Text by Elisabeth Weydt. It is based on a research about refugees working in the black market in Germany. This research was done with NDR Info radio station. Find the feature at the end of the text.
Photos by Georges Senga. The project is still in progress. It is called Transit and explores the reappropriation of space in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. Georges plans to go back to the camp in 2017.
On the way to to our meeting point I had to get through pyro flares, water cannon trucks, and police in gear. It was the yearly spectacle of the first of May in the alternative quarters of Hamburg. Labor Day. Demonstration day. Revolution game. A friend had offered his doctor’s office as a hidden and quiet place to meet. Another friend had offered to translate. We had been out in a club the night before. Dancing into May. Now our tired western selves met four shy young men from Burkina Faso who wanted to tell us about their working reality in our country.
Let’s call them Amidou, Toni, Abdul, and Salif. They’ve been in Germany for one, two or four years. Salif, the youngest, 23, was wearing a thin mustache, twirled up at the sides. »We are waiting like hookers on the street, waiting for work,« he said. They giggled. »Like hookers!« It’s their word for what they do. Hookers. Maybe it is easier, when you can make fun of it.
Almost every day they are waiting in a street known for its black labor market in Hamburg. That is where we met them the first time. Many men from Africa are standing there, waiting for someone to pick them up for work. Then they bring them to construction sites, in kitchens, or to load shipping containers with furniture, washing machines, cars. »There are often fights,« Salif says. One day without work can mean a lot. Salif sold his father’s house to get to Europe. Every now and then he can send some money home, he says. But it is not enough, his family says.
The four of them met in a refugee camp in a small town in Sachsen-Anhalt, seven hours by bus from Hamburg. There they have a bed and there they are supposed to live. But they only travel to Sachsen-Anhalt once a month to get their asylum money. »It’s so frustrating there,« Amidou says. »All we can do is sleep and eat all day long. Sleeping and eating. That drives you crazy. There is nothing, least of all work.« So they rather sleep on mattresses in Hamburg for 150 Euros per month and work on the black market — illegally.
But this work is no good, they say. The bosses know that they have no working visa. »Sometimes we don’t even get a break. Twelve hours in a row we are loading containers for little money. Bosses are insulting us and when we are slow we even get less money,« Toni says. And this is better than being in a town in Sachsen-Anhalt? (This is better than being in Burkina?) I have to ask twice because I don’t understand. The answer is always yes. »At least there is hope to finally find a proper and legal job.« In Germany there is the possibility to work as a refugee but you have to fulfill certain conditions and the process is complicated and long. They changed the law recently, it shall get easier now. But still you have to find someone that gives you work in the first place. Not so easy as a refugee that doesn’t know the language and has no qualification that fits the German system.
They all thought it would be easier in Europe. »In Burkina, TV shows pictures how beautiful and rich Europe is, how beautiful Germany is,« Salif says. »When I tell my parents how I really live here they do not believe me or they say I am not working hard enough.« They’d rather trust TV then their son. But he is not angry with them. Salif would never go back without money. He would be ashamed and lose face, he says. The chances to get asylum in Germany are very very low when you are from Burkina Faso because there is hardly any political persecution. They all know that, but Salif would rather live an illegal life without papers than go back and look into his father’s eyes.
Months later I meet the photographer Georges Senga at Schloss Solitude. I like his work and I like talking to him about things. He is from Lubumbashi, Congo. I tell him about the guys from Burkina. Georges says he doesn’t like it when people say they cannot live in Africa. »I can live in Africa!« Two years ago he started a project called Transit. He visited a refugee camp in Zimbabwe: Tongogara Camp. Many Congolese people are living there. The UN set up some camps during the war in Congo (1998 – 2001). Mostly for people from Rwanda but also Congolese people came. Countries like Australia, the US or Canada offered to take refugees. So people gathered in those camps. The war is over now but there are still people in those camps and there is still hope to get to the developed world one day. Georges wanted to see how people were living there, how they changed their environment in the camps. He wanted to find out what happens when so much time passes but you still do not have something to call a home or a life. How is it to be caught in transit? Similar to the situation of the guys from Burkina in Germany. Georges was doing a research on the reappropriation of space. Most fascinating he found the way people organized themselves. The districts of the camp were called America, Australia or Canada. »I found the cousin of my mum living in America. She told me, if you want to go to the US just stay here with me and wait.« He refused, he can travel the world with his work.
