By Thomas Peter
“It feels good to walk in nature after so many months of boredom in the Immigration Holding Centre,” said Sallisou as we walked along a poplar-lined alley in the sleepy hinterland of Potsdam-Mittelmark, a rural county just outside the German capital of Berlin. Two weeks earlier, the smiling man from Niger had joined a 600 km (372 miles) foot march of refugees. With every county border they crossed, they were breaking a state order that restricts their movement to a territory around their camp. At present, Sallisou was eagerly filming the procession of refugees with a small video camera.
“Since I have been on this march, my days have a purpose again. There is so much to organize and we do it ourselves. We work as a team. Being on the move feels like I have a home again,” Salissou said.
For these people whose stories of displacement and rejection are as varied as the places they come from, ‘home’ means self-determination, the feeling of being needed and the knowledge that they are heading for some sort of reachable goal, all of which they have not had since they fled their countries.
The destination of the protest march is Berlin, where they want to set up a tent camp and tell the German public what it is like to live as an unwanted person with nowhere to go in a country that is free for everyone else.
They say that they have had enough of the humiliation, the languor and the uncertainty in the refugee camps. There’s nothing to fill the empty days in the barren corridors of their overcrowded camps, often former army barracks – no access to education, no regular work, only countless cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and the ever present fear of deportation, they say.
“The injustice we endure is no longer acceptable. It makes us sick. We are on strike,” said Salomon Wantchoucou from Benin. “We are young and talented people, but we have no perspective. We are excluded from society. Enough is enough!” he said after medics treated the open wounds on his feet just before bedtime in an overnight accommodation. “This march is tough on my feet. One hundred kilograms weighing down on them for weeks, from morning to night!” He makes a crunching gesture and laughs with a mixture of sarcasm and frustration.
“How are your feet?” I ask the next day as he pushes his heavy frame with an obvious limp along a forest foot path.“They hurt,” he replies curtly. “But for freedom we must continue!”
Their journey took them through forests, fields and villages of rural Germany where the large group of foreigners provided a baffling sight to locals. But apart from the odd hostile comment and occasional rallies from right-wing groups, the refugees were afforded plenty of support from civil rights groups, organizing accommodation and providing food, the organizers said. When they set up a tent camp in Berlin’s central Kreuzberg district, the number of protesters had increased to about 80 refugees who had left their camps all over Germany to join the strike.
Camp life was governed by their efforts to make their makeshift home as hospitable as possible in the increasingly inclement autumn weather. When they were not building tents and moving around mattresses, they held countless meetings that lasted for several hours. What was the long-term strategy? What would happen after the big rally to parliament? No one had a clear answer, other than voicing the determination to fight.
“We stay until our demands are met,” said Hamid Reza Moradi, an electrical engineer from Iran and one of the refugee organizers. “We have no fear. We are so many, they cannot ignore us. Besides, we have nowhere else to go. There is a Persian saying, ‘There is no color that is darker than black.’ This is where I am at this point in my life. I have nothing to lose.”