Sideshows of the “Refugee Crisis”

A bonfire of vanities and bureaucracies



Heygeshalom, a small town in Hungary near the border with Austria, is the last stop on a particularly grueling segment of the ‘refugee corridor.’  Here hundreds of refugees, who have traversed Hungary by train as part of a highly-militarized but unofficially instituted population transfer, disembark to continue their way on foot into Austria.

It is early September, 2015, and dozens of volunteers have driven in from Vienna to greet the refugees with bananas, water bottles, dates and diapers. Amid the throngs of people pouring off the overcrowded train onto the platform, the volunteers notice a squat young blonde man, sporting a red polo t-shirt and sunglasses, and carrying nothing in the way of luggage. His travel companions are several tall African men and they are all conversing in animated French. The man is not a refugee, he explains to a Viennese activist, as he accepts a food package for the journey ahead. He is a Frenchman, from Paris, who was vacationing in Belgrade when he lost his passport. Admittedly, he had been partying pretty hard the night it happened. The guy who had sold him a pill in the bathroom at a nightclub may have taken it. Or the driver of the cab he’d fallen asleep in. In any case, he had done the right thing and had headed straight to the police station to report its loss the following morning.

The authorities, however, declined to file a report or even notify his embassy. Instead they had bundled him onto a train, together with hundreds of refugees, and sent him on to neighboring Hungary, where he had been herded onto another train, which is how he ended up here on the border with Austria. The volunteer offered the use of her cellphone. Did he want to place a call to his embassy? The Frenchman declined.  He might as well continue to Germany with the others, and then hitch a ride to France. His fellow Francophone interlocutors – migrants from Cote d’Ivoire whom he’d befriended on the train – were heading there, too.



A veteran journalist, who was mining for human interest stories among the newly arrived Syrian refugees in Berlin, found A., a young man with an incredible story of a harrowing escape from besieged Aleppo, near death at sea, survival against the odds. Having already accepted numerous invitations to lunch, during which he told her his story, the young Syrian attempted to pick up the tab. This angered the magnanimous chronicler of misfortune. “He refuses to accept,” she said, flushing with seasoned indignation, “that in our culture women can pay. He has to understand that he isn’t back home.”

Meanwhile, Q., who is 24 and a native of Damascus, is riding the Berlin U-Bahn, when the ticket inspector boards. Q. does not have a ticket; his appointment to receive his monthly allowance at the Lageso [Berlin’s refugee center] has been postponed several times, for several weeks. No money, no ticket. What he does have is a bottle of beer, protruding from his jacket pocket. As is customary, the ticket inspector, who is sporting an unkempt beard and shorn moustache, typical of adherents to the Salafi strain of Islam, has the young Schwarzfahrer disembark the train. On the platform he proceeds to scold Q. for having a tattoo and earring, which is haram (forbidden). “And how can you afford a beer but not a ticket?” he demands.  

“It’s none of your business,” Q. replies, as the inspector writes him out a fine for 60 euros – his third in as many weeks. “Anyway, we didn’t come all the way here to deal with people like you.”



A young and ambitious German thespian wants to bring the “rich and complex stories” of Syrians, their tales of “revolution, loss and betrayal” to a local audience. She discovers a young Syrian writer recently arrived in Berlin. He is sitting on a screenplay, an autobiographical confessional that appears to correspond with the thespian’s thematic desires. It is written in Arabic, and while she can’t assess its literary merits, she is confident it can be staged in a few weeks, during a weekend of events “focused on Syria” that her NGO has agreed to put on at a local venue. She commissions a translation of the text; the playwright is skeptical about her choice of translator, but his protests are ignored.

She schedules their meetings around her busy interventions at Oranienplatz (hasn’t he heard there is a sit-in of refugees there?). She prints fliers for the event with his name misspelled both in Arabic and German. The Syrian points out the typos, but it is too late to correct them. Later, online promotions for the play offer three incorrect variations of the playwright’s name. Finally, the translated screenplay is delivered 6 days before the performance. A friend of the playwright deems it poor and riddled with mistakes. Together they work through the translation. In the original Arabic, there is mention of an edifice so small it could only fit a “hunting dog.” The German thespian interjects that dogs aren’t commonly kept in Syria; the anecdote is insufficiently authentic and must be changed.

The Syrian playwright gets up to pour himself a cup of coffee. The thespian requests tea. “You will soon know how I like to have my tea,” she jokes. She has a confounding habit of breaking out into a broad smile, whenever the playwright communicates his concerns about the encroaching premiere. She praises the beauty of the Arabic language, and tells him how the play provides a fascinating insight into his culture of masculinity. Enthusiasts of foreign culture, the Syrian playwright notes, often harbor as many stereotypes as their openly bigoted counterparts. 


-Yes, hi, I’m calling for a friend. He’s a Syrian, who received political asylum over six months ago, and has since tried to enroll in an integration course so he can finally learn German and work.

-Yes. Has he received the permission yet?

-Yes, he has.

-And has he requested authorization from us?

-Wait, isn’t that the same thing? Permission and authorization?

-Nope, that’s different. First we send authorization that he’s allowed to take part in the integration course, and then he has to request authorization, so that we pay for it too.

-But doesn’t notifying him that he’s allowed to learn German mean that you’ll pay for it? Why would you notify him that he’s allowed to learn German if you’re not paying for it?

-Doesn’t matter. He has to apply for authorization.

-Okay then. And how long does it take for him to receive authorization?

-6 to 10 weeks.

-6 to 10 weeks! How come?

-Young lady, do you know how many refugees in Berlin want to visit an integration course?


-Eight thousand!

-But that’s not very many.

-Well, whose supposed to process all the applications?

-The permissions or the authorizations?

-Well, both!

-So, the state should hire more people to process them. Create jobs.

-And who’s gonna pay for that?

-You know, Bavaria.

– Hehe. The Bavarians won’t pay, those cheap bastards.

-But they have to! We’re the capital. Berlin Republic.

– Hähä. Okay, young lady, take care of that application and I’ll hit up the Bavarians.

-Let’s do it. Happy new year!


This article first appeared in German translation in Block Magazin