“The media will change, but it will always need people” – Q&A with Martin Klingst

by Lisa Maria Krause and Jennifer Selby

Martin Klingst is a retired journalist and political commentator from Germany. After studying law, he became a transatlantic correspondent for media outlets such as NDR, Deutsches Allgemeines Sonntagsblatt, and Die Zeit. He has also worked as the Head of Strategic Communication for the German president. Lisa Maria Krause and Jennifer Selby talked with Klingst about his journey into the profession, the current state of journalism, and what AI means for the future of the media.

How did you get into journalism?

It was by serendipity. I am a full-trained lawyer – I was always interested in law and politics and also in foreign affairs. While I was assisting a professor at the University of Hamburg to write political commentaries, he told me that I might make a good journalist. I applied for an internship at the North German Broadcasting Corporation and got rejected at first, but then secured a two-week apprenticeship and a job there shortly afterwards. I didn’t stay very long because I found a newspaper that was looking for a lawyer as a legal commentator. From there, I went into foreign affairs. I covered the Balkan Wars, then became their senior political editor, before I changed to Die Zeit, Germany’s largest weekly paper.

What was your first experience like in the United States?

In 1971/72, I was an exchange student with Youth for Understanding. At the time, I didn’t know very much about the United States. We all gathered in a little college in Michigan, and most of the exchange students found out they would stay in the Midwest. They said to me, “Martin, you’re gonna go to Colorado.” There was a big map and somebody asked, “do you like to ski?”. I said, “yes”. “Oh, that’s great because you’ll live close to the Rocky Mountains”. I stayed there for a year. I only called my family once at Christmas because it was horribly expensive. You had to call an operator and wait for about two hours to be connected. So, we just wrote letters. It took about 14 days. Between my letter and the answer, there were at least four weeks.

And later you wanted to go back… 

Yes, I went back a couple of times. In 2006, I went to Harvard, where I was a fellow for a short time. That was a year before I knew I was going to be the US correspondent for my paper. I was a political editor for 10 years, and then I became a correspondent for seven years, based in Washington D.C.

How has journalism changed since you started in the field?

When I was in the United States, from 2007 to 2014, there was a big media crisis. Especially a crisis of print media. A lot of local papers closed or were forced to close because of a lack of revenue. Others went just digital. I saw how devastating the situation was, and it has not become much better. Some papers have progressed. I think The New York Times is doing fairly well. But others are struggling. I just heard today that the Washington Post is also still struggling, even though they have their big owner, Jeff Bezos. 

What is the cause of this?

I think it’s a total change of behavior and reception of the media. Print papers are probably going to die, but digital subscriptions might work better. People are more on the internet. They read bits and pieces, not a whole paper. In former times, you looked at the paper and you were surprised to read this and that. People nowadays tend to look for specific things.

Another problematic thing is what you see in the United States: even news is becoming more like entertainment than just information. I think this is feeding partisanship. People tend to watch or listen to news in order to picture their own opinion. They don’t look for others’. This is a tendency I’m a bit afraid of, because it narrows the field of opinion.

Do you think this impacts the way journalists report news?

Yes, I think there’s nothing like a totally objective or neutral view because everyone is formed by his own biography, by the things he sees and the things that matter to him or her. But I at least always try to step back and look at things a second or third time and ask, ‘is my opinion right? Are the facts right?’ Pure analysis or fact telling is on the decrease. This is something I sometimes regret. When I look at TikTok or other social media it’s about influencing, about advertising opinions, showing trends and personalizing or emotionalising things.

How critical or independent would you say journalists are nowadays?

I think they’re critical. I think independence is something that is probably threatened – mainly by big media companies. When I look, for example, at Murdoch’s empire and see how they try to frame political messages and what kind of journalists they employ; I think this is critical. I still remember when Tony Blair became Prime Minister of Great Britain, how he tried to become friends with the Murdoch family because they were so influential in the British media and he knew that he probably could not win without creating some kind of relationship. This is very problematic.

Do you think there should be greater restrictions on who can call themselves a journalist?

Well, it’s not a protected profession, so everyone can call themselves a journalist. I would not change that. It’s different when you are a doctor or a lawyer and you need to know the basics. As a journalist I can go wrong and say ‘I’m a photographer now’ because I know how to handle a camera. But no, I would not start creating some kind of basic criteria that would exclude people. I think this could be dangerous. I think that the good ones will succeed, the bad ones will fail.

Do you think that’s true, given what you said about journalists becoming more partisan?

No, there is a downside to what I said. It’s not only true that only the good ones succeed and the bad ones fail. There’s also a lot that I would consider bad and partisan that succeed, as you can see now. Especially in the United States, where the media has become so biased, and the talk shows are just campaigners. Take for example Tucker Carlson and his fight with Fox News. It’s awful that they replicated the lies and said that Trump actually won, even though they knew that was false. But it was welcomed and it paid and I think this is just terrible.

How has technology changed journalism? 

You see dramatic changes. I think a lot of journalists nowadays need to multi-task. They have to write. They might use a video camera, they have to be on social media and advertise what they’re doing. This is a trend you probably cannot stop, but it sometimes also threatens the focus on something. When I was based in Washington, D.C., my paper asked me to videotape my interviews. I started doing that and then stopped because the moment I used the camera, people were not talking as openly anymore or were correcting themselves. When they talk just with a tape recorder or you write down what they’ve said, they’re more open. 

How does AI such as ChatGPT change journalism, especially for those who want to become journalists?

