(The Staying Ones. How refugees have been changing Germany for 20 years)
By Christian Jakob
4 translated chapters from "Die Bleibenden" Wie Flüchtlinge Deutschland seit 20 Jahren verändern
July 2016, 2. Edition, First publication: March 2016 ISBN: 978-3-86153-884-4
Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin https://www.christoph-links-verlag.de/index.cfm?view=3&titel_nr=884
"The first part of this book deals with this phase, the years 1994 to 2011. It is a collection of twelve portraits. Each one tells the story of an important conflict in a time when hardly anyone was interested in it."
Preface: From Hoyerswerda to the “Trains of Hope”
The more often a story is to be retold, the more beautiful it has to be, especially at the end. The story of Germany and the refugees, which was told all over the world last year, goes like this: a country that is better off than all the others has for a long time thought only of itself. About saving money and discipline. It is successful but selfish and hard. But as the misery of the world grows and everyone else turns away from the dying and the poor, this country discovers its heart. Perhaps there is also some self-interest at stake, but above all a sense of responsibility and trust in its own strength, which has made it so great. It welcomes the persecuted by the hundreds of thousands. The people in the "Trains of Hope" are applauded and greeted, with pretzels and chocolate and black-red-gold flags. The woman who transformed Germany into this open place full of confidence and magnanimity with just one single sentence is Angela Merkel. The world loves her for it, from China to Argentina. She is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and will be "Woman of the Year". The American president is celebrating her, and the people on whom the dictator Assad drops his barrel bombs held up her photo as a sign of hope.
This story is a fairy tale.
It is no fairy tale that the way this country deals with migrants and refugees has changed. It has modernised itself. This transformation has economic causes, but it is above all the work of the migrants and refugees themselves. They have not accepted that Germany did not want to be an immigration country and that it did not want refugees. They have challenged this dogma, fought for free access to Germany and in doing so have changed the entire society. This story is about self-determined migration and disobedience, about isolation and rebellion, contact with the majority society and confrontation with the state. It is told in this book.
October 2014. The Lampedusa disaster during which about 390 refugees had drowned off the island on 3 October 2013 happened exactly one year ago. The editors didn't think an article was enough. They wanted a dossier, a special edition. When all the texts were in, I sat down with a colleague at the TAZ and we were asked to write the preface. The situation was confusing: more and more people were dying in the Mediterranean, the region is in chaos, and the EU is therefore divided. The poll results of the right-wing "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) are rising, and right-wing populist parties are also gaining ground in other EU states. Interior ministers in Germany and the EU are constantly making new proposals to stop refugees, and there are refugee protests everywhere. Too much for 65 lines. What is the most important thing about this time?
"We have to write that the mood is better than in the 1990s, although almost as many refugees are coming again," I say.
My colleague is sceptical. "Back then it was 400,000, now it's only half that number," she says. "What do you think will happen when there would be again 400,000 coming? Then all hell will break loose."
I was sure she was right.
A year later, a million refugees arrive.
Unknown persons shoot at refugees or their homes, in April in Leipzig and Hofheim, in July in Böhlen, in October in Merseburg, in November in Berlin, plus there are 126 arson attacks. In 2015 the Federal Criminal Police Office counts 1.005 attacks on refugee accommodations more than ever before. It is a miracle that nobody dies. Pegida ("Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident") is the largest xenophobic mobilisation in Germany since the end of the Second World War. The AfD is becoming more radical, more ethnic-nationalistic and stronger. In the asylum policy rollback, the CSU, among other things, is pushing through new camps for fast-track procedures and restricting the right for family-reunification. It is therefore celebrating itself for the "strictest asylum law of all times" and is still far from having reached the end of its so-called reforms. Refugees have to wait for days in front of reception facilities without any care, and even in winter, municipalities only put many asylum seekers in tents.
And yet everything is still different from what it was in the 1990s.
The attacks in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Hoyerswerda and Mölln took place under opposite conditions to those in Tröglitz, Heidenau and Freital. The earlier pogroms and arson attacks were the most radical expression of a social consensus that Germany was not an immigration country. The population and politicians were of the opinion that they could enforce this. This consensus no longer exists. The right-wing terror in 2015 is taking place in a country that has finally accepted migration and migrants. The CDU also no longer wants a real stop to immigration; the immigration law which it has so long blocked, is to come. The media are on the line for promoting migration and refugee solidarity is a broad social movement, if not the broadest.
In 1992, neo-Nazis killed 34 people in Germany, including in an arson attack on the house of two Turkish families in Mölln. Federal Minister of the Interior Manfred Kanther and Chancellor Helmut Kohl (both CDU) did not attend a single funeral service for these dead. In response to an inquiry, Kohl's spokesperson said that the government "does not want to fall into a condolence tourism".
In 2012, CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a state ceremony for the victims of the "National Socialist underground" (NSU). When a still uninhabited refugee home is set on fire in Tröglitz, Saxony-Anhalt, on Holy Saturday 2015, eight hours later CDU Minister President Reiner Haseloff is standing in the village square with a megaphone in his hands. In August 2015, hundreds of Nazis attack a refugee home in Heidenau in Saxony for two nights. Afterwards, Merkel drives to the small Saxon town. She is called a "traitor of the people" there, but she visits the home.
In 1991, the magazine Der Spiegel headlines: "The onslaught of the poor" and shows a black-red-gold ark flooded by crowds of people. The Bild Zeitung opens on 2 April 1992 with the line: "Almost every minute a new asylum seeker. The tide is rising – when will the boat sink?" Three days later, 10.9 percent of voters in Baden-Wuerttemberg vote for the Republicans. The far-right party had printed the slogan "The boat is full" and the image of a full ark on its posters.
In 2015, the Spiegel never left a good hair on the Pegida movement, nor did almost all other media. When the federal government announces in summer 2015 that it expects 800,000 asylum applications in the current year –almost twice as many as in the previous record year 1992 – Bild "exposes" "the seven biggest lies about asylum seekers". It points out that they do not take away anybody's job, that they are not disproportionately often criminal and that Germany "can afford this kind of immigration not only financially, we even need it!”
One day later the Bild headline reads: "Helping refugees! What I can do now", its editor-in-chief replaces his own Twitter profile picture with a "Refugees Welcome!" logo. Many are surprised at the change of heart. But not the newspaper had changed. The society had changed, the Bild had merely sensed the mood and reflected it, how their business is.
After the Hoyerswerda pogrom, the Nazi-rock band "Störkraft" ("Blut und Ehre", “Blood an Honor”), which was highly popular with Nazis at the time, is allowed to appear in a threesome at the most important Sat1 political talk show, "Einspruch", and declare that "only those of German origin can be German". In 2015, the Facebook page of the TV-channel Sat1 is attacked by right-wingers, after its morning program is having a song recorded "for all children who come to our country", the refugees.
In April 2000, the then Green MEP Ilka Schröder proposed subsidising the people-smugglers at the EU's eastern border. Schröder wrote that their services were the only possibility for refugees to come to Europe. However, the "fees are often too high for refugees". The Green Party federal board stated that the then 23-year-old was a "child who knew nothing about practical politics" an arbitration court was discussing Schröders party expulsion, Schröder finally left the Greens.
In August 2015, the action artist group "Peng Kollektiv" launches an advertising clip calling on holidaymakers to take refugees in the backseat of their cars on their return journey from the Mediterranean. "Support people on their way to a better future " the activists demand – in legal terms this is aiding and abetting illegal entry. Spiegel Online posted the advertising video for the action on its website; Die Zeit had a professor of criminal law explain how tourists who take a refugee with them avoid punishment, and even the highly conservative public Bayerischer Rundfunk broadcaster reminded people that the escape helpers at the GDR border were after all "honored in hindsight for their courage". Shortly thereafter, the municipal Munich Kammerspiele theater organised a "Schlepper und Schleuserkongress" (smugglers and traffickers' congress) to "improve the image" and "re-evaluate the services of smuggling and trafficking". The attempt by the right-wing newspaper Junge Freiheit to scandalise public funding for this quite serious art action failed.
