Candyfloss for refugees

Jan-Jonathan Bock
October 22, 2015
Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

‘Is there anybody here who would like to help me clean this?’,  shouts the young male volunteer in the grey Hugo-Boss tracksuit, lifting  the pink base of a large candyfloss machine into the blue sky above  Berlin’s Sehitlik mosque. His fellow helpers briefly look at him, shake  their heads, and carry on with their own errands. Nobody answers his  call. The young man shrugs his shoulders and continues alone. The other  members of the mosque’s youth group are too busy carrying boxes,  unwrapping presents, and erecting trestle tables, to put the finishing  touches on their Willkommensfest (Welcoming Party) for refugees.

The Sehitlik mosque is probably Berlin’s most impressive Islamic  prayer house. Despite its recent inauguration in 2005, the mosque’s  architect chose the finest 17th-century Ottoman design  elements, and completed the enormous building with a large dome and two  elegant minarets. 1,500 Muslims pray at the mosque most Fridays. Two  centuries ago, a Turkish cemetery was established here, to allow  traditional Islamic burials for Ottoman diplomats. Then, the grounds  were at the edge of Berlin; today, the area is situated between Berlin’s  trendy Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts, close to the city centre.

Among Berlin’s Turkish Muslims, this has become an important place  for religious and social encounters. On the small square in front of the  mosque – framed by a low hedge surrounding the old graveyard, a  teahouse, and the community’s picturesque, half-timbered culture centre –  one often finds older men playing cards and talking politics.  Adolescent men and women offer daily tours of the mosque. Up to 30,000  members of the public – Berliners as well as tourists – are shown around  the building every year. When German TV stations cover Islam-related  issues, the Sehitlik mosque regularly appears on screens across the  nation.

The first generation of Turkish immigrants to Germany, who arrived  during the postwar economic boom years, set up hidden prayer rooms in  inconspicuous backyards. Today, the Sehitlik mosque makes a different  statement: the children and grandchildren are not lacking in cultural  self-confidence, and many of them want to be able to live their faith  and culture visibly proudly, in a matter-of-fact way. They welcome  visitors, and enjoy explaining Islamic culture and what it means to be a  German Muslim.

On the last Sunday of September, the mosque community is preparing to  receive a special group of visitors: refugees from shelters across  Berlin. Volunteers have organised private and public transport to the  venue, despite an exceptionally difficult traffic situation caused by  the Berlin marathon. Stretching from the main prayer hall to a small  teahouse, a row of trestle tables is covered in piles of trousers,  shoes, jackets, copies of the Quran, and prayer rugs, all donations from  community members. Above the tables, a large yellow banner shows  multi-ethnic children holding hands. Balloons are flying in the  background, and a clown waves enthusiastically. Prominent letters read: ‘Eid Mubarak’ or ‘Blessed Festival’.

Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

Just in time for the arrival of the first refugee group, the young  Muslims store away the remaining cardboard boxes. Accompanied by  volunteers, the men walk straight to the washroom facilities – a ritual  they remember from their home countries. Most of the refugees are from  the Middle East, predominantly Syria and Iraq, but also from  Afghanistan, North and Central Africa. Noticeably, many of them are  young men, often teenagers, but there are also a few dozen families.

Slowly, the space in front of the mosque fills up. Ender Cetin, the  chairman of the mosque association, claps his hands and invites everyone  to gather around him. In Germany, Islamic faith communities are usually  registered associations (eingetragener Verein), run by a chairman and management (Vorstand).  They do thus not have the same status as Christian churches (the only  exception being some Ahmadiyya communities). Cetin, a youthful Berliner,  whose parents once left Turkey for Germany, leads the Sehitlik  community. Accustomed to media attention, he nonetheless appears a  little shy addressing his guests in English. He opens his arms widely:  ‘I am the chairman of this mosque. Welcome!’ He explains that his  community is very proud of the mosque, which he considers one of the  most beautiful in the world. He adds, however, that ‘it is also your  mosque. It is open to everyone, everyday, until the evening.’ His  deputy, Süleyman Kütük, translates the warm words of welcome into  Arabic, which many refugees acknowledge with timid, but cheerful, nods  and smiles.