Georges had discussions with some guys from Lubumbashi that’d been living in the camp for years now. They told him they cannot go back there because the city was fucked up, they couldn’t live there, they wouldn’t find work. Security reasons.
»I live there,« he told them. »I don’t have problems.«
»No, you are suffering in Lubumbashi!« the boys said. Georges almost lost his temper »You are living in a refugee camp. How can you say I am suffering in Lubumbashi?« It makes him angry when people say things like that about his city, about his country. »They do not listen to me. They want to live in there illusion of a beautiful live in the western world.« They said he was crazy because he did not take his chance to stay in Europe when he travelled there. He was shocked, he says. »It is disrespectful to all the people living in Congo, to all the people trying to change something. Of course it is not easy. There are big problems. But you cant just say you cant do anything about it.«
I have a friend who left his home country Cameroon more than 15 years ago to study in Germany. Now he has a decent job here. He says, he cannot imagine going back to Cameroon because job opportunities there are not the best. »A similar job like here I would most likely not get without corruption or being part of some clique. Maybe with a lot of luck.«
This hope to find a better life somewhere else must be so strong. Following the guys from Burkina around for almost four months, this is what I found most astonishing: this never ending hope. Toni once said: »Every morning I get up and of course there are enough reasons to give up, but I always have hope. I am a positive person. Every day I get up anew, I drink my coffee and think to myself: one day the day will come where everything is going to be fine. But is this hope or is this self delusion?« Salif said something similar: »I have to be patient, maybe one day it’s gonna be better.« It was not. The latest news I heard from Salif was that he is to be deported back to Burkina. He didn’t show up and escaped to some friend’s flat in Eastern Germany. Now he is without papers, hiding from police, trying to get money with even shittier jobs than the ones he had in Hamburg. Is it really so much less realistic to hope it is going to be better as a citizen in Burkina than a »Sans-Papier« in Europe?
Amidou also got a deportation letter a few weeks after our first meeting on Labour day. He brought it to the dinner we were supposed to have with him, Toni and the friend who knows French and the photographer who set up the first contact. Of course there was no thought in eating in the beginning. We tried to find out what possibilities Amidou had left now, called some friends, searched through the internet. It came clear that there was not much he could do as the date was set for the next morning in Sachsen-Anhalt. It was evening by then and he was in Hamburg. He made the plan to see his lawyer and a doctor who treated him before because of depression very early in the morning. We had dinner and it turned out to be a really funny night. Toni and Amidou made silly plans about what could be done to stay in Germany or to make big business in Burkina.
The next day Amidou’s doctor put him into hospital so deportation was suspended for the moment. His lawyer couldn’t really help him. Amidou still has an unfinished lawsuit because he was married to a German woman, but this was not accepted to give him a permanent residence permit. »Ich bin fertig!« he writes from the hospital. »I am totally exhausted.« He can stay for two weeks, then the doctor tells him to leave. Amidou goes to a friend’s place. Now he also is a »Sans-Papiers.« His family from Burkina is sending him money.
I meet Amidou one month after he left the hospital. Still no news from his lawsuit. We buy beer at a kiosk. He doesn’t say much, just answers in two-word-phrases.
»I have to wait, see what is coming.«
»I’m looking for work. I’ll take anything.«
»In the last four years all my working contracts got denied by the government: at a fuel station, at a vegetable store, two times at a hotel.«
»I tried everything, I did everything. No chance.«
»What shall I do? I don’t know. I don’t have any power left.«
This is the last time I see him. We text for another month or so. Then I don’t get any answers anymore.
