Ramadan and Refugees in Berlin

By Alyssa Gray | Photos by Adam McCaw

A small convoy of vehicles pulls into a refugee shelter at the end of a street in a residential area in Spandau, an outlying district of Berlin. Several women emerge from a Smart car, a small Toyota sedan and a Mercedes Benz cargo van. They huddle to the side of a small building for a brief moment, but then head straight to work.

The volunteers don vests in white and neon-yellow with the word “Hasene” on the back. Hasene is an Islamic charity organization with projects around the world. During the holy month of Ramadan, it distributes food in 52 countries, one of which is Germany.

More than a million asylum seekers crossed the German border last year, many of them Muslims. In Berlin’s Muslim community, people like Raziye Bagci, a student who has lived in Germany all her life, felt called upon to lend the newcomers a helping hand.

Hasene is affiliated with Milli Gorus, an umbrella organization for the Turkish-Muslim diaspora, that has been fighting the fundamentalist label for years. The majority of its members live in Germany, which hosts the largest Turkish population in the world outside of Turkey. Most of the German Turks came as guest workers, in the 1960s and 1970s. It was meant to be a temporary living situation — do the job, then get out. But many chose to stay.

Muslims pour out onto the sidewalk during a Friday prayer at Dar Assalam Mosque. Berlin, June 3, 2016. Photo by Adam McCaw

Last year, the German Turks were joined in Berlin by more than 50,000 refugees from mostly Muslim countries who chose to apply for asylum in the city. They’re divided up between 150 different camps and shelters. Some in the German Muslim community chose Ramadan as a good time to help their newly arrived brothers and sisters in faith.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Ramadan is the month during which it is put into practice. For 29 days, from June 6 to July 5, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As Islam follows the lunar calendar, the days are not the same each year on the Gregorian calendar. This year, 2016, marks the first time in 30 years that Ramadan has fallen on the summer solstice, meaning longer days without food.

While fasting, Raziye Bagci carries out her day as usual. Ramadan is not a chance to miss school or work. She adjusts her sleep schedule to be awake between sunset and sunrise to eat and then goes to sleep when the sun comes up. She later wakes up around noon and starts her day by going to school, where she studies economics.

Bagci had always wanted to help the refugees in some way, ever since they first started arriving in Berlin in large numbers. She volunteered at her school, the Free University of Berlin, where she also participates in an e-buddy program that pairs her with a student from Syria. Her first interaction with Hasene, however, did not happen in Berlin.

Umrah is similar to the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims should perform once in their lifetime. Unlike the Hajj, Umrah may occur at any time and is not mandatory.

Bagci met a woman from Hasene while completing her Umrah, and was told that if she wanted to help the refugees she could choose an area and program that she felt passionate about.

With Ramadan approaching, delivering food to refugee shelters seemed like the perfect opportunity.

In 2015, the Department for Health and Social Affairs of the State of Berlin had talked about doing something for the refugees, but in the end decided to leave it up to the Muslim community. Many different mosques would prepare Iftar, the first evening meal after sunset, for refugees.

Women from ‘Hasene’ deliver halal meals to a refugee center in Berlin-Spandau. Photo by Adam McCall

“This year, with thousands and thousands more, we could not rely on self-organization,” Monika Hebbinghaus, the department’s deputy spokesperson, said.

Each shelter in Berlin provides three meals per day, typically through catering companies selected by the non-government organizations that run the shelters. The nongovernmental organizations usually get a bit over $10 per refugee, per day, for food.

A few weeks before Ramadan, the department began thinking about the question of cultural integration and what should be done for Ramadan. Together with the NGOs running the shelters, it decided that the meal at night, Iftar, and the meal in the morning, Suhur, would raise costs.

“What we’ve learned is that people, during Ramadan, have very specific needs, like the need for foods with high calories,” Sascha Langenbach, another departmental spokesperson, said.

In addition to the cost, figuring out how to provide extra staff at night for an entire month became an issue.

There aren’t too many specifics for what must be eaten during Iftar and Suhur, but one custom requires that the fast must be broken each night with a date.

Tamaja Social Services, a non-profit whose range of influence includes the shelter in the abandoned Berlin-Tempelhof airport, ordered a total of 1.5 tons of dates for Ramadan. With 1,400 people currently housed in the hangars, that equals out to around two dates per person per day. 

