An interview with refugee activist Bashir Zakaria on Berlin Oranienplatz conducted in 2013, in which he tells the story of his flight and arrival in Europe, and of the difficulties he faced building a new life within the restrictive European immigration system.
We entered the ship, they told us to enter. Everybody went, almost 150 people in the boats. When the boat was full, the captain drove the boat into the sea. We started moving. The second day in the sea – we didn’t even know where we were going, there was no compass, nothing – the fishermen directed us into the direction to Italy.
It was very difficult. Because in the sea, you know, there is no sign. You are just alone, in the middle of the sea. You don’t know where left and right is. You don’t know where you’re coming from. You can’t go back to where you’re coming from, you can’t go forth. You are just in the middle of the sea. We were on the boat for at least seven days. Seven days.
Our food was finished, everything was finished. There was a woman who was pregnant, everybody was shouting. We were looking for her. […] For two good days, we couldn’t go forth, and the boat was shaking left and right. Everybody was sitting down. When some fishermen came, we called and on their way, they found us. And they said that all the help they can do for us is to call a rescue team from Tunis. We are between Tunis and Malta and Italy, and any one of them can come, any rescuers.
The Tunis rescue were the first people to come. When they came to us, they came with some food and bread and milk and started throwing it at people. You know, the people were already tired, they needed water. They made a mistake throwing the milk, everybody came to the direction. They throw again, everybody went into that direction. The boat started shaking. When they continued throwing, the boat capsized. We found ourselves in the sea like fish. The team could not do more, they didn’t know how to. We lost a lot of people there, they died. We are a part of the lucky ones. […]
When I went to Lampedusa, I was in the camp for two weeks. The camp is locked. Everybody stays inside. When the food comes, they shout, ‘There is food’, we come out and eat. They write our names down and take us to a big ship. They dropped us in Napoli. We went to Genova, Palermo. They dropped me in Palermo with my group. From there we went to Agrigento and stayed there for 9 good months. Sleeping, eating, and sleeping only.
They guaranteed me they accepted me as a humanitarian [refugee] in Italy. They gave me documents for just one year. But they told me, ‘Sorry, we don’t have jobs in our country. There are problems in our country, it’s difficult to find something to do. Maybe go somewhere else.’ They gave me a ticket to Padova, but there it was the same story: There were no jobs. […] I went to Marseille. From Marseille I went to Lille. From Lille I went to Calais. From Calais I went to Paris. Anywhere it was difficult, I didn’t have money. I had to beg people for money for tickets. From Paris I went to Frankfurt. I didn’t know anybody. […] From Frankfurt, I travelled to Hamburg. There I found a job: I went there with my documents, they said with my documents I cannot work. I left Hamburg. From Hamburg, I came to Berlin. Here in Berlin there is a refugee camp. We are all refugees. And this fight is for what we are demanding.
For somebody without documents, the system is empty. Especially for refugees. They give me documents, but I can’t work. The refugees who are accepted by the Europeans: Italy is part of the European Union, and they accepted me as a refugee. If I find work, I work. I pay the taxes. But they deny us of our rights. Thousands of people are now here, but they don’t allow them to work. What do they want us to be? Do they want us to be criminals? Do they want us to go stealing? They want us to take other people’s money? But we don’t want to do that. That’s why we give the message to the society and the government: Let’s change the whole system. Let us be good citizens. Give us free movement. Let us have our freedom!
Bashir Zakaria was an activist fighting for refugees’ rights. He was a prominent figure in the context of the “OPlatz movement” (Oranienplatz movement, called after the Berlin square where the protest camp was erected), a pro-immigrant protest for refugees’ rights to work and stay in Germany and in opposition of the Dublin agreement and the Residence obligation (Residenzpflicht), which stated that refugees were required to live within certain boundaries defined by the applicants’ local foreigners’ office for 6 months. Most of the protesters came from African countries.
The “OPlatz” movement was started by refugees who organized a protest march from Würzburg to Berlin in 2012, after Iranian refugee Mohammed Rahsapar had committed suicide in a camp in Würzburg. They settled on the Berlin square Oranienplatz, where they protested peacefully for almost two years. Following the tragic death of 300 refugees near Lampedusa, Italy in 2013, there was a peaceful occupation of the EU commission in Berlin and several other demonstrations and hunger strikes. The camp was dissolved in 2014 and the protesters obtained housing. Since then, a majority of the refugees’ applications for asylum have been rejected, but the movement continues to exist.
Zakaria was an engineer from Nigeria. When his father, who was a political peace activist, was killed, he left Nigeria for Libya, where he stayed for ten years working and living with his wife and sons. When the Libyan Civil War broke out in 2011 following the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s reign, he was forced to flee to Europe. Zakaria and his family crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a boat. His two children drowned in the sea and when Zakaria arrived in Lampedusa, Italy, he was alone. Since he was told there were no jobs in Italy, he moved on to France and from there to Berlin, where he was not allowed to work having applied for asylum in Italy. He joined the protest in Oranienplatz and often acted as a mediator between refugees and authorities. Zakaria had been suffering from a heart condition since the flight from Libya, and died in 2016 in Berlin.
The interview with Bashir Zakaria was conducted on 20.04.2013 in the Refugee Protest Camp on Oranienplatz in Berlin and published by THE VOICE Refugee Forum.