In 1996, the Federal Border Guard (BGS) distributed leaflets to taxi drivers at the eastern border of Germany so that they would not transport refugees. "The existing asylum law in Germany for politically persecuted people is abused by illegal immigrants who enter the country for purely economic or other – including criminal – reasons", writes the BGS. In 2015, the Association of German Criminal Investigators states that there is "no legal possibility at all for refugees to enter Germany and claim their right to asylum". It is "high time to end the continued criminalisation of refugees". The current legal practice was "schizophrenic" and she discriminates against those affected. "On the one hand, we want to protect people in Germany from war and persecution, on the other hand we make them criminals at the same time ". Anti-racist groups in the left scene are stunned: they had said exactly the same thing for years as now the police investigators do. The wording was exactly the same.
In the last two years I have taken part in more than a dozen panel discussions on asylum. Almost every time, the moderators had to apologise at the beginning for the one-sided panel. The organisers had never succeeded in winning over conservative politicians who want to restrict refugee rights as discussants, although they do exist, of course. When I was the moderator myself and asked critical questions to refugees, for example because of contradictory demands, there was usually audible displeasure in the audience. Once, after an event, two employees of a management consultancy introduced themselves. They wanted to recruit me as an "expert" for a study to find "really effective" refugee initiatives for a large industry association. Their clients were looking for recipients of donations in this area.
Just a few years ago, the refugee councils had difficulty in getting the public interested in even the toughest deportation fates. Their relationship with journalists was that of petitioners. Today, refugee initiatives are besieged with so many requests from festivals, theatres, art projects, film-makers, authors, photographers, publicists, journalists, academies, schools, companies, students, scientists, advertising agencies, associations and NGOs, all of whom want to do something with refugees, that some of them can no longer even manage to send out e-mails with rejections.
Every year the TAZ newspaper awards the Panter Prize for civil society initiatives. In 2015, half of all proposals submitted were groups that care for refugees. Among the trainees in the taz and among the participants in journalism trainings I gave, there was hardly anyone who did not mention "refugees" when asked what topics he or she wanted to write about.
Refugee solidarity has become not only a dominant social movement and booming industry, but also a pop cultural hype. For some years now, in cities like Berlin and Hamburg, some clubs and cultural centres have been donating part of the proceeds from practically every party to refugee projects. And this is not only due to the social conscience of the organizers, but also because this announcement attracts guests.
In the whole year 2015, I have not attended a single concert where the band did not show their solidarity with the refugees. When the singers announced with a husky voice and a serious expression that he wanted to express a very important message now, it was always clear what he or she was going to say. If the creators of the "no man is illegal" and the "Refugees welcome" logos in the 1990s once would have copyright-protected them, they would now earn a golden nose on all the shirts, sweaters, bags and stickers.Refugee solidarity has also become a fashion accessory and confessional formula.
How did this happen?
There are the consequences of the conflict in Syria. It is one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the Second World War and it is taking place right at the gates of Europe. Even the most hardened people are aware that help for the victims can hardly be denied. Syria has made it almost impossible to delegitimise asylum as such.
Germany is the winner of the euro crisis, with record tax revenues, low unemployment, almost zero budget deficits, a demographic problem and a shortage of labour force. For a long time now, the business associations have been driving the ruling conservatives forward with their demands for more immigration. When it becomes apparent that at the end of 2015 probably one million refugees have arrived in Germany in the course of the year, David Folkerts-Landau, Chief Economist of the Deutsche Bank, says that this is "the best thing that happened in 2015". Shortly afterwards, the Federation of German Employers' Associations renew their demand to allow even more immigration.
But there is also a social dimension. It goes back to the time of the Red-Green coalition, starting in 1998, when it was the first federal government to declare its commitment to immigration. One of its central projects was the reform of the citizenship law, with accelerated naturalization and a departure from the rigid, anachronistic blood principle of citizenship. In the following years, there was a fierce struggle for an immigration law. The immigration law of 2004, which came to an end, did by no means bring about a breakthrough – which is still pending today – but it did break the decades of lead heavy denial of the reality of immigration.
In this context, an important role was played by a group of people who are now referred to as "post-migrants" – the second to third generation of immigrants who had caught up with the education gap and were forcing their way with great force into important social switchboards such as science, politics, journalism and art. Now Germans appeared with different names and different looks – as members of parliament or newsreaders, they sat on talk shows and gave lectures. Groups like the Kanak Attak network confidently challenged the dominant culture of the majority society and shaped the immigration discourse. Even though there were competitors, they were a de facto link between the majority society and the marginalized refugee community, for whom the path to equal rights and participation was the furthest.
Two decades ago, refugees began to follow this path. They fought for substantial improvements in their living conditions: The ban on work and the residence requirement were relaxed, social benefits were increased. It was not their intention, but they have changed this country in the process. A country where ten years ago almost everyone involved in refugee policy knew each other personally, whereas today it is difficult to keep track of all the initiatives in some single city districts. This book deals with the history of resistance, civilisation and modernisation behind this change.
After reunification, refugees were accommodated in empty barracks of the east German NVA and the Soviet army as well as in old GDR holiday homes in the new federal states. They lived there much more isolated than in the western federal states of Germany. For this reason and because racist attacks and assaults are more pronounced the new refugee movement will be based in eastern Germany, where it will also remain its main focus until 2012.
In 1994, five African asylum seekers founded The Voice Refugee Forum in the refugee home Mühlhausen in Thuringia, which is still active today. They are subjected to the full rigours of the asylum law, which has just been tightened up: drastically reduced social welfare benefits, camp life, work and study bans, residence obligation, high risk of deportation, asylum procedures lasting for years. But above all, they are isolated. Isolated from the majority society and isolated from other asylum seekers. That was the deeper meaning of the restrictions for refugees: the suppression of social relations. The camps separate and stigmatize the inhabitants, they make them a projection screen for fears. The parallel societies of the camps, forced by the state, were a program of deliberate anti-integration. There was even a written statement to that effect: "Collective housing is intended to promote the willingness to return to the home country ", was stated in the Bavarian asylum law until 2015. Only recently, this half sentence was deleted. Colleagues, neighbours or friends can cross the line if deportation is pending. Social exclusion was therefore the aim of the camp accommodation and the programme of the so-called “asylum compromise” in 1992. The refugees should remain strangers to the population and thus not be important to them.
This was recognised by the founders of The Voice. They called Germany's asylum policy "apartheid regime" and compared it with European colonial rule in Africa. Before the 1998 federal elections, they travelled through 44 German cities. They wanted to become visible. The Caravan Network for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants was born. It is still active today as a sister organization of The Voice. No one else succeeded in organizing refugee protests nationwide over such a long period of time. "We are here because you are destroying our country," is their slogan. It is the plundering that has continued since colonial times that forces people to flee. A world that the rich countries have set up so that they get almost everything and most others almost nothing.
The Voice and the Caravan fought against residenzpflicht and deportations, but above all they were angry that Germany was supporting the rulers of their countries of origin such as Syria, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Iran, Sri Lanka or Turkey. For years, they protested in front of deportation prisons, foreigners authorities, interior ministries and embassies. Again and again they went on hunger strike. Activists were beaten, abused, locked up and deported, some died. The public took little notice.
The first part of this book deals with this phase, the years 1994 to 2011. It is a collection of twelve portraits. Each one tells the story of an important conflict in a time when hardly anyone was interested in it.
Only after the occupation of Berlin's Oranienplatz in October 2012 did the protest actions break through the public's threshold of perception. There was the first ever report on refugee protests in the Tagesschau, the main german news show, there was the first refugee demo with over 10,000 people, "#refugeeswelcome" was a top hashtag on Twitter. People who had never been politically active before suddenly stood at the hunger strike camp at night in sub-zero temperatures and booed policemen who checked that the refugees were not sleeping, as required by the regulations. Refugee self-organizations, which had never had any money before, received donations in the six-figure range and did not know how to administer such sums.
