The material for the mattresses comes from the same countries as the refugees. Via a retailer in Beirut we bought a stock of material which originated from a weaving mill in Aleppo. It was difficult to come by the lot and we did not get an accurate description of what type of cloth it was nor which colours, patterns or quality we could expect.
Weeks later the material arrived in Schöneberg. The impression is one of oriental cheerfulness, not perfect as regards the weaving technique but strongly evocative of the skilled craftsmanship of the pre-industrial era. The material does not talk about the war, it seems fallen out of time.
Later, in the course of the workshop, the men and women tell us that this type of cloth was part of their everyday lives. Some of them had owned a mattress covered with a similar material, others said that they had slept on such mattresses when staying with relatives.
From a group of applicants four men were selected. It was important that they knew something about tailoring. Only one woman had applied. But we wanted to include women in the project; so we had the idea to mass-produce the material with a group of women from the emergency shelter for refugees in the ICC. The material would subsequently be used to cover the mattresses. We saw that all of the applicants had a strong desire to do something useful. They were either tailors or cobblers. When asked whether they had ever had the opportunity to make a mattress, they said “no”, but they were sure that they would learn that craft easily.
We met the women in the ICC; they live there with their families in provisional quarters and they take part in a needlework-class which the Iranian Lady Nahid runs. They are all from Afghanistan and speak very little German.
When we go to see them in the ICC in their windowless classroom there is a tension in the beginning – we feel like nosy tourists. Nahid introduces Daniel. He speaks a little Farsi and some of the women start to smile. We know nothing about the women but we have the impression that they hardly ever leave the ICC. The room where they do needlework is like a place in a village where women meet for female activities. We decide to invite them to visit the Schöneberger Zimmer.
The following Thursday five women arrive: Fatema, Arefe, Nadine, Fahime and Manure. Nahid and two of the women’s husbands are there as well – although it is supposed to be a women’s day. The women do not take off their coats and make us understand that they won’t stay long. Then tea and dates are offered and the atmosphere becomes more relaxed.
One of the women sits down at a sewing-machine and starts sewing. The others watch her while talking to each other. The husbands sit at the far end of the table and watch the scene, Then the other women also start working. Philine shows them how to do it: they tack pieces of material together, they iron the seams, they join pieces until the cover is finished. It consists of parts of differently coloured and patterned material and looks like patchwork. It is then cut into five pieces: each piece will cover a mattress – one for each of the refugees and one big mattress for all. While the women are working, Daniel and the men are drinking tea in the kitchen – it feels like classical role behaviour.
On Saturday the women come back to the Schöneberger Zimmer – surprisingly half an hour early. The supervisor Nahid does not accompany them but again the husbands are there. But they are no longer spectators, they help the women who iron, they do the dishes in the kitchen and in doing so question our perceptions of how patriarchal Muslim husbands behave.
Then the work is finished and everybody is sad that it is over. We are sure that it was absolutely right to make the women leave the ICC for some time. They tell us that the only contact with German people they have is that with their German language teacher and that the classes also take place in the ICC. We want to see them again.
The four men who have been chosen by Daniel for the project matrah arrive an hour later. They sit down at the huge workshop table. A round of introduction follows: there are Zakaria, Mohamad and the Palestinian Tareq, all from Syria. Hossein is Afghanian, he speaks very little German, therefore his son Nazir is accompanying him. Nazir is 16 and attends a secondary school in Berlin.
The room is full of people and shy grins. Mohamad wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Hungry German Youth”. We explain a few details of the organisation and clear the table. Daniel starts explaining how to build a mattress.
The men learn to untangle the horsehair which comes in plaits with the help of the ‘Universalzupfmaschine El-Ba Standart’. They work with due care although quite rapidly. They take turns in testing the machine: one has to put a plait in and at the other end the horsehair comes out untangled.
Then all come back to the table and Daniel spreads a big piece of material on it. On top of it comes a fleece and then follows the horsehair. It’s important to lay it out evenly. For a person who is no craftsman it is fascinating to see that much happens by non-verbal communication: observe, copy, correct by hand and again observe and copy. Few or no words at all are necessary. The atmosphere is now completely different from the beginning: the room vibrates with energy. The spreading of the black hair, the pulling and stuffing is a mass event, everybody grabs, everybody is concentrating and wants to be as good as possible. The only sound is the clicking of a camera, as this is indeed a good subject for a photo: the table full of hair and the hands digging in it.
When this part of the manufacturing process is finished, the next one is about to start: the sewing. This is done with the help of cords and clamps. Daniel explains the saddle stitch which has to be used. He has to show it to each of the four men separately and therefore I take advantage of a short break to start a conversation with Zakaria.
Zakaria is 42, from Aleppo and has worked in several professions. From the age of 10 on he worked in a factory after school. His mother had 21 children, his father died young and so the children had to help earning money. He made underwear, also for a German company, for C+A.
He was a talented tailor from the beginning. As a child he had only one jumper. One night when his jumper had been washed, he made himself a second jumper. The next morning his mother was amazed!
Later he started up his own business with two of his brothers – a textile factory for underwear for men, women and children. With three bosses in one business that’s at least one too many, so he started teaching Arabic and mathematics in a private school and later on also worked as editor of a newspaper.
He came to Germany last year, he reached the B I level in the German course in no time at all. He has found lodgings with his wife and three children in Spandau. When I say that Spandau is a mighty long way away, he laughs and says that he only need step outside and walk about 100 metres and then he is in Brandenburg.
Recently, with the help of the society ‘Flüchtlingspaten Syrien e.V.’, he succeeded in bringing his stepdaughter from Aleppo to Germany.
What will the future bring? He doesn’t make plans. He knows that he is unlikely to find a job as a tailor; he is participating in the project matrah because he is always eager to learn something new, to improve his German and to meet German people.
I don’t ask him how and when he left Aleppo because this does not seem to be the right moment. Now it’s his turn to be taught the special stitch. Hossain knows it already and so I can now talk to him.
We already know each other because we both took part in the same German class – I was the teacher, he one of the students – we both learned something new: he the German language and I a new teaching method. The course was a project of the ‘Liechtenstein Languages’, sponsored by the Malteser Hilfsdienst and the Liechtenstein Embassy; it is a new method of teaching a language miles away from classrooms, the alphabet and German seriousness. With the help of pictures, games and music a basic vocabulary is taught in an amusing and effective way.
Hossein participated in the course together with his son Nazir who has a gift for languages. The family – father, mother, Nazir and a second son Nahdi, 6 years old – fled via Iran to Sweden where they stayed for 6 months. Nazir speaks Farsi, English, Swedish and now fluent German after only 7 months in the country.
The father is not as gifted as his son. I notice that it is often the fate of children to act as interpreters for their parents which may not always be easy when subjects discussed are of an adult nature. But Hossain and Nazir seem to be a good team, they treat each other respectfully. Hossain is 44 and used to work as a cobbler in a shoe factory, first as a young man in Iran and then in his native country Afghanistan.
The family lived in Ghazni, they are Hazara and were as such persecuted. As life became insecure in Afghanistan they fled. They have been living for months in a small room in the ICC.
Hossain would like to work with his hands – preferably as industrial worker in a big German company. Nazir will stay on for a short time in the integration class of the Friedrich Ebert Gymnasium but will soon switch to a regular class.