Column “germany, what’s up?”: at the mercy

Suddenly I’m the nine-year-old again, erasing the devaluation of parents in translation and hiding bad words to protect them.

Arab stronghold: Ramadan festival in Berlin-Neukolln Photo: dpa

The sun is shining, the coffee is hot, cars squeeze past each other on the crowded Sonnenallee in Berlin-Neukolln. My mother and I are sitting in a small street cafe. That is, actually, a coffee seller with his mobile espresso cart has taken up residence in a flower store and placed a few wooden boxes on the sidewalk.

Here we sit in the finest hipster manner, surrounded by Germans who feel at home in the Arab stronghold that Sonnenallee has long been, and talk animatedly – in Arabic. At some point, my mother pulls out her smartphone and shows me a picture of herself at the lectern next to a member of the Brandenburg state parliament. The politician is always inviting refugees, and my mother translates.

I am surprised and thrilled, otherwise my mother avoids speaking German in my presence and instead murmurs her words to me in Arabic, even though she wouldn’t need to by now. It used to be different.

I can’t remember how often I stood in as an interpreter when I was a child, at school, in offices and authorities. There was always an underlying tension that surrounded my parents. They were at the mercy of the translating skills of a nine-year-old, and it was not uncommon for them to have to deal with existential matters such as residence permits and money.

Complicated officialese

Now my mother looks after refugees in the state parliament, just as she used to be one herself. They tell her about their hardships. After more than half a year, one of the women has finally brought her sick husband and three children from Syria to Germany.

They all live in a room with only one bed, the children sleep on chairs. The Syrian woman asks my mother to accompany her to the responsible office. After all, she says, her German is still not good enough to understand the complicated official language.

My mother says: "You know, Nemi, the official was so unfriendly and showed no understanding. She shouted at the woman what she was thinking, still showing up with an escort after half a year. The Syrian woman was just stammering away. Imagine: a grown-up, educated woman who was an engineer in her homeland and who is now in tears."

I notice how my heart beats faster and the words just burst out of me: if I had been there, then this would not have happened and the official should rather be glad that someone had agreed to translate for free. I say that I wouldn’t have put up with it and that no one should ever put up with it again. I talk without point and comma.

At some point, my mother looks at me as she often did in the past. And suddenly I’m back to being the nine-year-old who, without really realizing it, erases the devaluation of her parents in her translations and hides nasty words in the hope that they would never have to feel how much they are being discriminated against. In vain.

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