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Asylum in Berlin: From Grozny to Alexanderplatz

Few people know that Chechens are the number one group seeking asylum in Germany. Meet Adam and Farisa, two Chechens whose unsettling and life-changing story makes up just part of our "Asylum in Berlin" issue, out on newsstands now.

Few people know that Chechens are now the largest refugee group in Germany, driven here by rumours of sanctuary. Two of them are Adam and Farisa, who led ordinary lives in Grozny until the Kadyrov regime turned on them. Now biding their time in one of Berlin’s refugee centres, the young couple and their two children face the only certain thing here when it comes to asylum: an uncertain future. Find out more – and read more asylum seekers’ stories – in our November issue, out on newsstands now.

“I would love to do that free-fall jump I saw at Alexanderplatz,” says Adam, “That would seriously help me calm down.” For the last three months he and his wife Farisa, both 24, have been living with their six-year-old daughter Camilla in a refugee centre on Levetzowstraße in Moabit. Their second child, Abdul Malik, was born in September.

Adam is waiting for the official confirmation of his diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to anxiety medication (pregabalin). If he gets it, he and his family will stay in Berlin up until the final decision on their status is issued by the state. If the diagnosis is not confirmed, they will have to move to another refugee centre in the eastern city of Chemnitz – known for its large neo-Nazi scene – and maybe ultimately back to Poland.

Only recently did Adam stop sleeping with his clothes on, a habit he picked up from the fear of nightly arrests back in Chechnya.

Adam and Farisa both come from the village of Shalazhy, 50km from Grozny. “To tell you the truth, I wanted to marry another woman from the village,” says Adam, smiling, “but she got married to another man and I had to take her.” Farisa does not look like a “Plan B”. She’s a pretty, young woman with a madonna-like face who takes good care of herself, her eyes always nicely made-up. Her one-month-old baby in her arms, she stays quiet as her husband talks. It’s hard to believe that the shy woman is a law school graduate – but her husband is quick to refer to his demure wife as a “volcano woman”.

After marrying, the couple settled in Grozny: Adam worked in the construction business, while Farisa studied and took care of Camilla. but what could have been a cosy middle class life by Chechen standards came to an abrupt end in 2012 when, according to Adam, he was ripped off by the construction supervisor and accused of not paying a subcontractor.

These kinds of shady business practices are not uncommon throughout the Russian Federation. What was out of the ordinary, though, was Farisa’s decision to appeal for President Ramzan Kadyrov’s help by writing a post on his Instagram – the Chechen dictator is famously social-media-savvy, and extremely active on the photo-sharing website.

Help came immediately. The night of Farisa’s post, the couple received a phone call from Islam Kadyrov, Ramzan’s brother and the mayor of Grozny. He invited Adam and his former supervisor to his private residence and the matter was officially settled. but just as Kadyrov’s Instagram was boasting that justice had been done (though Adam still had not gotten his money), Adam was suddenly accused of complying with terrorists back when he lived in Shalazhy.

“They had come to the village and were asking for food. How could you not help? Besides, I had known one of them for years,” says Adam. “He was my schoolmate,” adds Farisa. This didn’t matter to the Chechen authorities, who subjected Adam to a series of cruel interrogations. The skinny man’s body still bears witness to the torture he underwent – beatings, electroshock, fingernail removal. During this time, Farisa found out she was pregnant. They decided to flee.

With Farisa’s parents’ savings, they bought train tickets to Moscow and then to Brest – where, like so many other Chechens, they entered the EU through the Polish town of Terespol and applied for asylum. Just off the border they were approached by a Polish man who, discreetly, offered to drive them to Berlin. “I tried to negotiate but he wouldn’t go for less than €1000,” says Adam. “That was pretty much all the money we had left.”

The two proceeded to follow the man’s convoluted itinerary. “We went 600 metres down and then turned somewhere and then turned somewhere again until we found the car he described. It was a completely different car.”

Some nine hours later Adam, Farisa and Camilla were dropped off on Alexanderplatz, with no sense of what to do or where to go. “We asked around until we found someone who spoke Russian.” For €20 their helper brought them to the LAGeSo central office in Moabit’s Turmstraße, where they were immediately issued a permit to temporarily stay in Berlin – until further notice.

Life at the Heim is quiet – they’re provided food and €350-450 per month to cover extras, transportation and legal fees – but idle. Farisa tries to fill her days with mothering and cooking Caucasian meals with other Chechen women. Adam helps as he can but seems to live in a perpetual state of anxiety – only recently did he stop sleeping with his clothes on, a habit he picked up from the fear of nightly arrests and interrogations back in Chechnya.

Even with the lawyer on their side, they have little understanding of whether they will be allowed to stay in Germany or sent back to Poland, the country where they originally applied for asylum. “As soon as I am deported to Poland, Kadyrov’s men will easily get me. That’s what they told my parents. I’d rather hang myself than have them take me back to Chechnya,” says Adam. Given the paltry rate of acceptance of Chechen asylum requests, the odds are not on their side, though.

Besides visits to doctors and to their lawyer, they hardly leave the former school that serves as their makeshift residence. An exception is their first Berlin sight: Alexanderplatz. “We love it there. That’s where I sometimes go with other women from here. It’s beautiful,” says Farisa. If they were allowed to stay in Germany, she would love to have her degree validated and become a licensed lawyer. Adam would gladly work in construction again, but if Farisa succeeds he says he wouldn’t mind staying home with the kids: “When you know they are yours, why not?” Looking at Farisa’s sad, cast-down eyes, you understand she’s foreseeing a grimmer future.

Grab yourself a copy of our asylum seekers issue on newsstands now or get it in our web shop!

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013