Illegal Helpers is a dramatic work portraying the conflict between state law and the humanitarian acts of assistance to immigrants which may overstep legal boundaries. It is based on interviews conducted by the playwright, Maxi Obexer, over a period of several years. She spoke with people in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who had assisted refugees, and researched their individual stories.
The original German-language Illegale Helfer was produced as a radio play by WDR in 2015, under Martin Zylka’s direction. Maxi Obexer proceeded to develop a stage version which premiered in Salzburg in 2016 and received its German premiere in Potsdam later that year. It was named one of three 2016 winners of the German-language Eurodram Prize.
The English translation has been read and performed in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, and Chapel Hill. In November 2018 a live reading at the Czech Center New York, directed by Katrin Redfern, was recorded and released as an episode of the podcast Play for Voices. (See www.playforvoices.com).
This text is reproduced with the kind permission of Schaefersphilippen Theater & Medien, Cologne (www.schaefersphilippen.de).
The statements made by the play’s characters originated in interviews with various people, some of whom had already broken the law multiple times and been charged with providing aid to illegal immigrants. Others could be subject to legal action if their activities became known to the authorities.
The author wishes to thank all of the many people who, through the accounts they provided, led us into a hidden world of humanitarian deeds.
Genner: Austrian, ca. 70
Lukas: Swiss-German, ca. 45
Ulrike: Swiss, ca. 80
Florian: German, student, 25
Teacher: ca. 55
Judge: ca. 60
Female activist: ca. 50
Susanna: without legal status, ca. 30
Male activist: Austrian, 40, in a wheelchair
Lawyer: ca. 35
Genner: Civil courage is more important today than ever, because deportations can be prevented! If an asylum seeker has applied for asylum and if he’s threatened with deportation and goes underground and he doesn’t show up anywhere for eighteen months, then the Dublin Regulation ceases to apply to him. But eighteen months is a longtime. Where’s he supposed to go for all that time?
Lukas: I was spending some time with my kids in the mountains at my friend Jonas’. He farms a forest and several fields in the southernmost foothills of the Swiss Alps in Ticino, right on the Italian border. We help with the milking, we make cheese, make hay, and that spring, around Easter, we were making improvements to the narrow path that leads from the mountains into the valley. We were dragging these big granite rocks from the bed of a nearby stream up to the path and building a retaining wall in a sharp curve. It was a cool morning, and then suddenly the two sheep dogs started up.
A tall, burly man, maybe mid-twenties, came down the footpath, leaning on two sticks, walking slowly, taking each step uncertainly, looking exhausted and as if he was struggling to keep his balance. He spoke to us quite happily, in English we could barely understand, he was beaming, and he asked if this was Switzerland.
We told him it was. The man was grateful, in fact he was thrilled, Switzerland! It was a dream come true, and next he asked us whether, if he followed the path into the valley, he’d come to a village.
Yes, we said. I could feel how pleased it made me to be able to help him in this way. He said all sorts of blessings, God bless you, he said in English, and I think he took my hand in his, I think he touched my head.
Genner: The civilian population has the obligation to provide sheltered places in which those in need of protection, and individuals who’ve been traumatized or tortured and therefore deserve protection can go into hiding until the 18 months have passed. Until then they have to stay somewhere and there are in fact people who will help out of good will, private individuals, monasteries, churches, farms – there are lots of them!
Lukas: Yes, he was really pleased, he was beaming. He hugged us.
Switzerland, he kept saying. That’s the way to the village, we told him.
Genner: Those people-traffickers who are honest, who do good work, who safely lead their customers out of a country of misery and hunger, of terror and persecution, and get them in safely, in spite of the border controls, into our “free” Europe, I have respect for all such people. They provide a service, they carry out a socially useful activity and they have the right to a commensurate honorarium.
We may well have sent him straight to his own ruin. Because down in the village, the neighbors watch over the street, terrified of refugees.
That path used to be the main route for the smugglers and refugees. The people in the village felt so afraid that they felt it necessary to put bars on the first-floor windows and to equip themselves with shotguns.
One time there was a neighbor who used to travel around the world on board ships, he came back home late at night. When he opened the door he found himself looking down the barrel of a loaded gun his wife was pointing right at his face. She assumed it was foreigners trying to get in through the door.
