Sista Mimi: School spirit

In December, Mimi – immigrant, activist, organiser and the glue who held the Ohlauer Straße refugee squatter community – passed away. We wrote about her a year earlier in our refugee issue. Here's our portrait of a remarkable woman.

Image for Sista Mimi: School spirit
The door to Mimi’s room when she lived at the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule. Photo by Erica Löfman

An immigrant, activist, organiser and singer, Mimi was the glue holding the Ohlauer Straße refugee squatter community together. We visited her in October 2013.

Mimi is looking at a tiny television set, covered in layers of blankets and clothes. She says she is suffering from pneumonia and looks frail and tired. But the tall, thin thirty something has an exuberant character and an easy smile as she welcomes guests into her living room/kitchen/ bedroom in the former Gerhart Hauptmann- Schule on Ohlauer Straße. Since last winter, the building has been home to around 250 ‘squatters’, mostly illegal refugees and/or activists, mainly from Africa. Mimi is one of the few women – the only black woman, she says. As kitchen organiser, frequent protester and former member of the refugee reggae band Antinational Embassy, she managed to secure a room to herself. Although it is cramped and stuffy, it’s a rare privilege here: the room beside hers is shared by approximately 25 people.

Mimi was born in Kenya. Originally from a Catholic family, her mother met a Saudi Arabian man and converted to Islam. Mimi attended a Catholic girls’ school, and at the same time was a strict Muslim at home. “So you can imagine, I had quite a complex perspective.” As Mimi completed her A-levels, she was expected to marry. “I was basically a goat, without a choice in anything. Who or when I married was none of my business.” At 17, she stubbornly opposed this as the only option for her future.

Since she had obtained outstanding results in school, the Catholic Church and the German government invited her to come to Germany to continue her studies. She was granted a stipend and was to be hosted by a foster family, with the idea of completing a conversion course and going on to university. Although her family was reluctant to let her go, it was eventually Mimi’s insistence, and her mother’s Catholic background, that convinced them to allow her to leave.

In Saxon-Anhalt, Mimi says she was surprised by just how much racism she experienced. Her relationship with her foster family quickly deteriorated, the cultural differences weighed on her and she wasn’t able to develop any emotional ties. “Kids in school didn’t want to play with me, even the dogs would bark at me… So I started wondering, is it my fault? I was never welcome, so I left.” It was then, in 2002, that she dropped out of school and moved to Kreuzberg. At first living off of low-paying jobs at McDonald’s and KFC, eventually Mimi developed a career as a DJ and reggae musician, earning enough to rent her own flat.

When the refugee protesters gathered on Oranienplatz last fall, Mimi was immediately sympathetic to their cause, identifying with their legal ambiguity and feelings of displacement. She decided to get involved with the protest camp. “I don’t have any children or family here… My sisters are in Africa, and my mother died in 2006. I don’t like thinking about Africa without her. So I decided to put my whole heart into this fight. You know, I’m a fighter. So I had to fight for these people.” At first working in the kitchen, Mimi gradually became one of the leading voices on O-platz, joining Antinational Embassy in October.

It was while she was touring Europe with the band that she was evicted from her Kreuzberg apartment. Her landlord had increased the rent to unaffordable levels, and after failing to pay the full amount, Mimi returned from tour to find her belongings – and her music collection, which she had amassed over 14 years – gone.

So she became a live-in member of the camp. “You know, that’s one the first values we have, we do not refuse space to anyone.” Shortly afterward, the protesters were given permission to relocate to the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule for the course of Berlin’s harsh winter. While some chose to stay (see page 16), others, including Mimi, moved in – and never left.

Current conditions in the building are difficult. Seven toilets are divided between approximately 250 people; the heating is unreliable. “The government is taking good care of the trees though. You know, pruning them, cutting down the dead ones… ‘Cos that is more important than toilets and showers,” Mimi says sarcastically. She has been struggling to obtain working showers for the school. Originally promised just one for the entire building, she says she refused, expecting it to create too much tension. They now have two showers total, which work only intermittently.

The Ohlauer Straße squatters rely on volunteers and donations for food and support, and Mimi explains that there is an urgent need for financing from the government – for language teachers, for example. “But you know, that is the point. We are supposed to wait here, and they’re hoping we will get tired and people will just go back to their country.”

Mimi’s personal involvement and activism has led her to a difficult position. She has separated from Antinational Embassy: “You know, I couldn’t just go around singing when we don’t even have a clean toilet here.” She’s also had various charges against her from the police. “When we demonstrate, I am always there and they take me in. I supposedly ‘instigate the refugees’ or something.” She has been held and interrogated various times, and expects that the charges will eventually bring her to jail. She’s worried about having to deal with, and pay for, lawyers.

Throughout our conversation, neighbours and friends drop in constantly. Mimi is reminded that she has a meeting to attend at four, with another one later on. It’s hard to understand what her position entails. She explains that she tries to make up for all that is lacking. “I am like a social worker, a politician, an organiser, a psychologist… It’s a lot of pressure on me.” For a brief moment, the young, skinny woman looks terribly vulnerable. She says she has a sister back home, the youngest, who has dreamed of joining her for a long time. “And you know, right now, I would tell her, don’t come, you might realise you don’t like it.” Four days later, Mimi was admitted to a Berlin hospital for severe pneumonia. 

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013. Mimi passed away on December 10, 2014. Friends and supporters raised €7000 to send her body to Nairobi for burial, and her funeral was held there at the beginning of January. After nearly a year of eviction threats, protests and clashes with police, the future of the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Schule is still uncertain.