Oya: a community hub for queer Kreuzberg

Reopened just before the first lockdown, Oya offers a safe space for queer and BPOC people. Its community is now helping it survive.

Annelie Quitt and Yordanos Afewerki of Oya in Kreuzberg. The community they serve is proving more important now than ever.
Annelie Quitt and Yordanos Afewerki of Oya in Kreuzberg. The community they serve is proving more important now than ever.Berliner Zeitung/Sabine Gudath

Berlin-It's a cold day at Kottbusser Tor, Kreuzberg -freezing temperaturues and sleet. On another day, in another time, this could have been a good evening for a stop at Oya, just around the corner on Mariannenstraße. But like all pubs, cafés and restaurants, the queer-feminist bar has had to close. And after three more months of lockdown, the question is how long can this little bar survive?

Annelie Quitt, 33, and Yordanos Afewerki, 45, run the place they call "the Oya"as if it were an old friend. They only took over the bar last March. Previously, it had been run by a collective. Quitt and Afewerki have been the only two people in charge since. Which they see as a shame, because actually everything was supposed to have turned out differently.

Just ten days after reopening, the first lockdown began - and that was the end of the Oya for the time being. "Unfortunately, we've never been in normal operation," Quitt says. Now they're having to fight to stay open at all.

Corona aid covers the basics

The fact that there are only two of them has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The pair haven't had to put staff on furlough pay, plus they have steady jobs that have nothing to do with hospitality: they both work as social workers. Their landlord have been accommodating and told them they can defer the rent if necessary. But that's not an attractive prospect as they fear going into debt. "Everything we put off now will catch up with us later," says Quitt.

Now things are getting tight. Last November's financial aid for the gastronomy sector still hasn't been paid in full. "And we have no info on when the rest will come."

The Oya hasn't seen any of the compensation pubs received for the curfew introduced in October. Establishments had to report at least a 20 per cent drop in sales in October to qualify. The bar, however, was among the 40 Berlin clubs and venues that received €10,000 from the culture department as part of the "Day of Club Culture." This was credited to its turnover, although the money was actually intended to be used as contributions in project applications - for producing culture, so to speak.

So now the money is trickling away into running costs. In the end, as is so often the case, it is bureaucracy that is holding many catering and cultural businesses back.

"It's a bit like at the job centre. You just live from one day to the next," Afewerki says. The duo have become cautious, not daring to make big plans for the future as long as they are dependent on corona aid, which no one knows how long will last. Quitt sounds modest when she says: "It would be good if we could open up by April again."

Right now, one can only imagine what things at the Oya might look like if it could open up for normal business again.

Oya in January - closed for the foreseeable future.
Oya in January - closed for the foreseeable future.Berliner Zeitung/Sabine Gudath

The entrance to the bar is through a glass door, next to which hangs a poster commemorating the racist murders in Hanau: a clear, immediate statement upon arrival. In the front are low wooden tables; in the narrow rear section, a counter runs along the wall. There are plans for a dining table, for people to come and drink coffee in the afternoon, and in the evening Quitt and Afewerki want to switch on the purple neon lights under the benches in the corners and turn the music up a bit.

Posters with feminist and anti-racist slogans and glossy photographs of queer models hang on the walls and above the counter. A plaque with a quote from Black feminist writer Audre Lorde reads: "We are not free while any woman is unfree."

Shelter from the world "outside"

The Oya's aim is to provide an intimate and sheltered atmosphere, and to protect its clientele - mainly the queer BPoC (Black, People of Colour) scene in Kreuzberg - "from the crap they are exposed to outside," as Quitt puts it.

That's how it was last summer, when Quitt and Afewerki were able to welcome a few guests and use the space to organise demos, like the Dyke March for lesbian visibility in July.

The regular crowd that came in those months were carried over from the bar's previous owners. "Our community is a big part of why this space is still here at all," Afewerki says. Whenever the bar had to close completely, those who had to stay home offered to help. Whether with financial means, technical skills or emotional support, "they support us when we think we can't go on."

The Oya bar is one of the city's few spaces that exists specifically for the queer BPOC community. It's hard for trans and non-binary people to feel safe in a heteronormative society. People who face multiple kinds of discrimination at once, such as experiencing racism plus transphobia, are hit even harder. And then there's also the isolation brought on by lockdown. Those whose identities are marginalised in the public sphere, who can only breathe a sigh of relief in spaces like the Oya, currently have virtually no other outlets available to them.

"Here the normality of outside is broken," Quitt explains. For her, the "normality outside" is the world of straight people, of white cultural dominance, of capitalism. Inside is the Oya - and the meaning of the name is as diverse as its audience. Oya is the goddess of transformation among the Yoruba people, a West African language community, Afewerki explains. Oya is a goddess in Brazil too. The word also exists in Turkish as a female first name and as a verb that fits this place to a t: "oyalanmak" - to linger.

Because Quitt and Afewerki know how important their space is to so many, they don't want to rely on state aid alone. A year ago, they launched a fundraising campaign. They actually wanted to use it to finance building work - now they need the money just to survive.