The struggles that now aroused so much interest had been going on for many years. The demands were the same: to be allowed to stay and work, not to live in camps, cash instead of food parcels, to be allowed to move freely.
However, they lacked a decisive factor for a breakthrough: the will to escalate, which was brought by a group of young Iranians in particular, who had fought against the regime in their homeland. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president in Tehran in 2009, the protests there escalated. Repression increased and many opposition members had to flee. On January 29, 2012, the Iranian Mohammed Rahsepar made his announcement to hang himself come true in a home for asylum seekers in Würzburg. Previously, his doctors had unsuccessfully pressed for the mentally ill person to be allowed to move out of the home. For his friends it was clear: Life in the camp had driven Rahsepar to death. They set up a protest camp in Würzburg. They went on hunger strike, sewed their mouths shut and won the right in court to sit like this in the pedestrian zone. The young Iranians could not be driven out for months. Permanent vigils with tents were set up in more and more German city centres.
They took part in a camp of the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants. The idea of a march against deportations and residence obligation was born, they made a network of supporters and started walking, 500 kilometres, across Germany. Their actions took place at a time of refugee policy thaw: the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled on 18 July 2012, that asylum seekers should not be denied the minimum subsistence level of social benefits to ward off migration. In some federal states, the obligation to not leave the assigned county and the accommodation in central, closed large camps crumbled; other left-governed federal states wanted to abolish the Asylum Seeker Benefits Act completely. Long campaigns were effective. Nevertheless, the protests now reached an intensity never seen before.
The group of Iranians had brought the protest culture from the fight against the mullahs to the Franconian refugee centres. Their unwillingness to compromise, their readiness for self-destruction through life-threatening thirst strikes acted as a catalyst and radiated beyond the northern Bavarian cities. The entire refugee scene in Germany gained a common point of reference through the "Tent Action", as the protesters called their action, the march to Berlin and the following 17-month occupation of Oranienplatz in the Berlin city of Kreuzberg.
For almost 20 years The Voice and similar groups that emerged later had acted without regard from the general public, without money and threatened by sanctions from the immigration authorities. The new protest cycle made refugees a mainstream issue. The young Iranians took a more offensive approach, but the ground for them had been prepared by the many forerunners, who had woven stable threads into civil society. More refugees than ever before were now coming out of the isolation that the asylum compromise had assigned them. They became tangible, visible to the majority society.
This is the basis for the solidarity they experience today in Germany, and this is the subject of the second part of this book on the years 2012 to 2015. It is the story of a time when there has never been such a dynamic in post-war German migration. This is why this part, unlike the first, is kept in the form of a chronology.
The change of which we are talking here is not a matter of course. It could have come about quite differently, as other EU states show.
And it was not only after the attacks on New Year's Eve at Cologne Central Station that many people feared that the mood in Germany would change. The breathlessness with which the tightening of asylum laws has been discussed since autumn 2015 speaks for itself.
Immigration in large numbers has almost always triggered counter-reactions. Pegida and the AfD had already risen to the top at a time – at the end of 2014–when asylum figures were still at a very moderate level. Nobody could expect that such an increase in immigration as in 2015 would not trigger conflicts. But the speed with which violence, threats and agitation escalated surprised many. There are the so-called “worried citizens” and their new Nazi friends; a xenophobic continuum between Pegida and Party frustration, New Right and alienated CDU clientele, AfD, NPD and Autonomous “Comradeships”. On the one hand, they consider themselves the mouthpiece of a silent majority, while at the same time they feel betrayed by the established parties and media and hallucinate themselves as a persecuted minority in their own country. The editor of the right-wing Compact magazine, Jürgen Elsässer, complains "totalitarian asylum jubilation ", wile AfD right-wing outsider Björn Höcke warns that the Germans may soon have "no home anymore ".
It remains to be seen how far this polarisation will increase, how much the social division will deepen along the migration issue. The distortions will be considerable. And it is unclear how much will be left over from the asylum law after the "asylum packages" that are yet to come. But overall, the wheel will not turn back. Anyone who wants to close off access to this country will fail: because xenophobia alone will no longer win elections. And because the reality of migration will not allow it.
„We are here because You destroy our countries”
Osaren Igbinoba from Nigeria was the first person in 1994 to establish a protest movement in the asylum centres of East Germany. It still exists today. Only if the refugees cross ethnic borders and organise themselves do they have a chance to improve their living conditions, he says.
Some see the world as a place that is becoming more and more complicated, so much so that it is difficult to explain what is happening on it. Osaren Igbinoba does not. “There is no hunger. There is only plundering”, he says. Or: “Western civilization will go down in history as the most cruel, the most destructive power. “For such sentences they have brought him here today.
It is July 19, 2001 and shortly before the meeting of the most powerful men in the world, the port of Genoa falls into an orange-blue light. Trade unionists, communists, anarchist, party people and left-wing intellectuals from all over the world have been wandering the streets since the afternoon. The host of the 2001 G8 summit, Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, had demanded that the city's inhabitants not hang out their clothes to dry. The presidents were to see a flawless Genoa. The demonstrators were waving underpants and bras, waving to the people at the windows, shaking the black fence that the police screwed onto the concrete at the Congress Centre, running past the provisional quarters of the Carabinieri, who will shoot one of the demonstrators the next day, and Osaren Igbinoba marched in the first row, because this first day of the protest is dedicated to the migrants.
300 000 people are coming to Genoa these days. The anti-globalisation movement is at its zenith and for many demonstrators it is clear that they are changing the world here. The first march is over, they sit on the concrete floor, on benches, drink beer, smoke joints, brass bands and samba groups walk around, reporters and cameramen. Banners and signs lie scattered, leaflets are distributed and thrown away. The Italians knock bottles on the benches and are already singing about the victory they want to achieve over capitalism the next day; for more than a year now, the protests have been calling for the no to world order to become unmistakable. These days are the crystallization point for a whole generation of NGOs, but now, shortly before it starts, it is Osaren Igbinoba who is allowed to speak.
The dawn is approaching over the Ligurian sea and Igbinoba, a massive man of 40 years, enters the stage that the demonstrators have built on the square at the port. His voice is hoarse, he speaks English with a strong Nigerian accent, the sound system is not the best. For a decade he has fought in Nigeria against the military dictatorship that kills its opponents, held in power also by the billions pounds that British, France, Dutch and American oil companies transfer, Igbinoba never forgets to mention.
He never wanted to leave. He wanted his country to become one in which he could live.
As so often, it is artists and intellectuals who lead the fight for civil rights in Nigeria. The writer Wole Soyinka, for example, the doctor Beko Kuti, or his brother, the famous Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti. Her followers gather in the Campaign for Democracy and the Fela Kuti Anikulapo's „Kalakuta Shrine”, which becomes Igbinoba's political home. General Sani Abacha takes power in 1993 “General Sani Abacha took power in 1993 after General Ibrahim Babagida who annulled the “June 12th”presidential election won by Moshood Abiola, resulting in serious political unrest.
Abacha was trained at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Adlershot near London, does business with British Petrol, Shell and Exxon and steals billions from the treasury. Abacha bans parties and all other political groups. Igbinoba flees to Germany.
The end of the Cold War is only a short time ago, it changed the refugee policy. In the old Federal Republic, hardly more than 50,000 people a year wanted asylum, many of them from Eastern Europe. For the West they are persecuted by socialist dictatorships and therefore deserve refuge. In 1992, 430,000 asylum seekers arrivew in the reunified Germany, the majority from Eastern Europe. Now they are “no longer proof of victory in global system competition, but an additional burden in the crisis of the national welfare state”, writes migration researcher Klaus J. Bade. The Bundestag decides on the so-called asylum compromise in order to make Germany a place that refugees avoid.
Igbinoba comes anyway. He is distributed to Mühlhausen in the west of Thuringia. The refugee home there is an old Russian barracks. He lives in a room with four other men, “like sardines in fish cans”, he writes. No work, no possibility to cook, no education. Penalties for anyone who leaves in the county.
