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Flight for Life Series: Living in Transit

As Germany struggles to house more than 1 million refugees, some unusual temporary solutions are being found. Meet the residents of Transit, a three-story barge full of transported lives moored near Hamburg.

Written by Kat Lonsdorf, Sarah Appel, Arthur Kropanev and Philipp Meuser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
The view of the river seen from Gharib’s room on the barge. Philipp Meuser

Tarek Gharib leans against the wall in the hallway of Cafe Refugio, a church-basement-turned-coffeehouse and meeting place for refugees in the southern Hamburg neighborhood of Harburg.

Gharib, 36, has pale blue eyes, sandy blonde hair and a fair complexion. At first glance, he looks German, or at least European. But Gharib came to Hamburg from Damascus, Syria, last year – one of 62,000 refugees who arrived in the city in 2015.

“There is no future for me here,” he says flatly in English, shrugging his shoulders. “Nothing.”

Gharib smokes an argeelah, or shisha, in his room on the refugee ship Transit. (Phillip Meuser)

Gharib smokes an argeelah, or shisha, in his room on the refugee ship Transit. (Phillip Meuser)

Gharib left Syria in late 2014, fleeing north through Turkey before traveling by boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece. He then took the northern route, mainly by foot during the coldest months of winter, heading to Germany in search of asylum.

When he first arrived in Hamburg, Gharib was placed in Schwarzenberg One, a refugee camp in Harburg with 600 residents, while his paperwork was processed. Refugees in Germany are only supposed to stay in these larger camps for no more than three months before they are transferred to smaller, more private refugee housing. However, a shortage of shelters and delays in the processing of asylum applications have resulted in stays sometimes of six months or longer. Gharib was at Schwarzenberg One for eight months.

“Now, I live on the ship,” he says.

The refugee ship Transit is located in the port of Harburg, away from the central part of the district. (Philipp Meuser)

The refugee ship Transit is located in the port of Harburg, away from the central part of the district. (Philipp Meuser)

The ship is actually a former cargo barge called Transit, anchored on a canal of the Süderelbe River in Harburg. It was turned into temporary refugee housing in early 2015.

Throughout Germany the government has been struggling with housing for the over 1 million refugees who have flooded the country since Angela Merkel’s “open-door” policy was announced last year. In Harburg, additional housing had to be built for 94 percent of the nearly 23,000 refugees that stayed in the city last year, according to the government. As a result, temporary housing for refugees has been popping up wherever the government can find space, sometimes in unusual and secluded locations such as Transit.

The word “integration” is frequently used in the refugee conversation in Germany; there’s even a required eight-month integration course for all asylum seekers in the country that includes intensive German-language courses and lectures covering culture and history. But social integration is difficult for refugees like Gharib, who are housed in cramped living quarters, often isolated from the rest of the community.

“As soon as you have larger groups of people staying together, it becomes difficult,” says Uwe Ram, head of the Department of International Cooperation at the Senate Chancellery in Hamburg. “It’s a challenge for the city.”

Ram says the goal of the city is to spread out refugees to make social and cultural interaction more natural, but since available space for temporary housing is limited and many refugees can’t afford or find their own apartments, that hasn’t happened yet.

“It is a task we will have to work on in the next decade,” says Uwe.

Transit houses 216 people on three floors. Each floor is divided into two wings with a communal kitchen, bathrooms and laundry area. It’s clean and orderly, with strict rules for visitation hours and against. All visitors are required to register with the security officers guarding the door 24 hours.

(left) Cellphone photos from al-Refai show the pair’s recent catches from the river. The duck shown was released. (Private) (right) The fish caught by Gharib and al-Refai in the river were cooked for dinner. (Private)

(left) Cellphone photos from al-Refai show the pair’s recent catches from the river. The duck shown was released.
(right) The fish caught by Gharib and al-Refai in the river were cooked for dinner. (Private)

Gharib lives in a small, less than 90-square-feet (8.3 square meters) room with Ibrahim al-Refai, a warm and welcoming Syrian whose wife and 11 children are all in Jordan while he’s in Germany. The room is only big enough to fit the beds end-to-end with a table and two chairs filling the remaining space.

“Titanic,” Gharib says laughing. “We live on Titanic.”

The river is only a few feet below the window, and Gharib has removed the screen so he can feed the ducks that paddle around and fish with a fishing pole he bought in Hamburg. Both activities are forbidden on the ship, but rules aren’t really something Gharib is concerned about. One time, the pair caught fish and cooked them for dinner. Another time, a duck flew into the room and Gharib had to catch it and release it back outside.

Al-Refai spends a lot of his time scrolling through the daily videos and photos his family sends him from Jordan. He’s been in Germany for 10 months now. He hasn’t seen his family in over a year. He has two mini-SD cards full of videos and photos, and he swaps one or the other into his phone throughout the day to keep scrolling.

It’s Ramadan and al-Refai’s family has just sent him a video of their iftar evening meal (to mark the daily end of Ramadan) in Jordan. He tears up while watching it; despite his warmth, his loneliness is palpable.

Both Gharib and al-Refai only recently made their first German friend, a local photographer who visited the boat. Both said this was the first time they had really interacted with someone from the community outside of government meetings or the required integration classes.

Places such as Cafe Refugio in the basement of the church are a kind of grassroots answer to the isolation problem many of the refugees here face. Funded entirely by the church and local donations, the cafe opened a little over a year ago with the hope of creating a destination place for refugees outside of the temporary housing communities. Two foosball tables are one of the most popular attractions. Throughout the day, a mix of German and Arabic is heard over the thwacking of the rubber ball on wood. The coffee and sweets are free, and German-language tutors sit at tables in the back.

The German volunteers who run the space also want it to be a place where refugees and local community members can start to interact.

Peter Spott, a retired member of the neighborhood who volunteers at the cafe multiple times a week, says that social integration is difficult for many of the refugees who have limited German-language skills, and no job or public ties to their new German community.

“What is this word ‘integration’ really?” he asks, sitting on a couch near the foosball tables. “You have to have respect first – I need to know you, you need to know me. Once you have that, this integration is not so difficult.”

Amer Saba, a 39-year-old Syrian refugee smoking outside the cafe, agrees. Saba has made a new habit of cooking Syrian meals for the German community, hoping to spark communication.

“It’s an interactive process,” he says. “We are interested in the German lifestyle, but they need to know about us too.” The first step, he thinks, is getting people to connect and share with each other. “It’s a bad feeling when you are in some place and you just feel useless,” Saba says.

“We are not coming from nowhere or never-never land. We are coming from Syria.”

This story originally appeared as part of the Flight for Life project. Read more about the making of one of the most ambitious student reporting responses to the refugee crisis.

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