Really No-Thing? When Looking Back and Ahead Lack Perspective

During my visits to his room, I regularly tried to find out if there was something he had carried with him during those troubled years – a keepsake, a thing to rely on, a lucky charm, or something similar. Initially, I thought my inability to unearth “significant materiality” was the result of my failings as an anthropologist. But over time it became increasingly obvious: Arif had no personal things in the narrow sense of biographical objects.

According to his statement and record, Arif’s two brothers were killed by gunmen in drive-by shootings, in 2005 and 2012 respectively, in a village close to the City Gujrat in Punjab province, where his family lived. His father was similarly murdered in August 2018; his mother had already died from grief in 2016. The killings were the result of tensions between Sunnis and Shias in the region. He did not even have a picture of his family with him.

Arif and his family belong(ed) to the Shia community. He fled Pakistan because he did not see a future for himself there. However, in countless decisions on asylum, in various countries, his case was rejected as “not justified” (see Materializing Bureaucracy) – in Friedland as well. Thus, Arif explained that he lacked prospects because he had nowhere left to go, neither in Europe nor Pakistan.

Under such circumstances, even solid possessions melt into air from being in transit for years. As described above, Arif lost all of his furniture and most of the possessions that he had accumulated. When he left his flat (see part one), he took his mobile phone, his savings of about €1,200, and one pair of trousers and two shirts that he carried in a small backpack. After that, aside from a pair of sneakers, Arif had not acquired any new things.

For Arif, losing most of his belongings was not distressing because they were unique, but rather because they were material manifestations of a normal life that was almost within reach. Of course, his few remaining belongings could not reproduce the feeling of living in his own home. This home was a personal space which opened up the prospect of a possible life among the things he had worked hard to accumulate. Living in transit means that such a home – in which to have some privacy or just watch TV – becomes impossible.

This lack of privacy and prospects expressed itself in depression and a lack of motivation. Half sick, Arif spent much of the day dozing – unable to sleep because of existential issues going around in his head. Like many other refugees I had met, he usually had the shutters of his room down and the radiator turned all the way up due to chilly weather outside. However, he was restless and exhausted and sometimes lost track of the time of day, or day of the week, during the dark winter days in Friedland.

As his transfer to another camp in the outskirts of Braunschweig came closer, Arif’s manner changed. He started searching for a part-time job close to the new place. I had to look up Greek and Italian restaurants (since he cannot read Latin letters), while he called and talked to them in fluent Greek and German. But he only received rejections, I guessed due to his accent. He was used to such disappointments and tried not to take them too hard.

However, how could he regain hope, again and again, when there was nothing – no thing – for Arif to hold on to?

Friedemann Yi-Neumann