The Distinguished Writing Award

Step-uncle Sam

Children are special refugees; in Berlin alone, 3,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived within a year. A youth office in the south of the city is theoretically responsible for them, but in practice the officials are, all by themselves.

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The 15 year old Clinton who lives on a converted sheep farm in Brandenburg © Djamila Grossman

On the second floor of a brick building in Steglitz-Zehlendorf, where Berlin is plastered and quiet, between urban villas and tall trees, far from the reality of an asylum-seeker life, the filing cabinet stands in room number 202 in which Danilo van der Heide is trying to stow away the madness. The cabinet is cream coloured, compact, head-high, with green cardboard covers on paper hanging there, containing the lives of 800 refugee children. They are without parents in Berlin, some 10, some 16 years old. They were alone when they got into the dinghy; they are alone when the nightmares come into the bunk beds of their accommodation at night. The file of Ilyas from Morocco hangs in this cabinet, he is 17, has been in Germany a year, 30 investigations for theft, robbery, bodily injury, msd. Now he has an inflamed stomach and urgently needs an examination. Van der Heide is to sign the approval form.

Clinton’s file from Ghana also hangs there, he is 15, he doesn’t know who his parents are, he fled from several homes before he became a good student and class spokesman with the assistance of the German state. Van der Heide is to allow him a week’s holiday in Majorca.

The file of the boy from Guinea is there, 16, injured on the dealer line at Gorlitz Park with a knife. The file of Muhammad from Syria, 14, waiting for his family.

They reach out to Danilo van der Heide, these children, they reach for him from this cabinet, they need his care, his knowledge, his signature on asylum applications, library records, fitness tapes, credentials, accompanying notes, they all need something. But Van der Heide has nothing more to give. He shrugs his shoulders. He says, ‘I have to protect myself’.

The official, Van der Heide, is a legal guardian of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, responsible for the guardianship of almost all unaccompanied children and adolescents coming to Berlin. His department is the LaGeSo for children, if you will, a center where they should have someone who knows them and can make decisions for them. Once a month Van der Heide is expected to see his ward in person, as prescribed. But for months, the rules have no longer been applied. ‘For some, we don’t even know where they live’, he says, ‘many of them we’ve never seen.’

Van der Heide is 47, a training shoes type, Adidas with blue stripes, a well-shaved bald head, trim beard, a short-sleeved shirt and a bold gold-shimmering watch. He could also run a betting shop without having to move around a lot, and his work has to do a lot with gambling these days. How many children can an official attend without something going wrong? Without a child in jail, disappearing or dead in a cellar? 50, says Van der Heide, ‘if at all’. 50, says the law too. The reality, however, brings 200 to his table, into his file cabinet. And soon a few hundred more.

Van der Heide and his colleagues have divided the filing cabinet. On the right are the older cases, 50 files per employee, they are thick, they document a lot of attention, a lot of time already paid: the children who belong to these files are lucky.

To the left hangs the rest. All the children who came too late. They reached Berlin when the ‘welcome summer’ turned into autumn and then into winter, and Merkel’s sentence ‘We’ll manage that’ changed into a frightened question.

The files on the left are thin. ‘This is really dangerous’, says Danilo van der Heide, ‘we don’t even know the children anymore. We don’t know who is making the contact. They’re lost, they’re going to be criminals, I can imagine everything up to them culminating into sleepers’, he says.

On this Tuesday afternoon at the end of January, except for Van der Heide, there are also Ms Klieber, Ms Dietze and Ms Schönbeck, who just returned from the magistrate’s court because one of her clients doesn’t have a perspective to stay and he ‘thieves like a magpie’. The others are sick.

Van der Heide had to take over the management of the department a few months ago. The overtime is building up. On his last days off in early summer he didn’t go anywhere, he just slept. He smiles a lot as he speaks, his cheeks push themselves up, his eyes become small, it’s the protective mask of a desperate person. ‘The worse it gets here, the quieter I am’, he says, it’s frightening, that’s a strange form of resignation. When he sits on his turquoise desk opposite Ms Schönbeck, looking down at Beethoven street, there are usually several cases piled up on his table. On this day there are two Syrian cousins, 14 and 15 years old, who have a court session at which Van der Heide is to accompany them. One is to leave his foster family because he has an aunt who wants to take responsibility for him; the other one cannot be controlled, ‘he doesn’t go to school, he likes hanging out with Arab guys on the street’.

