Plumbing the depths of refugee pain

Can art help individuals process the experience of fleeing across the Mediterranean? Sponsored by Malteser International, the art project "Human Cargo" in Ahaus, Germany, is helping refugees come to terms with the horrors they experienced on their odyssey. By Wolfgang Dick

By Wolfgang Dick

It's an unimaginable nightmare for those who haven't lived through it. Refugees who crossed the Mediterranean to come to Europe on dinghies and wooden boats remember women and children praying. They remember making one last phone call, because they were sure they would capsize and drown at any minute.

On some boats, they were "stacked" in layers of five people on top of each other, so the traffickers could make more money with each trip. After all, each person paid between €1,500 and €4,000 for the gruelling voyage. Up to 40 family members and neighbours collected the money needed to help at least one of their loved ones escape to Europe, the promised land.

Thamer, 22, from Iraq and 33-year-old Khabat from Syria, along with his wife and children, managed to survive the journey and make it to Germany after travelling through seven countries. Once there, they were lucky: after a stay in a refugee shelter, they came into contact with the Malteser International. The Catholic aid organisation provides refugees with so-called "integration pilots", people who help refugees cope with everyday issues and situations.

Honouring the dead

The "Human Cargo" art project was organised by Malteser in Ahaus, a small town in western Germany on the border with the Netherlands. On a recent Sunday in the Art Square Ahaus, several refugees were stacking wooden pallets, the kind found in cargo ships' freight holds, to create a large oval. In the centre of the space they put crosses and gravestones made of plaster, which symbolise the friends and family members who lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

Thamer lost his father on the way to Europe (photo: DW/W. Dick)
Bereft, yet brave: determined to keep up appearances in front of the older men, 22 year-old Thamer from Iraq lost his father during the sea crossing. "Human Cargo" aims to help Thamer and others to let go of the past and achieve a degree of emotional closure

Thamer's father was among those who died. Despite the loss, Thamer appeared almost cheerful while working on the installation. Ines Ambaum, the project's artistic director, explained: "Thamer is young and doesn't want to lose face," she said. "He wants to prove to the older men, especially the Muslims who keep picking on him because he's Kurdish, that he's a tough guy." 

Ambaum said that many refugees "show different faces," depending on who they interact with. But with every day that the group has been working on the installation, the men and women have opened up to Ambaum more. Each screw they drilled into the pallets brought back more memories of the horrible trip across the sea. 

Inhuman suffering

The experiences that the men and women share reveal unspeakable suffering. Some men from Eritrea fled their home country along with their sisters. To protect them, the men claimed the women were their wives. A fatal mistake. The traffickers saw through the lie and decided to torture the families desperate to get onto their boats.

They demanded that the men sleep with their "wives" before being allowed on board. When the Eritreans refused, the traffickers raped the women. Several of the women only discovered they were pregnant when they arrived in Germany. Some of them committed suicide. "When you think about the fact that the people who had to go through this are being attacked by xenophobes and chased through the streets in Germany – that's like being raped all over again," Ambaum said. The art installation in Ahaus is called "Human Cargo" to point out the inhumanity that has become reality for those fleeing northern Africa. Again and again, men and women in the Ahaus Art Square cried when sharing their stories, after which the space would become completely silent.

These days, the refugees simply call Ambaum "Chanzla" – "Chancellor" – and greet her with joy. They are grateful that she has so often lent an open ear.

Khabat, Thamer und artist Ines Ambaum at work (photo: DW/W. Dick)
Hopes for a brighter future: after two-and-a-half years in Germany, Khabat (left) from Syria now works for Malteser as an integration pilot himself, picking up other refugees from home by bus, so that they can take part in the weekly coffee meeting with their families. A German driving test, which he passed in Arabic, proved the key

And whereʹs the hug of gratitude? "Ines also Mensch," says Thamer in somewhat broken German, which he can speak surprisingly well, considering he has only been learning the language for a year. Embracing a woman you are not married to is strictly forbidden, a sin in his native Iraq. "That's exactly the problem," says the artist.

"Before marriage, Muslims are forbidden to have sex. They do not learn how to masturbate." Only recently a refugee came to her who had complained about a "massive pain" in the abdomen. She called a doctor. He came and discovered that all the refugee had was a sperm jam. The man had no idea. It wasnʹt something he had ever heard of. Such things are simply taboo.

Life-changing experience

"My life has changed completely since I started working with the refugees," Ambaum said. She used to enjoy flying to Paris for a day's holiday, but can't imagine doing so today: "When you hear what these people went through, you lose all taste for the decadent." She also criticised the behaviour of many Germans who get irritated about the smallest things.

"Many problems between Germans and refugees stem from the fact that people here are always comparing themselves with others," she said. Ambaum illustrated the issue by pointing to cell phones and the outrage that ensues when people discover that a refugee has a newer cell phone than they do. Some of her friends, Ambaum said, had complained that their tax money was being spent to pay for those phones – disregarding the fact that these phones were the only connection the refugees have to their families left behind in their war-torn home country.

Artist Ines Ambaum (photo: DW/W. Dick)
By no means a burden: "Ninety-eight percent of them are able to fully integrate! But no one's reporting that," complains Ambaum. "It's too positive for the press and doesn't seem to match our country's current mood. But it's true. I see it every day"

Ambaum is no longer friends with the people who made these comments. Letting go wasn't hard, she said. They even kicked her out of a neighbourhood WhatsApp group because she invited 20 refugees to her birthday party. Her so-called friends had called the guests racist slurs and suggested she just go hang out with them.

"I often lie in bed at night and canʹt sleep," Ambaum confessed. But she hasn't lost hope because she can see how well the refugees she's been working with have integrated into German society. "Ninety-eight percent of them are able to fully integrate! But no one's reporting that," she complained. "It's too positive for the press and doesn't seem to match our country's current mood. But it's true. I see it every day."

One of the people giving Ambaum hope is Khabat from Syria. After two-and-a-half years in Germany, he himself now works for Malteser as an integration pilot, picking up other refugees from home by bus, so that they can take part in the weekly coffee meeting with their families. A German driving test, which he passed in Arabic, proved the key.

Wolfgang Dick

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