Candyfloss for refugees

‘Is there anybody here who would like to help me clean this?’, shouts the young male volunteer in the grey Hugo-Boss tracksuit, lifting the pink base of a large candyfloss machine into the blue sky above Berlin’s Sehitlik mosque. His fellow helpers briefly look at him, shake their heads, and carry on with their own errands. Nobody answers his call. The young man shrugs his shoulders and continues alone. The other members of the mosque’s youth group are too busy carrying boxes, unwrapping presents, and erecting trestle tables, to put the finishing touches on their Willkommensfest (Welcoming Party) for refugees.

The Sehitlik mosque is probably Berlin’s most impressive Islamic prayer house. Despite its recent inauguration in 2005, the mosque’s architect chose the finest 17th-century Ottoman design elements, and completed the enormous building with a large dome and two elegant minarets. 1,500 Muslims pray at the mosque most Fridays. Two centuries ago, a Turkish cemetery was established here, to allow traditional Islamic burials for Ottoman diplomats. Then, the grounds were at the edge of Berlin; today, the area is situated between Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts, close to the city centre.

Among Berlin’s Turkish Muslims, this has become an important place for religious and social encounters. On the small square in front of the mosque – framed by a low hedge surrounding the old graveyard, a teahouse, and the community’s picturesque, half-timbered culture centre – one often finds older men playing cards and talking politics. Adolescent men and women offer daily tours of the mosque. Up to 30,000 members of the public – Berliners as well as tourists – are shown around the building every year. When German TV stations cover Islam-related issues, the Sehitlik mosque regularly appears on screens across the nation.

The first generation of Turkish immigrants to Germany, who arrived during the postwar economic boom years, set up hidden prayer rooms in inconspicuous backyards. Today, the Sehitlik mosque makes a different statement: the children and grandchildren are not lacking in cultural self-confidence, and many of them want to be able to live their faith and culture visibly proudly, in a matter-of-fact way. They welcome visitors, and enjoy explaining Islamic culture and what it means to be a German Muslim.

On the last Sunday of September, the mosque community is preparing to receive a special group of visitors: refugees from shelters across Berlin. Volunteers have organised private and public transport to the venue, despite an exceptionally difficult traffic situation caused by the Berlin marathon. Stretching from the main prayer hall to a small teahouse, a row of trestle tables is covered in piles of trousers, shoes, jackets, copies of the Quran, and prayer rugs, all donations from community members. Above the tables, a large yellow banner shows multi-ethnic children holding hands. Balloons are flying in the background, and a clown waves enthusiastically. Prominent letters read: ‘Eid Mubarak’ or ‘Blessed Festival’.

Donations outside the mosque teahouse
Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

Just in time for the arrival of the first refugee group, the young Muslims store away the remaining cardboard boxes. Accompanied by volunteers, the men walk straight to the washroom facilities – a ritual they remember from their home countries. Most of the refugees are from the Middle East, predominantly Syria and Iraq, but also from Afghanistan, North and Central Africa. Noticeably, many of them are young men, often teenagers, but there are also a few dozen families.

Slowly, the space in front of the mosque fills up. Ender Cetin, the chairman of the mosque association, claps his hands and invites everyone to gather around him. In Germany, Islamic faith communities are usually registered associations (eingetragener Verein), run by a chairman and management (Vorstand). They do thus not have the same status as Christian churches (the only exception being some Ahmadiyya communities). Cetin, a youthful Berliner, whose parents once left Turkey for Germany, leads the Sehitlik community. Accustomed to media attention, he nonetheless appears a little shy addressing his guests in English. He opens his arms widely: ‘I am the chairman of this mosque. Welcome!’ He explains that his community is very proud of the mosque, which he considers one of the most beautiful in the world. He adds, however, that ‘it is also your mosque. It is open to everyone, everyday, until the evening.’ His deputy, Süleyman Kütük, translates the warm words of welcome into Arabic, which many refugees acknowledge with timid, but cheerful, nods and smiles.