Those neighbors were probably the first ones to report him to the authorities. In Chiasso there’s a reception camp.
After he’d gone, it suddenly went through me like an electric shock. We should have kept him there in the mountains! Should have protected him. We should have let him rest for three days, wrapped him up in blankets, killed a chicken and made a soup for him. Studied those incredibly detailed Swiss maps with him and called my aunt Ulrike, who’s been helping refugees for more than 20 years.
Would he have had a chance? The three days wouldn’t have amounted to illegal conduct, would they? We could have simply helped him. Wasn’t that a failure to assist a person in danger? Don’t we also have duties towards these people?
Legislator: Council DIRECTIVE defining the facilitation of unauthorized entry, transit and residence.
1) One of the objectives of the European Union is the gradual creation of an area of freedom, security, and justice, which means, inter alia, that illegal immigration must be combated. The council of the European Union HAS ADOPTED THIS DIRECTIVE:
Article 1: general infringement:
Each member state shall adopt appropriate sanctions on :
a) any person who intentionally assists a person who is not a national of a Member State to enter, or transit across, the territory of a Member State in breach of the laws of the State concerned on the entry or transit of aliens.
Lukas: Why did I surrender him to the authorities when I know they aren’t on his side, just as I’m not on their side. Why did I just watch him walk away? Was I afraid?
Legislator: Article 2: Instigation, participation and attempt
Each Member State shall take the necessary measures to ensure that the sanctions referred to in article 1 are also applicable to any person who:
a) is the instigator of,
b) is an accomplice in, or
c) attempts to commit an infringement as referred to in Article 1 (1) a) or b)
Lukas: Afraid of the laws? Did the laws restrain me? Did they make me hesitate? Laws that are not my laws, that punish me for providing aid?
Legislator: Article 3: sanctions
Each Member State shall take the necessary measures to ensure that the infringements referred to in Articles 1 and 2 are subject to effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions.
Genner: People disappear into administrative detention. And we don’t know anything about it. We only find out if someone, a friend, a relative, a brother, a father, an uncle, comes to us and says: my brother was taken away.
So we go to the prison, we obtain the power of attorney and then we represent them.
It’s also sometimes happened that we’ve brought someone back, someone who was in the process of being deported. Not long ago there was a Chechen, a man who had been tortured, and he came back again after the colonel had to reverse the decision. He was allowed back into the asylum process, and the deportation was declared illegal. Now we’re also going to file for compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
Lukas: Genner, what’s your deal anyway?
Genner: What do you mean?
Lukas: What kind of person are you?
Genner: I advise and represent asylum seekers through the procedure for being granted asylum.
I write appeals for them.
I accompany them when they’re called in for questioning.
I bring their cases to the attention of the public.
I expose abuses.
Lukas: But apart from that, what kind of person are you? Why do you do it?
Genner: I’ve been politically active since I was 17.
Lukas: But why do you do it?
Genner: I was involved in the student movement in 1968, I was part of the youth organization called Spartacus that led the struggle against homes and reformatories.
Lukas: And on a personal level?
Genner: The work I’m doing now is the most important part of the political life I’ve led.
Lukas: You get attacked. Threatened. Charged with crimes.
Civil liberties organizations drape you with medals for courageous acts. But the district attorney’s office is constantly serving you with summonses. You’re a criminal because you break the law by helping others – you have to break the law in order to help! You live like a pauper because nobody earns anything by working for asylum-seekers. What makes someone like you put up with all that? Are you an altruist? Or are you suffering from some sort of helper syndrome?
Genner: I get the strength to carry out my often very gruelling work from many motives and sources; and one of them is hatred.
Genner: Hatred for injustice and for those who commit injustice.
And another is the wish to help people, I take great pleasure every time a refugee gets asylum through my efforts. I take pleasure in the few sons-of-bitches we were able to get thrown out of the system. There have been too few of those, but still, there are some.
Genner: I come from a family that was politically active during the Nazi era and that was persecuted on racial grounds, and that certainly had an influence on me.
