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Reclaiming Berlin's garden of horror

Daniel Pelz/msMarch 15, 2016

Drugs, crime, violence: Görlitzer Park in Berlin is known for it's bad reputation. Many African refugees are among the dealers in the park. Two women living in that neighbourhood are helping them quit drug dealing.

Police controls the area around Görlitzer Park in Berlin searching for drugs. Copyright: imago/Christan Mang
Police controls the area around Görlitzer Park in Berlin searching for drugs.Image: imago/C. Mang

Five men of African descent are standing right next to the entrance of Görlitzer Park, their bodies wrapped in big coats with hoods covering their faces. The sun penetrates weakly through the grey winter sky of Berlin. The dealers don't have to wait long as a young man in a grey coat passes by. A quick hand-shake, something is delivered and the man pulls a hood over his head and walks hastily away. That is everyday life at Görlitzer Park, Berlin's most notorious drug hub.

Heavy police presence and frequent raids have not solved the problem to date. Many dealers in the park come from Africa. But most of them would prefer not to be here. "We can go to the park and ask these so-called dealers but nobody will tell you that he is fond of this job", says Annika Varadinek. She owns a little cafe around the corner.

Police carry out frequent raids at Görlitzer Park in Berlin.
Police carry out frequent raids at Görlitzer Park in Berlin.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

'The guys need help'

The 29-year-old Varadinek is sipping a latte macchiato at her cafe, a young husky sits lazily on her lap. It's a totally different world from the park located only hundreds of meters away.

She has lived near the park since 2010. She and her mother like to take a walk there. It is close to their neighborhood. One day, while taking a stroll through the park, they got talking to the dealers. "Then we noticed, that many of the guys actually need help", said Annika Varadinek.

Five men are seated next to the cafe around a shaky wooden table in what used to be a store. They are busy practicing German. They take part in one of the German courses which Annika Varadinek and her mother Brigitta organize at her small association called 'Bantabaa'. The name means 'meeting point' in Mandinka, a language spoken in Gambia where most of the drug dealers working in this project come from.

German courses for African refugees are offered free of Charge at Cafe Bantabaa.
German courses for African refugees are offered free of charge at Cafe Bantabaa.Image: DW/D. Pelz

"Ich habe Bürokauffrau gelernt (I was trained as an office administrator)", reads a young man of about 20 years old. He looks unsure of what he has read. "Bürokauffrau" sounds rather like "Bürokauflaur". "Bürokauffrau", repeats teacher Marcus Gottschalk. Like the rest, he too works voluntarily at the project.

"My German is kaputt [broken]", answers a lanky guy in his mid-twenties. "I have to learn". The rest of his words are swallowed in the crowd's laughter.

Apples and celery instead of marijuana

At the end of the German course everybody heads to Annika Varadinek's cafe. Five former dealers are working here as interns. Instead of dealing marijuana, it's now fruits and vegetables. Under the watchful eyes of a French chef, they are slicing lemons, celery and apples as ingredients for a walldorf-salad.

Anthony, who prefers not to give away his real name, has been part of the project for a year. "I met Annika and her mother at the park. I told them, that I am not a criminal, I simply have to survive", Anthony said.

German courses and legal advice

Anthony is unable to work legally in Germany. He received the title 'asylum seeker' in Italy. According to the so-called Dublin III immigration regulation, he is officially recognized as an asylum seeker in Italy and therefore the Southern European country is responsible for him - not Germany. But he never wants to go back to there.

"In Italy, I had to sleep on the streets. I could not find accommodation, I had nothing to eat. It was really terrible. I realized that I do not have a future in Italy", Anthony added.

Annika and her mother Brigitta Varadinek are working towards giving other refugees a perspective. The refugee bakery at their cafe serves as an alternative to dealing in the park. The baked goods and quiches are sold at the bakery. It also offers catering services to companies.

Refugee bakery at Cafe Bantabaa. Annika Varadinek (m.) is the founder of the project.
Refugee bakery at Cafe Bantabaa. Annika Varadinek (c) is the founder of the project.Image: DW/D. Pelz

In addition, Bantabaa offers legal consultations to refugees in order to help them with their application to gain the right to stay in the country. It also supports them to find accommodation. About 50 people are benefitting from the help of the Varadinek family.

'Make an effort'

Unfortunately, in many cases, Bantabaa can only offer a short-term perspective. "Setbacks are normal. When we receive advice from experts who are familiar with Dublin III cases and they say, there is no solution for refugees - then I feel really down", said Annika Varadinek. Quite often she has to witness the deportation of refugees.

On the other hand, Anthony has a permit to stay in Germany. So he is safe. He enjoys his new life outside of the park. But sometimes he returns to meet his former colleagues. "They always encourage me and they are saying to me: "We are standing here with nothing. You've got a chance - make an effort."