Coming Together in the So-Called Refugee Crisis

Coming Together in the So-Called Refugee Crisis
A Collaboration Among Refugee Newcomers,
Migrants, Activists and Anthropologists in Berlin
Nasima Selim, Mustafa Abdalla, Lilas Alloulou,
Mohamed Alaedden Halli, Seth M. Holmes, Maria Ibiß,
Gabi Jaschke and Johanna Gonçalves Martín
ABSTRACT: In 2015, Germany entered what would later become known as the ‘refugee crisis’.
The Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) trope gained political prominence and met with
signifi cant challenges. In this article, we focus on a series of encounters in Berlin, bringing together refugee newcomers, migrants, activists and anthropologists. As we thought and wrote
together about shared experiences, we discovered the limitations of the normative assumptions of refugee work. One aim of this article is to destabilise terms such as refugee, refugee
work, success and failure with our engagements in the aĞ ermath of the ‘crisis’. Refugee work
is not exclusively humanitarian aid directed towards the alleviation of suff ering but includes
being and doing together. Through productive failures and emergent lessons, the collaboration
enhanced our understandings of social categories and the role of anthropology.
KEYWORDS: collaboration, engagement, Germany, productive failure, public anthropology,
refugee work
In autumn 2015, the arrival of refugee newcomers,1
primarily from the Middle East but also from Central
Europe and Africa, in Germany reached a signifi cant
peak (BAMF 2015). Berlin, the city where all the authors lived at the time, found its administrative structures challenged as they aÄ´ empted to respond to the
situation. One of the leading German newspapers,
Tagesspiegel, reported that more than 600 refugee
newcomers were being registered daily (Schönball
2015). The media predicted contradictory impacts of
migration on the economy and society. The public
perception of the involvement of migrants and refugees in violent events that autumn intensifi ed a collective sense of crisis (Holmes and Castañeda 2016).2
However, what has been referred to as the ‘refugee crisis’3
in Germany can be understood as the
expression of a diversity of positions concerning an
unknown future understood to challenge existing social and political structures, including the identity of
Europe itself (Holmes and Castañeda 2016). On the
one hand, Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture),
a term initially coined to refer to policies in favour
of the economic integration of refugees (Hann 2015;
Joff e 2015), became the framework for understanding
a large number of volunteer initiatives4
the refugee newcomers (Bochow 2015). On the other
hand, Germany experienced a rise in conservative
protests and right-wing aÄ´ acks on refugees and their
supporters (Jäckle and König 2017). Media outlets of
diff erent political inclinations reported on very different crises, eff ectively activating and interpellating
diff erent ‘publics’ (Briggs 2003; Warner 2002). But
Coming Together in the So-Called Refugee Crisis  |  AiA
|  35
to an extent, they all highlighted the uncertainty of
‘integration’ – oĞ en along the lines of cultural, ethnic
and religious diff erence. Such diff erences became
more prominent in the longer aÄž ermath of the 2015
‘refugee crisis’.
In the intervening years (2016, 2017), the peak of
the initial enthusiasm of the Willkommenskultur was
followed by a gradual dwindling of support for the
refugee newcomers. This was accompanied by a
certain sense of fatigue on the part of the welcoming
supporters and by the mainstreaming of an antirefugee discourse in the public sphere and amongst
politicians (Vollmer and Karakayali 2018). There was,
so to speak, a Stimmungswechsel (mood shiÄž ) from
‘indiff erence to ambivalence, to xenophilia and xenophobia’ (Borneman and Ghassem-Fachandi 2017:
In the midst of debates saturated with signifi cant
uncertainty and aff ective overtones, a group of anthropologists in Berlin began thinking in September
2015 about diff erent ways to engage the issue. One of
the principal ideas involved fi nding ways of bringing together academics, activists, refugee newcomers and other diverse publics5
with the purpose of
improving, challenging and creating alternatives to
existing eff orts at ‘integration’ (Blommaert and Verschueren 1998; Holmes and Castañeda 2016). In this
article, we describe a series of encounters in Berlin
that were triggered by a co-organised event, a Sufi
music concert performed by Tümata Berlin, a local
Sufi music therapy network, for refugee newcomers.
We also describe subsequent collaborative refl ection,
analysis and writing in relation to these encounters.
A Series of Encounters
All authors of this article entered into the collaboration at various points. However, the starting point,
as mentioned above, was a public concert by Tümata
Berlin. Twenty or more refugee newcomers, the majority from Syria, aÄ´ ended the event. Amongst them
were those who lived in a shared apartment located
in the same building. One of the authors, Mohamed,
a refugee newcomer, helped organise the concert and
came with a group from the refugee camps in South
Berlin (Dahlem). The Sharehaus Refugio, an initiative
supported by the City Mission of Berlin (Berliner
Stadtmission), where locals and refugees live together
in a shared apartment building, off ered space for the
Nasima contacted Tümata Berlin and asked them
whether they wanted to perform for the refugee newcomers. Mustafa invited some of the local refugee
newcomers and helped translate the fl yers. Gabi and
Johanna helped prepare for and organise the event.
Maria circulated the fl yers and spread the word on
social media. Mohamed brought the refugee newcomers living in a local refugee camp to the concert.
Lilas, another refugee newcomer who came to Berlin
a few months earlier than Mohamed, as well as Seth,
joined the collaboration aÄž er the concert.
Immediately aÄž er the event, Mohamed went back
to the refugee camp in Dahlem. Maria went to dinner with a few Sufi musicians and members of the
audience from the neighbourhood to a local ‘Turkish’
restaurant in Neukölln. A few days aĞ er the event,
Nasima returned to Refugio to join the newcomers
in Dabke, a Syrian line dance event. On the same
evening, in another part of Berlin, Maria, Johanna
and other colleagues from the anthropology department of Freie Universität Berlin aĴ ended a public
lecture by Arjun Appadurai in an overcrowded
room, which considered ‘traumatic exit’, narratives
of identity, and the ‘ethics of hospitality’ (Appadurai
2015a). Mustafa was in Cairo but was in communication with the organisers before, during and aÄž er the
event. Seth was waiting at the German consulate in
San Francisco trying to return to Berlin, as he had
been forced to leave due to irregularities in his immigration paperwork. Gabi continued to coordinate
refugee-welcoming initiatives in Brandenburg and
started to learn Arabic

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