Then there is a Moroccan known to police who needs a mri, because he has ended up ‘with recurrent vomiting’ in the emergency centre, so the report says. ‘He’s spitting blood now’, says Van der Heide. He must clarify the assumption of costs. ‘Is this necessary for survival or not?’

More than 60,000 unaccompanied minors live in Germany, many are traumatized. Who is to turn them into healthy, decent people? Who is to protect them? ‘We are only reacting from emergency to emergency’, says Van der Heide, and a little later this news spreads like a nightmare: According to Europol, 10,000 juvenile refugees are missing all over Europe, 4749 are in Germany, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Most of them, the people of the Steglitz Youth Office assume, have been moved to other states, to some cousins. Perhaps they also made their way to Sweden, ‘they don’t deregister from their address’. But what if it’s not like this? ‘You have your hands full’, says Van der Heide, ‘that keeps me awake at night.’

There was once the case of Kevin, the boy who had been found in 2006 wrapped in plastic bags in the refrigerator of his drug-dependent foster father. At that time the legal guardian was made responsible. The prosecution accused him of negligent homicide. Since then there is a limit on the number of cases, a maximum of 50 children, this is the red line. But it cannot be sustained in these times.

Some 4252 minors with no parents registered in Berlin last year, of which a third is classified as over 18 and adult after completion of the clearing procedure. There are still 3000 children and adolescents who need a guardian. Van der Heide has 4.5 places. In order not to exceed the limit in the number of cases, he would theoretically soon need more than 50 staff members. ‘We should be a huge authority’, he says. But when he looks around the rooms of the Youth Office, there are only Ms Schönbeck, Ms Klieber and Ms Dietze sitting between the towers of files, potted flowers, desk sets and coffee cups as the last survivors in the fight against the doom. The red line is far behind them.

‘Coffee?’ asks Ms Dietze.

‘We don’t even know the children anymore. We don’t know who is making the contact. They’re lost’

Van der Heide rubs his bald head. He exhales loudly and sounds like a kettle from which the pressure is escaping. Then he talks about his favourite, Clinton, and the story is so good that you want to visit this Clinton. The group heads out to Brandenburg.

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Danilo van der Heide: ‘The worse it gets here, the quieter I am’ © Djamila Grossman

Clinton is a boy in jogging pants and sneakers, he is standing in front of a pigsty with a bright and a dark speckled pig. Clinton points to the horse standing behind and says, ‘I always have to dodge the horses. Twice a week is mandatory. I don’t like it, but I have to’, he puts his hands in his pockets. He is 15 years old, an active boy, friendly, almost 1.90 meters tall, in his heart-shaped face there is something childish. He has shaved off his hair on the sides and gradient, a footballer, a bit of Boateng.

He’s just finishing school. Clinton is pretty good at school, there are a few low marks in his certificate. This is sensational for a boy who was in a school refusal project until two years ago and who was not allowed to go anywhere without a guardian at his side. One who attacked his carers and kicked the doors. Today Clinton is a class spokesman. Best friends: Thilo and Marie.

The youth welfare project, which saved him, lies behind wide, green fields, in a converted historical sheep-farm with a residential house. Up to eight teenagers live here, girls and boys. The next city is Dahme, 5000 inhabitants, to get to Berlin takes an hour and a half, there is a school bus, but otherwise ‘there is nothing here’, says Clinton.

He went missing early. As a baby, he was expelled from Ghana to Germany. The woman who took him pretended to be his mother. A test later revealed that this was a lie. No one knows who Clinton’s parents are. At the age of three or four, he was out in the streets, neglected, starved. The woman, who was not his mother, left him alone in the apartment and had gone to Ghana. Clinton managed to free himself somehow. The people from the youth office took him to a home. There began Clinton’s picture book career of an unaccompanied minor foreigner.

When Danilo van der Heide, his guardian, saw him for the first time, he saw a disturbed child, seven years old, perhaps a small, helpless man. Van der Heide came by motorbike to the youth facility in Kreuzberg, he remembers, a 1000 Suzuki V-Strom, Clinton was allowed to ride along. It was the beginning of a relationship which still characterises the boy to this day. His guardian and he (then there was still time for that) went for a regular meal together, rode on the motorcycle, Van der Heide even took Clinton to his home, there are still presents at Christmas and his birthday. ‘He’s family’, Clinton says about Van der Heide. The term ‘family’ becomes elastic if you don’t know where you come from.

