The red carpet on the stairs is dirty with black spots. And this, in a grand hotel? Spots on the rug?
Michi Hegele, a young man with a flat cap and an easy grin, simply sits down on it. He is tired after working another 12-hour day. He wrote emails, moved furniture, and had discussions with colleagues and guests. Now he is finally done. It is a summery Friday night and in the courtyard in front of the hotel, right before him, two boys are ringing in the weekend on their keyboards.
Then a guest hands him a letter.
“I need your help,” the worried-looking man in his forties says in English.
Mr. Hegele reads it. And suddenly summer and Friday night seem worlds away. The letter is criminal court order. The guest has been fined €800 because he does not have a passport. Mr. Hegele puts his hand on the man’s left shoulder. “On Monday, we’ll speak to a lawyer,” he says.
The Grandhotel Cosmopolis is more than a hotel. It’s a public housing project in Augsburg, with beds for 60 asylum seekers, as well as paying guests.
It’s a true utopia. The home for asylum-seekers is a place for encounters between those who want to stay, and those who want to help them. The residents actually name the place “heaven,”or “home.”And this, in the middle of Bavaria, the conservative German state with the most restrictive immigration policies, where, in total, 30,000 asylum-seekers are prohibited from leaving the district of their public housing.
Home in a hotel
The man without a passport comes from Somalia.
He has already waited four years for the result of his court hearing on his right to political asylum, and has been always put in new shared accommodations. The waiting, he said, is hell. He calls the Grandhotel “paradise.” He explains: “It is easy here not to think of one’s worries.” Today, for example, he painted signs and spoke to four people he didn’t know before.
In the home for asylum-seekers where he lived before, he would lie in bed all day and stare at the ceiling. “Here there is a little bit of an African family,” he says in broken German.
He says he can always talk to someone. Michi Hegele or one of the other 60 hoteliers, which is what they call themselves ironically. They work hourly, part-time, full-time, almost all as volunteers, and only four of them are paid €450 per month.
Mr. Hegele is 31 years old. He studied social sciences, and recently became a father. Since his graduation, he has been spending more than 50 hours per week at the Grandhotel. His wife, who is a teacher, is supporting the family.
When Mr. Hegele tries to explain how the Grandhotel works, he compares it to a container ship. “All containers have the same destination, but they have different contents and are independent of one another,” Mr. Hegele says.
A container stands for a worker’s area of responsibilities.
Mr. Hegele works with about 10 other people in the asylum container. There are also containers for the restaurant, the hotel, the bar, and for events. Until a few months ago, all decisions had to be made by joint consensus, including whether or not a pink sink fit the hotel style, but now the groups can make decisions autonomously.