He feels like in a “quiet war that the bureaucracy is waging against us”, he says later, no perspective, only stagnation, “a slow but constant waste of life, only eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping, vegetating until we are deported or, if the will to live is broken, return 'voluntarily'. They take our fingerprints, put us in camps, we are interrogated, abused, laughed at, yelled at, humiliated to deter others”.Those who are not useful must rot in”military barracks, far away from normal people.”This isolation is supposed to make it possible to control the refugees, says Igbinoba.
He sees historical continuities, especially in the obligation to reside: the German colonial rulers forbid the people in Togo to leave certain areas in order to better enforce forced labor. The 1938 Nazi foreigners police decree also banned foreigners from travelling freely within Germany. Igbinoba researches this, as he does the history of the GDR in “which, as a quartered foreigner, you were only here to work as ordered by the state, or you had to leave. Through all these times, says Igbinoba, a “control mentality”has been preserved, the camps are supposed to “stigmatize you, destroy your will to live and defend yourself”.
It is a gloomy, radical finding. People who have never been in this situation find it difficult to comprehend. But to Igbinoba, his political analysis porovides strength for two decades of struggle.
A month after his arrival, he founds The VOICE Africa Forum “in October 1994, with four other men from Nigeria and Liberia. The group passes through the refugee shelters in Thuringia, convenes meetings, again and again. You don't have to live like this, they tell the refugees. Do not be afraid! But their incitement to riot some perceive it as a threat. “They thought that if we complain, they will deport us”, says Igbinoba. Some refugees attack him with chairs, tearing up his leaflets. At night he runs back secretly and searches by candlelight for specimens that have remained intact. “Everyone tries to deal with his problems alone, always believing that we will be left alone if we remain calm”, says Igbinoba. “In the end, however, the problems are only greater because we were afraid to see ourselves as powerful. Again and again he says this at the meetings in the asylum centres.
His asylum procedure is going badly. Igbinoba shows his driver's license, newspaper article from Nigeria. Everything is fake, say the German authorities. They reject his asylum application. In 1995 Amnesty International documents hundreds of dead opponents of the regime and thousands of arrests in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Federal Government in Germany praises a “democratization program “of the dictator Abacha. Criticism of the Nigerian regime is “possible and usually has no consequences “, it states.
One morning in April 1995, two policemen arrive at the asylum home in Rothenstein, south of Jena, where Igbinoba now lives. The foreigners authority in Eisenberg sent them, but they had not announced their arrival. They are to take Igbinoba to Düsseldorf airport. But now the other refugees in the home do not want to give him up without a fight. One comrade wakes him up, others rush to collect 200 German marks and hand them to him, others stand in the hallway leading to his room. “Why”is one of the few German words that many of them know. Again and again they ask the policemen: “Why do you want to get him?”It's a pretext not to let them pass. Igbinoba can hear the turmoil, he opens the window and jumps out. He walks through the woods, makes his way to the next town.
Once Igbinoba is handcuffed and his legs chained to the chair by the security guards of the Foreigners' Authority of the Federal Office of Immigration (BMF) in Mühlhausen. Why? If not chained he would escape deportation. They said, because he is to be put into deportation prison. He feels humiliated, degraded, at the mercy of others. His lawyer can negotiate a postponement.
After a while, a social worker friend hides him with people who run an autonomous centre in Oldenburg. Among them is an architect, in his house there is room for Igbinoba.
In the meantime, more and more opposition members have ended up in prison in Nigeria. Igbinoba had already drawn attention to their fate before, but now, in Oldenburg, he is working full-time for their release, although this is not a particularly inconspicuous activity. “That gave me strength”, says Igbinoba, “At one point, I didn't care what was going to happen to me”when he read in the media that on November 10, 1995, the Nigerian government hanged the writer Ken Saro Wiwa, a renowned environmentalist, who died in his struggle to save Ogoni lands and people from the environmental devastation of the multinationals in southern Nigeria.
Criticism of the regime is growing all over the world. Igbinoba organizes a symposium of Nigerian opposition members in exile, from many countries they travel to Oldenburg, it is one of the biggest meeting of this kind at that time. With the practical solidarity of his German friends and activists in Oldenburg / Jena and Erfurt, he “sees the light after the “tunnel”with the sign of freedom for a new court trial in 1996 after his third appeal in Weimar. He “now makes a new court appeal against his deportation “for asylum with a new hearing 1996. Osaren turns himself in. “After some time a lawyer makes an appointment for a new hearing at the BAMF..
In 1997 he is recognized as a political refugee. He is no longer an asylum seeker, but The Voice is his purpose in life. He moves into a small office under the roof of an alternative cultural centre, behind the municipal theatre in Jena. From here he coordinates hunger strikes, blockades and rallies. Gradually, Thuringia closes remote, particularly run-down refugee homes such as Mühlhausen, Saalfeld, Jena-Forst or Tambach-Dietharz – one early victory of The Voice.
Even before The Voice, there were migrant selforganisations in Germany: associations of guest worker communities, women's groups such as Agisra in Cologne, migrant anti-fag groups in Berlin, party-shaped exile organisations such as the Kurdish associations or groups from the second generation of migrant workers such as Kanak Attak. But there is no organization of the refugees in the asylum lagers. Others also try to bring them together later, such as the African Refugee Organisation in Hamburg, the Refugee Initiative Brandenburg FIB, Refugee Emancipation e.V. or Women in Exile. But Igbinoba is the first one to succeed permanently and across ethnic boundaries. The structures of self-organization he creates are the oldest that have survived to this day.
The night the police wants to fetch him, Igbinoba gets it clear that the refugees perish if they stay in their ethnic communities. Solidarity should overcome the narrowness of exile organisations. “The laws affect all refugees equally”, he says. To be disobedient together is “a cry for freedom, but already a part of freedom itself”.The group renames itself to The Voice Refugee Forum, wants to be open to people from other continents, merges with groups from West Germany to form the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants. “Great ideas without self-organization are empty”, says Igbinoba.
In September 1998 Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl resigns from office, before the Bundestag elections the caravan pulls through 44 German cities, “We have no vote but a voice”– “We have no right to vote, but one vote”is their slogan. In refugee homes, where no other visitor sets foot, they convene meetings. We want full integration, says Igbinoba. No subordination, equal rights. The residents should no longer be subject to discipline.
Not everyone follows the call, but for some The Voice gives the feeling, for the first time at these meetings, that they can again do something for their fate in Germany, not just stand helplessly against the bureaucracy and laws that they have so little insight into.
In 1999, refugees threatened with deportation occupied the office of the Green Party in Cologne. Their hunger strike lasts 16 days.
In May 2000, The Voice invites refugees and activists from all over the world to a congress at Jena University. It is the first meeting of its kind in Germany. In Thuringia the residence obligation applies. Refugees, who want to come, have to ask the foreigners authorities for permission. Marieluise Beck, the Federal Government Commissioner for Foreigners at the time, called on the authorities to grant permission. Brandenburg's Interior Ministry Jörg Schönbohm also sends a letter: The refugees should not be allowed to travel to Jena, he demands. The officials listen to Schönbohm. Anyone who drives nevertheless is threatened with imprisonment.
In the end there are 600 people in Jena. Many are to be deported soon. There are paperless and refugee women, Togolese and Nigerians, Alevi Syrians and Communist Turks, Nepalese Maoists and Tamil ex-Guerilleros, Chechens and Congolese, Cameroonians, Sierra Leoners and Sudanese, North Africans, Palestinians, former political prisoners from Latin America, Iranian women, Kurds from a church asylum. Some have political experience, others do not; but none of them ever was at such a meeting before.