Ulrike: Maybe I should start by going in order. The very first one was from Bangladesh, Mamun, a young man who’d just turned sixteen, the second young man, Tarek, came from Afghanistan, he’d finished his undergraduate degree, then there was the third one, he was an Eritrean, from an ethnic group that was persecuted, he was a serious athlete, who actually made good money from it, back then, that was Dehab. All three of them had traveled on their own. Then through Dehab there was his friend Salem, he came too. The fifth person was the Afghani’s partner, Malika, and that was basically how it started.
Lukas: What made you start doing it?
Ulrike: You could say it was just that we liked them, I found them appealing, a bit lost, also, little Mamun, the boy, he was almost still a child.
Lukas: So actually a very simple start to the whole story.
Ulrike: Yes. And they all became important stories, and they still are. They’ve really changed our lives.
Back then it was all about the hard struggles to get residence permits. We really found out what it’s like behind the scenes of the political situation regarding asylum, how much of it comes down to luck, and how powerless you really are. It was bad, sometimes it was really bad.
So Mamun, the Bangladeshi, he’d finished ninth grade, and before that a year to prepare him for ninth grade, then ninth grade, then the entrance exam for the vocational school for carpentry, and it was after his first year of doing that and he’d become really integrated and settled in, that was when the negative ruling came. And then he went into hiding. Now he’s in good hands, now he’s safe and fine, but I better not say too much about it.
Lukas: Was it about the laws?
Ulrike: The thing about helping is it’s always much more complicated than that. It’s more a matter of what you do without thinking about it, so you find yourself in a situation and you see that there’s something you could do if you wanted to, and then you do it, that’s more how it goes.
Lukas: You’re a teacher, your partner’s a civil servant, isn’t it dangerous?
Ulrike: It did often become dangerous whether we liked it or not, it can’t be avoided, there are situations where because of the human rights issues we had to be flexible with the truth. Yes.
For instance, a question that comes up quite a lot is where you’re from, and if you say I came to Switzerland from Italy, then you’ll be expelled to Italy because that was the first country you arrived in, that’s where you’ll be sent back to. So you can’t say I came from Italy, you have to say “from some country in Europe, I don’t know where exactly.”
Legislator: The Dublin Regulation wants only one asylum application to be submitted and dictates which state is responsible for implementing the asylum procedure. As a matter of principle, it expects it to be the state to which the asylum seeker first traveled and where his or her personal data were recorded by taking fingerprints for the European database Eurodac. If an asylum seeker tries to apply for asylum in a country other than the one intended by Dublin II, he or she will be returned to the country responsible for that application.
Ulrike: My husband and I were always in agreement about where and how we wanted to help and these relationships have led to a kind of adopted family for us. And that’s still the case today. Considered like that it’s a developmental thing, they’re relationships that don’t at some point come to an end according to plan, sometimes they do come to an end, but not necessarily because it was planned that way. But they’ve been good times for us.
Teacher: You’ve got one foot in criminal activity. That’s the only way you can help.
I told the people at the Department of Children and Family Services, “If something happens to the boy now, it will be entirely your fault! The department’s fault, but also yours, personally!”
The boy wasn’t even fifteen, but the DCFS estimated his age as eighteen, which meant the child protection law didn’t apply, and so he could be deported. His parents had been chopped to pieces in an attack, he fled to Greece, where he experienced some terrible things, and he made his way to Germany where he has an uncle – who wanted to take him in! But Dublin II required that he be transported back to Greece. So. That’s when you have to get imaginative. The boy said that if he had to go back to Greece, there was no point to it any more – for me that was the key. Listen, people, the boy’s at risk of suicide! I said that so many times that it led to panic in the DCFS. They handed the boy over to me, and I then brought him to a department of children’s and youth psychiatry, where there was a doctor I could trust. He kept him there for six weeks, and during those six weeks – it was during the school vacation, and I had time to explore all the possibilities, political contacts, lots of good people, you have to make a lot of phone calls.
In the case of that young man, the decision was made after eight weeks that he could stay here. And that was the first time Germany had approved a request submitted by someone representing themselves, the first such case!
According to Dublin II, every country can do that, can decide: fine, he can stay!
Legislator: HUMANITARIAN CLAUSE
Article 15 (1) Any Member State, even where it is not responsible under the criteria set out in this Regulation, may bring together family members, as well as other dependent relatives, on humanitarian grounds based in particular on family or cultural considerations.