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Mohammed at his home with his foster parents © Djamila Grossman

But nothing went smoothly. He had to change facilities all the time. No one could stand him, he wasn’t welcome anywhere. He went ballistic. A clinic for child and adolescent psychiatry diagnosed ‘posttraumatic stress disorder (development trauma), disturbance of social behaviour and a combined developmental disorder’. He was just eleven years old.

When Clinton fled the last establishment, Van der Heide began to plead with the youth office, so finally he got what he needed. At first Clinton refused to go to the country. Van der Heide took him by the hand and went with him to the closed psychiatry. ‘Do you want to end up here?’ He asked. Clinton chose Brandenburg.

There he was given individual care, was accompanied psychologically. When he went to school, a guard was sitting in the last row, watching him. So Clinton, the Ghanaian foundling child, became probably the most expensive youth of his Youth Office.

In the converted sheep farm, which is now his home, one could photograph a story for the magazine Landlust without moving a stone. In addition to the pigs, the horses and the rescued circus dog, there is a large workshop in which a construction car sauna is being built, there is a group room where the children eat together what the cook has freshly prepared, a piano is in the room, and behind the house, in the ‘summer land’, the carers live in red and green painted construction site caravans, which they use to take the children to the cinema in Luckenwalde and for swimming.

It’s an idyll, as if left from the time before last September, when desirable things still happened in Germany. Where the case for youngsters was still fought for because society wanted it so. Where no one should be lost, no matter where they came from. But what when 3000 Clintons arrive in one go? When summer fairytales turn into winter?

It’s lunch time in the Youth Office Steglitz-Zehlendorf, Danilo van der Heide returns from the court. ‘It was sad’, he says, the two Syrian boys, whose papers he had on the table the day before, are leaving their foster family. The phone is ringing. Van der Heide looks at the orange flashing button and then back to his computer screen. ‘I only answer the phone operatively’, he says. ‘When I see that it’s an external number, I don’t pick up anymore.’ He knows who’s calling, he says.

They are people who want to help. A few months ago his superiors didn’t take an emergency call. In the Tagesspiegel they talked about the conditions in the Youth Office Steglitz-Zehlendorf and called on citizens to take on voluntary guardianships and to give foster children a home. Within a very short time 1000 people called.

They continue to call to Van der Heide every day, his inbox is full of enquiries, all of which sound the same: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to express my wish to provide a guardianship for a minor unaccompanied refugee…’ But why doesn’t this man put in the earpiece himself and shout ‘Welcome’? Why does he bury the e-mails from its inbox in a hidden folder? ‘I’m not responsible’, he says, ‘no one is responsible. It’s simply impossible.’

Anyone who wants to take over a guardianship or hospitality for a child takes a great responsibility, needs to be trained, needs a guidance certificate, needs someone to ask them 1000 questions. Van der Heide cannot be this someone at the moment. And no one else from the department, no one of the political emergency-callers thought of that. What could be salvation is only robbing more time. Van der Heide is in the situation of a starving person, who gets a care package full of preserves, but has no can opener.

Momo saw the family’s labrador and refused to enter. Afterwards he rolled with the dog on the kitchen floor

After all, there are independent, individual custodians who relieve the office, organisations that are specialised in guardianship, but they are all full. There is a list of judges and lawyers who are willing to become guardians, but a responsible coordinator is missing. Eight job placements were confirmed for Van der Heide’s office, months ago. Now, in February, the first new employee starts. It will take months before they learn the ropes. Van der Heide has no idea when the others are coming.

The Youth Office Steglitz-Zehlendorf has so far been able to provide five caring families, one of them the Gündogdus, they have received Muhammad.

The boy is standing with a mountain bike in front of the clearing in Wupper street and points to a child in a large red down jacket. ‘Baby’, says Mohammed, ‘all by himself.’ The boy he points to is maybe six, maybe eight. He was separated from his brother in Germany, because he was over 18 years old and was staying in an accommodation for the year, Mohammed says. He had to cry, he says, when he first saw the little one.

Mohammed comes from Aleppo, he came alone over the Mediterranean, 14 years old. He was beaten and imprisoned on the way by the police, travelled across the Balkan route, on foot, on the bus. On August 20 he reached Wupper street in Berlin.

