Arab refugees in Berlin: From bureaucracy and burnout to homelessness

Arab refugees in Berlin: Bureaucracy, burnout, homelessness
9 min read
11 March, 2024

In the cold winter evenings, a little over a hundred individuals stand in line in Berlin's Frankfurter Allee. Holding a ticket number, they wait for the opening of a shelter that provides the homeless with dinner, showers, and a warm place to sleep until the next morning.

Hassan Ahmad, born to Lebanese parents in Africa in 1970, comes here often to escape the cold winter nights, which worsen his bronchial asthma. He struggled to remember how he made it to the shelter and could not quite clearly explain the issues with his asylum papers.

A little less than six kilometres west, in the area of Kottbusser Tor, another line forms in the cold, but this time outside a food truck that distributes hot meals to the homeless.

Among those distributing bread and bakeries is 54-year-old Müslüm Aydin, a Berlin resident with a Turkish background. He has been doing this since he was forced to stop working due to an injury in 2013, creating a bridge connecting bakeries from where he collects leftover bread to homeless migrants in need of a meal.

"I know many people who committed suicide when they received the rejection of their asylum application. Many, many people"

Whether outside the sleeping shelter in Frankfurter Allee or the food truck in Kottbusser Tor, the homeless Arabs that stand in these lines are still able to keep track of time and can still feel the hunger.

Others, however, are in much darker places. A homeless man in his late 40s often roams the streets around Karl Marx Strasse, walking past indifferent pedestrians and commuters and begging for 20 or 50 cents.

Sometimes, he mutters in Arabic about the loss of humanity. Other times, he stands in an empty corner, engrossed in prolonged discussions with empty chairs and deaf walls.

He rarely utters complete sentences when approached, but his few words reveal a trace of a Syrian accent. He can’t stand homeless shelters, he says, where up to 10 people sleep in a single room. “It is disgusting,” he told The New Arab.

It's estimated that over 150,000 Arabs live in Berlin [Getty Images]
It's estimated that over 150,000 Arabs live in Berlin [Getty Images]

Living hand-to-mouth

But not all homeless Arabs roaming Berlin’s streets fall on the end of the sanity spectrum. Mohsen Mahmoud*, a Tunisian in his early 30s, has built a good relationship with the owners of several bars and cafes in Neukölln and Kreuzberg. This is where he spends the cold nights, politely requesting for small change while customers drink their coffee or beers.

When asked about how he is doing, he responds, “All good, Alhamdulla.” But in reality, he wasn’t sure how he felt anymore. He was once a promising university graduate, but suddenly he found himself on the streets of Berlin begging for change. It all seemed that it happened in the blink of an eye and he remains in disbelief.

Sadly, The New Arab was unable to reconnect with Mohsen again, therefore leaving his story incomplete — a sad indication of the unpredictability of life on the streets. 

Most of these individuals, who came to Germany as refugees, are driven into homelessness due to deeply rooted structural problems. A series of interviews conducted by The New Arab show that discrimination and challenging bureaucracy seem to be some of the main reasons pushing them not just to the streets but mental illness.

How Berlin drives Arab refugees insane

This long struggle with mental health illnesses is often induced by the complexity, slowness and rigidity of the asylum procedure, according to Viola Ninci, who is a psychologist working with refugees in Berlin.

Among other things, the asylum procedure here consists of filling out forms in German and appearing in person at various German institutions like the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs, and the Berlin Immigration Office. This is in addition to undergoing official hearings, where often the judges who oversee the reliability of an asylum request neither have intercultural skills nor psychological knowledge.

“Arab refugees are exposed to the uncertainty of forced removal for several years. They live in fear, not only of losing the prospect of a safe future but also of going back to a country that they risked dying to leave. The likelihood of re-traumatisation is significant,” Ninci said to The New Arab.

The story of Suleiman Emran is a case in point, illustrating the challenges faced by Arab refugees in Berlin. Born in Khartoum in 1962, he has been living in Germany since 2018, having fled two wars, the second Sudanese Civil War in 1984 and the civil conflict that spiralled in Libya following the 2011 revolts.

When he first reached Germany in 2013, he studied the language for two years and finished a vocational training degree in Hannover. However, his asylum application was rejected in 2015. When Emran heard the news, he packed his bags and moved to Berlin, where his journey with homelessness began.

“I know many people who committed suicide when they received the rejection of their asylum application. Many, many people,” Emran told The New Arab.

Berlin-based Psychologist Matteo Scicchitano Böckheler has also worked with refugees who attempted to commit suicide.

