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We invite you to our readings and celebration!

(See dates and locations below)


Our book, “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges: 20 Years of Women in Exile” is a collection of refugee women’s texts about fleeing, surviving, the situation in refugee camps, and organizing for 20 years as a refugee women’s group for the abolishment of Lagers and freedom of movement.

Readings in English. Entry is either free or donation based.

28.6.22 
Berlin
| Oyoun, Lucy-Lameck-Str. 32, 12049 at 18:30, party at 20:30

30.6.22–3.7.22
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern | Fusion Festival 

14.7.22
Rostock | Peter-Weiss-Haus, Doberanerstr. 21, 19h 

16.7.22
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern | Hof Uhlenkrug, Dargun 

4.-7.8.22
Berlin | International Womens* Conference

You can order the book through our publisher, Edition Assemblage, here: https://www.edition-assemblage.de/en/books/breaking-borders-to-build-bridges/

Marjan

Excerpt from pages 123–124 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

Hello, I’m Marjan. I come from Afghanistan and arrived in Germany with my family six years ago. First of all, I’d like to explain how I got to know a women’s* group called Women in Exile. I met them in the summer of 2018 through a friend. We and several other immigrant women* from various cities were travelling around by bus and visiting a number of German cities. There we met refugee women* from different countries. All of them had problems due to insufficient food and the Lagers. And this powerful group, Women in Exile, has taught them that they can defend their rights against adversity and fight for their rights. All the women* who lived in Lagers were invited to workshops and we spoke with them about their problems and how they can fight for a better life. Some of them told us about their experience of living in Lagers in the past and how they achieved their demands – how they got out of the Lagers, found a home for themselves and lived with their children in peace. Sometimes we took to the streets and invited women* to chant slogans together with us: that we’re all human and should live as equals, that no one is superior, and that we all have the right to a good life. Sometimes we partied and danced together and were happy, and ate together – it was most enjoyable. Unforgettable. All this was important to me, and it was the first time I saw how powerful the women* in this group are. And I wanted to be like them and help the women* of my country to fight for their rights and not be afraid that a woman* is deficient and should always stay at home and be oppressed. I’ve been in this group for four years now and take part in workshops. I feel good with these ladies. I think they’re part of me. I can’t leave them. They’re very kind, pleasant and strong.

“And so we ended up sitting at a huge table.” Conversations with Children

Excerpt from pages 137–141 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

Conversation between Khongith (17) and Peer (friend of Women* in Exile)

P.: Hello, Khongith. First of all, thank you for agreeing to an interview for Women in Exile. Could you please introduce yourself?

K.: Yes, I’m Khongith, I’m 17 now, and I’m from Bielefeld. As far back as I can remember, my godmothers always accompanied me to meetings with Women in Exile. And I feel that was always part of getting together with my family.

P.: So you got to know Women in Exile through your godmothers?

K.: Yes, my godmothers were involved in Women in Exile long before we met. When I was a baby, they kind of always borrowed me, I guess… so I was usually at their place one day a week, sometimes more. And so, when it was time for a meeting, a plenary or something, I took that in and was there too. I didn’t get that much – it wasn’t as if I was taking part. But I always wandered around happily, met all sorts of people and noticed that there was always a very friendly atmosphere.

P.: Do you remember any special things, maybe from when you were older – any tours or demos or campaigns, festivals you went along to?

K.: Yes, I definitely remember there were heaps of workshops where the women* met. I didn’t really take part in the workshops because I wasn’t that interested between 5 and 8. But I know that my godmother K. always cooked for them. And then at some point I also took an interest and joined in. And even before that, I did childcare with my other godmother, and then I always observed the other people around me working and exchanging ideas. The raft tour is the most exciting thing I can think of right now. It also lasted a few days. And so we toured through Germany on a raft. That was by far the biggest highlight I connect with Women in Exile. It was awesome sauce! I liked it so much.

P.: I think it’s more exciting for children to be out and about on a raft than doing workshops.

K: You bet. (laughs)

P.: You said you also helped with the cooking?

K.: Yes, when I was at an age where, I admit… there was a time I didn’t think other kids were so great… and then it was great fun to cook with K. So we did that a few times. I certainly did. Well, I only had time during the holidays. And then it was like, when there were meetings that went for several days, that we rotated. That’s how I remember it being. We’d cook one day and someone else would cook the next. And with really big camps there were several of us cooking. Sometimes in super special kitchens you don’t usually have access to. I mean, you don’t normally need a pan to cook… I don’t know… 20 kilos of rice or something. You only experience things like that at special events. That was pretty amazing.

P.: I remember that you cooked for Women in Exile’s big summer festival on Oranienplatz, where – no joke – you catered for a few hundred people. You and the others made breakfast, lunch and dinner there, right?