Florian: The man broke down when he heard which country he was going to be deported to. Then everything went really fast, within seconds we decided we had to get him out of the country, for a moment nobody spoke, who’s going to do it? I’ll do it, I said. It took less than half an hour to organize everything, a car, a middle-man who would meet us over there and hand the guy over to people who’d look after him. Not even an hour had gone by and there I was sitting in the car with him next to me.
We had to make it over the border by 7:30 in the evening, by then the search would have been started, his picture and all the info sent via computer.
I didn’t really feel afraid, I just needed to turn my head to the right to see who was afraid; I think, because I had to worry about him, I myself wasn’t scared. And then we were on the other side.
In the railroad station where we’d agreed to meet, the middle-man texted me to say I should move further away from the guy. I moved back a yard or so, he was really anxious. Because neither of us knew what sort of people we were handing him over to. I got another text, I was still too close to him. I should move away. Which I then did. I watched as he approached the guy, exchanged a few words with him. Then they went off together.
Teacher: We take it pretty far, yes. We expect a lot of ourselves.
And we take big risks. Every time I save one of them from deportation, or help them to obtain a residence permit, I could lose my status as a state employee and be without a job the next day. But I know myself. And I know that you have to fight and take action, you don’t accomplish anything just by talking.
My father was a deserter. He betrayed his people. He never talked about it and it also wasn’t something he was ever proud of. But I wanted to be proud of him, for me he was the one who did the right thing.
Florian: Later I found out they’d advised him to sand off his fingertips so he couldn’t be identified. When he couldn’t do that himself, they did it for him. I asked myself what was more horrible: being deported to wherever or filing off your own fingertips?
What does it mean to no longer have anything on you that proves that you’re you? Was it worth that? Someone eliminating the last traces of his identity? What price had been paid for that rescue? Wasn’t that price too high? Would I have made the trip if I’d known that beforehand?
At some point I had to recognize that I couldn’t do that again. Even if it was perhaps the right thing to do.
Judge: During the second World War, right after the decision to implement the Final Solution for the Jews, there was a Portuguese diplomat in Warsaw who started issuing visas for Jews to travel to Portugal, as many as he could, and even when he received instructions from Portugal not to issue any more visas, he didn’t stop scrawling his signature and banging the stamp of the Portugese Embassy on that piece of paper that enabled them to flee. That’s what saved thousands. When his hand couldn’t do it any more, his wife massaged it for him, his children brought the paper, he signed whatever he could, twenty-four hours a day, one visa after another.
And my signature? For thousands of people, it destroys, if not their life, then certainly their plans.
Florian: They talk down to them, shout at them, they tell them what to do, they open their letters, I felt ashamed that some clown at the immigration office, who could care less about all of it – including the most personal things about these people – gets away with doing whatever he feels like, and nobody reacts. I’d have liked to go to the police, but of course they wouldn’t have done anything either.
Judge: I never intended to abandon the limits of the law. I do believe that those limits make sense. And I’m paid to ensure that they’re adhered to.
During the car ride I thought, I won’t survive this; I’m doing what traffickers do! I’m smuggling a person across the border to Italy, me, a judge, the guardian of justice and the laws. But when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the woman, sleeping soundly, or gazing wide-eyed at the landscape we were driving through, it seemed harmless and just something people do all the time: they travel.
Florian: If my girlfriend hadn’t said: Carry on, keep at it, I know you, you’ll only make yourself unhappy if you stop, I would have turned my back on it all.
Judge: The woman had been apprehended at Frankfurt airport. No one knew where she was from, and she wasn’t going to tell anyone; the only thing she wanted was to get to her daughter in Rome. The normal process would have been to send her from the assembly camp to the home for asylum seekers, have her go through all the bureaucratic steps, until she’d finally have ended up in the emigration center where people without papers are sent and where they often remain for years. If she got lucky, and because of her age, at some point she’d have been declared unfit for deportation, she’d have been tolerated, without any rights to anything, in a country she never wanted to live in.
An old woman – what’s the point of all this, let her go to her daughter if that’s all she wants.