The large banquet in the mosque basement
Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

In a large basement below the women’s prayer hall, the mosque’s youth organisation has arranged a plentiful banquet. Refugees, local believers, and helpers from the various shelters eat together at seven long rows of tables. An army of helpers carries large trays with pasta, rice, meat, and baklava through the crowded space. There are bottles of water, bread, and ayran – a salty yogurt drink – placed on dozens of tables.

In the middle of the room, three male Beninese adolescents sit together. Having already finished their generous portions, they find themselves in luck: a helper with a light blue headscarf generously distributes even more sweets. The three fill their coat pockets and smile secretly. After a brief conversation in French, they return upstairs. ‘Tschüss’, they say – German for ‘goodbye’.

The atmosphere in the enormous basement hall is relaxed and even resembles the beer festivals that southern Germany is famous for – just without the alcohol. Conversations in basic German, English, French, and Arabic can be heard. Many refugees have started German language lessons in their shelters, and are in equal measure apprehensive and eager to try out some new words and phrases. I am surprised to find that Mihriban, one of the young organisers, is disappointed by the event turnout. ‘We had expected more people and catered for 300 guests,’ she explains, ‘but now there are only around 100 refugees. When we arrived at one shelter to pick up more, people had already left for another refugee picnic at Tempelhof.’

As a refugee in Berlin, one faces a tough choice between a number of events today. Next to the Sehitlik mosque, the runways of the defunct Tempelhof airport – a 1930s construction now squeezed between urban neighbourhoods and thus unfit for commercial aviation – have been reopened as a gigantic urban field, three times the size of London’s Hyde Park. This Sunday, a Berlin grassroots initiative has invited refugees and Berliners alike to a picnic in the northern corner of the park, complete with free food, music, and translation services. Thousands attend the event, using a specifically designed smartphone app that connects Berliners with refugees based on shared interests and proximity. Hundreds of people that might otherwise have joined the nearby Sehitlik celebrations have come here instead.

In the Sehitlik mosque, however, a few empty chairs do not dampen the vibrant spirit. After a brief prayer of thanks in German and Arabic, the guests are invited to help themselves to clothes and other donations. The sun is still shining and refugee families happily stuff donations into blue plastic bags. For the children, volunteers have prepared hundreds of gift baskets with sweets and toys. In one gazebo, young women paint calligraphic patterns on the hands of countless children.

The now clean candyfloss machine is also working, operated by volunteers in bright blue aprons that show a stylised image of the Sehitlik mosque. Having delicately grasped the lower part of the wooden stick that is free of candyfloss coating, a young Syrian produces a wallet from his pocket and attempts to pay. ‘No, it not free’, says the volunteer as he shakes his head and smiles broadly, already fixated on the next stick he is circling around the inside of the machine’s drum. ‘Ok, so how much is it?’, the refugee insists, confused by the contradictory messages. ‘Oh, no, it free. No pay!’, corrects the volunteer with an even larger smile, slightly embarrassed. ‘You should learn more English,’ the Syrian jokes, winking and sliding the slim leather purse back into his jacket. He wanders off with his large portion of candyfloss, and everyone laughs.

Candyfloss and welcome
Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

I approach him to ask where he picked up his English. He introduces himself as Hassan, seventeen years old, and explains that he learnt it through US films, music videos, and YouTube channels. Since he is underage, Hassan has come to the mosque as part of a larger group, accompanied by a French minder who speaks fluent Arabic as well as German and English. With his teenage friends, Hassan lives in a hostel about half an hour from the mosque. His mother and sister are still in Syria; he does not mention a father. Hassan is tall and wears his long, dark hair slicked back, fixed with a red baseball cap. His face looks much older than that of a seventeen-year old. Being able to visit a mosque again means a lot to him: ‘when I stood in the washroom and people were speaking Arabic around me, it felt like being back home in Syria. In the mosque I feel comfortable. I want to stay in Germany and study computer science’. Hassan offers me some candyfloss before he shakes my hand confidently to say goodbye. His French custodian wants to return to the hostel.

