What to do when the refugees in the basement start smelling

At the end of August 2015, during the peak of the refugee crisis in Germany, I experienced an unusual occurrence which rocked me out of my complacent routine.  Retrieving my bike from the basement of my Hamburg apartment complex at 6 a.m., I encountered a refugee who had been sleeping there.  It was a moment that pierced my bubble of comfort and content, and sent all kinds of questions and considerations flooding in.  It made the world which was distant on the news become suddenly up close and immediate.  What does one do in this situation?  Panic and call the police?  Selflessly jump to the rescue with support?  I was admittedly flummoxed.  I presented my dilemma to a British newspaper and the response was massive.  In my article I advocated a compassionate but cautious approach to the situation generally, and an assumption of some responsibility personally, although most of the feedback was of doom and  darkening skies.  It was my belief that Germany was taking the correct moral position with its open door policy, and Britain should follow suit and share the burden.  One year on, I wish to revisit that outlook, examine how it has changed and where it has led us.

The woman sleeping in my basement did not present a danger.  She fled before I had the chance to ask her questions.  She seemed afraid.  I resolved to leave the basement door unlocked, and left out some blankets and an air mattress.  I encountered her again in the basement two times in the following two months, offered her food and water, asked if she needed anything else, but I did not pry, which she seemed grateful for.  It became apparent that I was not the only one in the building who knew of her and was helping her.  We kept the arrangement quiet so as not to upset the older and perhaps less tolerant residents.  It is not a huge personal inconvenience if there is someone seeking warmth beneath my home, although it does niggle on the back of the mind.  Each morning after, I checked on where she had been sleeping – the place was swept spotless, the blankets folded neatly in a pile on top of the mattress.  By December 2015, the visits stopped, I assume she found something better, more secure.

There are some 42,000 refugees in Hamburg, the temporary camps are shrinking as more suitable arrangements have been found or built, but some fall through the nets.  There are many who have had their applications for asylum refused but remain in the city.  There is an illegal camp in the nearby Altonaer Volkspark with a few dozen unregistered or undocumented men, although its current status is unknown – following police harassment, they conceal themselves well.  There are visibly more people sleeping rough in the city, but how many of them are refugees is hard to tell.  Social workers and volunteers I have spoken to have a difficult time locating these camps and rough sleepers, but they are out there.  I suspect that “my” refugee fell through the net somehow, or couldn’t bear the cramped and chaotic conditions of the camps.  Perhaps, as a woman, she felt more vulnerable there.

I have come to see my adoptive city in a different light since the crisis began.  The swell of civic duty has touched people of all ages and classes.  They don’t have to do it, some don’t necessarily want to and complain, but they make the best of circumstances and dig in anyway.  I am proud of what Hamburg residents have done and reassured of humanity’s potential for good.  Nearly everyone I know has done something to help – making donations, putting in a few hours at a local camp or distribution center, giving language courses, employing interns.  Some have gone beyond the call and opened the doors to their homes.  It is one of these stories I would like to relate here, as it presents a poignant and digestible microcosm of what is happening in Germany.

Late last Autumn, 2015, the cold had set in and there were still many hundreds living in large tents in the city’s camps.  The goal was to have everyone living within solid walls before this point, but that target was not met.  Emergency heating units were installed in the tents, although these were so loud as to prevent conversation and sleep.  Helpful citizens stepped forward and offered to temporarily take those who were not yet properly accommodated into their homes.  Among these good people were neighbours of mine, whose anonymity I will uphold.  They live in a large classical villa with many floors.  The apartment in the basement was unused, and they had the generosity of spirit to invite in a family of seven Syrian refugees until they could be relocated into a warm and stable housing unit.

As the Syrian family were driven to the villa, they were apprehensive, suspicious of the intentions of their hosts.  They were however polite, thankful, but there was an immediate hitch – the men of the family would not shake the hand of the woman of the house, their host.  A stand-off ensued as the husband of the woman took offense, and insisted they shake hands, as they were in Germany now and this was the custom.  The guests, despite their religious convictions on the matter, acquiesced.  The hosts were resolute about integrating their guests into German culture and society and spoke only German with them the entire time.  The guests had barely enough German to say Guten Tag and Dankeschön.

With the guests settled into the basement, some noisy nights followed.  The host family were kept awake with loud chatter, screaming and crying coming from the basement until the early hours of the morning.  They were irritated, but found it difficult to discuss without an interpreter present.  The guests cooked a feast of Syrian specialities which the hosts greatly appreciated.  Another hitch soon presented itself, however, as a smell began to emanate from the basement, a strong urine smell.  It raised some very sensitive questions of hygiene which were unfortunately again impossible to approach tactfully without an interpreter.

Days passed, and the guests were due to be installed in their new accommodation.  The camp coordinators, however, did not call to confirm.  More days passed and the host’s attempts to reach the camp authorities were leading nowhere, the contact person was absent, and the guest family could not be found on the register.  The hosts started to panic – were they stuck with their guests indefinitely?  What had they gotten themselves into?  The smell was becoming a constant distraction, and the guest family were using strong aftershave to mask it to no effect.

