Monday, February 08, 2016

No bananas: the new refugee crisis

The refugee crisis is over, or least that’s how it seems according to the Berlin authorities. Apparently there’s no need for soldiers or medical staff for the near-daily trains of arrivals at Schönefeld. No need for fruit or any food either, tea and coffee is all they’ll get. Sure why bother at all when there are volunteers who work and provide food and care for free?
That’s how it’s been for the last two weeks. The hall was pretty bare when I got there this morning, lacking in humans and food. Soon though, it was flooded with humans of the refugee-variety, tired, bedraggled, some clearly at the end of their tether. If ever humans needed some sustenance, a goddamn banana or something to keep them going a little longer, but no, the city is cutting back on bananas right now. Presumably the savings can be funneled toward building Germany’s biggest refugee camp on Tempelhof. One banana for every democratic vote it’s defying.
Today’s bunch (refugees, not bananas) were really in a poor state. There seemed to be more kids than anything else and tempers were frayed in a way I hadn’t noticed before. There was a fight between two kids who probably would have killed each other if adults hadn’t intervened. Then the respective parents carried it on, before turning attention to the kids, who got another battering. The crying and moaning and whining was ever present.
I was in charge of the presents, handing out teddies and stuff to whoever wanted them. Unfortunately it was always the same kids who wanted more. So I had to say “no” a few times. I hate that.
An oldish woman asked me if I had a bag to replace her busted backpack. It was torn across the top, wouldn’t close. She was out of luck, there was nothing. She sat down quietly and later I saw her diligently cleaning a Donald Duck cushion she had picked up in the general melee. She was maintaining her dignity through it all.
As they were all leaving she saw me from the queue and waved. I waved back, gave her a thumbs up. She returned the gesture and smiled. No matter how shit things get people can always somehow smile.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Arabic adventures

This evening I embarked on a new chapter of life with my first Arabic classes. I signed up at the local Volkshochschule before Christmas for one of the free courses they’re putting on for refugee helpers. There are lots of courses and they’re quickly booked up. Evidently loads of people want to help, or join ISIS.
My classmates’ intentions looked good enough though. There was one guy called Radik or something like that who may have looked like he wanted to join ISIS but the rest of them seemed relatively harmless, apart from a Slovakian guy, and a middle-aged German woman, and maybe a few of the others…
The teacher is Egyptian and pretty cool. She was the last to turn up, late, while the rest of us eejits were waiting outside the classroom, having turned up on time. I won’t be doing that again, ever, for anything.
We learned loads of stuff. I can introduce myself, say what I do, where I come from, where I live, give my age, describe someone else, and ask them their details in return. I can also count from 1 to 99.
She also introduced us to five letters in Arabic that are “friendly” to other letters. I assume we’ll learn the letters they’re friendly to in due course. Some of the letters were “conservative” while others were “modern” because they had “piercings” either on their bellies or above their heads. One even had three piercings! It was ش, my favorite Arabic letter so far. It makes a “shhhh” sound, the sort you hear when you’re trying to have a decent chat at a concert in Germany.
It’s a nice-sounding language, I look forward to learning more. Sure, there may be a crazy script, a crazy everything, they write the wrong way around in a crazy way, and say words in a crazy manner, but it’s not German and “there are no rules” according to the teacher. It’s just a way of speaking after all. A whole new world.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Everything’s nothing: Marathon Sans Frontières

It’s official! I’m running the Berlin Marathon for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ emergency assistance and medical aid in Syria. They know, I know, Paypal know, and I’ve a form to prove it so now you know too.
I’m going with MSF because of their incredible work under horrendous conditions where no sane people would normally go. Their hospitals have been repeatedly targeted, their staff and patients killed in conflicts that show no sign of ending, ever.
Syria appears a lost cause. Western governments are not helping, the Russians have even joined in, and the situation’s going from bad to awful to horrific. When you think it can’t possibly get even worse, you’re proven wrong yet again. Cluster bombs, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, systematic starvation: none of them news anymore. But of course it’s not a lost cause, it can’t be.
So I’m going to run my legs off for MSF’s Syrian efforts. So far I’ve run 257.3 kilometers, just over six marathons, albeit none at the same time. There’s been tears, sweat and snot, though no blood yet. I nearly puked going up a hill in snow and ice last Monday and then snotted myself spectacularly on the other side, just as a large group arrived. “Oooooh,” they all exclaimed in a joint burst of Schadenfreude. I kept running. It’s nothing to what Syrians are going through. Everything’s nothing.
So please donate what you can, doesn’t have to be a fortune. So far I’ve raised €90 and I’m doubling that now. So so far I’ve raised €180 for MSF. They’ll get every cent, I’m paying my own expenses.
The donate button is below or the IBAN is DE09500105175554452542 (BIC: INGDDEFFXXX). All donations gratefully received!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Winter jacket