In a large basement below the women’s prayer hall, the mosque’s youth  organisation has arranged a plentiful banquet. Refugees, local  believers, and helpers from the various shelters eat together at seven  long rows of tables. An army of helpers carries large trays with pasta,  rice, meat, and baklava through the crowded space. There are bottles of  water, bread, and ayran – a salty yogurt drink – placed on dozens of  tables.

In the middle of the room, three male Beninese adolescents sit  together. Having already finished their generous portions, they find  themselves in luck: a helper with a light blue headscarf generously  distributes even more sweets. The three fill their coat pockets and  smile secretly. After a brief conversation in French, they return  upstairs. ‘Tschüss’, they say – German for ‘goodbye’.

The atmosphere in the enormous basement hall is relaxed and even  resembles the beer festivals that southern Germany is famous for – just  without the alcohol. Conversations in basic German, English, French, and  Arabic can be heard. Many refugees have started German language lessons  in their shelters, and are in equal measure apprehensive and eager to  try out some new words and phrases. I am surprised to find that  Mihriban, one of the young organisers, is disappointed by the event  turnout. ‘We had expected more people and catered for 300 guests,’ she  explains, ‘but now there are only around 100 refugees. When we arrived  at one shelter to pick up more, people had already left for another  refugee picnic at Tempelhof.’

As a refugee in Berlin, one faces a tough choice between a number of  events today. Next to the Sehitlik mosque, the runways of the defunct  Tempelhof airport – a 1930s construction now squeezed between urban  neighbourhoods and thus unfit for commercial aviation – have been  reopened as a gigantic urban field, three times the size of London’s  Hyde Park. This Sunday, a Berlin grassroots initiative has invited  refugees and Berliners alike to a picnic in the northern corner of the  park, complete with free food, music, and translation services.  Thousands attend the event, using a specifically designed smartphone app  that connects Berliners with refugees based on shared interests and  proximity. Hundreds of people that might otherwise have joined the  nearby Sehitlik celebrations have come here instead.

In the Sehitlik mosque, however, a few empty chairs do not dampen the  vibrant spirit. After a brief prayer of thanks in German and Arabic,  the guests are invited to help themselves to clothes and other  donations. The sun is still shining and refugee families happily stuff  donations into blue plastic bags. For the children, volunteers have  prepared hundreds of gift baskets with sweets and toys. In one gazebo,  young women paint calligraphic patterns on the hands of countless  children.

The now clean candyfloss machine is also working, operated by  volunteers in bright blue aprons that show a stylised image of the  Sehitlik mosque. Having delicately grasped the lower part of the wooden  stick that is free of candyfloss coating, a young Syrian produces a  wallet from his pocket and attempts to pay. ‘No, it not free’, says the  volunteer as he shakes his head and smiles broadly, already fixated on  the next stick he is circling around the inside of the machine’s drum.  ‘Ok, so how much is it?’, the refugee insists, confused by the  contradictory messages. ‘Oh, no, it free. No pay!’, corrects the  volunteer with an even larger smile, slightly embarrassed. ‘You should  learn more English,’ the Syrian jokes, winking and sliding the slim  leather purse back into his jacket. He wanders off with his large  portion of candyfloss, and everyone laughs.

I approach him to ask where he picked up his English. He introduces  himself as Hassan, seventeen years old, and explains that he learnt it  through US films, music videos, and YouTube channels. Since he is  underage, Hassan has come to the mosque as part of a larger group,  accompanied by a French minder who speaks fluent Arabic as well as  German and English. With his teenage friends, Hassan lives in a hostel  about half an hour from the mosque. His mother and sister are still in  Syria; he does not mention a father. Hassan is tall and wears his long,  dark hair slicked back, fixed with a red baseball cap. His face looks  much older than that of a seventeen-year old. Being able to visit a  mosque again means a lot to him: ‘when I stood in the washroom and  people were speaking Arabic around me, it felt like being back home in  Syria. In the mosque I feel comfortable. I want to stay in Germany and  study computer science’. Hassan offers me some candyfloss before he  shakes my hand confidently to say goodbye. His French custodian wants to  return to the hostel.

