This May, eighteen University of Montana students, including myself, packed up our notepads, recording equipment, and varying degrees of altruistic aspirations and took off for the European continent. We had little in common except for our decision to participate in a faculty-led, journalism-school expedition with the stated goal of “chasing the refugee story all the way to Berlin.” Most group members were journalism students; several, like me, came from a mishmash of related majors from which we could manufacture some vague connection to a reporting trip in Germany.
The differences between the students in the group were about as pronounced as those between our two intrepid leaders: the NPR reporter turned university dean with a voice like a prohibition-era speakeasy doorman, and the formerly punk-rocking Berliner with the blustery demeanor and attire of a threatening (yet motherly) cumulonimbus. After arriving in the once divided, symbolic epicenter of the Cold War tensions, we were joined by a Montana cowpoke turned Fulbright photographer and four translators, all of whom were recent arrivals from various war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Syria.
We were a passionate, if eclectic, group of journalists, who looked somewhat lost while traipsing through Europe’s second largest metropolis. Most of had some apprehension when confronted with the thought of sharing each waking moment for the duration of the project with group members in the cramped, if luxurious, living quarters of the Cat’s Pajamas Hostel. That was before we visited the Emergency Refugee Shelter in Neuköln.
There, hundreds of recently arrived refugees share extremely crowded quarters with complete strangers in a converted factory building. In a place where each person’s tiny living space is separated from the countless others by acoustically unforgiving blankets, privacy is essentially nonexistent and tensions run high. Although the Neuköln shelter was intended as temporary relief housing, the beaurocratic hurdles of obtaining residency status and the German government’s stagnancy in processing asylum applications means that many refugees have been living in these challenging conditions for over a year.
Unlike our “eclectic” group of “intrepid” journalists, refugees living in the Neuköln shelter come from completely differing cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are confronting the unspeakable traumas associated with fleeing their war-ravaged homelands, witnessing the deaths of loved ones and traveling for thousands of miles through politically unpredictable, and sometimes hostile foreign countries.
Suddenly our own apprehensions seemed trivial, our stresses insignificant, the publication of these people’s stories more important than ever. With the residents of the Neuköln shelter in mind, the group began research on our news stories and embarked on a relatively conflict-free three weeks communal living in Germany’s capital.