Reflections on Berlin

By Amy Chang FCLC ’21

Click here for Amy’s reflections on her Berlin experience in the Fall

On Friday the 13th of this past March, I found myself standing in a long line of travelers at the Reykjavik airport, waiting to board my connecting flight home to JFK. I shudder to think of it now – only a handful of travelers wore masks as we crowded together, nervous voices rattling my ears as people placed phone calls to their families about the coronavirus. My study experience in Berlin had ended two months earlier than intended. 

Fortunately, I had already experienced a full semester in Berlin during the fall; I felt worse for my friends who had only been in the city for just over a month and barely ventured into the rest of Germany. Still, abruptly leaving a city I had come to love was no easy task. I already miss seeing the strangely charming patchwork of Brutalist and Renaissance architecture of Berlin from the S-Bahn and making day trips to the quaint neighboring city of Potsdam. 

One of the most memorable experiences I had in Berlin was volunteering at a refugee assistance center called Moabit Hilft. Since the period of Syrian migration to Germany in 2015, such organizations have become indispensable to refugees. The center offers a comprehensive variety of services and resources to anyone who seeks its help, including free daily lunch, clothing donations, legal assistance, and German language lessons. My main task as a volunteer was to organize the high volume of clothing donations in the backroom and manage the browsing area. I worked with a few other volunteers who were the first Berlin locals who did not immediately resort to speaking English for my benefit, although they did speak English well. One was a young man from Afghanistan a few years older than myself; another was a university student from France who studied at Humboldt University. It was a daunting though welcome opportunity to speak entirely in German. Still, despite my many mistakes, we managed to communicate about what needed to be done. Many of the other volunteers and visitors did not or barely spoke German, but spoke Arabic, Farsi, and Russian, among the languages I heard. Regardless of language, people communicated through universal hand gestures or even pictures drawn on a whiteboard. The center is one of the most global and welcoming communities I have ever seen. 

While volunteering, I learned the stories of refugee families who frequented the center or even became volunteers themselves. One woman lived in total uncertainty about whether her son was still alive back in Syria. Many visitors struggled with housing problems, legal issues, and unemployment; some were not refugees but homeless people, who received priority consideration for heavy jackets in the winter months. 

Ever since the pandemic emptied the streets of the world, I have thought about the refugees in Berlin who often depend on Moabit Hilft – closed during the pandemic – for daily necessities. I wonder how refugee families, particularly those with young children, have fared throughout quarantine as the pandemic has exacerbated racial and economic discrimination around the world on top of public health risk. Despite its reputation as a diverse and progressive city, Berlin is no post-racial oasis; I have both heard and once personally experienced racial slurs in Berlin. During my first semester there, the surrounding federal state of Brandenburg witnessed a significant surge in popularity of the right-wing party AfD during its election that mirrored the nationwide increase of the party’s support. 

Considering the country’s Nazi past, the present rise of right-wing nationalism and white supremacy in Germany is an especially alarming phenomenon. Nonetheless, I consider Berlin to have been the perfect study abroad city for me because of, not despite the echoes of this historical background. Through classroom lectures and visits to the country’s most important political and historical landmarks, I have gained valuable insight into how the country that contributed both some of the world’s greatest intellectual achievements and greatest atrocities grapples with its past.