K: Yes. We started shopping 2 days beforehand. We wrote lists and chose recipes because the food should be super brill, of course, but not so mega in terms of the effort. When you’re cooking for so many people you also have to keep time management in mind. And the costs, of course. And then later there was the thing where we had a kitchen… I think that was… I don’t remember now… it wasn’t a restaurant, but definitely a big kitchen equipped for occasions like this. And people kept coming and wanted to help. And so we ended up sitting at a huge table, and my cousin was there too, and a few other kids and a few other women* as well. And we were all chopping together. We had huge cooking pots, and we stood on chairs and stirred. When the food was ready, we served it in a big tent. It went down really well, and of course we were pleased about that. And there was almost… no, there was always just enough. I was happy about that, too, because I hadn’t thought there would be enough go round.

P.: I remember the food was always delicious! That’s really stuck in my mind.

What do you think, is Women in Exile interesting for kids and adolescents? Or could the group do something differently to make it more attractive for kids? What practical advice could you give, from your experience?

K.: I’ve never found it boring with Women in Exile. I’ve only ever joined in during the holidays. It was great fun to see everything that was going on. And then there were often kids’ activities. Later we looked after the kids there ourselves. And that kept you pretty busy. When I was older, I found it fascinating to see how committed the women* were, to see the community or to listen in at workshops. It was always in lots of different languages. The mood was always good, at least from what I’ve heard. And it was so interesting just seeing what the people were like, and then seeing that everyone was involved and motivated. I found that very exciting. And if you weren’t interested in that, it was no trouble finding others to play with. There were enough people you could do something with. I’ve never had anyone be rude or not respond to me – like we know it from the street, where you often get the feeling that people have such a negative attitude and don’t take an interest in one another. I’ve never had that here. People you’ve never met before are open and engaging and have fun with you. Yes, even as a child I had the impression that Women in Exile was always a kind of meeting place for lots of unknown friends, in a way.

P.: Do you know what Women in Exile is fighting and taking to the streets and doing actions for?

K.: Hmm, I’ve never really thought about it that way before. I mean, sure I’ve thought about it… but I’ve never asked. From what I’ve heard, it’s mainly to do with women*, who are no longer willing or able to live in their home country, being granted rights. And being integrated here, and accepted, and being given opportunities to build a new life for themselves here if they wanto. With a humane standard of living. So on the raft tour, for example, we visited Lagers – I think that’s what they were called – where lots of people were housed together in cramped conditions. And it’s to do with situations like that, for example, being avoided. And abolished, so that people don’t have to live in conditions like that after the ordeal of fleeing from their country of origin and when they’re actually motivated to build a new life for themselves and their kids.

P.: You said you live in Bielefeld. Are there other topics that interest and motivate you or other kids and adolescents right now? What’s it like with the people around you, with your class or your friends?

K.: Fridays for Future is what’s making the biggest waves here at the moment. That’s what you hear most about from the newspaper and television. But I also get the feeling at my school that more and more things are happening. Or maybe I just didn’t notice before? So there’s more and more talk about normal politics in Bielefeld. Big issues like climate change, racism, gender issues… all these things are suddenly being addressed more, where before I had the feeling people weren’t really interested. Or they didn’t show any interest in the sense that they couldn’t even imagine what it meant. Generally I get the feeling that Bielefeld is a super quiet kind of city. Mostly nothing happens.

P.: I’m sure it’s often different to big Berlin. But what you say – the issues that are topical in your environment or what motivates people there – those are topics that are on the agenda in Berlin too, for example climate justice and racism.

K: Definitely. I also believe that these big issues, which spring up Germany-wide, are being dealt with slowly and cautiously here in Bielefeld. But when see the way people in Berlin are really committed and stuff… I think things are still kind of on the back burner here. But it’s definitely changing… slowly.

P.: Is there anything you’d like to do with Women in Exile again? Or that you’d like to send on the way when it turns 20 next year?

K.: What I’d like to do again? I don’t know, I’ve never felt anything’s missing. The actions and stuff are always cool. I also always find the sense of community, the vibes, so special with Women in Exile. And I hope it stays that way too, that this feeling of unity will go on. And definitely that the fight for what we want will go on. I think that’s something you always feel when you’re at a Women in Exile meeting. Apart from that, I always find the actions really cool. That’s why I don’t think I have any particular wishes, but I hope it will stay creative like it is.

P.: Cool, that’s a great wish for Women in Exile for the next 20 years. Then a new generation will come, at some stage.

K.: Definitely, hopefully.

P.: Is there anything else you’d like to add at the end?

K.: I think a lot is already being done. I just hope for Women in Exile’s sake that it becomes more popular. I get the feeling that it’s very well known in Berlin already – maybe it’s also because I always move in the same circles. But I hope it will spread, too, so that if you go to other cities, and if you say Women in Exile, people there too will know what you mean. That’s what I hope and wish for.

P.: Maybe Women in Exile needs to go west again, to Bielefeld, and do some mobilizing?

S: Yes, maybe.

P.: Hey, then thank you for the great interview, Khongith.

K: Thank you.

Conversation between Manu (12) und Peer (friend of Women* in Exile)

Excerpt from pages 142–144 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

P.: Hello, Manu!

M: Hi!

P.: It’s nice that I can do an interview with you today for the book by Women in Exile because Women in Exile turns 20 next year.