The debate on refugees in Germany has recently focused on the  contribution German Muslims could make in facilitating the integration  of newcomers, purportedly since they are better equipped to support  fellow Muslims – or, as Germans call it, their brothers and sisters in  faith (Glaubensgeschwister), insinuating a sense of duty and  assumed commonality usually reserved for the immediate kin group. ‘This  is one of the questions that people have been asking during our public  mosque tours recently’, Ender Cetin reveals, ‘are we happy that so many  Muslims are coming to join us in Berlin? A strange question. When people  need help, you don’t ask them about their religion first.’

Cetin expresses some frustration with the ways in which the media has  been covering the involvement of this and other Muslim communities.  ‘The other day, a national broadcaster called to schedule an interview  about the commitment of our youth group. But they didn’t really want to  speak about volunteer work. Instead, they asked me whether there are  radicals and extremists among the refugees who want to carry out  attacks. I mean, I don’t know, it’s such a far-fetched assumption. Why  would you focus your coverage on that?’ Despite such disheartening  experiences with sensationalist media coverage, the young Muslims of the  Sehitlik community have taken up the challenge and organised a very  warm welcome for refugees. Today, they focus on showing their solidarity  and care.

In the magnificently decorated Mosque, the Consul General of Turkey,  Ahmet Basar Sen, addresses the crowd of refugees and explains the ways  in which Germany’s Muslim communities can help them, not simply because  they share the same faith: ‘there are many people in Berlin who, like  you, arrived in this city as strangers. They brought their families  along as well, and eventually turned this place into their new home.  These people understand the difficulty of your situation, and they have  built the infrastructure to help.’ However, he also emphasises the  central importance of learning German. ‘The overwhelming majority of  Turks in this country speaks German. They show that it is possible to  learn the language.’

A few dozen refugees listen thoughtfully to the Arabic translation.  Sitting next to donations-stuffed plastic bags and colourful gift  baskets for children, refugees gaze at the enormous turquoise prayer  rug, the beautifully decorated ceiling, parapets in red marble, and  calligraphic window elements breaking the sunlight. I wonder whether  they are thinking about their new lives in this country, reflecting on  experiences that oscillate between pockets of familiarity and utter  strangeness, often side by side.

In the late afternoon, the event comes to an end. Many wander across  to Tempelhof, to join other refugees for a few more hours of sunshine at  the picnic. In front of the small teahouse, the candyfloss machine is  finally turned off. Ender Cetin and members of the youth group are  discussing their experiences. ‘We did it’, one of them says, and Cetin  pats her on the back, ‘well done!’

Exhausted, a female volunteer, who studies law at one of Berlin’s  universities, sits down on a foldable bench opposite the mosque. She is  pensive, but concludes that the event is leaving her satisfied.  Nonetheless, she adds, problems remain. ‘We are a Turkish community’,  she explains, ‘but most refugees speak only Arabic. So we don’t always  know what they say, think, or feel. Sometimes it’s not easy to see  whether they are content with what we provide or do. They come, pray,  eat, and leave. It’s hard to read different cultures. It’s easier with  children – they just smile. I hope everyone had a good time.’ She  reflects on her realisation that the task of welcoming strangers and of  integrating newcomers into one’s community requires a lot of effort, on  both sides, and adds that they are planning further event: ‘We want to  invite refugees regularly to Friday prayers.’ She hesitates, and then  beams. ‘And many of us are taking Arabic lessons as well.’

Note: A shortened version of this article has appeared in German on Neukö


All by
Jan-Jonathan Bock