Eventually, the confusion over the accommodation was sorted out, and a camp interpreter came to visit.  Explanations came to light and certain factors became suddenly clear.  On the first night the guests were in the house, they had a Skype connection for the first time since arriving in Germany.  On that night, they learned of the deaths of two members of their extended family and the complete demolition of their homes back in Syria.  It was an emotionally wrought night, they were grieving, and had finally realized there was no going back.

The hosts were deeply affected by this.  They had no idea.  It put everything in a totally different light.

After the guests had departed, the hosts, now with the house to themselves again, went into the basement and finally found the source of the urine smell.  The open doors and windows had proven tempting to the house cat, who had sprayed the place liberally.  They were dreadfully embarrassed in retrospect as they realized their guests had been too polite to say anything on the subject.

We are all guests or hosts at some point in our lives – doesn’t it tend to become awkward sometimes?  But this story of my well-intentioned friends and the completely foreign guests is perhaps the best allegorical representation of what must be happening in hundreds, if not thousands of German homes presently, and in the society as a whole as it grapples with a new reality.  The misunderstandings, the doubts and suspicions, the confusion and worry, is experienced on both sides.  It is a life-changing shared experience.  But in the background, something is stinking, and everyone is too afraid or polite to broach the subject.

There were three incidents in Germany in July of 2016 which were classed as terrorist attacks, two of which involved a refugee or asylum seeker, one a second-generation German born of refugees.  These acts have given fuel to the anti-immigration factions, made the public slightly more anxious.  Generally, however, the nation remains composed and resolute in its position.  In Hamburg there has recently been growing concern over young refugees flocking to the Jungfernstieg, a boulevard along the inner-Alster lake in the city center, and congregating in “gangs”, harassing bystanders.  Besides the occasional petty crime, this phenomenon seems to be the one persistent bother in the city involving its newcomers.  I asked some older Hamburg residents what they thought about it – worry, was the primary answer, but then, on reflection, wasn’t the Jungfernstieg always a magnet for rowdy youth?  In the 60’s it was the rockers, in the 80’s, the punks…

The exact number of refugees Germany is currently host to is uncertain.  It is complicated when you take into account those who arrived prior to 2015’s surge, those who are on waiting lists or off the radar, and which report you choose to look at.  There might be a million.  That’s a million personalities, a million histories, a million possibilities…  Usually it would be impossible take any cross-section of a million people and lump them into one basket.  There are undoubtedly bad eggs in among them, but given that same logic there must be some brilliant talent waiting to hatch.  Germany has taken the risk and is banking on the talent.  Not everyone is happy about the impromptu arrangement, especially when it is at their expense.

I am admittedly a little jealous of the generous opportunities available to refugees and asylum seekers in Germany.  When I arrived as an immigrant, I had to grind to find work, pay my own way, learn the language and navigate the system without help.  Then again, my situation was different, I was not fleeing a war and had money in the bank.  I found expectations of me were exceedingly neutral, as a European I simply belonged.  The expectations placed upon the newcomers are, on the other hand, very high and very demanding – they must, and most have a great desire, to prove their worth.  So far as the magic word “integration”, I am still not sure what that means.  I have been praised, teased or criticized at various points for being either integrated or not enough – it seems to be a purely subjective thing.  I pay my taxes and don’t break the laws, what more should be expected of me as a citizen of anywhere?

The biggest factor to being part of a society is being engaged with it, not cut out from it.  My neighbours who were hosts to the family of seven did an extremely noble and courageous act by reaching out, and we all learned from their experiences in some way.  They are still involved with their former guests, who are now a little more established here.  The sons have jobs, they have an apartment, their German is improving in leaps and bounds – it’s a success story!  If everyone engaged to this degree, the world would be a better place.  I had a frank conversation with the host family about their experience with really only one big question…  would they do it again?  They answered emphatically in the affirmative.  I admire them for sticking with their principles and being proactive about them.  Had I a bigger basement, I would do the same… the ultimate goal being, of course, to get the guests out of the basement and on their own feet.

Together we need to examine, celebrate and communicate the positives of the so-called crisis, see the potential in it, be mindful and considerate of the factors which brought us here and look forward.  It feels as if we are only waiting for the next bad thing to happen before we revisit the issue.  Good progress is being made by good people – there is nothing sensational about that, and that is why it is being ignored.  There are concerns, that occasional smell… I recommend checking the windows and doors and speaking to the guests in earnest about it, awkward as it is…. It might not be what you think.

Temporary housing units built for refugees in Hamburg, Altona.

Temporary housing units built for refugees in Hamburg, Altona.

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  1. Bernie. Thanks for such a thought provoking piece. So glad it had a happy ending, and the family are integrating. Germany did indeed take a massive risk, and made a decision that many doubted and still do, but in the end, hopefully will benefit all. I think, Britain, and the whole Brexit issue, was clouded by many of the issues you raise, and in the end, we will see if that works out well for the Germans or not. Germany has an ageing population and needs more people in to work the lower paid jobs, and rightly have opened up them doors to people who need help. In the end, we will all see if it was the right thing to do. Me, I still think it was.