Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’

And before we really know what we’re getting into, our new friend Ahmad has led us away from the square, up steep back roads to a sports hall that overlooks the town. ‘I live here,’ he says, ushering us past two bored security guards, who scarcely look up from their mobile phones.

Heckengau Sporthalle is home to around a hundred refugees, mostly from Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, packed into ‘plastic’ rooms that divide what used to be an indoor basketball court. The rooms are built for two or four, but Ahmad’s second bunk is empty. He kicks some shoes under the bed and clears the table to prepare us some tea: our first taste of refugee hospitality.

There are no ceilings to this cell and we can see the old basketball hoops folded away above us. His neighbours’ conversations echo, every sound amplified. Curfew is at ten at night, when the court lights are cut out and there’s a fifteen Euro fine if you’re too noisy. Ahmad shows us his headphones and explains that he watches films at night.

After a simple dinner of eggs, salad and felafel, we’re introduced to Ahmad’s friends in a good-humoured babel of German, English and Arabic.

Hossam has lived in the sports hall for five months, finally settling for Germany after a couple of attempts to get into the UK. First he tried jumping lorries and the Eurotunnel trains in Calais, then he bought a fake passport in Mannheim and tried to cross from Dunkirk as an Italian in the back seat of an unwitting ride-share. He reached the final passport control, but was pulled aside and thrown out after failing a basic language test.

In Aleppo, Hossam worked for twelve years as a telecommunications engineer. Today, he has finally received his temporary German passport and ID card. Now he can move out of the basketball court and start looking for work. He had one interview with a company in Stuttgart, but must first learn German and get his qualifications transferred. This means going right back to the beginning again.

Hossam’s first priority, however, is to bring his family over to Germany – legally. His wife and two young sons still live in Aleppo.

Those who had less chaotic journeys than Hossam’s have come with their families already in tow. Saleh and his two pre-school children are Palestinians from Lebanon. Four year old Alma loved the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and laughs as her dad bounces her on his knee in imitation – ‘Boat, boat!’ Her younger brother, not yet two, cried the whole way.

Despite the help given to those with families – free transportation to Germany from Greece – Saleh describes the journey as ‘the hardest ten days of life’.

Outside, the sun starts to set and our brief pause for roadside boiled eggs has turned into a sprawling soiree with friends. We’re offered coffee, tea, ice cream and a puff on a nargileh water pipe. We have three invitations of beds to sleep in, as well as laundry services and hot showers. All we hear is ‘please, please, no problem.’

Reluctantly the refugees allow us to put up our tent a short cycle away, in an empty field behind a car park. But only if we promise to return for breakfast.

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At nine the next morning, coffee and freshly prepared baklava are served outside while we wait for the sports hall to open for visitors. Our rubbing eyes and stretched yawns provoke knowing smiles. ‘Have you been camping all the way from England? It was like that for us, on our journey.’ Hossam shows us his tent in Calais, where he stayed for twenty days. Fahed, a Syrian from the persecuted Druze minority, had to walk for a week through the borderlands of Serbia. ‘In those seven days, we slept eight hours only,’ he says. Our nocturnal discomfort pales in comparison, of course.

After watching and learning as the self-appointed chef fries and bakes, we’re called in for breakfast, spread out on two tables in one of the plastic rooms. There’s beef mince with onions and mushrooms, fuul beans in a tahina sauce, fried eggs, as well as tomato salad and homemade hummus, all gobbled up with freshly made bread.

We’ve cleaned out the town bakery as our small contribution, which is treated with disdain if not outright disgust. ‘Why you bring this? We make breakfast for you, we invite you.’ We try to explain it’s a thank you gift, and finally they acquiesce. But, I note, the pastries are only politely tasted.

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After breakfast, while the others drink tea, Fahed serves us Yerba Mate, a Druze speciality, imported from Argentina. He then proceeds to roundly trounce the lot of us at 3-point basketball throws.

As the rain starts to come down, and we prepare to leave, Saleh insists that we pack our bikes in his car and he drive us to our next stop. It takes a dozen increasingly frantic refusals before he backs down and instead plies us with butter, blackberry jam and Arabic bread. Not to be outdone, Ahmad offers us his last bread roll and Abu  one of his sweatshirts.

We finally roll away from the Heckengau Sporthalle in the late afternoon, twenty-four hours of relentless hospitality after we accidentally arrived. ‘That’s the thing with hospitality,’ C says. ‘You never quite know if you’re being rude by over-staying, or rude by leaving.’

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