Here to Stay (Feb 2016)
The buildings that stand along the Northern Elbe in Hamburg’s city centre blend seamlessly into the gray winter sky and concrete harbour pathways. Row after row of black, dirty beige, mud brown and charcoal exteriors, spotted with rectangular windows emitting small hopes of light through the glass. A separated highway stands between the homes and the water, raucous during the day and eerie at night.
But then, suddenly, a burst of colour. As the highway reaches St. Pauli Fishmarket, a narrow alley breaks away, lined by buildings painted as if emotions themselves made up the palette. Blue, red, yellow – the bright primary colors of childhood. The side of the most visible building is painted bright yellow, and a contrasting red anchor stands resolute: ‘HERE TO STAY’, it reads.
This cobblestone street has become home to refugees, and they’ve painted beautiful graffiti on almost every flat surface possible. Outside one of the buildings, a group of young men stand together. Hands in pockets, they shuffle their feet, throw a joke to a buddy in Arabic, look out to the harbour, and pace back and forth. They’ve been hanging around the same place most of the day, without much to do.
Germany has accepted over a million refugees, including people fleeing Syria, but once they arrive in cities like Hamburg the challenge is no less daunting. Many refugees in Hamburg are idle. The first order of business is to simply wait. Wait for a complete asylum application, wait for job finding services, wait for a work permit. Even if someone speaks fluent German, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to get started right away. There’s a huge backlog of asylum applications to process and naturally everything is moving slowly.
The sun has set on the end of the week, but a young woman is still hard at work. On the first floor of one of the painted buildings, she sorts miscellaneous donations. Seriously miscellaneous: a pillow, a pair of sneakers, a 1-metre-diameter disco ball and hanging chain, an oversize clay flower pot, a pink scrunchy. Two men stand at her side, deferring the decisions to her. All three are bundled in overcoats and gloves. The men wear hats and the women wears a black headscarf wrapped tightly around her head. The room is bare – in fact, the entire apartment looks empty. The building looks almost inside out, generic beige on the interior and all the personality on the outside.
A little way down the same street, two men have created a fort of cushions under a bridge. It’s only 8pm and the traffic is loud. Under thick blankets, they toss and turn on their 4-foot-high makeshift beds. The set-up looks quite permanent, at least for the time being.
This is the life of many refugees: quite permanent, at least for the time being. And yet, everything about this life is in limbo: either at a standstill, or moving unpredictably.