M.: I’m happy to, and all the best! (laughs and raises a clenched fist)

P.: My first question is: which meetings or summer trips with Women in Exile do you remember? And what have you done with Women in Exile so far?

M.: Well, we did lots of bus tours and often went from one Lager and one place to another… Yeah, sure, it was lovely!

P.: Did you always go by bus or did you also go by boat or something?

M.: Often by bus, sometimes by car, and then – though not all that often – we sometimes did a raft tour. We went on a raft. I can’t remember ever going by boat, just on a raft.

P.: You mean kids were allowed on a raft? Wasn’t that too dangerous?

M.: No, it wasn’t dangerous. Sure kids were allowed on, even young kids. It wasn’t dangerous, but a bit risky, sort of. That’s why we wore life jackets, yeah… So it was safe enough.

P.: And how did you find the childcare at the meetings?

M.: It was cool, yeah. But sometimes we really mucked up and then we ran away, like. That wasn’t terribly helpful. (laughs)

P: Uh-huh, OK. Did you kids band together?

M.: Yeah, sure, hmm.

P.: Did you like going to demos in the past? Did you go to demos a lot?

M. (nods): In the past, yes. And you could say I liked it, but only because my mum carried me, and the others too. I wouldn’t have liked it if I’d had to walk myself, I don’t think. I was in the stroller or up on people’s shoulders the whole time, you know. So I was at a lot of demos. Sure. But now… not so many.

P.: Now you’re too big for anyone to carry on their shoulders anymore?

M: That’s right. I hardly go to any these days.

P.: Would you go to demos if you didn’t have to trudge along?

M.: Hm, maybe…

P.: I remember a demo in Hamburg [We’ll come united], with B.’s grandchildren, and there was a sound truck. You were all allowed to sit on the back and didn’t have to walk. Only the adults had to walk…

M.: Yeeeeah, that was sooo cool!

P.: Meaning something has to be organized for the kids so they don’t always have to walk, and then you’d be more interested in going to demos again?

M: Yeah, for sure! (nods)

P.: Do you know why Women in Exile organizes demos and actions? What do they actually do?

M.: Well, they kind of support people, like women* and stuff. And also dark-skinned people. And they go to demos, like, and make placards, and then: “Yeah, you guys are cool!” (raises her fist). And: “Yeah, we support black people and women*!”

P.: And how do demos work then? Is there music, or does someone talk?

M.: Well, people often talk, they talk a lot. With translation and everything. Yeah, and then there’s a lot of music playing. And the demos themselves – sometimes they’re big, and other times very small.

P.: Can you think of a slogan that’s often called out there?

M. (thinks briefly): O làlà, o lélé, solidarité… alek, alek? De sans-papiers!

P.: Yes… avec les sans-papiers! In French, right?

M: Yeah…

P.: What would you like to do again with Women in Exile if you could choose, if you had a wish?

M: A trip! A tour! I’d go on one straight away!

P: Where to? What would you most like to do?

M.: Oooh… well, first of all, I think I’d go on a bus tour with a raft tour. In case anyone’s afraid of water, like. And then Hamburg, Munich… see a bit of Germany.

P.: Uh-huh, OK… Is there anything else you’d like to say for the book, for Women in Exile?

M.: First of all, happy birthday, pre-dated. So, er, yeah.

P.: OK, thanks a lot for the interview.

M.: You’re welcome.

P: Bye!

M.: See ya!

“Friendship means having someone in your heart” Conversations Among the Friends

Excerpt from pages 150–162 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

This text is composed of voices from a few of the Friends of Women in Exile who were active in the past or at the time of writing. These were in response to a questionnaire and compiled afterwards.

Women in Exile & Friends consists of both “Friends” and “Supporters”. What are their tasks and activities?

Chrissy: Supporters are there more irregularly for support. Some Supporters are there for one action and others who support again and again for years at different meetings or actions. The tasks range from cooking, childcare, graphic design for flyers, translating at meetings and events to helping with shifts at the information stand and setting up for actions and events. For example, I first joined as a Supporter. I got to know the group through a workshop and then went to the “Women Breaking Borders” conference. They were looking for Supporters for the cooking and I signed up for it. As I was quite impressed and found the work very important, I joined the 2018 bus tour as a driver for a week. After that, I sometimes assisted with cooking and childcare and after a few months I was asked if I would like to be active in the Poli group. Being in the Poli group means being a friend and organising together as Women in Exile & Friends. It is always important not to be too dominant as a friend, because the experiences and needs of the refugee women are at the centre and they know best and are the experts on their own situations.

Annette: Friends – roughly I would say those who regularly participate in joint meetings of the active women of Women in Exile & Friends and take part in discussions, contribute their own content and offer their supportive skills. They belong more to the group of Friends. With them, Women in Exile also organises joint weekends for reflection, discussion on solidarity cooperation, on different topics and planning new actions.

