visual researcher

Heba Khamis

2017-2018, Germany.

A drunk Turkish man in his seventies holds his prayer beads as he looks at Mujtaba, “his favorite Afghan boy” in his 20’s, while asking his German friend Hans “Have you slept with him?” An hour-long fight ensues because the answer was “yes.”

Love found a way to sneak through Tiergarten, a 520-acre park in the center of Berlin known for romantic liaisons. You can easily get lost walking through its natural beauty. The northern part of the park has been known as a meeting spot for gay people. The place is vertically divided into three areas; the first part is for Afghan and Iranian refugees, in the middle; there are Romanian and Bulgarian male sex workers and the last part is the border for sex workers where they can not cross nor work. During the summer, naked men enjoy the sunny days in cold Germany. In the first two parts, many men circle around on their bikes while young sex workers call out “Hello, all is good?” to everyone, hoping to catch a customer. Over 100 customers a day visit the park: rich and poor, German and foreigners, disabled on a wheelchair and fit young people on bikes, come regularly looking for connection. The majority of regular customers are retired and come to find the company and to kill time, Locals and regulars pay 20-50 euros, while tourists pay 100 euros and even more. “Rich people come at night when no one can recognize them” said Ali, a 21 year-old refugee sex worker while preparing his cocaine injection.

Prostitution in Germany is legal for consenting adults since 2002 but for undocumented refugees, it comes from a lack of choice. After insisting proudly that Afghans are on the top side in the sex action, an Afghan refugee said: “all men here like Afghans and look for them”. No one of the refugees in the park identify themselves as gay. They left their wives and girlfriends behind in their home countries, where homosexuality is forbidden according to Islamic rules and local traditions. They might get killed if their families or community knew about their homosexual activities. “Heaven and earth cry when we do those stuff, what should I do ? I don’t steal, I don’t disrespect people but I have to earn money” Ali said.

By coming to Germany refugees thought they will have a better life. Nevertheless, during this waiting period refugees are not allowed to work or attend school that would improve their future prospects. The German government prioritizes assistance to refugees from countries with an ongoing conflict. Asylum seekers from non-conflict countries are placed in the second category. Their papers take longer to complete, and they are more likely to get deported.

Most of the refugees who newly arrived don't speak German, so they start to look for company within their own community and get to know the park where many Afghan and Iranian immigrants meet to kill time while they are waiting for their asylum documents. They spend days surrounded by the people doing drugs and rich men offering money for sex.

“Once you are in the park you are one little step away from hell,” said Ahmed, an Afghan who has frequented the park for three years. They use drugs to forget about their situation, their lives pause and fight the boredom. To afford the drugs, they start prostitution and continue using drugs to forget about the shameful feeling they have after prostituting themselves. They end up in a blind alley, escaping the reality. The need of drugs and the pain without it, give them a mission to go out to work. It becomes the only thing that they have.

Many slip into that dark circle of hell, unable to get out, suffering from depression, most start cutting and hurting themselves, aiming to feel something or beat the anger. “It helps me to relax,” Youssef said while looking at his arms, full of scars and cigarette burns.

The majority of the park refugees are Shi'a Afghan Hazaras who are persecuted in their home country by Taliban extremists. Many Hazaras flee to Iran, where they grew up not allowed to go to school, work legally or get any documents because they are Afghan. They always were outsiders, with few or no options to prosper. Most of them have been undocumented their entire lives, with only their fingerprints taken. A long journey of fighting, surviving, stress and discrimination, the dream of a safe life motivated them enough to work and face too many hardships. Once the dream is achieved, they are exhausted and drained. Their dreams are broken. They get lost in their new realities.

This is a multi-layered story of waiting and uncertainty, drugs, sex, faith, depression, homelessness, a search for belonging, assertion of humanity and marriage.

All the names of the refugees in the story were changed to protect them and their identity.