Inside the Decommissioned Berlin Airport Housing 1,300 Refugees

Intimate photos of the cramped living quarters the refugees themselves call "boxes."

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May 24 2016, 12:00am

Haidar has been waiting for six months in a 270-square-foot cabin he shares with three other people. He's one of the lucky ones—some people share the same sized space with 11 others, while other cabins are only 130 square feet. They're all living at Tempelhof in Berlin. The former airport was originally built in 1927 and dramatically expanded by the Nazis in the 1930s. It's infamous for its iconic architectural design, enormous size, and its role as a lifeline for the people of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Today it houses 1,300 refugees waiting for more permanent housing and integration into society. The people living here are theoretically only meant to stay for six weeks, but due to a lack of available accommodation, many people I spoke to when I visited had been there for over six months.

Inside, the air is thick and warm, and there are security guards at every exit. They're watching me closely as I shuffle through the corridors of cabins—past cleaners collecting laundry and children playing. The refugees here have a roof over their head, three meals a day, and reasonably adequate facilities, but uncertainty about the future and a lack of personal space are a constant source of insecurity and discomfort among the people living there. I wanted to offer a look into the living quarters of refugees at Tempelhof, so I documented their rooms—or "boxes" as they're bleakly referred to—and talked to the residents about their living situation.

Issa, 25, from Baghdad, Iraq

I've been at Tempelhof since November 2015. I live here with two of my friends from Baghdad. We're really lucky because we're only three people living here—other rooms have more people. So I can't really complain, although I still call it a box. The main difference between living here and back home is that in Baghdad I felt safe and comfortable at home, but I didn't feel safe as soon as I stepped out of my house. Here it's exactly the opposite: When I'm in my living space, I don't feel comfortable, but when I go outside, I feel more secure.

Sayed, 37, from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan

I've been here for just over four months. I have no idea what will happen next, or how long I'll be living here. Living here isn't good—especially for my mental state. This morning we had a big problem with some of the security guys. We're having issues with integrating too—there has been no news about an integration course we were supposed to have. I'm living with two other families in my cubicle, twelve people in total. I have to like them. I have no choice.

Hamza, 28, and Akram, 16, from Qunaitra, Syria

We've been living in Tempelhof for six and a half months, but this doesn't feel like living. Our brothers are fighting in Syria, and we are fighting here. The hardest thing is the living space and how we're treated socially. We're treated as refugees, not as human beings. The good thing is that we are now immune to shitty living. All eight of us in our room met on the way to Germany. We can't bring our own food or milk into the building. We thought that a country like Germany would provide us with better spaces for living, which is why we took the risk in coming here.

Abdulrahman, 19, from Damascus, Syria

I've been in Tempelhof for five and a half months. I live with my sister and my uncle, and there is also another guy from Damascus living with us. I think the living conditions here are bad—it's not healthy to be living in such confined spaces with so many people. But we have a good group of friends here—mostly people from Syria and Palestine—and we also have some friends who live outside of the camp, so sometimes we hang out at their places. The difference between the houses my friends live in and here is huge. Their places are cleaner, they have their own electricity, they have a fridge to store food and drinks, and they have gas to cook. I think it's quite unfair how it's decided who's moving into a house and who has to wait—there have been people who moved here after us, and they've left before us. They say families should leave first, but I think we are also a family: I'm with my sister and my uncle. My soul is not happy, but I try to keep smiling.

Ahmed, 31, from Al-Hasakah, Syria

I've been here for about six months with my twelve-year-old cousin. I did a Masters in agricultural economics in Syria when I left. We lived in a land of militias, where there was no state whatsoever. My cousin has been exposed to a lot of violence and we were worried about how traumatized he would get. As a child, it's easier for him to cope with the limited living space, but he misses his parents and the emotional link to the place where he lived a lot. I didn't know the people that I'm currently living with before, even though we come from the same town. I will start my course at the Technological University in Berlin soon, and I'm worried about where I should study when it starts. I'm going to need my space and privacy. I'm not sure I know how I will cope.

Nadia, 37, from Logar Province, Afghanistan

I've been living here for four months now with my husband and four children. It's very hard to be here—the hardest thing about it is probably the constant noise. My daughter has a mental illness, and when there is a lot of noise, she gets worse. My children aren't able to study here when they get out of school, but they are learning German, and I'm really happy for them. My son never wants to go out and play. I have to force him. He finds it hard to engage with the other children and make friends here. My dream is for my children to study here and achieve their goals.

Omar, 20, from Damascus, Syria

I've been here at Tempelhof since October 2015. I live with seven other people I met here, and we get along really well. I'm a single man, so it's OK, I can live here. But if I were married or had a family, I would tell them not to come here because the living situation isn't good. We are just men in our box, and it's a bit like military service. The food is pretty bad, but most of us were in the army, so we're used to this—although the toilets were cleaner in the army. At six in the morning, they turn the lights on, and at ten at night, the lights go off again. And If you're late for a meal, you don't get to eat.

Mohamad, 18, from Mayadin, Syria, Khaled, 19, from Mosul, Iraq, and Sherko, 25, from Kirkuk, Iraq

We met each other at Tempelhof—it's six of us living together in this room. We all get along very well, but there's not much privacy. It does feel like one big family, though, which is nice. We are trying hard to integrate with guys and girls outside of the camp, and we're very thankful for their hospitality. We do sometimes feel a sense of reluctance toward us, which I think mostly comes from fear. Around Christmas, we'd visit Alexanderplatz quite often, and one time a friend and I were talking in loud voices and two girls in front of us at some point turned around, looked at us, hid their bags away, and walked off at a faster pace.

Haidar, 24, from Kirkuk, Iraq

I've been in Tempelhof for six months now, and I'm living with three other people. I come from an upper-middle class family in Iraq, and when I heard about opportunities in Germany, this is not what I expected. The living situation here is nothing compared to the way I was living in Iraq. I would like to go back home, but every day the problems in Iraq are getting worse. For now, I have to just bear this situation. I think in two years I might still be living here at Tempelhof. It's hard to find a place for a German to live in Berlin, let alone for us.

Michaela, 19, and Kutzung, 19, from Eritrea

We're friends from Eritrea who traveled here together, and we've been here for six months now. We are Christians, but there are mostly Muslims in this camp. We haven't had any problems on that front, though. We just hope to find some work here in Germany soon—we would be happy doing anything.

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