An Interview With Samee Ullah, Coordinator of the "My Right is Your Right" Campaign in Berlin
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In the early months of the refugee crisis, Germany was one of the few European countries that appeared to overwhelmingly support the right of asylum seekers to settle. The so-called “welcome culture” saw hundreds of Germans go to train stations to greet refugees as they arrived in the country, and Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the country would try to accommodate 800,000 people.
Since then, the country has seen a right-wing backlash, most recently with the Alternative for Germany (AfD) making huge gains in state elections. There have also been questions raised over conditions in the refugee camps, which are run by private companies, where numerous accusations have been made about mistreatment and poor living conditions.
Samee Ullah is from Pakistan and has been in limbo for more than two years as he waits for his asylum application to be processed (the exact details of which he asked not to be published). He lives in a camp in Berlin. But Ullah has also been active in the campaign for refugee rights and against racism. He co-ordinates the My Right is Your Right campaign, and when I met him for coffee in the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, he was busy organising Carnival Al-Ladji'in, a mix of art and protest which took place on 20 March. The carnival has been organised by an impressive mix of political parties, campaign groups, and some of Berlin's best known theatres.
What is your current situation?
I arrived in Berlin in July 2013. In the last two and a half years the calender has changed months and years, but practically nothing has changed for me. The work that I do here, I'm proud of it, I'm very satisfied. We started this idea of refugee self-organisation with My Right is Your Right. But my work would be a bigger satisfaction if I could be sure I'll stay here. At this moment I'm not sure. If I don't fulfil the requirement of the political system as a refugee, if I don't qualify and I get the deportation letter, then for me it is the start of a new life—where to go? One thing is for sure, at this moment it is impossible for me to go back to Pakistan. When I try to think on this thing it brings my energy down. My big challenge now is gaining permission to work. I have job offers, but if I am not an accepted refugee then there are lots of complications and bureaucratic problems. I am not allowed to work and not allowed to go out of Germany. Some of my friends invited me to visit Brussels at the end of March for a conference, but I can't go there. These things affect your personal life and your motivation.
How have you been surviving without being able to work, and with the other limitations placed on you?
I don't know. If I look back and imagine this whole story as that of someone else, it's horrible to think about. I always try to stay positive and find some hope and work on it, and one of my big things has been always to focus on work. I studied at school aeronautics, in Karachi, and have a diploma as an engine mechanic. I worked for the Pakistan Airforce as an engine technician and now my preference is to work in my own profession here.
It is a very hard life in the refugee camp. I live with 350 refugees in one camp. The discrimination by the service provider company is horrible, you can't imagine. The press are not allowed there, and after sunset, 8 or 9 o'clock at night, guests are not allowed. The camp has three houses, each floor has one kitchen, so in the place where I live there are nine families in nine rooms. I have the smallest room, 10 square metres, because I live alone. But other rooms are big, so four to five people share one room. We all share one kitchen and one toilet. In my room, I tried to have a microwave, and the head of administration came and told me my mixer, sandwich maker, and microwave were not allowed. I think it is worse than prison, how they treat us. They don't allow the internet inside, they don't allow the press inside, there is no playing area for the children, there is no community room. I don't know who lives there, I know only the people I meet in the kitchen. I have lived there two years and I still don't know the names of our neighbours.
Yesterday the camp boss said that anyone who has not scanned their ID card to enter the camp in the last two days, kick them out. And she kicked out many of the people and one girl, her name was erased from the camp. Then the father of that girl went to the boss and said that she is in her room for four days because she has a fracture of the foot, she fell down in school, so how do you want to kick her out? She is unable to come out of her room. The boss allowed her to live there, she said it was a mistake. So this is how I live, it is a psychological prison as well.
Most refugees don't speak the language, so they face these violations, but it is not so visible because they do not know how to claim for their rights. If you do anything there, they call the police, and when the police are there the situation is different. Because I am there I know I have to control myself, because I take care of my career and don't want to be in the bad category with the police. But sometimes it's too much, sometimes we have to shout, tell them that we are also human and you are there to support us, not to isolate us, and you should listen to us.
I have hundreds of options for work, as a project manager in a wind farm, as an engine technician, agricultural worker, as an actor, as a room boy, as a cook... I just need the right to work. I will be proud to pay for my own home, I will be able to afford petrol for my car, I can have a better life, I don't want to survive on social help.
There are many refugees looking for language schools, so if refugees from Syria are here, they also don't know English, they only speak Arabic. They are accepted as refugees, they are allowed to work, but they don't work. I don't blame them. My roommate, I have been with him several times to the language schools, but the schools say you are on a long waiting list.
In My Right is Your Right we have a plan to work with local language schools so they will offer us lessons at special prices and with our donation money we can pay them, and offer language courses for refugees. So that is our next plan. This is the welcome culture—show solidarity with all, but help individually. If someone is looking for a job, help them with their job application. If someone wants to go to the doctor but doesn't know the language properly, support them.
How did you become a campaigner for refugee rights?
It's because of my circumstances. It's a way of survival. I never thought I would be an actor on stage, but when I started living in a refugee camp I tried to find possibilities for what I can do. At that time I joined a [performance] project in the refugee camp where I used to live and I saw them for the first week. Then I was not interested at all, because I was looking for something different. When I realised there was no possibility, I joined their project. They were looking for one actor who could perform on stage the role of a German officer sitting in an asylum office. I played that role.
The performance was in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, near parliament, and after that project was over, we talked together. We started a self-organised group for refugees, where they can come and represent themselves how they want. We had meetings every Wednesday where we discussed what to do, what should be the name of the group, basic things, and we started to work in a refugee camp. We went there, we gave a writing workshop to refugees. In the workshops we had to write a letter back to home about the situation there, and after that we performed those letters in a studio, we filmed them. It was very intensive, from each letter we took one sentence, a theme, and created artistic things from that. We performed in Climate Camp, then in Schaubühne, the Academy of Arts, so many different places.
The Carnival Al-Laji'in is our second project. We wanted to organise, to break this isolation of refugee camps. Carnival has a long tradition of resistance. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher, writes about “laughter from below” directed to the privileged people and the ruling order, and we want to go back to that culture and move on to occupy the street through art. We want to celebrate unity and fight against racism.
We self-organised in our refugee group and the campaign My Right Is Your Right, which started last year. I joined the campaign as well as a representative of the self-organised theatre group and then I started to co-ordinate that network. I am proud to say that I coordinated this Carnival project when I was not allowed to work. Now it is the first time that seven or eight big theatres in Berlin will be on the streets on international anti-racism day fighting for refugee rights.