Berlin photographer gives child refugees a face

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“Refugee” has become an abstract, overused term, says Berlin photographer Daniel Sonnentag. So in his moving photo series “They Have Names,” he’s set out to show the humanness of asylum-seekers.Elham, portrait by Daniel Sonnentag for the series They Have Names (Daniel Sonnentag)

“Refugees are either victimized or criminalized,” Berlin-based photographer Daniel Sonnentag told DW, when asked about the portrayal of the community in the media.Ali, portrait by Daniel Sonnentag for the series They Have Names (Daniel Sonnentag)
It’s these two extremes that Sonnentag is hoping to challenge with his latest photo project, “They Have Names.” For nearly a year, Sonnentag has been taking pictures of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi child refugees, many of whom have been living at the former Internationales Congress Centrum – the ICC Berlin – on the West side of the city.

The result is a series of playful and personal pictures and stories that reveal what he feels is missing from much of the mainstream discourse – the human side to the children who are living as refugees in Berlin.

There’s 14-year-old Mohammed from Syria, who Sonnentag Aya, 6, from Iraq, from Daniel Sonnentag's photo series They Have Names describes as “too cool for school” and a “heartbreaker” who never has a hair out of place. Or the 12-year-old Afghan girl named Adisa who wants to be an astronaut when she grows up.

Ruqaya, 5, from Iraq, in Daniel Sonnentag's photo series They Have Names ‘She’s a pricess, warrior, clown and hurricane in one tiny person,’ says Sonnentag of Ruqaya, 5, from Iraq

“I had a moving experience with one particular child called Inaz, an eight-year-old from Iraq,” Sonnentag told DW. “She is a difficult, rebellious child and no one – not her parents nor the other volunteers – were able to manage her. But I took her on and was strict with her. She hated me for it, regularly telling me I was not good. But then one day I felt someone hug me from the back. It was her. Our relationship has changed for the better since that day.”

‘No one wants us…’

An exhibition recently showed some of the pictures outside the town hall in the western district of Moabit, and Sonnentag and his two colleagues – Penny and Saede – are building an online catalogue on Facebook and Instagram so the pictures can reach a wider audience.

The project has been popular amongst the children and parents alike. Adisa calls “The Have Names” a “good thing.” Manaf, a father of four from Iraq, said, “We are good people, we just want a home, a job and to take care of our families. But nobody wants us, because they think all Arab people are criminals. They need to see the truth.”

Christoph Verleih, a 31-year-old Berlin resident, came across Sonnentag’s pictures on Facebook and told DW he thought they were “a real work of art.”

“They showed the children happy, smiling and not upset by war. It was different to what I had seen before,” said Verleih.

The series comes at an important time for Germany. In the recent regional elections, right-wing anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered Berlin’s state assembly for the first time and looks set to gain in popularity over the coming months.

Fayik from Iraq in Daniel Sonnentag's photo series They Have Names Sonnentag says Fayik, from Iraq: ‘We were in a restaurant having a hot chocolate, and he accidentally dropped his glass and spilled. He was totally overwhelmed and fell asleep instantly. What an enviable skill.’

“The rise of parties like AfD can be partly blamed for how refugees are covered in the media,” Sonnentag said. “There are some bad people that have come over to the country, but when the media focuses only on them, they fuel people’s fears about all of the refugees, and AfD has relied on these feelings to make gains.”

‘People would prefer living in a war zone’

During his time at the refugee camp, Sonnentag has seen first-hand how difficult life has been for the city’s new arrivals. The ICC is currently home to around 600 people and between their compartmentalized, partitioned rooms, there’s little space for privacy. They share the limited bathroom and toilet facilities.

“You can clean as much as you want, but with that many people it is difficult to ensure a level of hygiene, so there’s always a high risk of disease. The camp has had a longstanding bed bug issue that they can’t shake,” said Sonnentag.

Bureaucracy in Berlin has meant that many refugees have been stuck in the camps for months, some as long as a year. During this period of limbo, while various applications are processed, it’s difficult to find a landlord or an employer willing to take the refugees on. So for them, it becomes one long waiting game.

“These people are dehumanized every time they have to queue up for food that lacks any nutritional value for them or their kids, or every time they need to share bathroom facilities with hundreds of people they don’t know,” Sonnentag said. “I’ve met many parents who feel they can’t go on living like this with their children and decide to return to Syria or Iraq. The state makes that easier by paying for their return flights home. It gets so bad that people would prefer living in a war zone than here.”

Sonnentag recounts one story of a single mom from Iraq named Mudriqa, who was living in the camp with her five children. She was told she would need to move to the lower floor where there were families with older children, plus single men. She refused, fearing her two teen daughters would be harassed by some of the men. On the day she was due to move, she refused again, prompting the police to arrive.

‘I’m a girl, but not a princess,’ Aya, 6, from Iraq, insisted after being called a princess.

“They spent the night in one of the worst hotels in Berlin. The family has since moved back to Iraq – 30 miles away from where some of the fighting is happening,” recounted Sonnentag.

The problem with the term ‘refugee’

The photographer says that part of the problem is that we aren’t seeing these people as people, instead viewing them in abstract terms like “refugee.”

“I hope the project helps to create dialogue so we can find ways to have an open and diverse society that deals with its differences in a progressive way,” he said.

The issue of integration is one that Sonnentag feels particularly passionate about. Born and raised in Berlin, the 34-year-old grew up in the now trendy district of Neukölln. Located in the Southeast of the city, it’s home to one of Berlin’s largest Turkish communities. Many of the Turkish residents have been living there since the 1960s and 1970s after coming to Germany to help the country rebuild during its period of post-war economic boom.

‘They were being hit hard by life’

Growing up as a minority in the area had a big impact on Sonnentag. “There were always differences between me and the Turkish kids at school,” he said. “I was treated as ‘the other’ and was beaten up by Turkish boys for no good reason. But this had a lot to do with how they were being treated by German society. When Turkish people first arrived, they weren’t necessarily made to feel welcome by Germans and weren’t given the same opportunities. So while I was getting physically hit, they were being hit hard by life. It forced them to create their own, separate community.”

Sonnentag says that he is seeing some of the same integration mistakes being repeated with the refugees today, but believes simple steps can be taken to make sure things are different this time.

“One is awareness of how we did things in the past. And the other is to just go to the camps, meet some of the people and help out,” he said. “We all eat, drink and sleep and all we want to do is raise our families in a safe place. When humans start talking to each other and getting to know each other, they’ll recognize that we all have more in common than we think.”