Lost hope at a German refugee shelter | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.04.2016
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Lost hope at a German refugee shelter

Cabin fever in a refugee shelter: Six months after having fled Syria, the initial relief felt by Syrian refugees has been replaced by a feeling of hopelessness.

"It is like a jail here," says a Palestinian woman. "There is only German food, but we are Arabs," adds another one. "What will we do for Ramadan?" she asks. A 14-year-old girl complains, "When I play with my cell phone, they tell me to be quiet. But why?"

Cabin fever in Bornheim, near Bonn, Germany: In front of a school, refugees are complaining about living conditions, supervision by social workers and the constant uncertainty about how long they will live in the school's gymnasium.

Around 80 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Palestine reside in this accommodation facility. Several of them are camping out in front on the street to protest. Among them is Iraqi refugee Bashar (pictured below). He can no longer stand it in the shelter. "I am 26," he says, "but since I have been here, I feel like an old man."

Death threats from Shiites

In Iraq, he worked as an ophthalmologist until his mother discovered a threatening letter together with a loaded firearm in front of her house. It was signed by a Shiite resistance organization.

"We thought we would find hope here but where is it?" asks Bashar. He looks disillusioned. For six months, he and his family have been living together in a room in the gymnasium - he estimates less than 25 square meters for six people. On his cell phone, he shows pictures of bunk beds. The rooms are separated only by construction site fences. He sleeps all day because he does not know what else to do. At night he lies awake.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge in Bornheim Bashar Flüchtling aus Irak

Bashar, from Iraq, says he feels like 'an old man'

Eva-Lotta Brakemeier is a professor at the College of Psychology in Berlin, where she heads a project for refugees with mental disorders. She explains how people feel after they have lived for months in a confined space. "They have cabin fever."

"At first, most refugees in Germany are relieved that they have survived civil war and flight, and are safe here," says Brakemeier. "But this relief quickly yields to the feeling that they have no privacy."

A lack of daily routine reinforces this impression. When jobs are gone, other meaningful tasks are lacking and they feel lonely, people are just left with the role of being a refugee and they cannot do anything but wait. "Many are depressed, sad and desperate; they begin to ruminate," says Brakemeier.

Living with boredom

Rainer Schuman from the press office of the town of Bornheim has difficulties understanding the migrants' complaints. "There is a leisure program," he says. "It ranges from sports and organized excursions to soccer or basketball games to language courses." In the gym, there is also a bulletin board where residents can find out about activities. A common room opposite the home is available to them.

Members of the press are not allowed to enter the gym without the city's permission. The outdoor area is visible from the main road: a small gravel yard with a single bench on it. In the morning, that is where children play with a doll whose head has been torn off. Women sit leaning on a construction fence and chat.

'Life here is bitter'

"If it were just me, I could live like this," says Bashar. "But my family cannot stay here." The situation is worse for Ahmed, who suffers from diabetes, says Bashar. Ahmed clutches his sister's arm tightly. He is emaciated and pallid.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge in Bornheim Flüchtlinge vor dem Rathaus

Many refugees spend all day at city hall hoping to get an apartment

Once a week, staff members of a Catholic support service that supervises the shelter take him to see a doctor, says Bashar. But he needs an environment in which there are no children running around him and meals that do not consist of bread, cheese and salami every day.

Bashar is disillusioned with life in the home for asylum seekers. His roommate Ahmed is completely discouraged. In Arabic, he says, "Life here is bitter. I would rather have stayed in Syria and taken the risk of dying."

Preventing psychological disorders

Everyone's nerves are on edge in Bornheim. The spokesman from city hall, Schumann, declares emphatically that every resident who has problems can approach a municipal social worker. "Ultimately, the social welfare service decides who will be housed where." They are aiming to accommodate as many people as possible in apartments.

Psychologist Brakemeier emphasizes that many people give high priority to having a home, especially after a month-long escape. "In Germany, if we succeed in finding adequate housing for refugees more quickly, we could prevent mental health problems, conflicts and suffering, and also optimize the integration process."

That is why Bashar and the other gym residents make their way to Bornheim's city hall every day, looking for answers and prospects. When asked how long he has to live in the gym, Bashar categorically says, "I am not going back there. I will wait at the social welfare office until they have found an apartment for me and my family."

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