Antonia: Friends have multiple roles. Women in Exile & Friends form a network, some see it as a family (…). Informal links are also formed within this network. Being a Friend of Women in Exile can be very different. I took part in meetings and contributed my ideas. At times I was a regular at the project house in Potsdam. Office duties, support in organising events and public relations were among my tasks. (…) In a time when I took a step back, I cooked for the group only sporadically and saw myself more as a Supporter. Being a Friend needs more commitment.

Chrissy: A typical task for Friends is, for example, to register demos and actions with the police. Since we don’t have to worry about this because of our residence status, we can use our privileges in this way. Especially those Friends who are native speakers of German and socialised in the German system find it (usually) much easier to take on these tasks or to communicate with the authorities.

How and when did it start that Friends joined the political orga group of Women in Exile?

Peer: When I moved to Berlin in 2003, I met Women in Exile again and again at various demos, meetings and rallies. Since such anti-racist actions were still quite small and stood out 20 years ago, we soon got to know each other personally and started talking. I had met other self-organised refugee groups in different contexts before—such as FiB (Flüchtlinginitiative Berlin Brandenburg), which were mostly very cis-male dominated—but not a self-organised group of refugee women*. I learned that Women in Exile was lacking in financial and other resources at that time. And so, as a white person who had previously been organised mainly in white-dominated, queer, and anti-racist contexts, I tried to support the group by organising solidarity parties, applying for funding, registering demos, finding suitable and free spaces, and so on. For the regular meetings of the refugee women*, friends and I took over childcare and sometimes also cooking or translating. It was clear to me that I, as a white non-refugee person, would not be involved in the content. I had experienced many “anti-racist” groups and no-border camps in the past that were dominated by non-refugee whites. I still remember how, after a few years, some refugee activists asked at a meeting what it would be like if the structure of Women in Exile opened up to non-refugees. And so the idea slowly developed to open some meetings also to Friends who had been able to get to know the group and its political struggles as supporting persons for a longer period of time.

What was/is your motivation to be active in Women in Exile & Friends?

Antonia: A friend told me about Women in Exile & Friends in 2011. The initiative had only recently been formed and was still open to other Friends, Ffriends without a history of flight. She mentioned names. I knew one of the initiators of Women in Exile, Florence, from another context. I had admired her moderation at an event I had co-organised on HIV/Aids. The friend told me more. The goal of Women in Exile is: women out of the camps. My first thought was that it is generally inhumane to house people in these camps – including men. But I was very curious about the organisation of women refugees, a structure without male dominance. I came from the white-dominated women’s* and lesbian movement and from anti-racist contexts, the latter often dominated by men. I liked the fact that refugee women* organised themselves autonomously, it attracted me.

Annette: After different approaches to participate in mixed structures ([white Germans, lesbian – so far mainly active in women*/lesbian contexts) (refugees, BIPoC, white – mainly male dominated), I met the women* of Women in Exile & Friends. My heart went out to them! Women* who organise themselves, who plan joint actions with women* in solidarity. I thought that was great and I was thrilled by how open, fun and empowering the women* were with each other. If I already found it important to practice practical solidarity together with “affected people”, I also found a women*’s -context in Women in Exile & Friends. As a lesbian and woman* with experience of sexualised discrimination, I had organised myself autonomously, so I also saw a common ground in this. Here I had the impression of finding a place where I could organise myself again with women*. Women* who are self-organised, who formulate what they need, what solidarity can look like without being dominated. They gave me the space to bring in my competence and to learn practical solidarity in a self-organised group of women*. I wanted to take up this challenge. I also liked the fact that the organisation was very close to the needs and possibilities of the women. So everyone paid attention to translation, childcare was organised, topics were worked out according to the needs of the women.

How do you see your role as a Friend or Supporter? What does Friend mean to you?

Petra: I was active as a Friend of Women in Exile for several years, starting around 2010. After a big meeting in Jena, meetings for Women in Exile & Friends started in Berlin. For me as a friend, these were beautiful, exciting, refreshing and challenging. I have fond memories of this time. There was little money or other official resources, but a lot of drive, friendliness and improvisational talent. Working with women* who have such great differences in access to privilege and have had such different experiences in their lives was also difficult. This gradually became apparent to me in our sometimes contradictory assessments of goals, importance, expressions and vulnerabilities. An example of this is what the term Friend means in this context. For some it meant a Supporter, for others a political comrade with her own and divergent political goals, for some both, and much more. In my mind, this discussion is still not over and currently I think that this question will remain as long as there are such different and unjust distributions of privileges. It was painful for me to realise that in a racist world, as a white woman*, I was also contributing to racist structures again and again, even without wanting to.

Antonia: In my role as a Friend, I have always supported refugee women* on a personal level. I helped them find a lawyer or a flat, went with individuals to the immigration office or wrote letters. I call this task support. I have become even more aware of how unique each person is, how diverse all of our stories and life plans are. For me in my role as a Ssupporter, this means that we have to look very closely to understand what each woman needs. Assumptions of commonalities and differences must always be questioned. I am constantly confronted with my own prejudices and racism. Occasionally I find myself trying to define what refugee women are like. I look for group characteristics that do not exist. Sometimes I also assume commonalities that don’t exist.

