Out of Africa

In a continuing series, The Munich Eye's own Victoria Lillian documents her experience of trying to gain political asylum in Germany from her homeland in east-central Africa. Ms. Lillian attempts to wade through the maze of German bureaucracy, mostly alone, but with just enough support to help her find her way.

Last week Ms. Lillian described her difficult beginnings in Berlin, from the dehumanizing fingerprinting and mug shots, the large unfriendly security guards, and even more unfriendly residents of the immigrant centre. This week Ms. Lillian takes us through her arrival in Munich, Bavaria. It was not her first choice, but she had no choice and she tells us about how she hopes to come to grips with her new home. -editor

Worn out from a fitful night's sleep on a train from Berlin to Munich, we finally arrived at our destination. A place where destiny had determined that I would start my life all over again. A mere step out of the train, and I saw a big sign before me: München Hauptbahnhof. You would not want to hear how I pronounced it, unless for a big laugh, and I would be very embarrassed. Something like 'moon-ken- hapt- bahan-of'. It was horrible enough, but was doubly so due to my African accent. I had finally arrived physically at the place I was to start my new life. An American fellow I had picked up a chat with in the train politely lent me a hand with one of my bags. He too was in Munich for the very first time. Not for asylum though, but for that famous Oktoberfest. I had no clue what that was all about, and it was a Herculean effort as I feigned interest as he explained.

(pull quote) I had finally arrived physically at the place I was to start my new life. (end pull quote)

"What about you, why are you coming to Munich?" He questioned. I shot a glance in his direction, wondering if he really was interested in knowing my side of the story. With reservation and hesitation I told him I was here to seek asylum. He continued peppering me with questions, I had to hand it to this American, he was tenacious. But years of experience in my African culture had taught me to be evasive, and not to give concrete answers. In Africa, if you ask a question, you will not neccessarily find that it will be answered. Anyway I tried as much as I could to bypass his endless questioning. He remained doubtful as we parted ways.

I must have looked forlorn and confused, as I was stood waiting for the person picking me up to arrive. Before long, a casually dressed lady comes walking up to me with a huge beaming smile. "You must be Victoria from Berlin". I smiled meekly and returned a slight nod, after all she would understand I was at the end of a very long trip physically, and at the beginning of an even longer one mentally and spiritually. As it was already evening, she invited me to her flat for an evening and offered to drop me off at the immigration centre the next day. She, like I, was also a journalist and our meeting had been arranged by my Berlin acquaintance.

The next morning, she instructed me not to carry a phone, laptop or even money since they would all be taken away by immigration security officials. All I needed was my identification and a few days' worth of clothes. We arrived at the Bundesamt für Immigration und Fluchtlinge 10 minutes later and at the counter stood two large imposing security officials, one was a German and the other was of African descent. They were large enough to pass as performers in the World Wrestling Championships series that jam our TV screens on Sunday nights. The reception was jam packed with asylum seekers, mainly from Macedonia and Somalia. One by one we handed over our valuables, passports, documents, phones, etc. My turn came up, and the African official happened by chance to attend to me. I handed over my identification and introduction letter from Berlin. I was shocked at the treatment I got from this African official. First he looked at my ID card, and then he looked at me in a doubtful manner. This went on for some time. I thought perhaps there was a picture of someone else on my ID card.

He then questioned me regarding my companion, "Who is she and why is she here?" I explained that she was a journalist colleague accompanying me since I did not know my way around. "And how do you know her? Does she want to write an article or book about us or what?" I was puzzled and derailed at the questions. "Look, she is only a colleague who needed help getting here, and don't you be bothered I will not write an article or book about you," replied my colleague angrily. He was stunned, he said, because in his entire career in the office (quite a few years) he had never seen a German national accompanying a foreigner who was seeking asylum. Later, he ordered me to wait in the second waiting room while accommodation was being sought for me. I did not know how long I was to wait and none of the officials could tell me either. Since my colleague had some errands to run she left, but she promised to check on me in the evening.

I headed towards the second, inner waiting room. I was welcomed, or shall I say overwhelmed, by a strong stench, a mix of unwashed clothes and body odour. As I was welcomed aromatically to the world of asylum seekers in Munich, what I saw shocked me. I couldn't believe my eyes at the sight of the room. It was crowded and clustered with families with children, babies, men and women sitting on chairs and populating the space on the floor. Food, mainly bread and water bottles were scattered all over the room. They had apparently been supplied with food packages the previous night as they had waited relocation or to be placed into asylum homes. As these were only office premises it had no shower possibilities, which probably explained the stench. With no other available choice, I squeezed myself among them and began the long wait.

(pull quote) It was crowded and clustered with families with children, babies, men and women sitting on chairs and populating the space on the floor. (end pull quote)

There was impatience in the room. One Macedonian man walked to the security personnel screaming his head off, questioning how long was it going to take before his family could be allocated a place to stay. Apparently he had been waiting for three days. His three kids all looked hungry. He had run out of food. Pitifully, I offered his little girl the only apple I had. The others looked at me pleadingly hoping I had more to give. 

After 14 hours of waiting there was no sign that any of us in the room were getting accommodation. probably because it was Friday evening. But they say problems never come singly and neither does luck. I had just enough luck following me when my contact showed up. She politely explained to security that I could spend the weekend in her flat and report back on Monday. Without hesitation her request was promptly approved. That is how I avoided a weekend of restless sleep on those uncomfortable chairs. My acquaintance never ceased cursing the ghastly treatment the asylum seekers were going through as we drove home. Could I utter a word? Of course not. I was speechless about the entire scenario, and I was thinking of those who had no way out. All I could do was carry them in my soul and hope for a better week ahead.


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