Florian: I carried on. I started keeping a really close eye on them. Because I’d noticed that the enforcement officers do plenty of stuff they’re not allowed to. I look at the deportation orders, and if I see that they’ve violated existing law or human rights, then they can expect resistance – legally, in the press, and also politically. I make it public, I write petitions, I contact the mayor – with this one young man with a wife and children, who was supposed to be deported, when I pointed to the petition and to the fact that nobody can be deported so long as there’s a petition for him under way, the deportation order was stopped. It was really easy. And a few weeks later we were also able to secure the hardship provision for him and his family.
Judge: In Verona I took the woman to the station. She bought herself a ticket, got into the train, and as it was slowly moving out and she waved at us from her seat by the window, I felt, for the first time in ages, pride. Yes, I was proud of myself.
I went into a bar and drank four whiskies in one go.
In fifty years at the most, the way we’re dealing with asylum seekers today will be considered a crime against humanity. We’re doing it with our eyes wide open, with pens and clauses, with enforcement officers, and with some despicable tricks, we look away and they know what they need to do.
One day this will come before the human tribunal, and our children or grandchildren will be appalled. And we’ll say: for our part, we didn’t expressly sanction it. And if they continue to ask, what are we supposed to say then: that we were just doing our job?
Teacher: There was a little courtyard by the parsonage, with a low wall round it, and I often stood there at night with the child in my arms, under a magnificent sky full of stars. The wall was the border, I thought, if they recognize anything then it might be this little courtyard up to the wall.
Because the deportations always happen at night. They don’t dare do it during the day. But at night we have to protect them.
Those nights were terrible, every noise wakes you up, you start imagining things, you keep going over it: If they come, will you run for it? With a child?
Judge: Once I’d returned it was back to turning down applications. Sixty-four thousand applications are submitted in Germany, and only two percent are accepted. Two percent. Out of thousands. You can figure out what my hand did all day.
Teacher: How do you deal with it, when they do come and take them away? That’s even happened when someone sought sanctuary in a church. What do you do then? You throw yourself into the situation, though you have to keep calm, it’s not about you, after all. But the fear is something you feel also, even if it’s not your own fear. But the fear’s real, for everybody.
Fear doesn’t wear me down, it makes me furious, and on the basis of that fury I take action and come up with strategies.
But with a child?
Judge: One day my hand didn’t want to do it any more. Or it couldn’t. I had a lot of sleepless nights.
Until one day I requested a transfer. Which of course was not a promotion. I still struggle with it. It’s hard for me to break the law.
And yet by now I’m breaking it on a regular basis.
Teacher: The starry sky was always so beautiful, and I often stood with the child in the courtyard. The little thing was never allowed out in daylight or in the sun. Everything that happened in her first year of life had to take place in that space.
So at night I went out there with her. Yes. And then at some point, as I was standing there with her, she said her first word: and it was moon.
Because that was the only part of the world she could see.
From then on she always said moon. And when we saw the moon, that was when we went out under the starry sky.
Florian: In a public event, a discussion, a woman got up and started to talk about her life and how for years she had been threatened with deportation. Her voice kept failing, it stirred a lot up for her to speak in front of so many people. When she was finished, it was quiet for a moment, then an official from the immigration office, who I’d invited, behaved like he was moved and said “Come and see me!”
I accompanied her to his office. When we entered the room, he already couldn’t remember her. Then he asked her her name, he entered it and then said: “But weren’t you deported!?” One week later, the verdict came. He must have initiated her deportation right after our conversation. I can’t prove anything, and even if I could, it wouldn’t help; the deportation was carried out.
And I holed up with a few crates of beer.
Lukas: My life is good, I live in peace, the children have a roof over their heads, they go to school, they play soccer, go to dance class, self-defense, trumpet lessons, I can treat myself to an aperitif, sit outside the café with people who have nothing to fear, not a bomb, not being arrested, not prison, not torture, we’ve got our IDs with us and we’ve got our rights, which are respected by the authorities who are responsible to us, with the help of people in those offices who are paid to ensure that our rights are respected. Our right to be here is guaranteed. And so the sky can go on being blue and spring can come and summer and vacation, and before that the chestnut trees in bloom, and the relaxed mood in the parks. That’s just the life we lead. Not so easy all the time, but sometimes really nice.
