Modou: The story of a Gambian assylum seeker in Germany


By Khue Pham, Zeit online

A young dancer and drummer is fleeing The Gambia because he doesn’t want to be coerced into a forced marriage. In Germany, he is hoping for love – and asylum.
On the Wednesday in late fall, on which his fate was to have been sealed, Modou* awakes in a cold, foggy city that has one of those German names that sounds like an alphabet salad: B-r-a-u-n-s-c-h-w-e-i-g. He puts on a hooded sweater and slips a donated winter jacket over it – but no, that doesn’t go together! It’s better without a jacket. Modou doesn’t want to run around like a ragged refugee, he wants to look cool.

He unfolds a piece of paper, a print-out with his name (spelled wrong), along with a time and an address. At eight o’clock, he is supposed to be in building four in Boeselagerstrasse 4. That is where the German state of Lower Saxony has its initial reception center. Or, as Modou calls it, refugee village. It is a mass shelter that neither the Germans nor the asylum seekers especially like. At the moment they are being set up all over the country.
Modou is one of a million people who are being blurred into a nameless mass under the term “refugees.” For the German authorities, he is an insignificant case that needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible – and deported, probably. But for others, he is a special person who deserves to be given a chance.


He doesn’t know what his appointment is about or who it is he will be talking to. But perhaps it is the interview in which he can explain why he fled Africa and why he wants to stay in Germany. The big interview about his application for asylum. About his future.
The reception center is situated on the edge of a forest, the route through it leads past low residential buildings. It used to be that 750 refugees were accommodated there, now it is officially 3,200, in truth it is probably even more. The portable housing containers are strewn about the place like a throw of dice. White, windowless tents cower beneath the trees. Inside, one narrow bunk bed is shoved up against the next. It is impossible to escape the noises and smells of all the others.

“Damn!” exclaims Modou, when he sees building number 4. He sees a line of 120 people standing in front of it. It would seem his eight o’clock appointment is a cattle-call. On the far right is the line for doctors appointments, next to it for interview appointments, and, far to the right, they are waiting to get into the welfare office. Modou tries to cut into the middle of the line from the outside left. The man next to him shoves him with his elbow. Modou resists, they jostle. “Stop pushing!” barks a beefy security man at the entrance. He speaks in a broken English that sounds German, the kind you hear on railway announcements. “If pushing zer will be trouble. Dschärman police will komm!” Nasty looks. No wonder that there are often fights here.

After an hour, Modou is swept into the building, but another security man forcibly blocks his way. Modou staggers and pulls his piece of paper out of his pocket. “Where is my interview,” he asks in English. “Piss off!” the man answers in German.
Modou climbs the stairs to the second floor. The corridor is full of people. Two green doors that open in a 15-minute rhythm. German personnel who come out are immediately besieged by refugees. A laminated sign in German says:

“Dear refugees, please wait. Your name will be called out. Thank you.”
Modou and I first met in September, when Germany was still intoxicated by its latest summer fairytale. We stood on the steps in front of the Hamburg exhibition halls, a temporary refugee accommodation, and spoke in English about hip-hop. He wore a black cap, white headphones hung from his shoulders, and he looked like he was about to spin a record in a club.

“I taught krumping at home,” said Modou, and I was amazed that they danced this American hip-hop style in Gambia but not in Hamburg. “I’ve put together a drum crew here,” he continued, and I thought that although drumming isn’t considered much of a technical skill, it is certainly easier to convey than, say, engineering.
With the arrival of Modou and his co-refugees, as he called them, the students, graphic designers, and bar-keepers from the surrounding Karo district of Hamburg discovered politics. A generation that so far had mainly been engrossed in itself, met refugees of the same age, many of whom only knew poverty, war and fighting to survive. Hourly, no every couple of minutes, cars would drive up to unload trunks full of jeans, coats, and toys. Refugee welcome parties were held every Saturday on the square opposite.

