November 12, 2015

A safe space of one's own

My conversation with a women migrants’ collective in Berlin

 

When I first set foot on Oranienplatz in Berlin on a cloudy afternoon, I could not have imagined what its trees have witnessed. For over a year, hundreds of people used this square as a site to protest against the rights violations of migrants. When I reached out to the International Women’s Space, a collective of women migrants in Berlin that Mama Cash supports, Denise, Jennifer and Lica immediately invited me to meet them in this park.

This is where it all began”, says Denise from the International Women’s Space with visible pride. In 2012 a growing group of people started to set up tents on the Oranienplatz. Soon the camp became a symbol for the struggle for refugee rights and a meeting place for the movement. Having a safe space where people could meet and talk helped to break through the isolation many migrants experience and allowed them to organize politically.

The refugees’ camp on Oranienplatz ended in April 2014 in a face-off with the Berlin Senate and district council. Some refugees who were there agreed with the local authorities to take down the camp and accept the offer of being transferred to refugee homes. It was a difficult time for the budding movement, because when they left the park the group had no publicly visible meeting point anymore and started to dissolve.

Sometimes we still have a table in the middle of the park that we use as an information point”, Denise says, “but often we get sent away by the police for no reason, even though they know perfectly well that we have permission from the district to have that info point there. We, the women, we just sit on the grass when we want to meet here.

Women’s rights issues not seen as a priority

In 2014 a group of refugees were also still squatting an old school building nearby. Over 300 people lived there. Mostly men. As women are often a minority in migrant groups their voices and issues frequently get drowned out by male leaders of activist groups. The reasons women have for fleeing, such as gender-based violence, are often seen as private, rather than political. Women’s rights issues are swept aside as ‘not a priority’. “But we claimed a wing of the second floor just for the women in the group. That made it possible for us to organize ourselves as International Women’s Space”, Jennifer explains. “It’s always been very important to us to be an open collective, so other women migrants could approach us with their questions about their specific needs like access to women’s health care. Sometimes those needs are very basic, like using the toilets and showers that we had claimed just for women. No men allowed. In so many refugee homes there is absolutely no privacy, women have to share bathrooms with men and often the shower cubicles don’t even have a door.”

nine-days-on-the-roofHowever, after the Oranienplatz was cleared out the authorities also wanted to have the school evicted. “Most of the refugees there accepted alternative housing, but around forty of us stayed on the roof of the building and we protested for nine days, because having a space for us as a collective was crucial for us to go from survival to activism. The whole area around the school was surrounded by around a thousand police officers. It was a very tense situation,” Denise recounts. Eventually, following the siege, tough negotiations and a court case, around twenty men were able to stay in the school. However, the women from the International Women’s Space left the building after the siege and had to find another space to meet and organize. “With the financial support from Mama Cash we were able to rent a room to have meetings once a week. On other days we would meet at people’s houses, but that just doesn’t work if you want to be an open collective.

When I meet Denise, Jennifer and Lica, they have just received the keys to a new space. “This new office space is free and we have the keys so we can use it whenever we need to. It will enable us to be more inviting to new women and organize more professionally as women migrants only”, Jennifer says with determination. It means raising their voices and claiming their rights within the migrants’ movement, before they can even start to engage with the broader struggle. But the women are not phased: “We’re ready. We move in tomorrow.

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