There was no warning when the train arrived. We were still making sandwiches when they came through the door, hungry. Only two of us, so Stefan grabbed a few bags and went over to the other table to hand them out there. Hands grabbed at me, demanding one sandwich, two, four. They were fucking hungry. They’d been traveling all night, all week, all their lives, and they were nowhere near finished yet.
I handed them out as best I could but the stocks were dwindling while the line wasn’t. People came back for more, pointing to family members too shy to ask for themselves. I gave them out and pointed to the queue of famished people still waiting. Stefan went back to the kitchen and made more.
But we’d enough in the end. Anyone who wanted to get fed got fed. I walked around with the last sandwiches and they were snapped up. There were bananas, mandarins, biscuits, cakes and bars for anyone who was still hungry. Many stocked up while they could. They knew their journeys were far from over.
As I was handing them out another volunteer came up to me and said she wanted a sandwich. She had a “Refugees Welcome” badge and a camera round her neck. I never saw her before. FUCK OFF, I wanted to tell her. These are for the refugees, I told her instead. She’d been looking at me handing them out. I was hungry too.
When the work was done, I looked around and realized that all the people being paid to be there – the Lageso staff, Polizei, soldiers, ambulance services, Deutsche Bahn security – spent the whole time just standing around. They stand around like the cool kids in the schoolyard, smoking, chatting, laughing among themselves, oblivious to the new arrivals. They’re just refugees, the latest batch, there’ll be more. Get ‘em in, ship ‘em out.
They – the refugees, not the privileged observers – waited like cattle for the green light to board the buses and get shipped out, wherever the hell they were going.
One guy traveling with his family was trying to reach his son in Frankfurt, prompting confusion over which Frankfurt it was – Frankfurt-Oder or Frankfurt-Main. Nothing is ever easy when you’re in a foreign country, a country you’d rather not be in in the first place. No one wants to be a refugee, no one.
I’m sure none of the observers stopped to consider why these people were refugees in the first place, why they left their lives behind and traveled through hell and lethal waters to reach strange lands where people hate you because they don’t know who you are.
Berlin is covered in a blanket of snow. It’s cold. But at least it’s bright, that’s something. As I type this on the S-Bahn home a street musician is playing a jaunty little tune on his music box. He’s finished now, passed through the carriage. No one gave him anything. Berlin can be cold all year round.
I helped one man struggling with too many bags and too many small kids carry his shit out to the bus. Waiting for her turn to board was a little Afghan girl wearing just a tracksuit. In this weather! I ran to the clothes room, grabbed a winter jacket and ran back to catch her before she was gone. It fit. Brilliant. The mother was happy and one of the observers had noticed too. He smiled as she boarded the bus. I smiled back at him. Every bit of warmth is precious in the cold.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Five years!

The young fella is five today! He was five at 9:21 this morning. He’s a bit older now.
I won’t bang on about how great he is. Suffice to say I’m hard to please but couldn’t be prouder of him for who he is, how he sees things, how he reacts, how he shares, how he cares, how he is. He makes me laugh all the time, often in the morning when laughter isn’t possible. I’ll be forever grateful for that day five spins around the sun ago when he graced us with his presence.
We went to a puppet theater this morning to see Rumpelstiltskin. I didn’t know the story before. Neither did he. He said it was “OK” and that “the man (Rumpelstiltskin) shouldn’t have said his name.”
“I know, feckin eejit.” We agree on a lot of things.
He’s already a fountain of knowledge. He knows Greenland is the largest island in the world and Inishbofin the best one. We were talking about Santa the other day and I told him nobody really knew where he lived, whether it was the North Pole or Lapland.
“Except Santa,” he said. “He knows where he lives.”
Yep, a smart cookie.
We’re going to his favorite (conveniently cheap) restaurant for dinner now. He has another party at the Kita tomorrow, and then another party with his friends (or pretend friends, he’ll only find out in 30 years if they’re real friends or not) the day after that, and another party the day after that. The Germans make him do it, they’re mad about birthdays.
Life should be celebrated so I shouldn't complain. He’s certainly brightened up mine.
Happy birthday little man!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie

I discovered David Bowie when I was a kid. He was the first artist I found on my own, everything had been influenced or recommended up to then. I’d never even heard of him when I picked up The Best of Bowie from a box of tapes in a house I shouldn’t have been in.
I was trespassing, very much so. The building wasn’t so much abandoned as just sealed up and used for storage by people who’d clearly lost all good music sense. Apart from Bowie I “discovered” Horslips’ The Táin, another brilliant album.
I took them home, stole them, put them on and was amazed by what I heard. Any guilt I felt quickly dispelled as I fathomed the greatness of what I was hearing, what I’d just released from its unappreciative prison. It was incredible, a whole new world. Space Oddity, Starman, Jean Genie, Heroes, Sound and Vision; I was enthralled.
I went to see him at the Point Depot in Dublin many years later, after his Reality album, and it was a good gig, if slightly spoiled by the gobshites there only for the early hits and who didn’t want to listen to his new stuff. They were yakking and boozing, couldn’t deal with Reality.
I shouldn’t judge, people like different things, they take comfort in what they know. But Bowie never gave people what they know, it’s what elevated him to greatness.
Berlin exudes Bowie. I didn’t know before I came here, a coincidence, but I’m in a city as appreciative of him as I am, if that’s even possible. He makes it possible.
This morning I checked my phone for work emails. “David Bowie has died” from the global news manager. Disbelief. What?! Fuck. The dawning there wouldn’t be any more music, no more magic, it was over. He’d just released an album Friday, there was no inkling he’d been ill, he’d done drugs, been through everything, the party was going to go on forever. But no, and something died inside of me.
When I got home there were tributes I tried to ignore, there was stuff I couldn’t read. I watched a performance of Heroes and tears came. I’m not such a tough guy. I tried reason with myself, people die all the time, many more people, too many people, the world is shit and he actually had a great life, but he’s gone. Selfishly, I mourn. He won’t be able to create anymore. That’s it, it’s over.
He’s gone and that’s all there is to it. As I type these words I’m listening to Blackstar and the tears are close again. It’s a great album, wonderful. With each new album you’d rediscover the old. I’m so sad there won’t be any more new albums, but I’ll never get tired of the old. Yeah David, everybody knows you now.

UPDATE: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – First four photos were taken two days after the news broke, on the coldest, wettest, shittiest Wednesday of the year, outside his house at 155 Hauptstraße in Schöneberg. People were still laying roses, lighting candles. They'll light them for a while yet.
The rest were taken Friday at his “Trauerfeier” in the Meistersaal of Hansa studios, where the albums Low and Heroes were finished/recorded. It was more Trauer than Feier. When I got there there was some woman warbling about the time she and Bowie existed in Berlin at the same time, then some man got up and asked for a minute’s silence which he broke with an emotional rendition of “Our Father” or whatever you’d call it. Nobody joined in and nobody clapped. They just waited for him to get off the fucking stage. Then they played songs and people lit candles. I left. It didn’t fill the loss, they’ll never fill that loss.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Noël: Plus ça change

