visual researcher

Heba Khamis

2017-2018, Germany.

A drunk Turkish man in his 70’s holds prayer beads, as he looks at his favorite Afghan boy in his 20’s, while asking his German friend, “ did you sleep with him?” An hour-long fight ensues because the answer was yes. That’s not a common scene in Afghanistan or Turkey but in the Berlin park it’s normal. A 520-acre park in the center of Berlin known for romantic liaisons. You can easily get lost walking through the natural beauty. The Northern part of the park has long been known as a meeting point for gay people. More recently it became known for prostitution where lots of men circle on their bikes as young men call out "hello, all is good" to everyone, hoping to catch a customer. More than a 100 customers, Germans and tourists, come each day looking to connect. Regular customers pay 20-50 euros, while tourists pay 100 euros and more. “Rich people come at night when no one can recognize them” said by a 21 year-old refugee sex worker.

Prostitution in Germany is legal for consenting adults, the lack of employment opportunities for underage and undocumented refugees creates a severe lack of choice for many. The German government is prioritising assistance to refugees from countries with an on-going war. Asylum seekers from non-war countries are placed in the second category. Their papers take longer to complete, often 5-7 years, and they receive money every 4 months. Those who arrived less than 15 months ago only get 80-120 euros per month plus food and accommodation, while those that arrived before that receive 200-420 euros per month plus accommodation. For the rest of their needs that must manage somehow else. They thought by coming to Germany, they would have a better life. But during this waiting period refugees are not allowed to work or attend school that would improve their prospects. Also many don't speak the language, so they start to look within their community and they get to know the park where many Afghan, Turkish and Iranians immigrants meet to kill time while they are waiting for their asylum documents.

“Once you are in the park you are one little step away from hell,” said an Afghan who has frequented the park for a year and half. They are surrounded by people doing drugs the whole day and rich men offering money for sex. Most don't have their families with them. They might get a phone call telling them that the taliban bombed their house and their family died, which happened to some of them. Many slip into that dark circle of hell unable to get out, suffering from depression, and some start cutting and hurting themselves . None of them identify as gay. They left wives or girlfriends behind in their countries, where homosexuality is forbidden according to the Islamic rules. They might get killed if their families or society knew about their activity. For them the possibility of being killed is much higher than just having a normal life.

Most of the park refugees are Shi'a Afghan Hazaras who are persecuted in their home county by the Sunni majority and Taliban extremists. Many grew up in Iran where they were not allowed to go to school or have Iranian nationality because they are Afghan. They were always outsiders, giving them few or no options to prosper. Most have been undocumented their whole lives, with only their figureprints. They are trying to start an ordinary life, but they have ended up in a blind alley, seeking dignity and escape from their new reality.