agon. The 19-year-old has already had several run-ins with the police. The courts have given him a final warning. As Enis enters their shared room, he hardly looks up from the TV screen. There is a bed and a broken dresser. A door is missing, but the things inside are neatly placed on the shelves.

Enis’ two sisters, Edona and Violetta, share the room opposite. The curtains are drawn, otherwise the neighbors walking by could take a look and perhaps even break in. Plaster crumbles off the damp, cracked walls.

"We’ve often complained, but nothing changes" Violetta said.

Left alone with problems

Unlike most housing blocks, the Billstieg complex is in private hands. The public carrier serves only as the leaser. The city spends 10 euros ($14) per day on every refugee here.

In the whole apartment there is not a single chair or a proper desk.

"I wish I had my own desk," Enis says as he tries to do his English homework. He normally sits with his brother and sisters on the mattress or the bed watching television.

The door to the third room where the father lives is normally closed. He is an unemployed chain-smoker who spends his time sleeping or sitting with friends in a cafe.

"He’s never cared for us," says one of the kids.

Isolated at home

During the afternoon Enis spends his time hanging around the local shopping center. For 2.50 euros he buys noodles from the Chinese food stand there. For him that is "going out to eat."

His mother Emira has made stuffed cabbage for dinner but the family does not eat together. They help themselves over the course of the evening. Enis spends most of his time on his cell phone and eventually shuts his English book. The TV is on and his concentration wanes.

Emira has applied for a work permit five times in vain. The family has never gone on vacation and they do not have their own bank account. Emira is visibly demoralized after a life with a patriarch and without perspective. It is a life without rights, a life that is played out within four walls.

Enis normally spends his evenings at home. Twice-a-week he does go out for boxing lessons, which are offered at the small gym on the other end of Billstieg. He concentrates hard as he trains, hitting the punching bags, jumping rope and running around the gym. He’s a good student if only someone would take him under their wing.

The nights in Billstieg are short. Enis’ brother Agon already wants to watch TV at 6 in the morning. Agon says that Enis does not mind the noise. Later, Enis and his sister Violetta begin to play a karaoke game, singing "Total Eclipse of the heart" by Bonnie Tyler as a duet. It is a carefree moment in which Enis can act like a kid. But then the father comes home and fights with his mother. The kids silently listen: A normal day Billstieg.

Author: Kathrin Erdmann / sk
Editor: Rob Turner

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