Their self-empowerment is not going without friction. At that time the foreigners authorities in Bremen, Hamburg, Munich and other cities began to bring refugees without passports to embassies of countries like Guinea or Nigeria. The consular staff there issue unique travel documents for a fee – many say, for bribes. Like this, Germany can deport the refugees without having clarified which country they come from. The refugees in Jena plan to block the next of these enforced appearance. “Blackmail”is supposed to be in the call, blackmail, because anyone who refuses these appointments will have their money cut by the foreigners authorities and will then be forced to present himself at the embassy anyway.
A group of Africans complains: “Blackmail” is racist. “Everything bad is always black”, they say. The word should be deleted.
“Childish”, say the Tamils.
The Germans prefer not to say anything.
The refugees debate in Jena for ten days. Deportations, foreigners authorities, residence obligation, police attacks, political prisoners everywhere in the world, everything comes on the table. They decide to demonstrate, to write faxes, to start blockades. The final declaration of their congress is many pages long. “We will fight with dignity”they write at the end.
They have no association for tax deduction receipts, no membership fees, no board, no press distribution list, no statutes. The hard core are less than 40 activists from 20 countries, scattered in homes all over Germany, who do not speak a common language. Those who travel to the meetings spend half the monthly allowance of 80 D-Mark on the train journey, have to fear police controls and prison.
But they have ideas.
The Singhalese Viraj Mendis is gathering a group of computer scientists around him, they are programming a multilingual website for campaigns against deportations, www.humanrights.de. With it, Mendis lands in the July 10, 2000 issue of the US magazine Fortune – as “a human face of the Internet revolution”. A communist in one of the world's most important business newspapers. In Jena, nadir, a Hamburgbased collective of computer scientists, sets up computers with which the refugees can blog about their congress in real time. They are a small avant-garde of net activism.
Months before the WTO conference in Seattle is to be a major event, The Voice refugees are teaming up with hundreds of Indian farmers. They are on their way to the G7 summit in Cologne in June 1999 to demonstrate against the liberalization of the agricultural market that is driving them to ruin. The refugees line up with the farmers before their arrival in Cologne – a small avant-garde of summit protests.
For Igbinoba, however, globalisation is just a buzzword. For him, it does not hit the nail on the head. The British officers who taught Abacha how to kill, the BP managers who pump the oil out of the Niger Delta without giving the people anything in return, the BAMF officials who “divide the refugees into useful and useless”, as he says; the German policemen who come at night to fetch him and put him on the plane to Lagos – for Igbinoba they are all just facets of “colonial injustice, continuities of the ever same imperialist power”. Ever same, but adaptable: “From the island of Gorée off Senegal, “From the island of Gorée off Senegal millions of Africans have been shipped as slaves to America and Europe, today Frontex [the EU Border Protection Agency] uses the island to monitor African coastal waters”, he writes later. For Igbinoba his escape is therefore a means to an end. “We are here to continue the struggle we have begun in our countries”, he says. It is not only about deportations, it is also about “the terrible problems of our brothers and sisters that we had to leave behind”. Because no one comes voluntarily. Everyone knows that the EU and the USA arm the dictators of Africa and train their armies, wage wars and rob resources since colonial times.
On the evening of July 19, 2001, he is the one who is allowed to give the speech before the big fight day of the global protest movement. For the exploitation of the poor, the devastation of the global South, neocolonialism, for everything that the demonstrators here accuse capitalism of, Igbinoba is the crown witness; unlike most of them he speaks in the first person, he is victim as well as fighter and his accusation is not negotiable, “we will always say it as we feel it, there can be no compromise about it”. That is why they called him here, on the stage in the port of Genoa, on which now tens of thousands are looking, who want to beat the order of the world here, and Igbinoba stands on it in his tattered sweater and his basketball cap and says what the refugees in the richest continent of the earth want the G8 to know:
“We are here because you are destroying our countries.”
80 marks for freedom
Sunday Omwenyeke from Nigeria comes to Fallersleben in 1998. Like all asylum seekers and “tolerated” persons, he is subject to the residence law: he is only allowed to leave the district with a special permit – but the foreigner's authority repeatedly denies this to him. Then Omwenyeke violates the ban. “But I'm not a criminal”, he says. He refuses to pay fines, goes to prison and takes legal action to the European Court of Justice.
For one entire day Sunday Omwenyeke kept his guards waiting. Now he is standing in front of the gate of the prison in Bremen Oslebshausen, it is the 10th of December 2004, and only today, on International Human Rights Day, Omwenyeke wants to take his prison sentence, but of course not just like that. So his friends borrowed the small loudspeaker truck from the students at the university, filled diesel into the generator, which always causes such difficulties when starting, put the loudspeaker on the wet cobblestone pavement and connected a microphone. The guards look out of their little house as they unfold the white banners with the slogans, it's dark and cold, though not excessively for an afternoon in December; the humidity has drawn over from the nearby Weser and some 20 people are standing in a semicircle in front of the old JVA building as Sunday Omwenyeke puts down the small travel bag and takes the microphone and explains why he's not the criminal but those who called him here.
Six years have passed since he came to Germany, and the police have caught him seven times. It's a lousy quota, since in all that time not a month has passed in which he hasn't broken the residence obligation. How should he not? It would have been for him as if he hadn't been imprisoned only now, for the first time in his life, at the age of 39, but all along.
In 1999, the public prosecutor in Braunschweig brought charges against him for the first time. He was to pay a fine of 80 marks for two violations of the residence obligation law; he had said they would get “not one cent”. The judge stops the proceedings because of insignificance.
Five more times Omwenyeke met police officers who wanted to see his papers and never gave him an answer as to why from him and not from the other people in the stations and trains and in the squares. Policemen who never say to his face that the reason is that he is black and the others are not; but Omwenyeke knows that anyway, and they threaten him to finally show the papers even when his little daughter is with him. They can read in his documents what they had already thought, namely that he must not be where he is, and they bring him to their police stations “and file a legal complaint against him.
Many refugees do not comply with the residence obligation. Some do not pay their fines and some have to go to prison for it, the Cameroonian Felix Otto from Thuringia will be sentenced to a whole year's imprisonment in 2009. But hardly anyone takes the fight as far as Omwenyeke.
He worked as a teacher in Nigeria. His hometown of Benin City is less than three hours' drive from the delta of the Niger River, where in the 1990s the army, rebels, oil companies and the Ogoni people fought against each other. Omwenyeke is committed to the Ogoni, the government kills people who do that. In 1998 he was sent to a refugee home in Wolfsburg-Fallersleben. In Nigeria, he had close contacts with the Campaign for Democracy for the release of the arrested civil rights activist Beko Kuti, in which THE VOICE founder Osaren Igbinoba was also active. Even after Igbinoba came to Germany in 1994, Omwenyeke had kept in touch. Now he joins THE VOICE Refugee Forum.
It's not that he wanted to break the law. On the contrary, he has always tried to abide by it. For example, when he invited his friend from Canada. Omwenyeke was politically active with him during his student days. The man fled earlier than Omwenyeke did, became a professor of human rights in Canada and researched the violence of the regime in his home country. When The Voice refugees held a congress in Jena in April 2000, Omwenyeke sent his friend an invitation. When he puts it on the table at the German consulate in Canada, the professor is given a visa to talk about his work in Jena.
Then Omwenyeke goes to the foreigners authority in Wolfsburg and asks for permission to go to the conference in Jena, which he organizes himself, but the official says there are “no compelling reasons”that Omwenyeke has to be there. Omwenyeke files a complaint with the Braunschweig Administrative Court. The judge rejects the urgent motion. The foreigners authority was right, he decides. Omwenyeke does not necessarily have to travel to Jena.
Bit he drives anyway, and policemen approach him at the station. They want to see his identity card. Then they file a legal complaint against him.
When the guards of the Oslebshausen prison close the gate behind Omwenyeke on 10 December 2004, it is early evening. He is alone in a cell. He leaves his food standing, he had actually planned to eat nothing until they had to take him to the hospital, but two weeks ago his girlfriend told him that she was pregnant, and so he had abandoned the plan of a hunger strike. But the plate that is pushed into his cell it disgusts him, and so he eats nothing. He cannot sleep either, the narrowness and, the darkness and the feeling of being locked up are alien to him and are encumbering him, he had underestimated it.