Christmas has come and gone. The relief! First world problems, I know, but as I type the house has no water. The pump broke, the spring quit or the well ran dry despite all the floods. It’s been raining all day, all ever. I have to pee in the garden because we can’t flush the toilets. It’s OK, the driving rain is only mildly uncomfortable and the gale force winds tussle my hair playfully and make me feel at one with nature. I look up and the branches dance above my head, creaking and groaning through the roaring, the gushing wind. I have to be careful which direction I pee in, but the wind’s blowing in every direction. I squelch through the muck on my way back, trip over a rusty wheelbarrow, down an embankment overgrown by thorny brambles, try to avoid being decapitated.
So far this festive season I fixed a flapping window in a storm, been electrocuted by vintage Christmas tree lights, and balanced a ladder on a slippy roof with a brick to sweep the chimney in the rain. The goddamn rain. It was worth it. We had a fire afterward, unlike the night before, spent shivering in bed despite wearing a hat and jumper. My sister told me she had to wear her coat to bed. A fucking coat! It’s a big heavy coat too. She was shivering anyway.
I’ve just fixed the TV, literally, in between typing. The loud constant buzzing was driving me insane, I don’t know how it hasn’t driven my family insane. Maybe it has.
These are but trivial issues, I know, compared to what others are going through. We had food, drink, presents, a tree, even if it’s a fake one. Maybe it’s apt for Christmas to have a fake one. We had a row over the meaning of Christmas even as we tried celebrate what we were arguing over during the so-called Christmas dinner. Spuds, turkey and wine are real, at least we could agree on that. That’s all that matters.
Noddy isn’t here this year, leaving me and Sully to pick up the pieces. Whitechurch sure is quieter these days. We called next door and it was almost like old times, the young fella playing cards instead of Noddy at the table. This is his third Christmas in Whitechurch. He’s bigger now; it’s his first Christmas playing cards.
Whiskey, beer, a gun – he was offered everything but cocaine and he turned everything down but the gun, which he shot with frightening precision at the door before revealing himself as a card shark. Another Christmas has come and gone. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Monday, December 14, 2015

So much to be done

Just 204 refugees arrived this morning, none yesterday and 16 on Saturday. Numbers are dropping off, either because of the deteriorating weather or tightening borders, probably both.
Again most of them had clothes this time, though some were still needed. One baby just had socks, no shoes, and many of the refugees were coughing painful sounding coughs.
There was a lot more stuff for them today than Friday. New toys and teddies were delivered over the weekend and there was a greater selection of grub for them too, including muesli bars, fruit, cakes and the cream cheese sandwiches that we made again. They were laughing at my efforts to say jibneh or jibin for cheese, the only Arabic word I know, or don’t as it turns out.
They were all exhausted. It’s a long nine-hour overnight train trip from Freilassing on the Austrian border and of course they had all been traveling much longer.
One guy I was talking to came across the sea into Greece, then up into Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and so on. He was on his way to Finland. His companion was on his way to Switzerland. “You know that’s the other way?” I told him but he just smiled so I assume they knew what they were doing.
Then your man asked me which was better to get to, Finland or Switzerland, and I’d no answer for them, I didn’t know. I’m going to have to find out. (Not that I’d encourage anyone to do anything verboten!) But I guess it just shows they’re just following their noses, away from danger, anywhere toward promise.
Some of the kids looked shocked or traumatized. I’m no expert; maybe they were just tired, but they sure as hell didn’t look right.
A woman from Iraq was traveling with three kids, one with some sort of disability. He was a bit of a handful, kept running away, and the poor woman was at the end of her tether. He wanted a hug so I hugged him and then he ran away again.
“I could control him at home but not here, not since we started the journey,” the woman said. She was trying to reach her husband who’s been in Germany since April so we rang him and told him where the family was being taken. “I’ll be there in an hour,” he said.
Speak of the divil, he just rang me. He’s at the camp and can’t find them. I’m on the train back from Schönefeld so there’s not much I can do – unless I go on to Olympiapark where he is. Damn, I hope there’s a happy ending. I just texted him so if he needs me he’ll call again.
I made a few kids smile with teddies, a few adults smile with clothes and food, but still it’s not enough. It’s never enough. There’s so much to be done.