Peer: For me as a trans* person, the English gender-neutral word “Friends” fits perfectly. I see how the term “Friends” and also the role can be filled in terms of content as an ongoing and changing process. Over the years we have tried out different things, discarded them and found new ones. We have tried to reflect and change criticism of our dominant behaviour and the stress we caused. I think it is important to mention that many – but not all – of the Friends were/are white. Being a Friend for me personally means being “allied”. This can mean private friendships within the group. But also in the political sense: from different perspectives and with different privileges, to fight together for similar goals, to reflect, to argue and to continue to organise together despite some differences.

How do you experience organising together with Women in Exile & Friends (as a Friend) and what challenges did you face?

Annette: Basically, there are many difficulties and conflicts in every long-term organisation. This is also the case with Women in Exile & Friends. They are also based on the fact that we are busy and confronted with very many issues at the same time. The very different women, with different experiences of flight, different backgrounds, the situation and conditions of being here, the different languages, experiences of racism, sexualised violence and much more. The supporters without refugee experience (both white and BIPoC), are also different in their political orientation, privileges, the challenges of dealing with racism, experiences of sexualised violence, language, etc. What is the real situation? What does each individual have to deal with on a daily basis? What motivation does everyone have to organise? How do we approach things? What does everyone bring to the table? How respectfully do we treat each other? How do we address difficult issues? How do we criticise? AND above all, what do we draw strength from, what inspires us? What does everyone need? How do we manage to include all these differences in the common organisation? To be able to keep all these issues apart, to reassemble them, to find some kind of structure or space so that all this has its right to be seen – that is a huge challenge! The different composition and expectations also bring conflicts that we often could not manage. Often the need to act outwardly (events, demonstrations, resistance actions) prevailed and a “minimal consensus” was enough to do so. There was often a lack of clarity about whether we wanted to go into depth, into reflection and take our time. Sometimes a mutual mistrust remained, some questions remained unanswered, and sometimes women stayed away without us asking them to find out what their reason was. Sometimes conflicts were not talked about openly either, for better or worse.

Peer: I have been organising in political groups for over 30 years. Unfortunately, I have often seen them break down because of conflicts over different personal and political views. What I find very special about Women in Exile & Friends is that despite various challenges, the group continues to exist. Of course, I don’t always agree with the way we deal with conflicts and I think it is important to reflect a lot more together, especially when members leave the group because of a conflict. I think it’s often a balancing act not to get completely stuck in arguments and lose sight of the political activities and goals. However, neither is it the other way round to hold activism so high and refuse to reflect promptly on, for example, LGBTIQ-discriminating statements. I am organised as a white queer trans* person in Women in Exile & Friends because, despite everything, I have found more commonalities than divisions in the past 20 years: activism in Women in Exile & Friends is not limited to attending a group once a week and organising a demo twice a year. The resistance is everyday, is political AND personal. It starts with the organisation of supportive housing for women* threatened with deportation, continues with the mobilisation of refugee women* in Brandenburg camps and doesn’t stop when Nazis destroy our bus in Cottbus after an 8th of March demonstration. The group welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds, and the toddlers from back then are now standing with others at the summer camp organised by Women in Exile at Oranienplatz, providing food for 300 people. I still see it as a great challenge to create an intersectional perspective, i.e. to think about different forms of discrimination, to respect our differences and to find common ground in them. In 2021, for example, there were two awareness-raising workshops on LGBTIQ, more are to follow and I would like to see that in the future there will continue to be enough time to learn a discrimination-critical attitude in relation to various forms of privilege.

How are these power imbalances and different privileges of the Friends and the refugee women, who are often in precarious life situations, dealt with in the group?

Chrissy: Apart from the fact that we as Friends reflect for ourselves personally, “rules” or guidelines for the joint organisation were also derived from problematic experiences. For example, no more Friends than refugee women should be present at meetings. Friends should not take up too much space at the meetings, e.g. they should pay attention to how many speaking shares they have at a meeting. We also try to meet with all Friends every few months to reflect, exchange and share our experiences when new Friends join. The women with refugee histories also have meetings without Friends to have space to reflect on the joint organising.

Have the role and tasks of the Friends changed over the years and how?

Peer: I think so. In the beginning, the Friends had a lot of knowledge about resources and access to certain political structures. The group of refugee women* at the biweekly Poli meetings (Poli means politics) could often be counted on one hand and the Friends were sometimes outnumbering them. In the organisation of the first larger summer actions lasting several days/weeks, we Friends had a very large share of responsibility and, in my opinion, were also too present in public. In the meantime, there are 30 activists in the Poli group, only a small part of whom are Friends, and the majority of the people working in the Women in Exile office are refugee activists. Women in Exile is now a better known group than it was ten or 20 years ago. There are more resources, such as a dedicated meeting space, the children’s collective Kiko for childcare, donations, places like the Oyoun or Aquarium that provide spaces for larger meetings. This may have made organising political resistance, independent of Friends’ knowledge of access points, a little easier. And we can focus more on working together on content.

Do you think that your time in the group influenced your later political activities and who you are as a person? In what way?