After two nights the guards take him to another cell, he doesn't understand why, they don't speak English, he doesn't speak much German. There are three white men in the new cell, they sit here because of burglary and assault, and they don't speak English either, but they smoke and listen to music all day and all night. Omwenyeke hates it there because he hates smoke and he can't sleep and still can't eat the food. He is allowed to go 30 minutes to the yard in the morning, there are two other blacks, an Ivorian and a Cameroonian, they are in jail because of criminal stuff and the other prisoners think he belongs to them.
In May 2000, at the congress in Jena, dozens of other refugees reported to Omwenyeke that they, too, had been checked and reported by the police on the way to Jena because of the residence obligation. They suspect that it will happen again when they return to their homes, and they remember those who did not even leave the homes because they were afraid. They don't just want to be able to drive around land like everyone else. They now want to fight the residence obligation as the prerequisite for being able to join forces at all, as the prerequisite for everything else. 13 refugees write a declaration and announce civil disobedience.
After every police check, Omwenyeke receives letters saying that he has done something forbidden and has to pay money, and he throws them away, and his file with the prosecution is growing. He is supposed to pay 245 euros, but he does not pay and on 1 October 2003 at 9 a.m. he has to appear in room 551 of the Bremen District Court on Ostertorstraße. He has been married to a German woman for two years. He no longer has to live in the refugee home, but was able to move to her in Bremen, where there is a private university, and there he is now studying Global Governance, the university collects 24,500 euros a year for his studies, but Omwenyeke has a scholarship.
“I broke the law, but I'm not a criminal”, Omwenyeke told the district judge in Bremen, not even “by the standards of the most primitive societies. No other country in Europe has a regulation like the residence obligation, only in Germany are people punished who travel through the country, even if only for a single day, on which they leave the district of the foreigners authority, because they must not, they should always be reachable for the foreigners authorities. But a letterbox would suffice for this, as it suffices for Germans, who must also be reachable for the authorities, but it is different for refugees, according to § 56 of the Asylum Act, to this day.
He is glad, Omwenyeke tells the judge, to stand here, because in this way he can “enlighten the Germans about the deep racism in their country”, and the Togolese and Cameroonians and Tamils and Iranians, whom he has brought along for support, murmur affirmatively.
The judge asks him why he makes such a fuss, now that he is married to a German and is no longer subject to the residence obligation, and Omwenyeke answers that such a question only asks who can go where he wants and he says that the judge does not have the slightest idea what it feels like to live as a refugee in Germany.
The judge sentences him to 15 daily rates of 10 euros each.
Enough to appeal.
October 9, 2004, Bremen Regional Court: “A society does not get better if obedient citizens obey bad laws”, Omwenyeke tells the judge. “It will be better if people disobey bad laws for reasons of conscience. And then he reminds the chairman that the war criminals at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946 justified themselves by applying the valid Nazi laws to the best of their consciences.
The judge rejects the appeal.
May 2004: The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe advises Omwenyekes complaint without oral hearing. In her brief, Omwenyeke's lawyer listed every futile attempt to obtain permission from the official in the Foreigners Authority in Wolfsburg to leave the Wolfsburg district. Germany's highest judges answere after only two weeks. They do not see any violation of fundamental rights.
October 2004: THE VOICE turns ten. In the evening, the refugees organise a party in an alternative cultural centre in Berlin-Kreuzberg, the Mehringhof. Before the evening, plans are made for the next actions and Omwenyeke's campaign against the residence obligation is the most important. He has invited an agile little lady with grey hair. Her name is Nuala Mole, she teaches law at Oxford, founded the AIRE (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) Centre for Fundamental Rights in Europe and trained judges from 40 countries in migration law for the Council of Europe. She is certain of victory because she has come up with a bomb-proof argument for Omwenyeke. Because the residence obligation, she says, violates the European fundamental rights in which she specialises, and now she sits next to Omwenyeke on a small stage in the Mehringhof, and she rehearses with the refugees in the hall the trial at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which she plans. Those present should mention all the reasons they can think of why states could forbid people who are legally in the country to just drive around like Omwenyeke did. Arms go up, and every time someone says something, Mole says “not on the list”, and she means that European law does not provide for this reason, she sounds like the opposition leader in the British House of Commons who reads the riot act to the government, and every time people laugh, it goes on for probably 20 minutes. In the end, Mole convinced everyone in the room that she would win the trial against Germany for them all, because Europe's law is on their side, and then everyone applauds even more. They do not yet know that the trial date in Straßenburg is not for another three years, but that Omwenyeke will be arrested in two months' time.
On 22 December 2004 Sunday Omwenyeke is released from Oslebshausen prison after twelve days in prison, three days early. A Christmas amnesty, the guard tells him.
Three years later, the European Court of Human Rights deliberated without an oral hearing on the complaint of Omwenyeke and the Cameroonian VOICE-activist Mbolo Yufanyi, who had joined. The judges found that, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, “any person residing lawfully in the territory of a State has the right to move freely there”. But each state can decide for itself what exactly “lawfully”means. Germany was free to classify the stay of asylum seekers like Omwenyeke as illegal.
They dismiss the complaint against the residence obligation.
For eleven years Akubou Chukwudi from Nigeria defends himself against the degrading life in a remote camp in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where he was sent in 1994, and against his impending deportation. He pushes the resistance against the practices of the foreigners authority to the extreme. In the end, his protest ensures that the country pays refugees cash instead of vouchers and that they can live in cities instead of old barracks deep in the forest. But he is still not allowed to live here.
He likes to wear a fantasy soldier uniform with a camouflage pattern, huge sneakers, a black leather coat and a golden crucifix on his neck, the size of a beer can. He introduces himself to strangers as “Akubou, the jungle fighter”, perhaps he wants to offer something to all the Germans who are so afraid of black men, but today he has not come to the district court of Parchim in guerilla dress, but in black suit and white shirt, shiny shoes and with a briefcase made of brown leather. Maybe he's afraid, he doesn't say it, he's finally been through worse, but it doesn't look good.
His friends called everyone who ever did anything for Akubou Anusonwu Chukwudi, and there were many of them. “The war has begun”, they said, sometimes they talk a little martial; but now, after all those years in which Chukwudi had been so upset with the authorities and home directors and the Minister of the Interior and the Nazis, now they wanted to pay him back once and for all, the indictment left no doubt about that, his friends believed, and Chukwudi should not remain alone.
Two dozen of them have come, most of them from far away, from big cities; it is June 20, 2006, a Tuesday, and they are sitting in the courtroom, which is big for a provincial city like Parchim, in the middle of Mecklenburg. Chukwudi is sitting in the dock between the translator and his lawyer, who is famous because she has won many lawsuits like this one, which are not only about law, but also about politics. The public prosecutor comes through the door, a strict man, and he reads the statement of claim.
The first point is the matter in the Aldi market and the translator translates that Chukwudi was not “prepared”to pay his cigarettes in cash instead of with the social security voucher. The prosecutor interrupts her. “Prepared” was the wrong word, he states, Chukwudi did not want to pay with cash, and that means “not willing”. The translator dares to protest. She knew that Chukwudi did not want to pay with money, but that could certainly be translated as “not prepared”. She continues to translate, and he corrects her again and looks as if he wants to sue her for her bad English, and one of Chukwudi's friends in the auditorium hisses “asshole”, and everyone thinks that if it starts like this, Chukwudi goes straight to jail today.
Akubou Chukwudi belongs to the Igbo people. He grows up in Nigeria, a country ruled by an endless series of coup generals, until June 12, 1993, when Chukwudi is 33, a certain Moshood Abiola wins the presidential elections. These are the first democratic elections Chukwudi has seen, some say the first ever in Nigeria, and Chukwudi does not accept that Abiola should not take office when the military cancels the election and arrests Abiola.