“We’re not talking about buying a GM car for every refugee. We’re talking about yogurt and muesli bars. There’s nothing to complain about. It’s a welcoming gesture to supply these things,” Langenbach said. “You just accept that there are a million new people in this country and they have needs.”

But not all shelters receive this food, and that’s where Hasene comes into the picture.

Some shelters, rather than serving three meals per day, simply give the refugees money for food. This is a way to give refugees agency so that they can have more of a say in what they are eating, but it also presents the problem of having to be self-sufficient at finding and buying food.

Buying in bulk is cheaper for the nongovernmental organizations and catering companies. For a single refugee, the same amount of money does not stretch quite as far.

Shelters that are further from the metropolitan area also face the struggle of transportation and a limited variety of foods.

Refugee children accept food and toys from the Islamic aid organization, Hasene on June 7, 2016. Photo by Adam McCall

A shelter in Spandau that Hasene recently delivered to is tucked away in a residential area. Though a small grocery store is within walking distance, there is no Turkish restaurants or produce stands nearby.

Hasene attempts to make finding food for Ramadan that much easier for refugees by providing them with packages that include everything they need.

One package of food weighs eight kilos and contains dates, fusilli noodles, cooking oil, lentils and rice. In addition, the helpers brought candy for the children: lollipops that were decorated to look like flowers by the children of the volunteers.

Hasene also supplies cans of Halal meat. In Islamic culture, an animal must be slaughtered in a clean area, without pain in order to be ‘Halal.’ Rather than serving prepared food, hot and ready to eat, Hasene provides the packages so that the refugees will have more than just one meal’s worth of food.

As charity is an important part of Islamic culture and faith, mosques were among the first to step forward when the refugees arrived in Germany.

After breaking her fast, Raziye Bagci leaves a traditional Turkish restaurant. Berlin, Thursday, June 9, 2016. Photo by Adam McCaw
After breaking her fast, Raziye Bagci leaves a traditional Turkish restaurant. Berlin, Thursday, June 9, 2016. Photo by Adam McCaw

At Dar-as-Salam mosque in Berlin’s Neukölln district, a third of the worshippers are refugees. Before the refugee crisis, attendance for the Friday service was around a thousand people. It now exceeds 1,500 for the afternoon prayer service, which is why extra prayer rugs routinely line the courtyard in front of the mosque, reaching out to the sidewalk beyond the gates.

As more refugees arrived, the mosque also opened its doors to offer shelter. It bought enough supplies for 40 people to sleep in the main prayer room for three months. A team was created specifically to help refugees with translation. And every new arrival was greeted with a celebration.

Imam Mohamed Taha Sabri still remembers his own experience when he first moved to Germany in 1988. He was a political refugee from Tunisia. The president of Tunisia at the time was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and many people protested against him as a corrupt leader. Sabri, a student at the time, took part in the protests. He was arrested at one point, and upon his release he left for Germany.

“When I came to Germany in 1988, the best thing I was offered was a feeling of belonging, and that I wasn’t being cut off from my culture,” Sabri said. “Integration is not giving up something, it’s like evolution. As long as you come and you choose to be here, then you have some duties, not just rights.”

Like Sabri, Bagci feels that it is her religious duty to help the refugees. But unlike him, she relates to them on another level: that of an outsider.

“I was born here, I am 21 years old, and I don’t know the area I live in. The German people are not always nice. They make you feel that you are not like them. Like you are the other.  And so, if you have this feeling, you cannot ‘integrate’ into this group,” Bagci said.

Though born in Germany, she still does not feel entirely accepted by the German community. She understands the challenges that the refugees are going through in trying to gain acceptance, and this has inspired her to volunteer.

During Ramadan, while fasting throughout the day, she is still working to ensure that the refugees have everything they need.

She is also very happy to enjoy Iftar at a Turkish restaurant in the Steglitz area of Berlin at the end of a long day of volunteering and working on her thesis.

“You think the whole day about what you can eat, and you dream about it,” she said.

As she sits at her table, she patiently waits to eat. On the table is a small glass dish with four dates. Water, bread and a bowl of soup have already been served.

An alarm on her phone goes off, an app that tells her the direction of Mecca notifies her when it is time for Iftar. From her phone comes the sound of an Imam singing the traditional chant, a reminder that the fasting is for God.

“We fast to know how the people living without food live, that is the reason why we do this,” She said.

And to break her 18-hour long fast, Bagci slowly places a date in her mouth.


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