Berlin - "All good? You need anything?" - "Rasta girl, can I have your number?" On Falckensteinstraße it's business as usual, even during lockdown. Some days I'm annoyed when I'm approached on the way to Görlitzer Park. On other days, as a black woman, I feel connected to the immigrants from Africa, so I smile and greet them. But even then I reflexively brush them off, quicken my steps and try to keep the conversation short. I don't want to buy weed or flirt. But I'm actually very interested in who these people are.
Therefore, a few weeks ago, I deliberately stopped dodging them and revealed myself as a journalist. A lot of reporters, YouTubers and photographers have been to Görlitzer Park. Some were said to have filmed secretly. "Are you recording?" is one of the most frequent questions I get. The story of the "drug park" has been told so many times. But far too rarely from the perspective of the people it's actually about.
A Frisbee flies back and forth in the "Kuhle" (the dip) in Görlitzer Park. Reggae blares from the speakers of a group of immigrants from Gambia. They're sitting on the slope, legs stretched out, and no, a joint isn't being passed around. Yoro* has already smoked too much today, he says. His shoulder-length dreadlocks are neat, his bright red jeans match his cap and he wears a Nike shirt. Yoro pays attention to his appearance.
Yoro wanted to join his brother in Berlin
Like so many newcomers, what the 28-year-old loves about Berlin is the freedom. Beforehand, he lived in a small town in the Ruhr, but he wanted to be where his brother is. To make this possible, he even slept in the park for a while. He doesn't want to talk about what that was like. He also falters when asked about his journey here and shuts down completely after the first half-sentence. "My life is sad," Yoro says. "I can tell you something about how it is here in the park. But not about that."
Nobody tells him to, but Yoro stands at the park entrance for nine to twelve hours a day. Saturdays he takes off. The drug trade was already tough before corona, he says, but since corona, far fewer potential buyers have come by. "Some days you get some, some days you don't." Then he might ask his brother for food. He has a regular job, a wife and children. He's where Yoro wants to be. "All I want is a normal life. Get up in the morning, go to work, come home afterwards, maybe cook something and spend my evening on the couch," he says, closing his narrow eyes a millisecond too long as he blinks, as if briefly imagining a normal life.
Someone shouts something. "The police are coming," Yoro translates. And indeed, shortly afterwards, a van crawls along the narrow path. "We have trouble with them all the time," he says. Yesterday, a police dog found four packets of weed of his in the bushes. The officers don't get violent unless someone runs away, Yoro says. Right now, Yoro and his friends are just chilling, but they remain vigilant. The police presence in Görlitzer Park tripled in 2020 compared to the previous year. Local residents are divided: some have a problem with the drug dealing, others with the behaviour of the police.
Görli as a community meeting place
On day in early summer, I meet David Kiefer of the residents' initiative "Wrangelkiez United!" in Görlitzer Straße. Kiefer believes the police presence won't solve the "problem". The situation of the refugees would have to change. The hurdles to the labour market would have to be lowered.
Kiefer criticises racial profiling by the police and the designation of certain places as crime hot spots. He is white himself, but knows many people from the neighbourhood who are affected by police checks. "No matter what the situation, as a black man you can be checked at any time," he says. Even if the officers don't find anything, they will often ban people from the park, he explains. Even people who don't deal drugs are sometimes criminalised.
Not all black people in Görlitzer Park sell drugs. And even those who do are primarily looking for community here, explains Moro Yapha, who himself comes from Gambia and works as a language and cultural mediator for the Fixpunkt association. In a mobile counselling centre in Görli, Fixpunkt offers medical advice and help, regardless of residency status.
Even before Yapha got the job, he liked to go to the park to meet friends, and not to sell drugs. There's African food, music groups, and sometimes small events, like the football tournament in 2019 - which was widely criticised in the press. The Gambia is a small country. Many here still know each other from home, from their travels or from the asylum process. They come together in Görlitzer Park to celebrate parties or just to hang out. But some also earn their livelihood here.
Momodou* also came to the park because of the community. When he moved to Berlin, he didn't know anyone. The first thing he did was ask someone on the street where he could find other Africans. People who looked like him, people with similar experiences, who perhaps spoke his language. The stranger led him to Görli, where Momodou immediately felt at home. But he misses his home country every day.
We meet in Treptower Park. Momodou arrives half an hour early. The small man with the big smile thanks me several times for the soda I picked up at the Späti. As we sit down by the Spree, Momodou pulls out his phone and shows me the bare walls of a half-finished house in Gambia. In front of it squat two smiling children, his kids. "There's no place like home," he says. His goal is to finish the house and then go back immediately. Until he's done that, he would be too ashamed in front of the neighbours and friends in Gambia - and himself.
Momodou doesn't want to give up yet, even though he hasn't been able to continue the construction for more than three years. Back then, he lost his job in Italy and decided to move to the biggest city in Germany, Berlin.
