Dirk Keitel knows almost all of 190 people who live in the gray, high-rise building in the middle of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. The 51-year-old has been the superintendent here for five years and lives in one of the apartments himself. Almost half of the 116 apartments in this former old people’s home are filled with tenants, a mixture of senior citizens, artists and punks. For the past six months, the remainder of the one-room units house refugees and asylum seekers.
The building from the 1960s, called the Heinrich-Plett-Haus, was acquired in 2012 by charitable associations VITA and Jugendwohnen im Kiez. “When the refugee emergency arose at the end of 2013, we wanted to get involved,” said Roland Schirmer, deputy director of VITA.
Since June 2014, empty apartments have been offered to refugees. The long-term tenants have remained. “Today the building is a potpourri,” Mr. Schirmer said.
One of the apartments is home to Azziza Hossaini and Salsaal Ezatullah, who fled Afghanistan a year ago with their ten-month-old daughter. The Taliban had threatened Mr. Ezatullah and his family, who was employed by a company that worked with the American military. They have been living for six months at Heinrich-Plett-Haus. “It’s more pleasant here than in the initial reception centers,” he said.
Even though all three of them live in a single room, with a cooking niche and bathroom, at least they are independent. Mr. Ezatullah hopes to find work as a physics teacher in Germany. He already had three years’ professional experience in Afghanistan.
“Up to now, the way people live together in the building has worked really well.”
Most of the refugees in the building come from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt or Pakistan, and arrive after three months in an initial reception facility. The deputy head of the residence, Sven Hubold, supports the tenants in their search for larger apartments, helps them write applications and visit government offices, and organizes German- and integration-courses in the building.
“One advantage is that people here immediately get a picture of what life is like in an apartment building,” says Mr. Keitel. Things used to be very quiet before the refugees arrived, and it was a bit of a shock for the senior residents in particular, when the building became a lot more lively.
Tenants can come during office hours and complain if things are too loud for them. Then Mr. Hubold and his colleagues act as intermediaries. “We tell the families that they ought to take their elderly neighbors into consideration.” That works: “Up to now, the way people live together in the building has worked really well,” says Mr. Hubold.
Since last August, VITA has been training refugees from the Heinrich-Plett-Haus to become caregivers for elderly persons.
Mr. Keitel has new experiences every day: “You meet really interesting characters.” He was deeply moved by the fate of an elderly couple from Serbia. He also helped two chronically ill people, both of whom ended up being deported, although their children were allowed to remain in Germany. “Something like that is a dark tale,” says the superintendent. No one understood why the elderly couple had to go.
Indira Muratovic, a 47-year-old from Bosnia has another story. She speaks perfect German, having spent her school years in Austria. Since February, she has been living with her three children in one of the building’s apartments. “We are quite contented, even if things are crowded.” Ms. Muratovic is a Muslim Roma and experienced segregation, violence and poverty in Bosnia.
On September 16, the Dussmann Group, Germany’s largest multi-service provider company, organized a social day in the building. Employees and residents renovated the terrace and worked together in the yard. Then there was a party for all the residents, with a children’s program by the Radio Symphony Orchestra. A happy house for now.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com