Suddenly four young men run across my path, they jump into the bushes like they’re madmen, down the embankment to the pond, along the side of the pond on to the road and they’re gone. With the police right behind them. Everyone looks on in amusement at how they’re straining themselves, in their tight-fitting uniforms, panting after the athletic youngsters.
Female activist: In the 90s when the racist attacks happened, Hoyeswerda, Lichtenwerda, Rostock, Solingen, and the attacks got more intense and life-threatening, and at the same time the right to asylum was being restricted, we traveled there and asked, how can we support you? They just wanted to get away. So they came with us to Berlin.
Lukas: The doors of the police vans fly open, cops spread out in all directions, in a matter of seconds everything disappears as if swept away, no more reggae music from cell phones, no groups of young men in lively conversation, in no time at all the park is empty, empty like Oranienplatz was after they cleared away the refugee camp there. One politician went so far as to say, “We want to make every last one of them disappear.” Less than two hours later, new turf had been put down over the square, making it look as if nothing had ever happened.
Female activist: We occupied some rooms at the Technical University, got thrown out of there, got taken in by a church. Alongside that there were negotiations going on with the city senate to have relocation to Berlin recognized as a second possible form of refuge, those efforts were a miserable failure. The senate didn’t engage with the idea at all. Then they made decisions individually, some went back to Hoyeswerda, others back home, many of them went into hiding, and some got married. The political situation was getting worse all the time. Politically, we lost again and again, on all levels!
Lukas: After two years of dishes clattering at lunchtime and lights going on in their tents in the evening, a square full of people you could see, hear, observe, a tumult, now there’s this shining green grass.
Female activist: OK, if it’s so difficult on the political level, then we’ll have to consider the solutions we can find for individuals.
There were brochures explaining how to carry out a marriage of convenience, how to present yourselves at the immigration office, how to prepare for inspection visits, how to conduct yourself when questioned separately. We then married three young Ghanaian men, Freddy, Samuel, and Nikolas. All three got indefinite residence permits after five years, and after seven we got divorced.
Lukas: Now they’re patrolling there on an hourly basis, the park is under constant surveillance, it makes it like a ghost town.
It’s a strange way to live. I order a second aperitif as I watch them hunting the refugees.
Female activist: Of course, that doesn’t take care of everything, none of the three has found a better job, Freddy stayed in the kitchen he was working in before, though he didn’t mind; but Nikolas continued to be politically involved, later on he got beaten up by security guards in the subway in Frankfurt, that broke him for a long time. Samuel’s a DJ, that’s what he always wanted to do, and now he’s doing it.
Lukas: What happens if my country isn’t humane?!
And we stop having humane feelings?!
And we don’t even notice it? That we don’t have those feelings any more?
Susanna: You live, you work, you make sure you’ve got something to eat, you do what other people do, yet everything you do is illegal, as long as you don’t have an identity card showing that you belong. You can’t sit on a bench in the park. Without legal status you can’t book a hotel room. I’m committing an offence by being at my boyfriend’s – and for him it’s aiding and abetting illegal immigration if he sleeps with me. Still, for me there are worse things than not having legal status, like sitting in a home for asylum seekers doing nothing except watching life pass you by.
Female activist: We’d already exhausted the possibilities on the individual front, but we had to admit it to ourselves: politically, we’re not going to get any further like this. We have to bring together political demands and support!
Susanna: The state is your opponent on a daily basis. But as human beings we do possess rights. And they count for more than the laws of a nation state. But that’s something you need to know. Because the state is forgetful when it comes to human rights, but very meticulous when it comes to its own laws. You, the illegal person, who aren’t even supposed to exist, must point out the state’s limits, you have to show it the paragraphs and insist that they’re followed.
Female activist: We knew from conversations with people who, after the new asylum law came into effect, had moved in large numbers into the illegal realm, that the most important thing is medical care. For them everything depends on that. If they go to see a doctor or into hospital, they get passed on to social services who say, this person is illegal, and so the law regarding foreigners kicks in and they say: “OK, once he’s healthy again, then out he goes!”
Susanna: Resolution 217 A of the General Assembly of the United Nations: “Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
Female activist: Fine! So let’s build a structure that can be used by those who’ve been rendered illegal, and try to find as many doctors and medical experts, midwives, physical therapists etc. so we can make it possible for them to get treatment or a certificate of insurance.
