Back in my lazy days of unemployment, I spent one afternoon a week tutoring and hanging out with a young unaccompanied refugee I’ll call “B” who came to Berlin from Guinea, West Africa. We usually met at a youth service center in Moabit called Evin, and the volunteer project was organized by Gute Tat that operates in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. The following is a two part story of our afternoons together.
I arrive early to the center, all the better since I have barely looked through the 5 page article I brought along to read with B. One of the center’s employees sees me and points to the coffee machine. I smile and shake my head nee danke since it’s already 5pm and I want to spend the next few minutes concentrating on learning everything I can about “Linsanity.” I reassure myself that the story on Jeremy Lin (then point guard for the NY Knicks) and his Taiwanese grandmother was a smart choice. After two sessions with B I have gathered he is into basketball, and I hope the immigrant experience will resonate with him. B arrives and we settle into a cramped but quiet room, his eyes widening as I spread the article pages out on the table. “We’ll switch off reading,” I promise him, which we do, but we still only get through one and a half pages during our hour and a half together. Half the time is spent explaining words like “breathlessly,” “turnip,” and “dual citizenship” in an awkward mix of English, German, and French. B’s German is confident and fluent, full of slang and with an impressive Berlin dialect. His French flows and feels familiar, but lacks a robust vocabulary. His English is tentative, quiet, and abrupt. Before we part ways for the day, B indulges me with a bit of gossip: he has a new girlfriend. I ask if she goes to his school. He scoffs and says the girls in his class are babies. B’s 18 and in the 10th grade.
I push through the heavy office doors and gulp down the fresh air. It’s cold but my body begins to release the tension it’s accumulated during the three hour job interview. I relish the moments standing still, feeling free, while I wait for the Ampelmann to turn green, running all my interview answers and inevitable German grammar mistakes through my mind. I shiver but I’m not sure if it’s excitement or the temperature. Looking up, I notice a young black man across the street. I immediately scold myself for thinking it’s B, but then realize it really is him. He has a book bag swung over one shoulder and an amused look on his face. We haven’t seen each other for a few weeks and never in this neighborhood, so it’s a happy, albeit slightly disorienting, coincidence. B’s done with school for the day and I’m famished, so we go to an Italian cafeteria adjacent to the Wilmersdorfer Strasse subway stop. He orders something creamy and rich. I ask for something “spicy” with extra spice. The men behind the counter wear shirts splattered with grease and yell in Italian when it’s ready. Eyes follow us as we seek a free table. We’re an unconventional pair: a young black student in a baggy t-shirt and baseball cap and a mid 20’s white woman in a suit and heels, and people are curious. I inhale my arrabiata and the few details B tells me about coming to Germany with equal vigor. The original plan, for his father to go with him, didn’t work out. His voice is determined as he discusses his prospects of doing an Ausbildung to become a retail salesman. His voice trails off as he confirms my suspicion that his whole family is still in Guinea. B’s 18 and not sure where home is.
– By Sophia Burton