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Oct. 2013 protest in support of Lampedusa refugees in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Oct. 2013 protest in support of Lampedusa refugees in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Tonia Mastrobuoni

BERLIN"You're the ones who created this mess I'm in..."

Mohammad points his finger at me, and doesn’t even want to tell me his real first name: "Call me Mohammad, we are all the same to you racist Italians anyway."

His age, though, he does tell me: He's 47, but looks a bit younger thanks to the dreadlocks framing his face and the sweatshirt he's wearing. Another man who is standing behind him approaches as he hears the word "Italian," but only to spit a few inches from my right foot. Then he yells a few words at me in Arabic, and leaves.

A small group of people has begun to gather around me, and they're not friendly. A tall guy as skinny as a Giacometti statue sums it up for the others: "I hate Italy. You gave us 500 euros and expelled us with that damn document that doesn’t allow us to work here."

This is happening in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of the German capital. Years ago, when people spoke of Berlin as the "third largest Turkish city," and before the gentrification began, this neighborhood was the heart of the city's foreign community.

One of the main squares of the area, along the channels of the Spree river, is Oranienplatz: It was occupied last year by hundreds of immigrants who built cabins, an outdoor kitchen, common areas with recycled sofas and chairs. Many who gathered here here had arrived after experiencing the inferno that is the sea journey to Lampedusa, like Mohammad, the anonymous Giacometti and Ali did.

"No man is illegal," reads a sign on Oranienplatz — Photo: fotokorth via Instagram

I catch a glimpse of a less hostile face, while the others continue to rail on against Italy. He nods his head inviting me to follow him. "I'm Libyan. When you started to bomb Libya, I fled. And now I'm here." He takes me to his hut made of four tin walls at the bottom of Oranienplatz. Inside there is just enough space for a bed, a table and a small heater. Outside on this late March day, it is still cold, but inside it is steaming hot.

A pro-Gaddafi carpenter

Ali tells me the obvious: since the group from Lampedusa was “received” in Italy and because of the abstruse European rules, other countries can safely wash their hands of the problem. "I am not asking for much: a job, a normal house."

To go to the bathroom or to take a shower, refugees have to go to the Caritas headquarters, situated behind the square. Recently, they've been also allowed to cook there, while before food was prepared directly in the square.

Only last week a preliminary agreement was reached between local politicians and representatives of Oranienplatz, after months of exhausting negotiations: Berlin promises to take care of each one of them, in exchange of the evacuation of the square.

But Ali, like the other “Lampedusiani,” rejects the agreement. "It does not solve our problems," he explains, saying the issue should be solved at the federal and European level.

Paula Riester, representative of the Green Party in Kreuzberg argues that Germany “could give these refugees a so-called "Duldung" which is a permit to stay, "making an exception to the European rules."

In the hut of another North African refugee, a carpenter named Ibrahim says he's proud to be a "Libyan Loyal to Gaddafi.” The table next to the bed is dominated by a big stereo always switched on, sharing space with a white teddy bear that reminds him of home.

"You Italians have treated me badly," he says. "I have been hunted and now I'm here praying the Germans give me a job. How can you come to Africa, dethrone Gaddafi while preaching for human rights and then treat us like this?”

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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