′Human Cargo:′ Refugees deal with trauma through art | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.11.2018
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'Human Cargo:' Refugees deal with trauma through art

Refugees from Syria and other countries are taking part in the art project "Human Cargo." The idea: Help refugees come to terms with the horrors they experienced on their odyssey — and get more Germans to chip in.

It's an unimaginable nightmare for those who haven't lived through it. Refugees who have crossed the Mediterranean to come to Europe on dinghies and wooden boats remember women and children praying. They remember making one last phone call because they were sure they would capsize and drown any minute.

On some boats, they were "stacked" in layers of five people on top of each other, so the traffickers could make more money with each trip. After all, each person paid between €1,500 and €4,000 ($1,700 and $4,500) for the grueling voyage. Up to 40 family members and neighbors collect the money to help at least one of their loved ones escape to Europe, the promised land.

Thamer, 22, from Iraq and 33-year-old Khabat from Syria, along with his wife and children, managed to survive the journey and make it to Germany after traveling through seven countries. Once there, they were lucky: After the time they spent in a refugee home, they connected with the aid organization Malteser and were able to participate in an art project. The idea behind it is to help the refugees through their trauma, but also raise awareness of their plight in order to encourage more Germans to volunteer.

Read more: Young refugees relive experiences through poetry in Germany 

Remembering dead loved ones

The "Human Cargo" art project was organized by Malteser in Ahaus, a small town in western Germany on the border with the Netherlands. On a recent Sunday in the Art Square Ahaus, several refugees were stacking wooden pallets, the kind found in cargo ships' freight holds, to create a large oval. In the center of the space they put crosses and gravestones made of plaster, which symbolize the friends and family members who lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

Human Cargo's oval of pallets with gravestones in the center (DW/W. Dick)

The pallets symbolize Europe, the gravestones stand for loved ones who didn't survive the grueling journey to Germany

Thamer's father was among those who died. Despite the loss, Thamer appeared almost cheerful while working on the installation.

Ines Ambaum, the project's artistic director, had an explanation. "Thamer is young and doesn't want to lose face," she said. "He wants to prove to the older men, especially the Muslims who keep picking on him because he's Kurdish, that he's a tough guy."  

Ambaum said that many refugees "show different faces," depending on who they interact with. But with every day that the group has been working on the installation, the men and women have opened up to Ambaum more. Each screw they drilled into the pallets brought back more memories of the horrible trip across the sea.  

Inhuman suffering

The experiences that the men and women share reveal unspeakable suffering. Some men from Eritrea fled their home country along with their sisters. To protect them, the men claimed the women were their wives. A fatal mistake.

The traffickers saw through the lie and decided to torture the families desperate to get onto their boats. They demanded that the men slept with their "wives" to be let onboard. When the Eritreans refused, the traffickers raped the women. Several of the women only discovered they were pregnant when they arrived in Germany. Some of them committed suicide. 

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Art project helps refugees process flight trauma

"When you think about the fact that the people who had to go through this are being attacked by xenophobes and chased through the streets in Germany — that's like a second rape," Ambaum said.

The art installation in Ahaus is called "Human Cargo" to point out the inhumanity that has become reality for those fleeing northern Africa. Again and again, men and women in the Ahaus Art Square cried when sharing their stories, after which the space would become completely silent.

Life-changing experience

"My life has changed completely since I started working with the refugees," Ambaum said.

She used to like flying to Paris for a day of vacation, but can't imagine doing so today: "When you see these people's fates, you lose any taste for the decadent."

Khabat, Thamer and artistic director Ines Ambaum working on the art installation (DW/W. Dick)

Khabat, Thamer and artistic director Ines Ambaum have grown close while working on the art installation

She also criticized the behavior of many Germans who would get irritated about the smallest things.

"Many problems between Germans and refugees stem from the fact that people here always have to compare themselves with others," she said.

Ambaum illustrated the issue by pointing to cell phones and the outrage that ensues when people discover that a refugee has a newer cellphone than they do. Some of her friends, Ambaum said, had complained that their tax money was being spent to pay for those phones — disregarding the fact that these phones were the only connection the refugees have to their families left behind in their war-torn home country.

Finding out who your friends really are

Ambuam is no longer friends with the people who made these comments. Letting go wasn't hard, she said. They even kicked her out of a neighborhood WhatsApp group because she invited 20 refugees to her birthday party. Her so-called friends had called the guests racist slurs and suggested she just go hang out with them.

Ines Ambaum (DW/W. Dick)

Ambaum: Working with the refugees changed my life

"I often lie in bed at night and cry," Ambaum confessed.

But she hasn't lost hope because she can see how well the refugees she's been working with have integrated into German society.

"Ninety-eight percent of them are able to fully integrate! But no one's reporting on that," she complained. "It's too positive for the press and doesn't seem to match our country's current mood. But it's true. I see it every day."

One of the people giving Ambaum hope is Khabat from Syria. After two-and-a-half years in Germany, he now works for Malteser, who helped him when he first arrived, as a truck driver — with a German driver's license.  

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