Since Modou is witty and funny, he becomes extremely popular in the microcosm of the exhibition halls. He also quickly makes friends with Germans. With tattooed cook, Jo, who gives him his old iPhone as a present. With the dance teacher and teaching school student Stefanie, whom he meets through drumming and with whom he soon begins an affair. They take Modou to sports, to bars, and clubbing (Modou himself doesn’t drink since he is a Muslim). They help him because they like him and wants to do something against the injustice of this world.
Modou doesn’t like to admit it but he needs a lot of help. When he takes the subway, he often takes the wrong one and gets lost – there aren’t even trains in Gambia. When sitting in a café, he doesn’t know what he should order – aside from pizza, döner kebab and bread, he doesn’t know any of the foods here. And naturally his friends always pay for him – he has neither a job nor money. Actually, he knows nothing about this country he wants to stay in.
“Have you ever heard of Hitler?” I ask him. “The name sounds familiar to me,” Modou answers, “Who was he again?”

“He was a German chancellor and he started the Second World War. On top of that, he killed millions of Jews.” – “Why? Were there two groups fighting against each other?” – “No – the government collected the Jews in concentration camps and they ultimately killed them in gas chambers that looked like showers” – “In showers?! Are you serious?”

He looks at me in such disbelief that I momentarily have doubts myself. How crazy German history must sound to someone who has never heard of it. He knows nothing of the Holocaust, World War two, and the divided Germany. When I ask him if he now thinks differently about Germany, he shakes his head. The past is as abstract to him as a fairytale. For him, Germany is a good country. The best one he knows.
“But I need somebody to tell me what is right and what is wrong here,” says Modou, when we meet weeks later in Jo’s favorite café, a shop with hand-roasted fair-trade coffee beans. Such a thing is also foreign to Modou. It is autumn and he is freezing. Life in the refugee camp is getting more and more on his nerves.

He talks about his dream of a future in Germany with a family and a job. As many refugees, he hasn’t fled war but personal hardship. His chances of being granted asylum are extreme low. “It is important for me to find a wife here. Maybe Stefanie is the right one,” he says. They are traveling together to Berlin on the weekend – she wants to visit her father, and he has an uncle there. Modou is interpreting the trip as a sign of love.

Does he want to marry to get his residency permit? He turns his head to the side with a deprecative “Tsss.” “Love for me isn’t a matter of papers but of feelings. You can’t marry someone you don’t love.” He appears to honestly mean it in the moment. But later I ask myself whether he is fooling not only me but himself as well.
How much romanticism can he afford as a refugee? Will he still be talking that way when he is being threatened with deportation? And can two people fall in love impartially when he is an African applying for asylum and she is a German with all the privileges that her country brings with it?

I also meet with Stefanie at the exhibition halls. Hamburg has now spread out the refugees to other shelters. It is raining. We walk to a café, Stefanie shakes her fidgety hair and puffs. She is exhausted. She has the voluntary-worker disease. She had worked everyday in the summer with the refugees, now she is exhausted. The fall semester has begun – the 27-year old is studying to become a primary school teacher – and she wants to concentrate on her own life again.

How are things going between her and Modou? She sighs, “He wanted to know what the deal was with us and I said that I can’t imagine having a relationship.” She feels drawn to him, she says, but wanted to end the affair before it became something more. What sounded like love with him, sounds more like a mixture of aiding refugees and friendship with her. She visited her father in Berlin, and he had tried to see his uncle – but he had suddenly disappeared into thin air. Apparently Modou can’t count on him. She is sorry for him, but she doesn’t want to be the one he pins all his hopes on.

Stefanie isn’t sure whether there aren’t also some other motives behind his declarations of love. “After all, we know there are only two ways for refugees to stay here, get married or have a baby,” she says. She is torn between the wish to help and the fear of being used.
They haven’t seen each other for weeks. Modou was transferred to Dortmund, then to Oberhausen and finally to Braunschweig. How is a friendship, let alone love, supposed to thrive under such conditions? But today she got a message from him. He wrote her that he is coming to Hamburg, “You are the only one I have left.” She doesn’t know what he expects of her. There is no way she’ll let him stay the night in her place.