It is a fateful year for many opposition members in Nigeria, among them the voice founder Osaren Igbinoba. But while Chukwudi is working for civil rights activists who have already been arrested, he is also involved with the Area Boys during this time. Criminal gangs, says the government; a social movement, says Chukwudi; they are marginalized young men and women who don't accept that society doesn't want them. And many of them believe that they could do better under Abiola. So on July 27, 5.000 people block the banking district of Lagos, many Area Boys are there, among them Chukwudi.
Criminals and terrorists are on the streets, say the generals. Police and military shoot, 30 people die, hundreds are arrested, Chukwudi is hit in the arm. Tens of thousands flee Lagos from the subsequent raids, many of them are Igbo. They fear a war. Chukwudi hides. After five months, a friend gives him his passport, under a false name he gets on a plane to Frankfurt am Main.
Chukwudi comes to Peeschen, a former GDR holiday camp for children. 450 refugees live in the barracks in the forest; there is only irregular electricity, the water comes from a well, the sewage flows into a pond behind the barracks, so it always stinks. The bus runs twice a day, but not on weekends or holidays; the nearest shop is ten kilometers away, the train station in Güstrow 35 kilometers.
A “jungle home”, says Chukwudi. Isolation to break people the authorities don't want to be here.
He doesn't see why he should live here.
Neither does the Federal Asylum Office. On November 4, 1994, it rejects his application for asylum. Chukwudi disappears, hides with a Nigerian in Kaltenkirchen, works without papers in a tyre shop. Three years later his landlord tries to withdraw money with a stolen credit card. The police look for him in his house, but only find Chukwudi. In 1997 he was sent to the Lübeck prison for five months, but he couldn't be deported: Chukwudi doesn't have a passport. The immigration authorities take him three times to the Nigerian embassy in Bonn. But the consul does not issue a passport because Chukwudi's identity is unclear. He returns to Peeschen
Every four weeks, the Parchim Aliens Department gives him a “Duldung’. Working is forbidden, eight years will go by that way. Again and again policemen take him to the embassy. A mistake, Chukwudi now tells the consul. In fact, he comes from Niger, not Nigeria. The consul sends him away. The Aliens Department has him taken to the Niger embassy by police officers. A mistake, Chukwudi says there. He comes from Nigeria.
“That drove them mad”, says Chukwudi.
He doesn't see why he can't stay in Germany when opponents of the regime are hanged in Nigeria. He writes pamphlets against the generals in Lagos and against the foreigners authority in Parchim and against the director of the home in Peeschen and he joins THE VOICE Refugee Forum. Chukwudi protests in front of the Interior Ministry in Schwerin and the state parliament; with a whistle and leaflets. The laws for refugees are racist as are the authorities, his leaflet says, and especially those in Parchim. The asylum laws must be abolished, he says.
Chukwudi has to leave, says the head of the Parchim Foreigners Authority. On 8 October 1998 he had him arrested, detained for deportation, in Bützow Prison near Rostock. Chukwudi makes a new asylum application in prison: because he criticized the Abacha regime here in Germany, a return is now too dangerous for him, he claims.
Meanwhile he has a name in the refugee scene, hundreds are sending faxes to SPD interior minister Gottfried Timm. The administrative court in Schwerin has ruled that Chukwudi should be released from prison until the new asylum application has been decided. He returns to Peeschen.
But he does not want to live like that. Chukwudi takes photos of the barracks and brings them to the BILD newspaper. The newspaper actually writes about “Germany's worst asylum seekers' home “i and above the text is a quote from Chukwudi: “Our neighbours are hares and deer”.
He then receives letters saying that it is not acceptable for blacks like him, who deal in drugs and seduce German women, to receive social welfare benefits in return. One evening in October 1999 he was sitting in front of the television. He goes to the toilet and when he comes back he hears an incendiary device smashing on the floor. His curtain catches fire, he can suffocate it with a blanket.
Summer 2000: His asylum application is rejected, the immigration authorities have received a travel document. Unlike a real passport, it is only valid for a single border crossing, but that is sufficient for deportation. Chukwudi goes on hunger strike for 26 days and files a lawsuit against deportation. The court rejects the complaint. He hides for months.
On the morning of 20 November 2000, policemen arrive on the second floor of a villa in Wachmannstrasse in the Bremen district of Schwachhausen. The Protestant student community has its office there, one room has been left to the International Human Rights Association, the caravan's coordination office for the rights of refugees and migrants. At that time the office was something like the headquarters of the refugee protests in Germany. The people there have made Chukwudi's struggle with the foreign bureaucracy a little their own, too, for years now, but now they have to watch as policemen lead him down the stairs and take him away. He comes to the Bützow jail Deportation custody.
His friends start their telephone chain again. The next day, the ruling SPD and PDS factions in Schwerin's state parliament vote to release Chukwudi until a hardship amnesty has been decided. Minister of the Interior Timm rejects this. Chukwudi goes on hunger strike again.
On 4 December 2000 he is brought before a judge. The prison doctor says that Chukwudi is too ill to be deported, but she is not allowed to speak at the trial. Chukwudi tells the judge that he will not eat until he is released. The judge extends the sentence by two months.
A week later, PDS Member of Parliament Heinrich Fink visits Bützow prison. Chukwudi is now in a wheelchair. He would rather die here than fall into the hands of the police in Nigeria, he says. Fink calls the Minister of the Interior. Chukwudi is too ill, says Fink and reminds Timm of the will of the state parliament. Timm receives faxes again, even the actors of the famous “Lindenstraße”TV Seroes and even Christo, the packing paper virtuoso artist from the USA, who is currently a very prominent figure, write to help Chukwudi. The travel document issued by the embassy expires. The minister releases Chukwudi on 15 December. But as soon as he is healthy, he will be deported, says Timm.
The friends who organized the parliamentary resolution and the faxes and the prominent advocates persuade the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation in Schwerin to give Chukwudi church asylum. He sleeps there for three months in a small room on the floor.
In March 2001 Chukwudi returns to Peeschen. The foreigners authority again had him presented to the consul of the Nigerian embassy, this time in a police barracks in Potsdam, together with dozens of other rejected asylum seekers. All are to be deported. The travel documents for them lie on a pile on the consul's table. When it is Chukwudi's turn, he grabs the travel documents and begins to tear them apart. The consul screams, tries to take the papers away from him again, there is a fight, the policemen who brought Chukwudi in, rush in, overwhelm him, but the papers are only scraps. The consul breaks off the prsentation. Chukwudi comes into a detention cell and then back to Peeschen.
The refugees receive 80 D-Mark cash and vouchers worth 305 D-Mark every month. The vouchers can only be redeemed at an Aldi and Penny market, but not for cigarettes or beer. If they do not use up a voucher completely, there is only a maximum of ten percent of the voucher value as change.
Cash is autonomy and autonomy is freedom. But the refugees in Peeschen should not be free, they should not be here at all, and they should feel that, that is what the authorities want.
Some sellers in supermarkets take advantage of this, says Chukwudi: they buy the vouchers from the refugees for cash, but give them only two thirds of the value.
Chukwudi writes to the foreigners authority, the interior minister, deputies. He writes to the Aldi and Penny headquarters and newspaper editors, and at some point there is no D-Mark any more but Euro, but Chukwudi still gets the vouchers, and one day he goes back to the Aldi in Goethestraße in the village of Sternberg, and he puts his purchases on the cashier tape and the cashier scans the barcodes and the cashier shows 34,54 Euro.
Chukwudi holds out two 20-euro vouchers to her. The cashier says that she can only give him four euros back in change. He should buy something else for two euros.
He doesn't need any more, says Chukwudi.
