Berlin refugees struggle to find permanent housing

Story by Shannon O’Hara | | @shannoneohara

Photos by Kira Vercruyssen | @kiravphotography

Since they met in a Berlin gymnasium turned shelter seven months ago, Samim Noori, Ahmed Javed Hamdard and Hamed Hoseini have become inseparable.

“We’re just like a small family, we’re calling me big brother, him small brother,”says Hoseini, 31, pointing at Noori, 21, and Hamdard, 24.

The three young men from Afghanistan eat together, study together and hang out together. They’d like to stay together, but finding affordable housing in the city has proven daunting, especially for refugees like them.

Berlin had a shortage of housing even before the recent wave of migration. Some landlords and neighbors are prejudiced against foreigners, and there is a massive amount of paperwork involved.

“There’s a hierarchy for the renters,” said Eyad Agha, from Syria, who first lived in Berlin in 2013 as a student before he returned last year as a refugee.

“So you have to be working or ethnically German. There are standards. We are always at the bottom of their standards list,” he said.

When they first arrive in Berlin, refugees are housed in a temporary shelter, like the gymnasium in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood where Hoseini, Hamdard and Noori have been staying since last year. Once their initial asylum applications are processed, or asylum is granted, they are either moved to a more permanent camp or given permission to look for housing on the private rental market. This approval comes with a promise from the authorities to pay the rent, as long as it’s cheap. The ultimate prize is a Wohnberechtigungsschein, or WBS, which makes refugees eligible for subsidized housing or an apartment in a building owned by a semi-governmental cooperative.

The brothers, as fellow residents at their shelter call them, should have moved to a more permanent place, with real walls rather than sheets separating cots, several months ago, but so far, this hasn’t worked out. “We have a permit, but it is difficult to find a flat in Berlin,”Hoseini said.

Eyad Agha, a 29-year-old Syrian, stands out on the street in front of the Sharehaus Refugio on June 8, 2016. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

A popular city, Berlin has grown at an average pace of more than 40,000 new residents per year since 2011. Last year’s refugee influx added an additional 50,000 people in need of housing. Even for Germans, finding a place to live in Berlin has become difficult.

Daniel Feher recently decided to move back to Berlin from Brussels, where he had been working with the European Parliament. It took him four months until he found an apartment, and in his opinion, it’s hard to imagine how he could have done so without a work and rental history in Germany. German landlords require securities that refugees are often unable to provide.

“When you come to Berlin and you don’t have a job yet, you don’t have a German bank account, you don’t have a German credit history, then you can basically forget about it, to find a permanent flat for rent,”Feher said.

The office that is supposed to help refugees navigate the rental market is the Evangelisches Jugend- und Fürsorgewerk, a Lutheran youth and welfare organization. The volunteer organization is often overworked and understaffed. Volunteer organizations, however, have found ways to sidestep the rigid requirement.

Instead of presenting a payment slip, refugees can show proof that they will receive anallowance from the state that will cover the rent, said Ciaran Wrons-Passman, a volunteer at an initiative called AG Wohnungssuche, which works to find apartments for the refugees.

“And then the director of the shelter can give to the refugees a form saying that they’ve always paid their rent.”

This way the refugees have a rental history, even though they don’t pay rent at the shelter.

The volunteers help refugees to assemble the paperwork and identify available rentals. “And then you go there, you have a look, then you hand in your documents, ‘cause that’s the way you do it, and then you hope that they will give you the apartment,”Wrons-Passman said.

That hope often comes to naught because many landlords are unwilling to rent short-term. Many refugees are only granted a stay of six or 12 months in Germany while their asylum applications are processed. Fahima Mohammadi, 22, is from Afghanistan and the oldest of seven children. Her family of nine has a permit to stay for six months, but Give Back, another volunteer group, needs at least a year to find them a place. When their pass runs out, they’ll have to reapply to search. It is a long process, and the family has been living in the NUK Karlshorst, a Red Cross shelter, for ten months.

The shelter is far from comfortable. Nearly 1000 people live there, which puts a strain on facilities. Families can wash laundry only once a month, the showers are far away from the actual rooms, and residents complain that the bathrooms are dirty. The food, they say, is horrible and residents aren’t allowed to cook for themselves.

Another challenge is racism, which Olaf Bruhn, of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, works to research and prevent. According to some surveys, one-third of Berliners have prejudices against Muslims. Though proving prejudice is difficult through the legal system, it is definitely present. Last year, a difficult case proved that a Turkish couple paid significantly higher rents than their neighbors, even though this is against the law. Refugees are just as likely to face racism when they try to find a place to live.

The government is hoping to address the underlying shortage of housing by trying to create housing fast. Stacking shipping containers converted into living space on top of each other is part of the state of Berlin’s master plan. However, in deploying these structures, the government has to deal with angry residents. At a recent rally in Alt-Glienicke, a suburb ofBerlin, several hundred residents protested against five container-style houses being built in the area, expressing concerns that a large influx of refugees will overwhelm the local schools.

Haus der Statistik was home to Berlin’s Statistics office. Located just a block away from the busy Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin, it is one of the last government owned buildings in the area. June 3, 2016. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

The refugees themselves also fear that container villages might isolate them. Agha, the student from Syria, advocates building new neighborhoods for everyone instead. “Otherwise, it is not a good step for integration” he said.

Community initiatives around the city agree. They are pushing to open abandoned buildings and renovating them to accommodate a mix of housing and community space.

Florian Schoettle, board member of one such initiative, wants to turn the Haus der Statistik, an old East German office building near Alexanderplatz, into a work and living space for 2,000 people. The space would include art studios, affordable apartments, group housing and offices.

“We see the housing crisis in this city and we know that the public housing companies are not able to plan and invest, all they are able to do is administrate the properties and raise the rent,”he said. Others have decided against waiting for renovations or new construction, which could take years. Sharehaus Refugio, a charitable organization started in Africa, opened its doors to refugees, and others, for as much as they can afford in exchange for participation in the community. The 40 people living in the community, half Germans and half refugees, live and cook together. They organize cultural events, offer German courses and tend to a rooftop garden. This is where Agha, who is working toward a master’s degree in Information Management Systems, has finally found a home.

The three friends from Afghanistan meanwhile attended their first open house. Packed 30 people tight, the four-room flat would have been ideal for them. Yet, when talking to the owner, the men received a negative response. The owner did not want to rent to them because he didn’t trust the social welfare office of Berlin to make good on its promise and pay the rent on time.

The newfound brothers don’t want to give up on making a home together, even if that means many more months of waiting, or even a move to another, more permanent refugee home.

“The main things that we are looking at are some nice place, some quiet place, where we can just live together, or study,” Hoseini said. “We’re just thinking about the future.”


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