Momodou wants to get off the street
Momodou sees "what he does" as the only way to earn money at the moment. The words "drugs" or "dealing" don't come up in our conversation. The 40-year-old is more open than Yoro, though. He doesn't avoid every topic, but he avoids such words, just like everyone else I talk to on the subject. Actually, it's not for him. His focus is on getting off the streets. That's why he earns so little money from it. Momodou doesn't see himself as a criminal. The way he vehemently distances himself from selling drugs makes it seem as if he judges himself more harshly than me, the police officers in Görli or any German judge. "The system has forced me to do what I do. All the people around me know that I have a good heart. They trust me because I look so friendly," he says. He does look kind of innocent. That's because of the shaved face, he says.
Momodou came to Europe with a visa to attend a wedding. He's here legally now, with a permanent residence permit from Italy. He gets nothing from the state. Until the beginning of the corona pandemic, he lived in a hostel, after that with various acquaintances because the hostel closed. Above all, he lacks the registration certificate which is needed for a work permit.
The money goes to his family in Africa
He seems to have noticed my incredulous look and says, "You're privileged. For you it's simple. For me, it's hard to get." It's true. I can imagine not being able to find a room, but can't imagine that none of my acquaintances would give me proof of housing. And besides, I could always register with my family.
Momodou is trapped in a cycle that many homeless people also face. No work means no housing and no housing means no work. Homelessness in Görlitzer Park has increased during the corona pandemic, say both David Kiefer and Moro Yapha. Many of those who become homeless also lose their minds, is what they say here in the park.
With the money he earns on the fringes of Görlitzer Park, Momodou covers his living costs and pays the school fees of his three children in Gambia. His eldest daughter is still waiting for this month's money, because he doesn't always earn enough. But whenever possible, he sends money to the rest of his family and friends as well. "Without us in the diaspora, it would be much harder for many Africans," he says.
A few weeks later, I call Momodou about a question. He sounds excited and happy. He's found a job as a dishwasher. "It's better than being on the street," he says.
Africa does not need the world, the world needs Africa
Ultimately, Momodou is convinced he is here because the African continent is being exploited by the West. He explains how France, for example, benefits from treaties concluded after the colonies gained independence. Through the CFA currency and the obligation to store a large portion of the currency reserves in the French central bank, France controls the flow of money and is able to extract $500 billion from its former colonies, Momodou says. If he were president of The Gambia, he would reject any cooperation with the West and push for African unification. Momodou is certain that Africa is in fact not dependent on Europe, but the other way round. "Africa does not need the world. The world needs Africa," he says.
He - and Yoro for that matter - believe the corona pandemic is a political strategy for more exclusion and oppression. For closing borders, for imposing political interests and maybe even poisoning Africans by exchanging donated vaccine. So they say. Momodou and Yoro don't know anyone who has contracted Covid-19. And the social workers from Fixpunkt also confirm that they know of hardly any corona cases among the people from Africa in the Wrangelkiez. "On the one hand, that's good, but it also shows how non-integrated they are," says Moro Yapha.
Musa* waits at the corner of Taborstraße, near Falckensteinstraße, where we first met. He was trying on some shoes there, only €7 a pair. He frowned when the article I wanted to write came up, but he gave me his number anyway.
Musa sees Germany as a good host and is grateful that he gets a place to sleep and some money during the asylum procedure. "But I am young and healthy. I want to take care of myself. Instead of sitting around waiting to get something," he says. He was supposed to live in a small town in Bavaria, but he wants to stay with his uncles in Berlin. Here he feels a little freer.
"Some days I'm happy to be in Germany. But on others I regret the trip. In The Gambia and Senegal, I can go where I want, I can go to another city. I can work," he says. In Germany, asylum seekers and "tolerated" individuals have to live in the district where they are registered. Musa has a Duldung or toleration permit. His asylum application was rejected, and since Senegal is classified as a safe country of origin, Musa is not allowed to seek employment. Even under other circumstances, it would be difficult to get work with a Duldung.
The Berlin police are only doing their job
It starts to rain heavily. We squeeze into a building entrance, but still get a little wet. Musa continues unperturbed. He regularly asks me questions. Our conversation isn't like an interview, it's more like getting to know one other. Musa was a construction worker. He likes physical work and would go back into construction. But in the meantime he's discovered another passion: cooking. In the refugee camp, he worked in the canteen. He does not yet dare to dream of his own restaurant. For the time being, his goal is residence status that will allow him to work at all.
He doesn't blame the police for searching him from time to time. Here in Berlin they're just doing their job, he says. And maybe he will need the police at some point, like if Nazis attacked him, for example. In Bavaria, however, he says racial profiling exists in a completely different dimension. And in Libya anyone who has done military service can identify himself as a police officer, he says. A ploy to rob people.
When his eight months in Libya come up, Musa becomes more serious and then changes the subject. He prefers to describe the journey across the Mediterranean in general terms as a death trap instead of going into his personal experiences. Musa's journey took three years. He has been living in Germany since 2015. He's currently in a state of limbo, between deportation and legal residency, between Bavaria and Berlin, between Falckensteinstraße and the park. "I still don't tell people in Senegal and Gambia to stay there. They don't believe me and ask: 'Then why don't you come back if everything is so bad?'"
* Names changed by the editors.