The cashier starts to take things out of his shopping cart in order to push the bill to 20 euros, but Chukwudi puts the things back into the cart, he now throws both vouchers on the table, wants to leave, even without change, but the cashier holds the shopping cart. Chukwudi gets angry; he even gave her both vouchers, but she still complains as if he were a thief. Other employees come along, customers, six people, as it says later in the court file, hold the shopping cart when he tries to leave the shop. Chukwudi pulls the trolley again and the cashier, who doesn't want to let go of the trolley, is pressed against the wall of the cash register. Then Chukwudi gives up. He picks up his vouchers from the floor and leaves. The cashier calls the police, as she has done before, when Chukwudi wanted to pay for cigarettes and beer with vouchers. The next day her son takes pictures of bruises on her arm.
Rejected asylum seekers are legally obliged to cooperate in their deportation, for example by obtaining travel documents. Chukwudi does not do this, so the social welfare office cuts his benefits. He now receives only about 100 euros – about a quarter of the social welfare assistance of a German. So he has to starve, he tells the social welfare officer. She says there is nothing she can do. Chukwudi goes to her boss. He can't live with so little money, says Chukwudi. There is nothing he can do, says the boss. His authority is racist, says Chukwudi and throws three computers and a photocopier off the table. The woman from the social welfare office calls the police.
Shortly afterwards, the head of the Parchim Foreigners Authority comes to Peeschen. Chukwudi sees his black BMW parked in the small square in front of the home manager's office.
Chukwudi takes a knife out of the kitchen drawer and walks out. The head of the foreigners authority and the home manager look out of the window as Chukwudi pierces all four BMW tyres. They lock the office door from the inside. Chukwudi shouts through the window to the head of the office, saying he doesn't want to hurt him. But he tried to talk to him so often: About the fact that the refugees from Peeschen always only get paracetamol from the doctor, no matter what complaint they have, and that the doctors say that any other treatment is too expensive, social welfare office and foreigners authority would not pay. Or about the fact that Peeschen is so remote that the refugees can only take one bus in the morning for the many appointments at the Aliens Department and then have to wait seven hours for the only bus back, and there is not even a bus shelter against the rain. And the head of the foreigners authority never reacted to all their complaints. And now he should feel at least once what it's like to be stuck in Peeschen. He could call the police again and have him arrested, however, Chukwudi says, and the man follows the recommendation.
In 2002, after five years of protest in Peeschen, the parliament in Schwerin decides that refugees in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania should now live in localities. No longer in the forest. In 2003, the state parliament decides that the refugees should no longer receive vouchers, but cash.
On March 18, 2004, a bus picks up the last refugees from Peeschen and takes them to a former kindergarten on the outskirts of the district town of Parchim. Eleven years after his arrival in Germany, Chukwudi has a room for himself for the first time. He now receives 196.58 euros from the social welfare office every month in cash.
But he is still not allowed to live in Germany. Every few weeks he still has to go to the immigration office in Parchim and get the small red paper which says that he is “obliged to leave the country in an executable form”.
And he is still a black man in a small East German town.
October 2004. Chukwudi and Riadh Ben Ammar, a young Tunisian from the home go to the Parchim disco “Nachtflug”. A group of young rightwingers, lure the Tunisian outside, beat him up. Chukwudi intervenes, the racist young men attack him. He runs to the car he has borrowed, they continue to beat him up, Chukwudi manages to pull a tool out of the car, he hits one of the attackers on the head with it, then he can flee.
The aggressors calls the police. The black man and the Arab had attacked them, they say. Chukwudi is brought to a police cell.
Little by little, almost all the federal states have set up commissions in recent years. They should be able to give people a second chance for whom deportation would be particularly bad. Many people think that Chukwudi is such a case. On 1 December 2004, the hardship commission in Schwerin discussed his case. The Ministry of the Interior has to agree to every decision, the commission rejects a right of residence for Chukwudi. Too many “official anomalies”.
The legal process has been exhausted. For Chukwudi there is now only one way to stay in Germany.
A few weeks later, a brother from Lagos sends Chukwudi the passport that the foreigners authority in Parchim always wanted. The customs office in Cologne opens the parcel, confiscates the passport and sends it to the immigration office in Parchim. Chukwudi disappears. He searches again for someone who can obtain a new passport for him from the authorities in Nigeria. Actually You have to appear in person, but money can bypass the regulation. This time an acquaintance brings the passport in the plane from Nigeria.
On 3 April 2005, it is a Sunday, he gets on a rented small silver bus with five friends. The car looks bland and has tinted windows. They drive through the Elbe tunnel, past Flensburg and hope that the German police will not stop them at the border. They drive through Jutland in Denmark to the Little Belt and hope that the Danish police will not wave them out. At dusk they cross the Öresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö.
Chukwudi sits in the middle of the back seat. The only black person in the car is not to be seen immediately from the outside.
“Why do you do that?”he asks.
He's known the answer for years, but maybe he needs a distraction now.
“Everything should not be the way it is”, says one of his friends.
“How should it be?”asks Chukwudi.
“It shall not matter where one comes from. And how much money one has.”
“How is that supposed to work?”
“For example, you should be allowed to live where you want. So here. And everyone should have what he needs, and not only what he can pay for.”
“You want businesses in which one does not have to pay?”
“Yes, maybe. Where you get what you need.”
“You're crazy”, says Chukwudi, and he knows that they know that he doesn't mean that.
The Volvo of the Swedish police stays at the roadside as they drive past.
Ten days later, a registrar in the municipality of Sjöbo declares Chukwudi, now 44, husband to a German woman.
He is not allowed to leave Germany and travel to Sweden. Marriage, however, is a fundamental right here. The registry office is therefore not allowed to ask for a visa for Sweden. And within the EU, all countries recognise each other's marriages.
After eleven years in Germany and eight months in deportation custody, the Aliens Department in Parchim Chukwudi must allow his stay.
But the judiciary has not yet finished with him.
On the morning of 20 June 2006 in the courtroom of Parchim, the public prosecutor resigned himself to the translator. He reads aloud how Chukwudi pushed the saleswoman away in the Aldi and was thus guilty of attempted robbery and negligent bodily harm, and he reads aloud that damage to property and trespassing are committed by those who throw the computer off the table at the social services office and damage to property and coercion, by those who smash the tires of the head of the aliens department, and by those who hit the Nazi's head with a declares like Chukwudi did in front of the disco.
Then it's his lawyer's turn. She reads her brief and says that the years in the camp have brought Chukwudi into an exceptional emotional situation and that a doctor has attested him an “adaptation disorder with a depressive mood”. It boils down to the fact that he is not entirely guilty. Not everyone in the room likes this and one of them shouts “Resistance is not a disease”. The judge says that the trial only takes place between the participants in the front of the room and the heckler repeats it again, but this time nobody reacts.
Then it's Chukwudi's turn. Even without his guerrilla dress he looks like a foreign body in this German courtroom, he doesn't need to introduce himself as the jungle fighter. Now it is he who is accusing: his living conditions and the authorities that forced them on him and those who did business with them. He opens his leather suitcase and pulls out the letters he has written to German offices over the last eleven years, every time he hasn't accepted something, and now he holds up the papers and says what's in them and then he walks around the table and lays them out on the court floor like a street vendor puts his goods on the sidewalk. When he is finished, the row is several metres long and Chukwudi says that he is in the right because the camps and the vouchers are wrong and even the parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania would see that that way today.
“Who is guilty here Akubou or the state?”his friends had written on the leaflet for the trial day. But never, they had believed, would Chukwudi get out of here unharmed, never would the state accept that an African would throw German officials' computers off the table because German asylum law did not suit him.
But it seems that Chukwudi is the more convincing prosecutor on this day.
The injured Nazi: self-defence. Dropped.
The computers and the copier in the social welfare office, the car tires, the cigarettes in the Aldi: Too long ago. Discontinued.
The cashier's bruises: No robbery, but attempted coercion plus negligent bodily injury, the judge suggests.
There is hardly anything left of his class action suit, the strict public prosecutor is less bothered by it now than before by the translator's English. He would be satisfied with 30 daily rates of 11 euros each as a punishment for the cashier's bruises, he says.
The judge cuts in half. 15 daily rates of 11 euros each.
It's almost an acquittal.