We met H. on a Saturday afternoon in the refugee home where she is living in Berlin. The brownish Neo-Baroque house, built during World War I, was for a long time the City Hall of Friedenau, in the district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg. In 2016, the massive building was sold and it became what it is now: a place where hundreds of women and their children seeking asylum live. A friend, who also lives there, had arranged the meeting.
To get inside the house, you have to be invited by one of the residents and give your ID to the management personnel, who will return it to you once you leave the premises. Standing between you and the main doorway is the security, formed by men of different nationalities. In common they have their blue uniforms, the same colour as the Berliner police, and a look that seems to suspect the visitors. The interior of the house is like many other administrative German buildings. Dark, long corridors, door after door, all closed. On each floor there is a hall, which in old times probably served as a waiting room. On one of the floors we came across a group of children playing as well as a pair from the security, who sit still in a corner and watch. The atmosphere is sad.
After walking up and down stairs and hallways, we come to H.’s room. She is waiting for us and had already separated folders containing piles of documents she wanted to show us.
The story of H. follows a pattern of many impoverished women born and raised in Iraq. At the age of fourteen, she was forced to marry a man eighteen years older than her. She had eight children, of which six were girls. A life as a slave, that’s how she felt, she says.
Some years ago, at around the same age as their mother, the two oldest girls were forced to marry older men. H. tells us she spent her life at home in Abu Ghraib getting pregnant with a man who had three other wives and many other children in different countries. The money he got had to be split between these families, which made the already hard life of H. and her children much harder.
To try and understand a bit more of H.’s background, we asked her about the war in Iraq. She looks absent and tells us her life was lived in isolation and that she never knew much of what was going outside her home. Once she saw local militias kill a man in her neighborhood and another time her whole village had to be evacuated to another nearby, to a school building, where masks were distributed for protection against a suspected chemical weapons attack. Twenty days later they were told it was safe to go back home.
We asked her about the Abu Ghraib prison, notorious after reports were published denouncing the brutal treatment of Iraqi prisoners under the US Military and its coalition partners administration. She said she knew nothing of this period. Later she remembered that her husband had been incarcerated in that prison for six years under Saddam Hussein, but that was before their marriage.
A few years ago her husband left her for one of his other families. It didn’t take long and she left Iraq and went to Turkey, taking her four daughters with her. In Turkey they stayed for two years until the husband contacted them again and demanded that they pack up and come over to Germany. H. took her daughters and started the long journey from Turkey to Greece by boat, on the road through the Balkan route, to Austria and finally to Germany. As soon as she arrived the misery of this marriage began again with the man giving the then oldest daughter to an acquaintance of his, a 30 years old drug dealer. H. has never seen her daughter again. Left with three girls, they lived in different refugee accommodations in different German cities until they were separated from the man and came to Berlin. Since they split, H. is receiving constant life threats from her husband and has attempted suicide. She picks up the hospital report as proof of what she is telling us. A month ago, the Youth Office took two of her children away from her as she was considered unfit to take care of her girls. The third girl went to live with her father.
Before moving to Friedenau, H. was living in another refugee home, where neighbours and social workers reported having witnessed her beating her children. H. doesn’t seem to understand what she’s done wrong. She wants her children back and she cries when speaking about them. She is also desperate to be sent back to Iraq together with her daughters. Her husband is also fighting to have custody of the children. In one of the many documents H. showed us, we read the report of the Youth Office and read the statements given by the children. They don’t want to go back to Iraq. They want to study, to stay. They are allowed to visit their mother in the house in Friedenau and they do it frequently.
By now the table around which we are having our conversation is covered with papers. All written in german. She looks at us as if asking if there is any hope for her, if there is something in any of those documents that could help her to get her children back. As she speaks we see the empty double beds where the children were supposed to sleep. Next to it is H.’s bed and between them there is a big window, showing an intimidating outside world that communicates with her through the piles of documents H. cannot read. There is not much left to say. The Youth Office report is clear, H. has hardly any chance of having her children live under the same roof as her. At least not in Berlin. In a better world H.’s life story would guarantee her the right of political asylum based on gender persecution.