UPDATE – Three hours later. The Iraqi father rang me back. He managed to pick up his family! So they’re all very happy naturally enough. And so am I! A happy outcome!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Train of Uncertainty

Every morning around 8 a.m. a trainload of refugees arrives at Schönefeld. Some days there are more than others. This morning it was “only” 300, slightly more men than women and plenty of kids including babies.
Apparently it was an easy day because there are usually more arrivals – up to 700 or so – and most of this lot had clothes and shoes on. Other days they don’t and they arrive in terrible condition because they’d been sleeping eating and traipsing for days on end through bastard weather.
Knowing this, I couldn’t complain when I got up at 5.30 to help them. Myself and a saint on a personal mission to make the world a better place got there around 7 and started making sandwiches. They weren’t the kind of sandwiches I’d like to have eaten – pita bread with a glut of cream cheese in the middle – but we made them anyway and they were et by the refugees when they arrived an hour later.
Many were from Afghanistan, who apparently prefer the sandwiches with jam, and I guess most of the rest were from Syria and Iraq. Hellholes wherever they came from to go through what they’re going through. Some had Red Cross bags from being rescued at sea. The overnight train they were on was just the latest leg of their journeys.
The “welcome committee” was made of us volunteers, soldiers, police, fire services, medical services, train officials and representatives of LaGeSo, where all refugees try to have their applications processed only to discover the tortuous square wheels of German bureaucracy. Some of the arrivals were taken straight to hospital so they were evidently in worse condition than the others. There were weary faces, wary faces, kind faces, curious faces, friendly faces, worried faces, fascinating faces.
They were shouted at by LaGeSo people to get into various lines, one for the single men, who generally didn’t have any luggage, and another for the families with kids, which did. A nappy changing table is provided for those with babies whose nappies needed changing. We handed out the sandwiches and fruit and water and tissues and whatever the hell they wanted, anything as long as we had it. One of the girls gave out scarves and some of the kids helped themselves to teddies. There’s a storeroom out the back full of shit except underwear that people have given away, most of it in size don’t fit.
We turned our phones into personal hotspots so they could use our wifi to call relatives, check they’re still alive, confirm that they were. It was the first opportunity to do so for many of them. My phone could only take five callers at a time but still the month’s allocation of data didn’t last long.
The people were so grateful for everything. We weren’t shouting at them or beating them for a start. One woman came up to us and said, “You are all such nice people, thank you with all my heart.” The kids drew pictures and played. All wanted to blow soap bubbles but there were only so many bubbles to go around. Didn’t matter, they were grateful for every little lollipop and they showed it with smiles that would melt stone. The adults were gracious too. We wished them the best with their onward journeys, shook hands and said farewell before they boarded the buses waiting to take them away to uncertainty.
They’re gone now and we did nothing. Tomorrow the same thing will happen all over again.

This should be a happy, optimistic post – the train is called “Train of Hope” – but I’m tired, frustrated and pissed off. The only ones who can end all this misery are contributing more bombs and more suffering, fucking everything up even further. I took the picture on my way home. It seemed kind of apt.

For more on the “Train of Hope” and refugees in Berlin this a great read:

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Running for Syria: It's on

Since announcing my marathon task I’ve run 102 kilometers. Not at the same time obviously, I'm not crazy. Today my name was drawn for a place in the Berlin Marathon, it’s happening! I just have to coax my boss to delay or come out of retirement to cover it so I can run it.
I’ve been running 13K runs at an average speed of 13km/h, so I’ll need to step it up a bit if I’m going to win the damn thing. I’ll run it but I probably won’t win it.
Starting is the worst and my calves have grown into cows. The pain was bad in the beginning. I had to wait days between runs. Now it’s OK. I ran 13K yesterday and the same today. I feel I could do it again tomorrow. Actually no, my cows are still mooing.
Some days are better than others, usually the days after nights I don’t spend boozing in smoky pubs. Berlin’s nightlife is good for the soul, bad for everything else.
I’ve decided everything I raise is going toward Syria, everything. I’m going to make my own proper donation to Sergio Castro in Chiapas whenever I get paid for the book. Hopefully soon. It’s a personal thing. And people are aware of what’s happening in Syria, or at least I hope they are.
So please donate something, anything, if you can. If you can’t (I know what it’s like), please share this post with your rich friends. Better again, share it with your rich enemies. I don’t mind. I will thank everyone after I’ve run the thing and detail exactly where the money has gone.

By the way, there have been issues with the Paypal account not accepting donations. Any I got were denied for reasons that are beyond me. I’m trying to sort that out. It works fine for book payments.
Meanwhile, I’ve opened a separate bank account just for donations. I’m not sure if it’s safe to give it out willy nilly on the interweb so if you want the number, just shout!