Eating Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp in Germany

At Benjamin Franklin Village—a refugee camp in Mannheim, Germany—displaced Syrians make do with cafeteria-style food, grill wieners on smuggled hot plates, and try to make some semblance of a normal life.

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Nov 26 2015, 5:00pm

Samir kocht Abendessen für die Jungs. Alle Fotos von der Autorin.

"I was so thirsty, I drank water from the sea with a bit of bread," recalls Basel, a 25-year-old Syrian man from Damascus. He is speaking of the day he was forced to wait for a rubber dinghy to Greece on the coast of Turkey. Refugees and migrants hid in clusters along the terrain, and Basel acted as a tourist to avoid the police's vigilant eye. He got his swim trunks on, dipped into the sea, and took selfies with a friend. The heat exacerbated their thirst and hunger, lack of cigarettes, and growing desperation. With the blazing sun on their shoulders, a pair of vacationers who were enjoying the day out on their small sailboat close to Basel knew there was something unusual about the men. So, they approached them with the few provisions they had on their boa—water, cigarettes, juice, and fruit. Basel did not say a word.

Three months later from a café in Mannheim, Germany, Basel recounts his 25-day journey from the Greek island of Kos to Bejamin Franklin Village, a refugee camp in Mannheim. Along with a small group of friends, he embarked on the perilous trek to Europe during the spike of the refugee crisis, one that after four years of bloody civil war in Syria is finally making headlines. As countries like Macedonia and Hungary closed their borders, Germany maintained an open-door policy, expecting to host 1.5 million refugees by the end of the year.

The high school´s courtyard close the the Red Cross´s clothes distribution center

The high school's courtyard, close the the Red Cross's clothing distribution center. All photos by the author.

For Basel, the days inside Benjamin Franklin Village begin with the first person to wake up. He is in charge of urging others to pick up breakfast, only served between 8 and 10 AM. Today, it was Basel. "Samir, Baloud, wake up," he nagged others to awake from their slumber, only to be met with silence. Basel shares a room with five others; among them is Samir, a musician from Latakia who made the journey with him. Their days center around the prepackaged meals, 2.5 liters of water, and other snacks given by the camp. If the men fail to get out of bed, they miss their only chance for an insipid frozen meal, wieners, yogurt, a small chocolate bar, and pita bread for the day.

Waiting becomes a routine. They eat, sleep, text. Sometimes they get on a bike, run an errand to the nearest supermarket, go downtown, or play soccer. Other than that, the men stay in bed and wait for their names to be posted on the "transfer" list. Basel and Samir were among the 10,000 refugees stranded in Budapest when Hungary closed down its central train station. They were among the thousands who marched to Austria and were granted passage by Germany.

The hallway just outside the guy´s room

The hallway just outside the Samir and Basel's room.

Benjamin Franklin Village is nothing like the idyllic German village its name so deceitfully invokes. Instead, it is a former American military base's idea of a village; big apartment complexes with paved streets running like sterile creeks, a high school, and a football field. The village that once catered to American comfort and familiarity now hosts more than 5,000 refugees, an unlikely sanctuary for a mix of displaced peoples and orphaned cultures.

The hours crawl by at a snail's pace. Without the kettle and electric grill Basel and Samir smuggled into the camp, the monotony would be unbearable. This way, they can at least have dinner on their own terms. They can grill wieners and mortadella, sip tea or Nescafé on their own time. Both men came to Germany after years in Turkey proved unable to fulfill their dreams for the future. In Germany, they will become residents, learn German, and be allowed to work and study. It's been two months since they arrived in the camp and the wait threatens to become another fact of life. "Come, let's play," says Basel to Samir, kicking a soccer ball. The two men then step out of the threshold and into the container's desolate hall, where Samir aims at the ball and shoots.

The guys

The guys of Benjamin Franklin Village.

Germany allocates refugees to different camps across the country with a computer-generated system called EASY. Each "länder" or state has a distribution quota based on taxes and population. Basel and Samir were sent to the state of Baden-Württemberg, which has the third highest quota in the country.

"The biggest administrative challenge is registration," says Christiane Springer, a German Red Cross administrator operating Benjamin Franklin Village. The large influx of people brings with it non-state actors to accommodate large numbers of asylum-seekers and migrants. NGOs and state agencies operate the initial reception centers. Anything from basketball stadiums, empty army barracks, schools, and makeshift containers are used for the initial months before the asylum-seekers are granted refugee status. Prior to the peak summer months of sea crossings and Europe's panicked response to the refugee crisis, the maximum amount of time a refugee could spend in a reception center was three months. Currently, the waiting time has been extended to six months.

Making dinner

Making dinner.

Cigarettes accompany the colorful trays of frozen food as well as each passing hour. The catering company that provides food to the refugee camp complies with a set of guidelines imposed by the German government. Meals are different every day, but variety only lasts a little over a week. After that, the soupy meals begin to repeat themselves.

"We didn't come here to eat," says Basel. "The food is bad, we complain; but after three minutes we forget about it." Despite the tedium of cafeteria-style meals—ironically served in the old high school's cafeteria—there is enough food to fill their anxious stomachs. "You get bored of bread, butter, and jam," he continues, "but there is so much waste." While breakfast falls short of being a satisfying feast, it is wholesome: modest buns, milk, water, jam, fruit, and one awkward spicy green pepper. For dinner, the men eat the wieners, mortadella, or prepacked burger patties given in the morning. Soon, abandoned yogurt cups and plastic cutlery begin to pile up on the planks used as tables, among tobacco and rolling paper.

Basel's charisma illuminates the otherwise gloomy containers and apartment buildings where refugees sleep. He strolls up and down the camp's main street, waving to people and chatting about the latest updates. After months together in the camp, the five men have little to say to each other during the day, but at night, the room transforms into an Arab-style coffeehouse. The kettle allows for round after round of mate for Baloud, originally from Homs, and Nescafé or black tea for the others. "Mama Samir," as Basel calls his friend, grills wieners with melted mozzarella bought on the store.

Scrambled eggs feast

A scrambled egg feast cooked on an unauthorized pan.

According to UNHCR, 62 percent of sea arrivals in 2015 are men, of which 22 percent are between the ages of 18 and 59. At night, visitors gather in Basel's room to smoke, chat and drink tea. Samir takes out his guitar and occasionally plays "Nothing Else Matters." The first night of my stay in the camp, Basel asked a friend with a smuggled electric stove and pan to cook for us an unprecedented delicacy: scrambled eggs. The occasion merited the use of olive oil, one of his most precious possessions. The eggs were served hot on the large, unauthorized pan.

Basel and Samir's social life have not been affected by Benjamin Franklin Village or their extraordinary circumstances as refugees. On Friday night, they headed to their German friend's house for dinner. The men blended perfectly with the flat's cool ambiance and house music. Sipping wine and chopping vegetables in their friend's hip kitchen, Benjamin Franklin came up only briefly, before it quickly evaporated with the soup's steady brewing. The doorbell rang and in came another friend, who carried liquor and an assortment of juices for a brave attempt at cocktails. Once everyone sat around the table and Samir had promised to make baba ganouj for next time, everyone began to eat, silently and pleased.

Update: As of November 21, Basel and Samir have been transferred out of the camp and into collective accommodation, and await the next steps toward becoming residents.