Toni has more luck. He gets a working contract with a cleaning company. Government has to approve it, so he has to go to Sachsen-Anhalt to hand it in. I come with him on the bus. Seven hours. Through the window we see German landscape passing by. Windmills, wheat fields, small villages. Toni knows that we cross the former border between Western and Eastern Germany. He learned about it in school in Burkina. He would like to stay in this country, if necessary even without papers. He brought his German schoolbook with him. He is not too bad.
In Burkina, Toni had a store for computer and TV sets. The military destroyed it during a demonstration, he says. He contracted debts worth 20.000 Euros to rebuilt everything. Then the debt-collectors came. »They threatened to kill me. They kept coming to my store. Three months left, say said. I stopped going to the store. They threatened my employee. So I sold everything and came to Germany.« His wife left him before that. His four-year old daughter stays at his parents‘ place. Sometimes he sends money home. Sometimes they send photos to his phone. One shows a little girl on a pink tricycle on brown dust. Toni hopes that German government accepts his work contract so he can send more money home.
Nima knows what kind of shitty jobs refugees do for a living, or to send money home, or to pay off their smugglers or to bring family members to Europe. He hates that word, but Nima was a refugee himself. He came from Iran to Berlin with his parents when he was 14. They spent three years in a refugee camp. Now Nima is 30 and studying environmental engineering. He never really left the camps, going back and forth to help people living there. He’s been an activist for refugee rights ever since. »Some people really earn a lot of money. They have good networks, know their stuff. But others really get abused. It is easy to abuse them when they work illegally. I heard of people working for days and then they didn’t get payed. People getting threatened. Everything: some got beaten up, thrown out of the store, chased after, and even had their money stolen.«
It’s not clear how many refugees are working in the black market. The government only arrests about ten a month all over Germany. Social workers say that cannot be a reference. Some think almost 50 percent of male refugees work one day or another in the black market. Nima says it’s hard to estimate. »Many of them are very afraid. They don’t talk about that. Not even with their people. They say, I am out in the park, I have an appointment. But I think it is becoming more and more. They are building up networks and help each other to get into black market jobs or even criminal stuff. Just to be able to leave the camps and earn some money.«
In a town in Niedersachsen I met the Pakistani Shoukat Ali. He was very round, very small, and very shy. He seemed like he still didn’t really understand what had happened to him. A friend told him there was work in an Indian restaurant. So he went there and they made a contract. The boss told him it is about ten hours a day, 255 Euro per month. The government approved the contract as some kind of an internship. He showed me the contract. It says ten hours per WEEK, not per day. »I didn’t understand,« he says. »I just didn’t know how this is supposed to work here. I just wanted to work so badly. Before that I slept all day long in the camp. That is not good.« He ended up working 60 to 70 hours a week, he says. This means an hourly rate of about 90 Eurocents. »I was not allowed to eat anything in the restaurant. Not even drink tea, just water. The boss always insulted me: I was a bad worker, he said, I didn’t clean properly. Sometimes I missed my last train home, then I had to walk — about two hours.« After five weeks the restaurant owner gave him 255 Euro and said there is no work anymore. »I don’t care about the money,« Shoukat Ali says. »But the way he treated me was really bad. Like slavery. I want a normal legal job. I don’t want to get social money from the government.«
That is what all refugees I talked to said about that topic, they all wanted a legal job. It’s just not so easy to get a normal legal job. For Toni it is the second time he tries to get a contract approved. He didn’t think it was so hard to get started in Germany. He is here since two years now. He doesn’t even know if he shall be happy if this contract gets approved now. »I will work more than I earn,« he says. What this means exactly Toni doesn’t want to say. Maybe something like Shoukat Ali’s job? Toni says he got the contract from a friend.
When we arrive in the town Toni is actually supposed to be living, he drops off the contract at the town hall and picks up his monthly money for asylum seekers. About 300 Euros. »If I don’t get the permission to work now this will be bad. Then it would be two years without a proper job and that is not good.« Toni is taking a public transport to his camp. He wants to stay for a while. His room mate is not there at the moment. Probably working somewhere, he says and smiles.