The debate on refugees in Germany has recently focused on the contribution German Muslims could make in facilitating the integration of newcomers, purportedly since they are better equipped to support fellow Muslims – or, as Germans call it, their brothers and sisters in faith (Glaubensgeschwister), insinuating a sense of duty and assumed commonality usually reserved for the immediate kin group. ‘This is one of the questions that people have been asking during our public mosque tours recently’, Ender Cetin reveals, ‘are we happy that so many Muslims are coming to join us in Berlin? A strange question. When people need help, you don’t ask them about their religion first.’

Cetin expresses some frustration with the ways in which the media has been covering the involvement of this and other Muslim communities. ‘The other day, a national broadcaster called to schedule an interview about the commitment of our youth group. But they didn’t really want to speak about volunteer work. Instead, they asked me whether there are radicals and extremists among the refugees who want to carry out attacks. I mean, I don’t know, it’s such a far-fetched assumption. Why would you focus your coverage on that?’ Despite such disheartening experiences with sensationalist media coverage, the young Muslims of the Sehitlik community have taken up the challenge and organised a very warm welcome for refugees. Today, they focus on showing their solidarity and care.

In the magnificently decorated Mosque, the Consul General of Turkey, Ahmet Basar Sen, addresses the crowd of refugees and explains the ways in which Germany’s Muslim communities can help them, not simply because they share the same faith: ‘there are many people in Berlin who, like you, arrived in this city as strangers. They brought their families along as well, and eventually turned this place into their new home. These people understand the difficulty of your situation, and they have built the infrastructure to help.’ However, he also emphasises the central importance of learning German. ‘The overwhelming majority of Turks in this country speaks German. They show that it is possible to learn the language.’

A few dozen refugees listen thoughtfully to the Arabic translation. Sitting next to donations-stuffed plastic bags and colourful gift baskets for children, refugees gaze at the enormous turquoise prayer rug, the beautifully decorated ceiling, parapets in red marble, and calligraphic window elements breaking the sunlight. I wonder whether they are thinking about their new lives in this country, reflecting on experiences that oscillate between pockets of familiarity and utter strangeness, often side by side.

In the late afternoon, the event comes to an end. Many wander across to Tempelhof, to join other refugees for a few more hours of sunshine at the picnic. In front of the small teahouse, the candyfloss machine is finally turned off. Ender Cetin and members of the youth group are discussing their experiences. ‘We did it’, one of them says, and Cetin pats her on the back, ‘well done!’

Female volunteers painting the backs of children's hands
Source: Jan-Jonathan Bock.

Exhausted, a female volunteer, who studies law at one of Berlin’s universities, sits down on a foldable bench opposite the mosque. She is pensive, but concludes that the event is leaving her satisfied. Nonetheless, she adds, problems remain. ‘We are a Turkish community’, she explains, ‘but most refugees speak only Arabic. So we don’t always know what they say, think, or feel. Sometimes it’s not easy to see whether they are content with what we provide or do. They come, pray, eat, and leave. It’s hard to read different cultures. It’s easier with children – they just smile. I hope everyone had a good time.’ She reflects on her realisation that the task of welcoming strangers and of integrating newcomers into one’s community requires a lot of effort, on both sides, and adds that they are planning further event: ‘We want to invite refugees regularly to Friday prayers.’ She hesitates, and then beams. ‘And many of us are taking Arabic lessons as well.’


Note: A shortened version of this article has appeared in German on Neukö

Jan-Jonathan Bock has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, working on a comparative project on the production of trust in heterogeneous communities.

Jan-Jonathan Bock has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, working on a comparative project on the production of trust in heterogeneous communities.