Peer: I was particularly influenced by the raft tour in 2014, when Women in Exile & Friends was invited by Heinz Ratz and his band “Strom und Wasser” to travel across Germany for seven weeks and to set up an information table at his concerts in the evenings. Since Women in Exile & Friends had hardly any financial resources and was also hardly known nationwide, we improvised from day to day. If the band (mainly white men) got a great catering and good sleeping places, we (a group of refugee women*, their children and a few Friends) hoped for donations to pay for the next dinner and the rented minibus. When we were tired after a long day on the raft and subsequent visits to camps to mobilise refugee women*, we went to the concert stage in the evening to ask the audience for sleeping places for our group. I learned to remain more relaxed and confident during this and other larger and smaller actions, which I would hardly have thought possible from my previous political socialisation. And to trust that we will achieve a good goal in the end. I will also never forget how unrelaxed some of us Friends were when in the summer of 2018, on a bus tour, it was spontaneously decided to dare an illegal border crossing into Switzerland to the climate camp. One refugee activist said to us, “Do you think we had the press and a lawyer with us at the time when we fled to your country?”

What advice would you give to other activists without a refugee background who want to organise with activists with a refugee history?

Annette: It is important to always question: Am I open? Do I see myself from the perspective of a support person without refugee experience? Do I reflect on my privileges, do I reflect on my own behaviour? Can I perceive and communicate my own boundaries? Do I myself have an open mind, see differences as a challenge by which we can learn from each other? For example, knowing that everyone has competencies and life experiences that can be very different from mine. To engage with them without judging, but listening and appreciating.

Peer: If you want to organise an event or a meeting, make sure that the framework conditions are right: Childcare, food, travel costs, is there public transport on that day/time, sleeping places, etc.?

Annette: Make sure there are good translations, plan space and time for this. At larger meetings, form small groups in between with the same focus and/or similar composition, so that women can talk in what they consider a “safe space”, different opinions on a topic can arise and women in small groups are more likely to have their say.

Conversation with Almut about Women in Exile & Friends

Excerpt from pages 163–166 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

I’ve never really defined myself as a “Friend”, partly because I joined Women in Exile before the Friends as a support structure came about. I simply consider myself a companion who joins in in particular situations, on particular topics. My first contact with Women in Exile was in the autumn of 2008. That’s when I began working in the office of the Brandenburg Refugee Council, where I took on the management. I was mostly in touch with Bethi. Women in Exile were not yet an association at that time and therefore had no opportunity to apply for funding for their activities, so the applications for workshops or meetings went through the Refugee Council. I myself only had dealings with Bethi, who looked after the bills and invoices. Our first encounter wasn’t quite so fortunate (laughs) because Bethi brought me a shoebox full of receipts. I was totally annoyed and wanted the receipts pasted on paper and pre-sorted, and Bethi was annoyed by my demand because that’s the way it had been done up till then. Fortunately, this unspoken conflict was quickly resolved. (laughs)

At the time, Women in Exile were a purely voluntary initiative and the women* who were active were dedicated and tireless. I’m thinking primarily of Bethi and Florence. The other women*, some of whom are still involved today, were often only there sporadically. That’s why I felt it was nothing short of a sea change when the association was finally established after a very long process. Being able to get grants and funds and receive donations made so many things possible: to rent an office, set up paid positions, etc. It was a big step forward for the organization because there were now full-time employees who could put many hours a week into campaign work and preparing meetings. Women in Exile became more visible, with a higher public profile. So much more was possible because the time and financial resources were available.

Another big leap in its development, alongside the founding of the association in 2011, was before that – I think in 2010 – when the meetings began that later led to the emergence of Women in Exile & Friends. I was very sceptical at first because I thought: yeah, yeah, the Berlin women* are coming again to show the refugee women* how things have to be done. I then took part in a meeting at the home in Luckenwalde and cooked for everyone. And then I sat down with them. I found the open and respectful way of dealing with one other extremely pleasant. There was a lot of positive energy and a desire to work together at that time. When Women in Exile & Friends first came about, there were very different individual ideas and wishes for this new link-up. But there was an awareness on both sides that great care had to be taken to ensure that Women in Exile have the ultimate decision-making prerogative. The positions in the office in Potsdam should be filled at least  equally with refugee women* and Friends, as should the committees in which decisions were made.

F.: Nevertheless, there were glaring hierarchies of knowledge, as well as dominance and problematic dynamics in the history of Women in Exile.

A: By all means. And that was always one of the reasons I didn’t consider myself a Friend and didn’t want to be one either. I had the feeling that I simply knew too much about the law on associations and subsidies – about all these financial things. This knowledge per se creates a position of power. In addition, I have a dominant streak, which I’m aware of, and an urge to shape things and press ahead with them. So it was clear to me that I didn’t want to be part of Women in Exile & Friends. I simply want to accompany the whole thing selectively and pass on my knowledge wherever wanted and needed.

