Creative Refuge

In Conservative Bavaria, Hotel Run By Artists for Asylum Seekers Gets Notice

The hotel has 12 hotel beds for guest, a hostel, and sixty beds for asylum-seekers. Source: Grandhotel Augsburg
The hotel has 12 hotel beds for guest, a hostel, and sixty beds for asylum-seekers.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe is grappling with a flood of immigrants, and Germany and other E.U. countries are struggling to accommodate them.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The number of people seeking political asylum in Germany is at its highest level in 15 years.
    • The so-called Dublin Regulation requires refugees to be housed in the first E.U. countries where they arrive.
    • Italy has called on Germany and other E.U. members to take more refugees arriving from the Mediterranean.
  • Audio

    Audio

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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.

At first, we just wanted to first make our own lives better. In the meantime, we have become experts in asylum.

The unique project began three years ago. Mr. Hegele and a couple of friends from Augsburg’s artists’ scene were looking for an empty building that they could use as a studio, exhibit hall and place for parties. The brewery that had been their last refuge had been recently torn down. One of the friends, Georg Heber, discovered an abandoned retirement home in the cathedral district, in the quiet center of the labyrinthine inner city. The building belonged to the Protestant Church’s charity, and had been empty for four years. It had six floors, 66 rooms, 2,630-square-meters, and thousands of possibilities. The government of the Bavarian region of Swabia reportedly wanted to house asylum-seekers there.

The friends asked themselves, “What would it be like if we moved in with them? And with us, hotel guests from around the world?”They wrote a plan for a “social sculpture in the heart of Augsburg,”which was inspired by Joseph Beuys’ statement that “everyone is an artist.”

Church support

They called the project “Grandhotel Cosmopolis.” It would have an artists’ studio, a recording studio, a bar, a laundry room, and a restaurant. Hotel guests, refugees and artists would gather there. The head of the Augsburg Protestant charity (Diakonie) was excited, and gave the young artists a key, so they could see the building on the inside, because none of them had actually been inside the building. Three years later, one of the friends, Georg Heber says of that moment: “Diakonie cracked the door open for us, and we went in with both feet.”

Seeing the inside encouraged the friends and they did not leave the retirement home again and began to renovate. They received support from the Church’s welfare association which took out a loan for €340,000 for heating repairs, plumbing and fire protection systems. They let the friends live there during the renovations and paid for the utilities. Others sympathetic to their project made donations, including building materials, furniture, free labor, whatever they could.

In the lobby, which doubles as the hotel bar, the friends hung five clocks and set them to the times of five hotspots in the world: Lampedusa, Gaza, Manila, Port-au-Prince, and Dadaab in Kenya. They put a counter in the lobby and a refrigerator. The hotel quickly became a meeting place for Augsburg’s alternative cultural scene. And everyone pays what they can at the bar. Many who stop by want to contribute.

In July 2013, after about 100,000 unpaid work hours, the rooms for the asylum seekers were finished. The first refugees, three Chechen families, moved in. Mr. Hegele said that since then the social sculpture has radically changed.

Asylum experts

“When we first started, we had no knowledge of asylum law,”he said. “We just wanted at first to make our own lives better. In the meantime, we have become experts in asylum.”

The majority of money that comes to the hotel now goes in the so-called asylum container. Just a few weeks after the first refugees moved in, the first farewell notices were in the mailbox. The Chechen families, who came after being in Poland, were supposed to be brought back there. Under the Dublin Regulation, the first country that a refugee enters is responsible for their asylum procedures.

The families said they were afraid because people beat them in Poland. The hoteliers fought against the deportation. They spoke with authorities and politicians, gathered donations, hired lawyers and started petitions. In the end, it did not work. And in order not to be sent back to Poland, the families said they were voluntarily going back to Chechnya.

But there have been successes, too. Mr. Hegele and his colleagues also started a petition for Farhad Jooyenda, a pop musician from Afghanistan who fled the Taliban in 2012 and landed in Germany. Mr. Jooyenda now works in a restaurant. He has an apartment and speaks perfect German. He still comes by the Grandhotel every day. “This is my family,”he says.

This article originally appeared in the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. More information can be found at: www.grandhotel-cosmopolis.org

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