It is already evening when Modou storms into the café. He talks fast and without a pause. “It’s a refugee village … much too many refugees … yesterday I had to sleep on the floor of the cafeteria … somebody stole my stuff in the night … the security people do nothing.” His registration card and his music samples are gone. Everything that distinguishes him as a person was stolen from him. The only document he has left is the piece of paper with the summons to an interview in building 4. But how is he now supposed to prove to the authorities who he is?
In his panic, he fled the refugee camp at noon. From Braunschweig to Hamburg, without money, a ticket or a plan. It isn’t clear to him that he violated his residence requirement. Now he is sitting here. Where should he stay? With Stefanie?

“What do you want to do?” she asks. “Find a place to sleep,” he answers. She looks at me, “Should we send him back?” she asks in German. I shrug my shoulders. Journalists are supposed to be observers only, but that isn’t going to work here. “Can’t you sleep at Jo’s?” I ask. “Jo is in Spain,” answers Modou. “But then you can sleep in his room,” yells Stefanie. She is already grabbing her cell phone to work out with Jo if Modou can stay in his shared apartment and for how long.

Modou’s mood improves immediately. “I love Stefanie! I want to have her around me all the time.” She raises an eyebrow. Her look says stop. “I love you 1,000 percent,” he answers. “Sssshush now!” She turns her head away, but you can see she is smiling.
Like so many refugees, Modou doesn’t have a straight-forward life story but rather a highly confusing past. He tells it to me at the different times we meet and names specific places and dates that, however, can’t be verified. Little by little, I learn that there are various versions to his story, one for the authorities, one for Stefanie and one for me.

The uncertainty begins with where he comes from. He told the workers in the refugee homes that he comes from Mali. There are Islamists fighting against the army of Mali and foreign soldiers in the north of the country. Which means it is a civil war country – asylum would be possible. However, he told me that he knows nothing about either Mali or the official language spoken there, French. He says that he was born there, but he grew up in Gambia.
Gambia, a narrow strip on the west coast of Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Half of the population lives below the poverty line. Modou only went to school for eight years then he joined a band of drummers and dancers. He performed in hotels and at fashion shows, earned enough to get by on, but not enough for a future.

When he was 23 years old, his father called him to him, a strict man. “Time to marry,” he says, “I have someone for you.” It is a cousin. In the eyes of the father, an ideal bride – she belongs to the same tribe, the Fulani. For Modou, it is a forced marriage to a relative, but he wants to marry for love. “Then you are no longer my son,” says his father. And threw him out of the house.

Modou had a secret girlfriend for four years, Fatu, an 18-year old girl from the neighborhood, Muslim like himself. She, as well, was supposed to be married against her will. When Fatu discovered she was pregnant by Modou, she was also afraid she would be thrown out. The two fled together and move to Guinea, where their son was born. But in Gambia, Fatu’s parents had reported their daughter missing, the case went to court and the judge issued a summons for Modou. Modou asserts he is facing imprisonment should he set foot in the country again.
Neither the family drama nor Fatu nor their common son is mentioned in Stefanie’s version. He told her that he set off to Europe, with the blessings of his family, to look for a job and to feed the relatives. Is he lying to her so as not to make her jealous? Or is he lying to me to make a more interesting story? Research shows that marriages in Gambia are often arranged by the couple’s parents. And among the Fulani people, these marriages in fact traditionally take place between cousins. Polygamy is accepted – a man can have up to four wives, as long as he treats them equally.


He sees his flight as a step upward. And his application for asylum as a type of job
In the version that Modou told me, the young family set off for Europe in October 2014. They took the bus to Niger and made a stopover in Agadez, the last city before the desert. Since smugglers are always getting lost and people die, Modou and Fatu decide to travel in different convoys. He paid her ticket and sent her on ahead, together with their son – he felt it was safer for her to go first. She was to report back as soon as she was in Libya.