Since I’m not formally involved, I can’t say anything about specific dominant behaviour or situations where an advantage in knowledge was specifically linked to power aspirations. But my perception is that problematic dynamics and conflicts in organizations that go from being a political initiative to an association often take a similar course – that’s my experience, at least, from many years of working in different organizations. The development towards an association did not have only positive aspects. All of a sudden there were full-timers and volunteers. That’s always a source of tension. The full-time employees can make their livelihood entirely or at least partially through their political work, i.e. combine their political work with securing their livelihood. That’s a great privilege, but due to the scarce resources only a few positions can be set up. This produces dissatisfaction and covetousness. Which women* are given the small number of jobs? What kind of knowledge do we need within the team to be able to do the work at hand, especially all the bureaucratic things we now have to deal with?

I see another source of tension between those who’ve been involved from the beginning or for a long time – who were there when Women in Exile was a cash-strapped political initiative – and those who joined when it had access to project resources and donations. Due to the extremely precarious situation of refugee women*, I felt the conflicts in Women in Exile between employees and volunteers, for example over money, to be much sharper and more heated than in other organizations where employees and volunteers work together. But of course it also has to do with the structure of Women in Exile: the organization is open to all refugee women*, and those who come to Women in Exile and become active do so for a wide variety of reasons.

F.: Women* usually come out of sheer necessity, and yes, that influences the cooperation and the dynamics.

A.: I noticed that, too, in the phases when I had more to do with the structure. Openness to everyone means that some women* come just to get support when they need it but have no interest in organizing together beyond that. Others, due to their situation, simply don’t have the energy to be involved more and in the long term. As for the conflicts, so far they’ve always been resolved, no matter how strenuous they were for everyone. Some of them flare up again and again. I don’t know Women in Exile without problems (laughs). But I know that from other organizations too – I think it’s just part of there being arguments, different interests and friction. That’s part of it. I’ve also noticed that many women* are still on board. That’s a good sign, I think. And I find it admirable when I see how long many of the women* have been around.

Incidentally, I can think of another, third leap in development. I wasn’t able to really follow it because of the pandemic, but the opening of the space in Hermannstrasse is also an important step. Having one’s own premises creates opportunities to meet and work together – opportunities that didn’t exist like that in the past. It used to be much more time-consuming and difficult.

F.: Can you say something again about the role of the Friends?

A.: Women in Exile & Friends is devised so that the Friends provide support and thus help shape ongoing activities but are always prepared to rally behind the refugee women*, especially when there are differences of opinion. That, at least, is the agreement as I know it. As a Friend, you can have real input or propose methods, but if it doesn’t resonate with Women in Exile you can’t impose it. Then you have to decide for yourself as a Friend: “Do I share that, are there political differences, or are there simply different prioritizations? Can I keep working with Women in Exile and doing what I’ve done so far, or do I no longer feel comfortable?” And then perhaps we’ll part company again. Just like refugee women* leave Women in Exile when they realize there isn’t enough overlap for them. Still, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that proportionately more Friends have left than Women in Exile. To me, the Friends have been very important because Women in Exile wouldn’t be where it is today if it hadn’t been for the support and commitment of the Friends over the years. But it seems to me, after so many years of experience and so many years of organizing together, that the role of the Friends has become less significant and more blurred. I really hope the Friends become superfluous one day. I think that would be really great. It would be a whole new position of strength.

Kinderbetreungs-Kollektiv Berlin

Excerpt from pages 167–175 of our book „Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

What role do Women in Exile and other groups play for us?

Iman: I don’t know. We’re actually here for them, but we also learn a lot and gain lots of experience, and all the knowledge we’ve acquired over time comes from childcare situations and communication with groups, and it’s always an opportunity for us to test what we’ve thought up. The ideas we develop in the process only come about through what we experience there. In that sense, maybe Women in Exile help keep us going. If they didn’t have at least one meeting a month, and sometimes more at short notice, we wouldn’t be able to get so much up and running – we’d definitely do a lot less childcare because, even if we didn’t have it, I don’t think we’d take on so many other things.

Do you see our childcare as having different significance in different contexts?

Iman: With Women in Exile, for example, I think some things wouldn’t work so well without childcare, while with others it’s less relevant if we’re there or not – because there are few children in the group anyway, because few people with children or few parents are in the group, or because few parents are actually approached. And yes, it also depends on whether, for example, Women in Exile has a meeting or something, where they’re fleshing out details, like, or if it’s a lecture, a reading or a panel discussion, where it’s a shame for the individuals if they can’t take part but basically of no real relevance for the work of the group. And then we kind of get the feeling that we’re being asked to provide childcare because it looks cool, not because it’s really needed and wanted.

What wishes do you have for Kiko and our cooperation with WiE?

Iman: I hope there will be more of us, and that we’ll become more practiced and experienced and gain even more knowledge about what we do. I hope the agreements with Women in Exile will work better and that we’ll always have enough people for their events, and that we’ll continue to build up relationships to the children and the parents who are there regularly, and I also hope that children, parents, childcare… that it will kind of become natural to think about it when you organize events or groups, and that it won’t be so hard to arrange it, and that it will be easier as a parent to be political despite having a child.

