Berlin | Risk, Blame and Cultural Isolation

by Jagat Sohail

April 24, 2020

A day after the news of the implementation of a national lockdown in Germany, I received a message from a refugee-run social club based in my neighborhood in Berlin, letting me know that all planned events would be postponed until further notice. The cancelled events included a range of weekly counseling sessions, language learning classes and medical advice, and specific neighborhood events they organize in a bid to promote the integration of the significant refugee community in the neighborhood with its other long-term residents. I found myself suddenly faced with an empty calendar. With Spring promising to blossom at any time, the club had a series of intercultural evenings and collective cooking sessions planned that are as festive as they are ethnographically rich. In addition, quite suddenly, I felt like questions that seemed relevant before now cast small shadows in comparison to the overwhelming, and still looming, tragedies of a global pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, as with all crises, refugees have experienced the virus in unique ways. Refugees living in cramped and woefully under-equipped camps across Europe face potential catastrophe in the face of a breakout. Indeed, this is already the case in many places, even in Germany, where a camp in the south of the country has seen almost half of its 600 residents test positive for the virus[1]. Perhaps the most pressing, from the European context, are the Greek Islands that act as the continent’s largest refugee camps, where 35,000 people are squeezed into accommodations meant for no more than 6,000[2]. Of course, in addition to this, social and governmental work on existing asylum cases has stopped, and the always uncertain future for many refugees only becomes more uncertain as they anxiously anticipate a rise in xenophobic attitudes and a renewed call for stricter border regimes. Indeed, for many refugees, a horror story seems to be unfolding. The borders of nations seem to slowly but inexorably be closing in on them from the outside, all while they desperately try to maintain the medically appropriate physical distance from one and another in impossibly cramped spaces.

What this speaks to, is the boundary-transgression properties of contagion. Specifically, the boundaries between victimhood and danger become most porous in an epidemic. In other words, If the infected infects, then it is precisely those most at risk that come to occupy the position of the most potentially dangerous, in collective imagination. This isn’t to say that refugees have never been thought of as threats before. Yet where the earlier version of threat required the invalidation of their victimhood in variations of Trojan Horse conspiracies, the current articulation of their potential danger to society works precisely through a recognition of their vulnerability. This, of course, is then moralized. For risk to adequately transition to blame, “cultural values” are quickly mobilized to explain why these cultural others are less likely to take the necessary precautions to avoid infecting themselves and others - a kind of culturalization that quickly infects entire communities, clothes, skin color, and even food. As I write this, it feels as though I might be getting ahead of myself. Certainly no sustained discourse has yet emerged, in Berlin, that places the burden of the blame on Muslim communities. And yet, as a Syrian interlocutor told me last year in the context of Berlin’s Housing crisis, “Whatever bad happens in this city, it happens to us twice. First because we are affected, and second because it becomes our fault.”

Berlin has had a limited lockdown. People are still allowed - and were indeed initially encouraged - to go out for walks, provided they agree to certain constraints. Families and/or household units are allowed to be together in public spaces. Alternatively, one person can be outside with one other person not from their household. All this, of course, alongside restrictions of a minimum distance to be always maintained between people in public. The result is that life seems to go on in a kind of suspended temporality, in which the tenor of a justified global media panic stands in stark contrast to a seemingly remarkably laid back everyday life in public. Families sit outside soaking in the sun they’ve waited months for. Children run around them, playing from morning to evening as though summer vacations have come early, and couples walk together, a beer in one hand and the other hesitantly questing out for company while the police turns its gaze elsewhere.

Yet as time passes, public space seems to resolve itself, to use an option metaphor. While parks and riversides seem as full as they might have been this time last year, a certain segregation of familiars and strangers seems to emerge as an organizing principle. My daily walks along the river Panke, start from my historically Arab-Turkish neighborhood of Wedding, from where I make my way towards the increasingly white neighborhoods of Pankow. As I make my way north, I seem to leave behind the constant orbiting of police cars around clusters of Turkish and Arab families, finally reaching spaces that seem to emerge as white enclaves protected from law enforcement.

Mulling over what this crisis means for refugee life in Berlin, I think about when my neighborhood refugee organization will continue its intercultural events. Yet realistically, even knowing that public gatherings are likely to be off the cards for a while yet, to whatever degree a more robust public life begins to proceed in the following months, I wonder, to what extent social distancing will translate into more enduring forms of cultural boundaries. It seems hard not to believe that an emphasis on social isolation will unhesitatingly and unapologetically offer intercultural contact as its first sacrifice. And so, as I think about the future of the lives of my interlocutors, and indeed my own work on foreigner incorporation in Berlin, I wonder: will this crisis prove to be a moment of cultural disintegration for a Berlin where the balance between intercultural contact and isolation always seems to maintain a precarious balance? To what extent will staying away from strangers begin to mean staying away from “strangers”?

[1] Nielsen, Nikolaj. 2020. “Half of refugees at German camp test Covid-19 positive”. euobserver.   

[2] “Fire tears through Greece refugee camp after coronavirus protest”. 2020. Al JazeeraI.