Exit Wilmersdorf

For the past two years, the old town hall building in City West functioned as an emergency refugee shelter for over 2000 people. Now, the building is closing down. It's an explosive situation with fear and anger running high among the residents.

Image for Exit Wilmersdorf

By December 15, the refugee occupants of this former town hall will have all been relocated to new homes. Photo by Pavel Mezihorák

For the past two years, the old town hall building in City West functioned as an emergency refugee shelter for over 2000 people. Now, the building is closing down. Fear, mistrust and anger run high among the residents, while officials swear they’re doing their best and helpers preach patience. An explosive situation?

Wilmersdorf’s former town hall has no kitchens, not enough toilets and only temporary showers, in which mould easily grows. But for Shana, her husband and her three children, this is home. Or at least, it was.

“We’ve lived here for the past two years, and now they told us we will have to move, Allah knows where to,” says the 29-year-old woman from Hama, Syria. “It’s been hard enough for us already, and now we’ve heard we will be placed in one of those container villages – a ghetto, really. When is it going to get easier?”

Sitting in the makeshift women’s common room, surrounded by friends and her two daughters, Shana admits this isn’t what she had hoped for when she and her family fled Hama in 2015. “I have a cousin in who came to Munich to study nine years ago; he has a job and a good life there. So when our lives in Hama turned unliveable, we decided to come. We had many, many hopes. We hoped for a proper home.” Yet, after two years spent in an abandoned city hall with rudimentary living conditions, the many families who live here share Shana’s fears about the future. They’re not even clear what prompted the district’s decision to evacuate the building by December 15.

Many mention the protests in May of this year, when bedbugs were found in the building and a group of about 50 residents camped outside the entrance until the authorities eventually found them a new place to live. Leon Friedel, integration commissioner of the district office of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, brushes off the allegation. “It had nothing to do with the complaints. The LAF (Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelegenheiten, formerly LaGeSo) rented the building from the district for two years. Those two years are up in December. And people were only meant to live there for three-month periods, not for such a long time. The building is not suited for living – it’s an office building, after all. I wouldn’t wish living like this on anybody,” admits Friedel. But in a year when 54,000 refugees arrived in Berlin, there were not many options.

“We rented the building from Berlin Immobilien for two years – that was the deal,” confirms Sascha Langenbach, LAF’s alwayschipper spokesman. “We had to find quick solutions to give us time to build better accommodation. We’re building 15,000 new homes before the end of 2019.” Langenbach admits, however, that the past few months have been hard on everyone. “We had over 1600 people still living in the building, and we had to move all of them between October and December. Five hundred people will move to container villages in Zehlendorf; others will go to Spandau, to other buildings or modular homes. There will be cooking facilities everywhere, which is making people happy.”

But resident of the former town hall building are sceptical. Some say they are ready to protest if their circumstances don’t get better. “We will go out on the streets,” says Rashan, a young father. “We don’t want to be in ghettos; we don’t want our children to grow up like this. We come from war, we wanted a better life!” It seems many people agree with him. They don’t put much trust in the district’s repeated promises.

Meanwhile, volunteers at the shelter have been trying to smooth things over. Many have been helping since the beginning, and have stayed friends with the newcomers. Hanna, a retired schoolteacher and one of the shelter’s most enthusiastic helpers, is advocating for patience: “Germany never made any promises to these people. We said, ‘Okay, come here because you are in trouble, we will try to help you.’ I think we are doing the best we can. I know these living situations aren’t ideal, but many of them understand that it’s better than not having a home at all! Than being in danger, than having your kids starved and tortured and killed…” Hanna is worried. “If protests start, it’s not going to help the situation, and especially the image of refugees. The right wing is already strong; we cannot help them get stronger.”

The district’s Department of Integration says they’re trying to ensure that the children can stay in the same schools and kindergartens they’ve been attending. As Leon Friedel says: “They’ve already grown roots, made friends – and this is where integration starts. They don’t need more changes! There are so many initiatives in our district, so many people willing to help… we don’t want those connections to get lost.” The final relocation data hasn’t been released yet, but it seems unlikely that children resettled in a refugee village in, say, Lichtenberg will travel to a Wilmersdorf school every day.

Meanwhile Shana will have to hope for the best. Maybe her new home, wherever it is, will have proper kitchens, real showers and working toilets. And the former town hall will be renovated and can fulfil its original purpose: being an administration building.