Willkommen to the club

Two young Arab insiders let us in on the not-always-rosy reality of fellow refugees’ integration in the Berlin club scene.

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Since May of this year, Berlin LGBTQ club Schwuz has employed two mediators from Syria and Iraq to translate between security and Arabic-speaking guests.

Two young Arab insiders let us in on the not-always-rosy reality of fellow refugees’ integration in the Berlin club scene.

“ You can sit a man in a chair and feed him as much as you like, give him as much money as you like, but that doesn’t mean he will know how to behave in this culture.”

You’d expect to hear these words coming from an AfD voter, not a young gay Iraqi who arrived in Germany as a refugee last year and is now employed to work the door of one of Berlin’s most inclusive clubs. But as one of two translators between Arabic-speaking guests and security staff at Schwuz in Neukölln, Jamir* knows that welcoming refugees into the city’s venerable LGTBQ nightlife institution requires more than just friendly intentions.

A lot of these refugees come from small villages with very conservative communities, and so it is new knowledge to them that women actually exist who don’t want to be touched by men.

As part of his work, Jamir must explain in Arabic to guests at the door exactly what the nature of Schwuz as a club is, and sometimes even this description alone can be revelatory for recent arrivals. “With all the misconceptions they have already about European women, to be told that there are groups such as lesbians can be a real shock for some of these guys. A lot of these refugees come from small villages with very conservative communities, and so it is new knowledge to them that women actually exist who don’t want to be touched by men.” Jamir continues, “The problem is that back home, the only images that these men have of European women is from the internet and pornography… so when they come here, they think that that is what the women at clubs want.”

Events in Leipzig seem to support his claim. Conne Island, a leftist club in the alternative neighbourhood of Connewitz, opened its doors this year to refugees for the nominal entrance fee of 50 cents. But the initiative quickly backfired when the venue found itself overwhelmed with large groups of young men and corresponding skyrocketing cases of sexual harassment, theft and violence. The police were called; female guests deserted the club. It is hard not to feel for an anti-racist, anti-sexist organisation trying to “show solidarity with refugees and fight the right-wing climate” but forced to acknowledge, in a long and convoluted statement released in October, that “the strongly authoritarian and patriarchal socialisation in some of the refugees’ countries of origin and the freedom of Western (party-)culture have created an explosive mix at our place.” The club’s conclusion: “Carrying a ‘Refugees Welcome’ tote bag doesn’t automatically solve all problems and conflicts.”

In Berlin, nightlife has always been connected to left-wing politics and progressive social values, and the refugee influx has been approached no differently. Clubs like Schwuz, About Blank, Yaam and SO36 were quick to take up the Willkommenskultur banner last year, hosting solidarity parties and participating in the Plus1 campaign, a citywide fundraising initiative in which guest-listed party-goers donate €1 towards selected refugee charities that has raised €123,000 to date. Located in the heart of Berlin’s Arab community in Neukölln, Schwuz was also eager to include the newcomers in their club’s events. “We wanted to create parties not just about refugees, but for them, with Arab music and belly dancing,” says press officer Laura Ningel. “But to create a space of diversity you need expertise, and you need knowledge. We didn’t want to be seen as “Gutmenschen” (do-gooders). Our approach is always to work with people, and not just give them something that we think will be cool for them.” To that end, the club hired Jamir as well as a Syrian refugee, Ahmed*, in May, with help from the LGBTI refugee advisory centre in Kreuzberg operated by Schwulenberatung Berlin. They also began offering free tickets to those receiving support from the organisation, as well as half-price entry for holders of a “Berlin Pass” (available to refugees and low-income Berliners). Word spread, and more Middle Eastern men began attending the queer club, not all of whom understood its “safe space” mission statement.

Jamir and Ahmad soon realised that cultural misunderstandings and ensuing misbehaviour extend to the queer refugee community as well. Both were at an Arabic-themed solidarity party in May, Ahmad as a translator, Jamir as a guest. “It was my first night working there, and probably the worst I have ever witnessed,” recalls the former. “The police were called out to the party three times, there were a lot of fights, security even had to use their pepper spray…” Jamir adds: “Most of the fights occurred as the result of petty jealousy among the queer refugee community. Coming to Europe was a liberating experience for them – they’ve had to hide who they are in their home countries. But then men they kissed or slept with here instantly became boyfriends in their eyes, and when these men they thought they had a relationship with began flirting with others, they got angry and violence broke out.”

Jamir feels that more needs to be done towards refugees’ social and cultural integration in Berlin. “When I still lived in Iraq, I used to slam my door so loud! The houses are so big that it doesn’t matter, but when I moved here I actually had to learn to close a door quietly. I learned to adapt. So when I am working at Schwuz, I take every opportunity to stop and try to explain to people the way that things are here, the way this society works.

Although appreciative of Schwuz as both an employee and patron, he thinks there are some things the club could be doing differently. “The security guys I am working with get suspicious, they only want me to directly translate what they want me to say. It’s very frustrating. So I talk to my friends, try to spread the word as much as I can, but it is not enough. What these men really need is a second language, whether English or German, to allow them to actually progress in their new culture. Without this there will continue to be a harsh divide.”

Ahmad agrees. “I never wanted to stay in Germany – my original plan was to get to Amsterdam, but since I was fingerprinted in Munich I had to stay here. The refugees that arrive in Germany are here to stay, and because of that we need to work towards integration, rather than just charity relief.” Meanwhile, the Plus1 campaign released its next round of charities last month: four sea search-and-rescue organisations, no long-term integration efforts. It seems as if the gulf between the well-meaning club scene and actual refugee would-be clubbers will remain for now.

*Names changed.