Gisela Notz: An extraordinary relationship

Excerpt from pages 177–178 of our book „Breaking Borders to Build Bridges“ available through Edition Assemblage

Gisela Notz is a social scientist and historian. She researches and teaches on women*, the labour market, family and social policy, alternative economics and historical women’s* studies. The situation of refugee women* is particularly near to her heart. She was able to support them through her work on the board of trustees of the Bewegungsstiftung foundation (2002-2014) as well as through her activities in the Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination.

Bethi asked me to write a few words about our “unusual relationship” of 10 years’ standing. Yes, perhaps it is unusual, but it’s also extraordinary. It was indeed ten years ago that there was to be a party in a forest lodge in Brandenburg – I don’t remember exactly where – and a friend from my political circles “took me along” because he thought Women in Exile, as a group of refugee women*, would interest me as a feminist. Bethi was one of the founders and has been a friend ever since, and Women in Exile is one of my favourite projects. I still remember the small lectures and arguments with the women* who would later become Women in Exile & Friends. Back then, as today, the focus of attention was on the degrading conditions in the Lagers, healthcare and the violence women* are subjected to. After the party, Bethi and her friends visited our women’s* project, showed films and discussed with the women*, who thus received information that was previously inaccessible to them. One or another of the women* was certainly gained as a supporter. What impressed me most was that you never lose heart; you don’t just lament individual fates but also denounce the structures of the asylum system that need to be changed.

We also met at the demonstrations for International Women’s* Day on 8th of March and at the Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination, where you present your concerns on an ongoing basis. One experience I remember is when we picked you up after the boat tour in the summer of 2014 and partied with you at SO36. Several of you stayed the night with us in Beginenhof and we were able to have breakfast in the sunshine on the roof-deck the next morning. I was really proud of you when you were awarded taz’s Panther Prize in the autumn of 2014 and Bethi and her fellow activists convinced the crowded hall of your formidable work with their emotional acceptance speech. After all, I felt it was a gift to be able to accompany your project over a long period through my involvement in Bewegungsstiftung. Our cooperation has also given me courage and strength for my own work. I just watched the documentary about life in the Lagers during the Corona pandemic again and found that it confirms your key demand: “Abolish all Lagers!” I’m sure our work together will go on because the goal of a just society without exclusion and discrimination, with equal rights for all people, no matter where they come from and where they are going, has not yet been achieved. We will keep fighting until then: For everyone! No borders!

Pro Bleiberecht: Women in Exile on tour through Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

Excerpt from pages 179–180 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges” available through Edition Assemblage

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (M-V) is a large German state with a relatively small population. Apart from Rostock, Greifswald and Schwerin, there are almost only small towns, so A and B are far apart. The locals don’t talk much and like to maintain social distancing – even before Corona they did. Silence is a frequent companion in everyday life. In M-V, asylum seekers are forced to live in outlying areas, on the outskirts or in remote towns. Entrenched Nazi structures and everyday racism (from abuse through to attacks) are just as much a problem as the restrictive immigration authority and the entanglement of the police and the Interior Ministry in the right-wing prepper scene. Those who fight against racism in M-V often don’t know where to start. Women in Exile visited M-V in the summer of 2021 and brought the answer with them: we’ll start right here and now. Without compromises, loud and in mutual solidarity. A Nazi obstructs the Solibus with his car and shouts abuse? No problem, 20 women* are louder. Someone photographs the group without asking first? No problem, the photos are deleted before he knows it. The cops ban a spontaneous rally in front of the state parliament? No problem, it takes place anyway. People in a nearby cafe next door are annoyed by a rally? No problem, they get to hear more. Woman* power means taking space. Woman* power also means giving yourself the space you need – like in empowerment workshops held in several towns or in front of the Nostorf-Horst transitional Lager for asylum seekers, in Rostock, Jördenstorf, Karnitz, Stubbendorf, Frankenthal and Greifswald.

This is rare in M-V and has visibly bolstered women* of colour and women* with experience in Lagers as spokeswomen* – those who impart knowledge. Supporting each other, sharing advice and experience, exchanging ideas and becoming aware of our own rights can give us a most beneficial and energizingimpetus. But we never lose sight of the great goal of a society without oppression. Together with the newly founded group, WiE/M-V, we now face the challenge of enhancing Women in Exile’s impetus. We returned from the joint tour with many lasting impressions, yet with a lot of questions about what Women in Exile’s woman* power will look like in a large, conservative state far away from urban areas, especially in terms of our common struggle. More important than all ruminations is the courage to believe in change. The conviction that our struggles will overcome the injustices.

Voices from participants of “Feminist Connect”

Excerpt from page 182 of our book “Breaking Borders to Build Bridges”, available through Edition Assemblage

“For me it was the first time I went away on a trip with my son alone and stayed overnight. I was afraid we’d have to leave again if he didn’t like it. The three days here were a valuable experience for me. I’ve learned that every woman* has something she can teach or help others with. That gave me courage.”

“It’s incredibly rewarding to be in one place with so many different women* and get to know them.”

“I think events like this are opportunities for us to learn and find out how to break down the borders between us.”