After volunteering with Mohabit Hilft, Nine Yamamoto-Mason used her skills as a translator and her connections as an artist to create the Refugee Phrasebook and Berlin Refugee Help.
Interview and words by Rhona Ezuma
Both groups provide important support to salve the already amazing work of grassroots movements based in Berlin. Nine, a practicing theorist, artist and translator, talks about working to her strengths, thinking creatively to address pressing needs and the importance of working with refugees, resisting depictions of them as passive recipients.
You started your volunteering through the grassroots movement Moabit Hilft. Can you talk to me a bit about what was happening in Moabit and the work you did when you volunteered with them?
Nine: “I volunteered with Moabit Hilft a number of times last summer. ‘Hilft’ just means help and ‘Moabit’ is an area Berlin with a registration office for refugees ran by the government. The conditions in the camps have always been a catastrophe, but last summer, as there were more refugees coming into the country the situation got worse.
This got worse in late spring 2015, so by June/July 2015 there were maybe like a thousand people waiting on the compound of the registration place. The queue was extremely long, sometimes you had to wait for hours, sometimes days and people had no place to go. The infrastructure of that place was really bad. That summer it was really hot, and people had no water. It was really appalling to see how people are being basically treated like cattle. So that’s when Moabit went in and said “hey this is unacceptable and we want to do something to help.” They went in and negotiated a sort of base where they could set up a place to store water and food, they started organising staff to go around and that’s when I started volunteering with them.
People were too afraid to go out and leave the queue, so we would go into the buildings and offer people water. It was very hot inside and there wasn’t even a tap on site until Moabit got one. They also managed to get a display board and a numbering system going so people could pick a number and the queueing system became bit less mentally exhausting.”
As Moabit Hilft was a completely grassroots movement with a relatively small number of volunteers, did they experience any difficulties from the authorities or have any other struggles?
Nine: “They started a campaign to get more volunteers on board and got people to donate, prepare and then distribute food and water, at the same time they put pressure on the government to do something by creating visibility for these appalling conditions.The authorities didn’t like this and after a while the Berlin government said that they were not allowed to have food because it was ‘unhygienic’ and they didn’t have the right documents. But then it took the government 2 weeks before the official organisation which they had appointed to organise food, to come in. You could see how the grassroots movement was so much more organised than the government, so even when they got told to stop giving people food, they didn’t stop helping.”
“More and more people started to want to volunteer, as the dispute sparked a big wave in the media and in September, after the picture of Aylan Kurdi – the little boy who died, was published tons of people started wanting to volunteer. At that time the infrastructure wasn’t quite there for the volume of the donations Moabit got so you had all these local grassroots initiatives of people working like crazy, having to accept donations with very small storage space and not enough people. So this became stressful because people who wanted to donate their stuff got really stressed when they were being sent away.
So you are the founder of Berlin Refugee Help, a separate group of fundraisers who started working to reduce some of the struggles you noticed arising as you were volunteering. Could you talk to me a bit about what you were doing?
Nine: “I am the founder Berlin Refugee Help, this launched because I started this project called Refugee phrasebook. When I was volunteering with Moahbit Hilft I noticed there was a problem with the language. It was taking really long to understand when someone asked me something really basic, like ‘where can I get water?’ or ‘where is a doctor?’ This was just because I could understand the language, and there might be just one person who spoke arabic on site. I started a small Facebook group with translators, designers and my friends who were translators that had come to Berlin as refugees too, and we made a pamphlet with most needed phrases in several languages so that people could just point at them.
“Another project that we did, is that we held a flea-market fundraiser when all these storage units were completely full and people were getting frustrated that no one was accepting their donation. My friends and I started selecting some of the stuff that people donated like miniskirts, high heels and skinny jeans by Acne, which Refugees can’t use, but you can sell for €30. We knew we’d get much more value from, if we sold them and it was like win win for everybody because people who are buying the clothes knew that the money was going to a good cause. We also did it in one of the hipster flee markets by this really cute area located by the river and we presented it nicely and had donation boxes. So, it was a matter of framing and not making it look like charity. We gave some of the money to Moabit Hilft and to a medical group that work for free, and also to a group of friends we have called ‘Train of Hope’. They do really really amazing work helping people who arrive by train. They don’t have a big media presence because they’re very humble people and don’t think that, but they are working with hundreds of people every single day, giving them water, food and information.”
You are an artist, translator and cultural theorist. Has your work come into the things you’ve been doing with refugees?
Nine: “So in the way that I have approached it – thinking creatively, coming up with novel concepts that might help, that also honour the already amazing work of grassroots activists, being aware of our social media literacy and our approach to visual culture – all of that comes from the artistic side. Also working on tight budgets, making every penny go as far as possible – that all comes from a skill set of working as a curator over the last 10 years. My work as a media theorists has made me more aware of communication. I’m very careful about how things are being framed and resisting depictions of refugees as passive recipients of charity has been very important to me. Acknowledging the politics of race and being a foreigner has meant that I asked people for guidance and what they thought, so as to make sure I haven’t been out of line.”
“My thinking has been very influenced by it but I haven’t done any artwork about this because I think it is kind of gross. I do get lot of requests from artists who want me to connect them with refugees and I think it is very, very strange. There was actually one guy, this Austrian artist who had just joined the Berlin Help group whose done something like that. He immediately made the group go viral, (which he hadn’t asked anyone to do) and he started giving interviews about it because he’s very well connected in art, media circle. It’s ironic because he actually managed to offend an Afghanistan woman who joined our project. But now he’s claiming the project as his own and got a book deal on refugee problems.”
You talk about resisting the presentations of refugees which are given to you in the media. Can you talk a bit about what presentations you are given in the German news?
Nine: “In the Berlin Refugee Help group we now have 3,000 people and maybe 1/3 of people are refugees so we include their voices. However, in news the language they were using talking about ‘floods of refugees’ and showing pictures of masses of brown people has been something to resist. In recent years, there has also been a lot of misinformed information about brown men as sexual predators and with people coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Morocco and Algeria there has been a very big rhetoric in the media of good migrants and bad migrants, based on race. I am very aware of the way it is being represented in the current moment. But a lot of the expats in the group, who can’t read German or English, are unaware and I have to remind people to mind their language and to resist the very subtle narratives which the media heightens.”
The refugee phrasebook is available here
You can research more about Nine Yamamoto-Masson and her work here