Nafea who arrived in Berlin in 2012 tells the story of Taschengeld (the pocket money) given to refugees at the first camp he lived in on the outskirts of Berlin.
“Taschengeld is what keeps you coming back. 32 Euros a week. You have to come back every three days in order to access that pocket money. So for me the first goal was to find something to do so I can afford not to go back and depend on that money…”
The refugee camps and shelters where some stay for years become at once a carceral space of sorts, but also porous. ‘There is no door, no roof, no privacy, no job, no study…’ It is a design made for the ‘precarious present’, a kind of prison without walls, and a sense of impermanence rendered permanent in its protracted state. Against this backdrop, many (especially single male) refugees map their own humanitarian cartography through the city. Here is where a kind of humanitarian hustle takes place. Many combine forms of self-provisioning with committed solidarity with peers who have often arrived at different stages. Most recognize that there are some benefits to a system that allows them to access language classes, health insurance, and possibilities of work through the ausbildung system. They know that if they have access to all these things it is because they are ‘lucky’ refugees whose asylum claims are recognized. But they also tire of the endless stream of low-paid work in the name of ‘training’, and many find other ways to supplement these meager incomes, or have various things on the go. With time, they become versed in how to navigate the system.
There are forms of labour that go into navigating the city’s humanitarian design (or lack of) and the ways in which refugees move along the borders of the “above the table” and “under the table” work. When it comes to making a living whilst caught in a kind of labour limbo or held up by an unnerving ausbildung trap leading to nowhere, other structures of opportunity emerge or are made. Some of Tatiana’s research participants have called this “Vitamin B”, a colloquialism standing for “Vitamin Beziehung” (Beziehung literally meaning ‘relationship’). This refers to the (often informal) networks of support and connections that become vital in order to really access housing, work, and knowledge about the way in which the city works. Vitamin B becomes part of the shared local knowledge necessary to manage but also detach oneself from the structures of the job centre or the ausbildung. Everyday life of refugees in cities becomes an exercise in “learning” the codes of humanitarian and welfare regimes, and how “new Berliners” position themselves alongside or against the other ‘precariats’ (urban poor) and older (guest worker, gastarbeiter) refugees.