The initial reception for children is in a U-shaped construction, through the windows you can see bunk beds, in front of the gate loungers in jogging pants waste time, watched by a security man. Actually, the new arrivals are first investigated, questioned, estimated, but in the meantime the Wupper street is so crowded that they distribute the children to hostels and pensions all over the city.

The senate administration has now opened 39 posts, and the social workers can only look after the young people on an outpatient basis. A few months ago Mohammed was still one of them, he lived on Wupper street in Room 227. Sometimes he comes to see if he can find his friends again.

He is now a foster child of the Gündogdus, for eight weeks. Has a bike and a family. The Gündogdus live on the upper floor of the former director’s office of a school in Zehlendorf. Mr. Gündogdu is a caretaker, his Mrs Inci is an elderly nurse, they have raised four children. One son is a theologian and married to a priest, the other has just become a father, a daughter is still a student. She and the youngest son, the 15-year-old, live at home.

When the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was lying on the beach in Bodrum and the photo went around the world, the family made a decision. They would take a refugee child. They had also read about the emergency in Steglitz-Zehlendorf. ‘We were sure, but we were also afraid’, they say.

Origin, skin colour: they did not care. What was important to them: ‘That he accepts me and my daughter as women’, says Inci Gündogdu. ‘Can he accept that we like to drink a glass of champagne in the evening?’ asks Mr. Gündogdu. ‘We also celebrate Christmas’, says Mrs Gündogdu. ‘And I love Bratwurst’, says her husband.

‘When we saw Mohammed for the first time, he was standing in the corridor of his third home in Neukölln, he was trembling.’ He was afraid that he would never see his biological parents again, when he went to a German family. ‘He gave us a hand’, says Ms. Gündogdu, ‘his lips were closed.’

When they took him home for the first time after the third visit, it took an hour to get him in the apartment. Momo, as they soon called him, saw the family’s labrador and refused to enter. But shortly afterwards he rolled with the dog on the kitchen floor. ‘Charly has been his best friend ever since’, says nurse Gündogdu, ‘Charly treats him.’ When we set up the Christmas tree, Mohammed began to put decorations on it. ‘We had the kitschiest Christmas tree of all’, says Ms Gündogdu.

He wanted to buy them presents, ‘we were very relieved’, she says. Momo needs a lot of attention, a lot of closeness. When Mr. Gündogdu takes his own son in his arms, Momo waits until he is gone, then throws himself in the arms of the foster father. When he realises that someone wants to leave the house, he runs to the wardrobe and pulls his jacket on. After a few weeks, he named his foster parents ‘baba’ and ‘anne’, papa and mama.

‘It is unbelievable how quickly he got closer to us’, says Ms Gündogdu, it makes her very happy, but also a bit frightened. ‘We have to teach him that we also need privacy’, she says.

The worst thing about Mohammed is that he cannot bring his family there as well, at least not immediately. When he learned that the process could take a year and a half, he fell into a hole. ‘There is a big burden on him’, says Gijogdu. He is afraid his family cannot survive another one and a half years.

In the evenings Momo is often sad, sitting on his bed and crying. In the beginning, he sat down at the computer and watched violent videos on YouTube, corpses, decapitations, things that until recently were his reality and which are still the reality of his family at home. The Gündogdus told him that they didn’t want him to watch the videos anymore. ‘You should be a child, Momo’, they said, ‘you should look at happy things.’ Since then, Mohammed has been watching episodes of a Syrian comedy.

There are good moments when they go out together with the dog. Or drive to Neukölln, in streets where all the signs are in Arabic. Then Momo wants to take them to restaurants, order them food, then he is the one who can show the Gündogdus something, give them something.

On the walls in his room he hung pictures that he painted in his welcome class, with acrylic paints he painted the names of his family on small canvases, ‘Mama, Papa, Mohammed’, in Arabic characters and ‘LOVE’. At school, he also created a poster, which says: ‘I am 14 years old, I come from Syria, I speak Arabic. I love dogs.’

He has drawn up a plan and presented it to his host family. It shows the floor plan of the apartment in which he now lives, on the drawing he has rebuilt the upper floor. When the elder daughter of Gündogdus leaves the house, that is his idea, his parents can come from Syria and live upstairs with him. This is how he could keep both families, the German and the Syrian. His foster mother, Inci Gündogdu, looks at it a little helplessly and laughs. Mohammed does not laugh. The boy from Aleppo is the only one who wants to believe in it.


This article was first published by Der Spiegel, Germany