There are doctors who give all they can and are willing to do anything.
But there are also hospitals that get involved. For childbirth the denominational hospitals are good, we get a delivery for 240 Euros, we do abortions somewhere else, they cost us 290 Euros on average.
Susanna: “Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to work. Article 23, paragraph 2: Everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work. And to accident insurance, sickness benefit, vacation and days off.
Female activist: We pay the bills, and we get the money from donations. There are no regulations for what we’re doing, it’s a grey area. In case the police come, we’ve got a siren under the table.
Susanna: The illegal sector is the shadow world of the regular worlds of work and business, they live off us, the illegals, and just as we’re dependent on them, so are they on us.
You’ve had me work for you but haven’t paid me? We send you a letter from the lawyer and then usually it gets worked out. The person who illegally employs me is also vulnerable. If it isn’t worked out, we take it to court. I can take legal action even without legal status. The labor judge isn’t obliged to record it. If someone doesn’t want to run that risk, they can be represented by a friend. We’ve sometimes had success that way, when at first it looked just about hopeless.
Male activist: I’ve never really been caught up by the revolutionary spirit, but I feel that opposing the current circumstances as much as possible is an urgent necessity.
I give them coupons for food that I organize from food manufacturers. I give them the numbers of doctors they can call.
And I organize mailboxes for them so they can receive mail.
Sometimes the help I give them means telling them to disappear for a while, nobody wants to do that, everyone wants to give them reasons to hope.
But once they’re in administrative detention, it’s too late. Once you’re there you can’t submit an application for asylum, so that’s why I say to them: Go now! This is the end and it can’t go on any longer. You can get advice from ten other people, you can go to see lawyers, you can have letters written for you, type up petitions, submit applications – they’ll all give you a bit of courage and they’ll all get some money out of you. Do you have a Plan B? If you do, get it out now.
You have to go now, before they come to get you.
And they’ll do it. They make use of the time you spend resisting, not being able to tear yourself away, not making your mind up, most people get caught because they can’t break away.
And if I don’t at the same time make a public statement and say there needs to be a legal status for those who have nowhere to go, then I have the feeling I’m just playing right into the hands of the system.
Lukas: I’m taking part in a workshop that’s supposed to teach me how to advise people applying for asylum prepare for their hearing.
Lawyer: The first hearing is more often than not also the last one, it determines your fate the rest of the way! But: it’s full of snares and traps!
Lukas: Will I ever be able to do it? The doubts keep me wide awake. And the others? A Syrian lawyer who wants to look after her compatriots, and a student who’s interning with Amnesty, a young man who works in a reception camp, two other women who plan to help unaccompanied minors …
Lawyer: First of all, never forget this: a friendly manner will make the officials friendly too, they like it when things are calm and cheerful.
Lukas: And then there’s also this one heavily made-up woman who’s sitting there as if she’s meditating, maybe she’s just come from Qi Gong. Fine Asian clothes, dark red silk, a kind of tunic, her eyebrows have been plucked into dark lines so she gives you the impression she’s constantly astonished.
Lawyer: I can only be granted asylum on the basis of political persecution, I have to say exactly where, how, and why I was subject to political persecution. If I was involved with a political party, I have to emphasize my senior position. Just having been active in the rank and file of a party, that doesn’t count! So: stress your senior position!
Lukas: She drove up in a white Audi coupe, to the world’s smallest office, where one of us has to stand up if another person wants to come in through the door.
This is the empire of José, the German-Spanish lawyer who’s leading the workshop. He gave up his permanent position in a thriving business law firm and shifted to asylum law, setting up in this mini office/cell, which is probably no bigger than the broom closet at the firm where he used to work. He rented a conference room for the training, we can donate as much as we’d like.
Lawyer: If terrible things have taken place in the village or within the family – family feuds, acts of revenge, threats of murder, those things don’t count. Only political persecution counts, with the exception of minors who can also apply for asylum because of sexual violence.
Lukas: The woman’s eyebrows go up.