He waited for the message in vain. A search party eventually found the stranded car – twelve people had died, four adults and a child had survived. His son is among the survivors, Fatu was dead. He transported the body and his son in a car to Senegal, which borders on Gambia. He sent a message to Fatu’s family and met an acquaintance who took the child in her care. Why she did it, he’d rather not know. He is afraid that she loves him and expects him to return one of these days. She is another of the women with whose help he has managed to struggle through.

In Agadez, the largest city in central Niger, he got into a pick-up. In Tripoli he got work as best he could, as a construction worker, painter and gardener. After nine months he had saved enough money to leave the country torn apart by violence and anarchy. He paid the equivalent of €475 to a trafficker and boarded a rubber dingy for Italy. It was made for a maximum of 80 people but carried 105. The route across the ocean frightened him because he can’t swim. Since he couldn’t afford a lifejacket, he hid an inflatable ball in his underwear.
Three days later, an Italian rescue ship deposited him in Naples. In Italy, he slaved away for €20 a day on a tomato farm, and after 16 months, he again set off. A train took him first to Switzerland, then to Germany. He believes he has finally reached his goal.

Modou sees his flight as a kind of step upward in society and his asylum application as a type of job. He has worked his way up from Africa to Europe and has paid a high price to do it. He has the feeling that he should now be compensated for it. At the same time, he knows there is a hierarchy of those in need among the Syrians, Iraqi, and Eritreans. Just the same, he hopes that he can convince the person who makes the decision in the big interview to give him a chance.

We talk about it as we wait on the second floor of building 4. After an hour, a door opens and a woman steps out. She calls out the wrong name that is on his piece of paper. Modou hurries towards her.
The woman wants to know where Modou comes from, what his religion is, which languages he speaks, and whether he is married. “I come from Mali,” he answers. She notes down his answers on a form. When she hears that he has already been through four initial reception centers, she is taken back. Actually, the refugees are supposed to move out of the camps and into special apartments within four to six weeks. But Modou had had to reregister himself again and again in each refugee home. Apparently he is one of the many cases of refugees who are registered incorrectly.

“Do you have the documents from your first refuge home in Hamburg with you?” the woman asks. “They were stolen from me,” he answers, “there was no place free and I had to sleep in the canteen” She silences him with a wave of the hand. She has no desire to always hear the same complaints. “I know that the situation is difficult.”
A short while later she gives him a new registration card, issued by the Migration Authority of the state of Lower Saxony. The date of the application for asylum is today. How can that be? Instead of giving an answer, she gives instructions, “Go down to the ground floor, you will be given further information there.”
The more time you spend in building 4, the better you understand why this rich, strong country feels so overwhelmed. The few German officials working there can hardly keep up with the applications. The security feels provoked by the crush of the mass of people. And the refugees don’t understand what is expected of them. Germans and refugees are united in their helplessness.

After yet another long wait, Modou is let into the office of a social worker. He is the first to treat him like a person and not like a number. Patiently, he tells Modou that a health check must now be made, then a date for an interview made with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, and then he can finally pick up his monthly allowance of €140. Modou listens attentively. He can well use the money. His mother has been pestering him for weeks about unpaid bills.

“When do I have the big interview to tell my story?” Modou asks the social worker. Not today, is the answer, it is likely to still take a couple of months. It is as if the two months already spent in Germany have been wiped away. Since they have no access to the databases of the other German states here in Braunschweig, Modou is once again starting from the beginning.

When we leave building 4 again, Modou seems downhearted. This isn’t the way he had imagined this important day. He must continue to endure and the recognition rates for refugees out of Mali are also extremely low. It is more likely that Germany will send him back to Italy, which is, in accordance with the Dublin Protocols, the first country in the European Union he entered. What will he do now? “I can’t go back to Africa and also not to Italy,” answers Modou. “If they reject me, I’ll have to find another way.”
A few weeks after our visit in Braunschweig, he tells me he has gotten to know a new woman. Her name is Franziska.

* The name has been changed in order to not affect the request for asylum.
Translated by David Andersen