Stolen Things and a Stolen Lifetime
How can time be stolen and who steals it? How is time be taken away from migrants and how does it affect lives in the long term? The anthropologist Sharam Khosravi1 has indicated that deportation regimes systematically deprive refugees of their saved, spent, and invested time; time spent on working, on depositing into social welfare, and of course, time spent on making friends, and on building homes and families. These efforts are taken away by dint of uncertainties due to temporary residence permits, by the Dublin Regulations2, which keep many asylum seekers in Europe in circulation for years, and of course by deportations.
While I was reading Khosravi’s short article on stolen time, the life story of Arif Ibrahim3 appeared before my inner eye. Together with my colleague Maliheh Bayat Tork, to whom I owe this contact, I met Arif in Friedland in December 2018 for a first interview. In this and subsequent encounters, the story of Arif unraveled – a long, grim, and bitter biography at odds with Arif’s friendly character and his seemingly endless patience. He had to cultivate this patience to survive thirteen years of back and forth; thirteen years in which he had regularly lost everything and started again from scratch in different countries and places; thirteen years in which he learned languages, created and lost relations, and lost his entire family. It was also a time in which he had survived several life-threatening attacks by Greek neo-Nazis in Athens, as a result of which he still suffers from organ damage.
Fleeing Pakistan via Iran and Turkey, he spent seven years in Greece working as a cook before he was forced to leave the country, due both to the financial crisis in general and threats against migrants in particular. He managed to make his way to Belgium, where he was “initially registered”. However, living conditions were so desperate – he was homeless, slept under bridges, sometimes Pakistanis sheltered him for a night or two – that he decided to move to Germany, where he planned to build a more promising livelihood. On account of his initial registration, some German federal states argued about the responsibility of his case, and he was returned to Belgium several times. “For five years now they kick me like a football,” he comments.
Despite these difficulties, he managed to find a full-time position as a chef in an Italian-Rhineland Palatinate restaurant for 18 months. He rented a flat, bought himself a bed and a wardrobe – “everything,” he said. For the first time in years, Arif had a home.
However, when he tried, as usual, to extend his exceptional leave to remain (Duldung) in the foreign registration office, the extension was rejected. The revoked permission cut the legal basis for his recently established home and Arif had to leave his apartment. He had no choice but to put every single item – all the furniture he had purchased – on the street. It was just bulky waste now. The most painful thing he had to give away was the flat-screen TV that the restaurant owner had given him as a birthday present. He gave it to a distant friend and once again started from zero.
After this incident, he tried for several months to settle in Northern Italy. However, he was forced to leave the country and decided to apply for asylum in Germany once again, making his way to the Friedland transit camp in November 2018, only the latest station in an endless limbo with no prospect of improvement. How could he carry on under such circumstances, and what was the role of material objects in this case?
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?