Lawyer: The persecution has to be individual. This relates to the western tradition, which only allows for the persecution of individuals, not of a whole group. The focus has to be on your own personal story, down to the last detail, exhaustive, with precise background information, the whole narrative up to the day you left, comprehensive and without contradictions. Bursting into tears is fine. And wounds can be shown.
Lukas: What if someone’s traumatized?
Lawyer: Go to see a psychologist so he can talk about his injuries and trauma. What’s not spoken doesn’t count.
Lukas: What if he’s so traumatized that he doesn’t know what happened to him when he was being persecuted?
Lawyer: Then he has to say that.
They have to have fled for a particular reason, not just something subjectively felt. Even the most terrible experience can’t have been perceived subjectively, it has to be described objectively.
Above all, don’t let up. Germany fundamentally wants to not grant you asylum.
Lukas: This time her eyelids go down.
Lawyer: Once more! What are the maxims!
Lukas: You’re allowed to talk for as long as you’d like and seems right to you. Until you’ve said everything.
Even if it lasts twenty-four hours.
The hearing is the only time you’ll have the possibility of representing your request as an existential matter.
If you get interrupted, just calmly pick up where you left off.
Say what’s important.
Don’t leave anything out.
And don’t ever forget: they’re not on your side. That means:
I won’t behave in a trusting way towards the person I’m talking to because he’s not behaving towards me in a trusting way.
You must remain friendly, calm, and cheerful.
Suddenly the woman raises her head, looks around at the group and says: But they don’t stand a chance!
Everyone looks at her, astonished that she’s only now seeing it that way. And then the woman says quite cheerfully:
It just makes you more and more angry.
Lawyer: Sometimes we do manage to get a positive verdict.
Because there are different kinds among those making the decisions. There are some who take me aside and whisper in my ear the things that they, in light of the current political climate must hear, and what absolutely mustn’t come up.
If an asylum-seeker says he’s being persecuted in Iran on religious grounds, he’ll be asked what he’ll do if he’s taken back to his country. What he should say is: “At the airport, I’ll loudly proclaim that I’m a Christian, and that I will never, under any circumstances, deny, betray or renounce Christian teachings.”
Simply saying you’ll only pray at home, that’s not enough.
You can do a lot as their advisers by practising a kind of lobbying.
Lukas: We look at each other questioningly and rather uncomfortably. Lobbying? Make common cause?
Motivate someone to become a religious fanatic?
Lawyer: Pay attention to the interpreter, confer with him or her, fill them in personally about the case, the more the interpreter knows, the better for you.
But first you need to find out which of the interpreters are any good, lots of them deliberately translate in a sloppy way. They know that those making the decisions aren’t on the asylum seeker’s side – aren’t supposed to be; if they translate carelessly and in keeping with the decision-maker’s view, that’ll encourage them to give that interpreter more work in future. The translators are paid per hearing. Everything can be ruined by the interpreter. Or he or she can be on your side. And then they can be your savior.
Lukas: He hesitates.
Lawyer: The asylum process is a hard business, there are offers going around, ten thousand Euros for a guaranteed successful process.
Lukas: He looks round the room.
Lawyer: If you can raise that much, don’t hesitate.
Lukas: It’s slowly dawning on me that while making chicken soup can warm someone up, it won’t save anyone’s life.
Florian: All the fears, drawbacks and doubts I had, everything negative that came along with my involvement – they’re all nothing. It’s just not the kind of material you can create a heroic epic out of. Really, everything goes like this: you spend a few hours a day with people who are experiencing all these shitty existential feelings: fear, anger, hatred, anxiety, disillusionment.
And yes: it has an effect on you. It doesn’t leave you cold. But you yourself aren’t affected by it. I still always had the option of getting wasted in the evening or using some other way to just get away from the context of all these problems. The ones really involved couldn’t do that. This has nothing to do with resistance as I understand it. I connect that most of all with the people who helped others during the Nazi era. For me the term resistance should be reserved for those people. I’d also accept it for others who risk a lot in order to show solidarity. But I haven’t done that. The negative consequences for me of my political involvement were marginal. Even if it had gone wrong and I’d been caught on that trip: the consequences wouldn’t have been such that I couldn’t have recovered.
Illegale Helfer, schaefersphillipen ™ Theater und Medien GbR, Köln. www.schaefersphilippen.de