“For a lot of people, the rejection letters are connected to very big fears,” he told The New Arab. “In the past years, I have had a case where someone who had tried to take his own life by jumping out of the window after receiving the rejection letter.”

While these rejection letters can be appealed with the help of a lawyer, understanding the process and dealing with the heavy bureaucracy can be quite tricky, especially for someone who does not speak the language.

“People are reluctant to open up to social workers due to lack of trust. About three or four years ago, I came across an asylum seeker who left his refugee centre because he did not have that kind of trust in the social workers over there. He probably lived the years afterwards on the streets,” Böckheler said.

The pervasive fear and panic that engulf the lives of refugees coupled with a lack of trust in social workers have contributed to the widespread misinformation regarding the asylum process in refugee shelters.

“Of course, if the people speak with each other without understanding the process, it will contribute to the spread of panic,” Böckheler said.

Kafka-esque bureaucracy

After spending a couple of years in homelessness in Berlin, Emran reopened his asylum application. However, the bureaucratic process quickly turned into a nightmare.

Instead of renewing his permit to stay for a year or two, which is the average duration for an asylum application, he was consistently issued short-term permits, starting with six months, which he renewed multiple times. Eventually, he received permits for only three months, further reduced to one month, then 15 days, followed by permits for one week, and eventually as short as three days.

“Can you imagine that I had to return to renew my permit every three days? In the end, I became very ill,” he said.

It is difficult to understand the benefits that can be achieved from granting such short-term permits to an elderly man with no criminal history. This not only burdens the civil servants working for the German government but also incurs additional expenses for printing new permits issued at each renewal.

"There is probably a big need from Arabic people [for psychological assistance], but it's not reflected in the statistics"

Emran went to the hospital, but his illness worsened, leaving him bedridden with tuberculosis for one year and two months. Even though he was granted humanitarian asylum afterwards, a suspicion that his tuberculosis never healed has caused him many problems with the refugee shelter in which he shares a room with three others.

Blindness in one of his eyes also left him chronically jobless and in need of help from the infamous Job Center, an entity that financially supports those in need.

However, like many of those who have dealt with the Job Center, his problems with them never end. Currently, the money they send him every month is not enough, making him dependent on a daycare shelter for the homeless in Kreuzberg. In addition to providing a café-like facility, showers, food and drinks, the manager there also lends him money when he runs out of the job centre money.

He does not have a cellphone and the last time he contacted his family in Sudan was three months earlier, when he learnt that his nephew was killed in the war. Ever since he has been scared of calling again. He sends them 150€ every month through a trusted person without directly getting in touch.

Regarding mental health issues, Emran feels that those applying for asylum in Berlin often suffer from burnout. Some of them complain, while others pray. Some lose their sanity altogether. “Suddenly, they start talking to themselves,” he told The New Arab.

Ninci believes that Arab refugees living in the city face multiple mental health challenges. Upon their arrival, many of them exhibit excessive emotional stress.

This is caused by wars, political crises, and financial uncertainties in their country of origin. Even after fleeing, they are subjected to exploitation, violence, and persecution while still on their way to Germany.

Once here, they have to deal with cohabitation with hundreds of other emotionally distressed refugees in "more or less large welcome shelters." These facilities often lack adequate hygiene, privacy, and security.

Language barriers, discrimination on a personal as well as structural level, growing xenophobia among German residents, and a shortage of mental health services constitute additional stress factors that could potentially lead to severe damage to their mental well-being.

Böckheler also has a similar experience in his work, where he supports clients with migration backgrounds,15% of which consist of Arabs. Some of the most common psychological disorders that he sees include post-traumatic stress disorder, encompassing the challenges associated with coping with trauma, which may result in social isolation.

“There is probably a big need from Arabic people [for psychological assistance], but it's not reflected in the statistics,” he said, about a form which all workers in the social services sector regularly submit to the Berlin state. According to him, these refugees seldom even leave their rooms, let alone seek psychological help.

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In 2016, the Berlin government launched a project dedicated to building awareness among refugees regarding the asylum process in various languages.

However, there has been a rightward shift in politics since then, with the budget dedicated to the integration of refugees and immigrants becoming smaller and smaller.

At Böckheler’s work, the project used to provide 32 hours a week of psychological counselling, support and prevention to refugees four years ago. Due to budget cuts, this has been reduced now to less than 14 hours a week.

The same is happening with social workers, he said, where there have been massive budget cuts.

“In Spandau, for instance, there is only one social worker in every shelter, which homes at least 150 adults,” he said.

Simsim Abdo covers European affairs for global media