I think that some parts of the media will be taken over by artificial intelligence. Probably the news, also some analytical articles. I think what will not be substituted by AI is features because you need someone that goes out, looks at people, travels, and tells what he sees. We cannot foresee what happens in the future. It could be good, but in any case it will dramatically change the profession.

Could AI even increase the need for journalists?

Oh yes, certainly. AI will have failures. AI is only as good as the data it’s fed with. I think it’s also very important to see who is feeding the data. Is it only white men that feed the data, or do you also have women feeding the data? Do you have a diverse range of people? Because different people will look at things differently, and have different data. It’s a different algorithm that comes out when you also have women and people of color and other minority groups. I think this is also very important for the media to look at: who’s the master of the data.

Is there any advice that you’d give to young journalists just starting their careers? 

Don’t let yourself be threatened by the difficulties. The media will always be there. It will change, but it will always need people: bright people, people that are independent and don’t take for granted what others tell them. Self-criticism is also essential. In my time working as the Head of Strategic Communication for the German president, I learned some humility. I saw how difficult political decisions are, that politicians have to balance many different interests and often come to a compromise because in the end they cannot satisfy everyone. As a journalist, you should always consider that they’re not only stupid on the other side. It’s good to step in the other’s shoes in order to get a better insight. This is what I would like to tell my journalist friends: don’t draw conclusions too easily.

Dealing With War, Away From War: Ukrainians freeing themselves from Russian culture, but caught in clashes with Russians in Berlin

A feature story by Nanna Christ Kiil Johansen

A Ukrainian flag is waving from the roof of Berlin’s Bode Museum. (Johansen)

Julia has been speaking Russian her whole life. Perhaps even more than Ukrainian, despite the fact that she has lived her whole life in Kyiv, the heart of Ukraine. Until February 2022.

“Why do I have to talk in Russian?” she asks rhetorically and firmly continues: “It’s not my mother tongue. It’s not the language of my country. It’s the language of my enemies.”

In a café in Berlin-Mitte, the young Ukrainian is now sitting with the view of the Spree, Bode Museum and its waving Ukrainian flag behind her. The war in Julia’s home country seems far away but is far from forgotten. Here, about 1400 kilometers from the war, she can and will not avoid the effects of it.

Julia, 34, has up until fleeing her war-torn home country, worked professionally in the promotion of national Ukrainian food, within Ukraine and internationally. Promoting the deep red colored beet soup borscht meant creating awareness for Ukrainian culture: “Even Ukrainians didn’t know much about the culture and the food,” Julia explains and continues: “the tragedy is that I also don’t know a lot about my country.” As in other cases of blurred Ukrainian heritage, the iconic soup has been mistaken for originating in the whole of the USSR, however a recent recognition from UNESCO now acknowledges Ukraine’s deep links to the dish.

Not only does Julia consider her cultural heritage in her professional life. After the Russian invasion, she is determined to empower Ukrainian culture in her personal life, taking a stand through boycotting the Russian language she grew up speaking.

Instead, Julia insists on speaking her native language. If she wouldn’t, she is afraid that “nobody in the world would speak Ukrainian, because only Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian,” she says. An act she finds small, but one that seems to be the only thing she can do.

However, Julia is not alone in her movement. Since the outbreak of the war, Ukraine has been making a break with its engraved Russian culture. Changes have especially been seen in language and culture, where Russian street names in Ukrainian cities have been changed, Russian statues have been torn down, and the Russian language has been entirely or partly removed from schools and institutions. Most recently, last Winters’ Christmas was rescheduled from the 7th of January to the 25th of December. A clear signal to Russia that Ukraine has turned towards the West, according to Reuters.

A few German words sneak in as Julia orders a coffee for herself. She is working in a café and at the same time taking a German course, as she wants to fully integrate in the country she has chosen to settle in. Despite the warm welcome that she got when she first arrived, Julia had her doubts about staying in Germany or to pursue settling in the Netherlands or Sweden.

It all came down to the conditions for refugees and another quite surprising factor: “I’m freaked out by European transportation,” she laughs. Having to travel by train with her cat, Julia back then called a friend to share her concern of those six changes reaching Sweden would take. Her friend’s response was: “Julia, you traveled from Kyiv to Berlin. And you have a concern of changing from platform 2 to 3?”

The young woman ended up settling here in Berlin, among the thousands of other Ukrainian refugees, who have come to Germany since February 2022. According to the state of Berlin, with 380,000 registered the capital is among the cities in Germany that have taken in most of the refugees.

However, not only Ukrainians have been escaping since the outbreak of the war. Since the fall of 2022, shortly after Vladimir Putin ordered partial military mobilization in his speech on the 21st of September, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the draft that would force them to serve in the war. According to Reuters, many have fled to Germany. Though the exact number of Russians who have fled to Germany remains unclear, one thing is certain: the number of Russians in Germany is rising.

Working in a café in Berlin means international customers, and so Julia notices many languages throughout the day. However, she tends to eavesdrop when Russian is being spoken. Julia’s colleague from the café plays a game while working. It goes as follows: is the customer gay or not? Julia’s game is different: is the customer Russian or Ukrainian?

“I had a situation. One girl. She sat, drinking coffee. We began to speak,” Julia slowly describes, looking out into the room. The girl was doing homework for her German integration course, and the two of them for a moment found common ground. One that would quickly vanish. “I asked her, oh, where are you from? She said, I’m from Russia, and I said, oh, I’m from Ukraine. And she immediately changed her face.”

An innocent conversation between two young women had in the blink of an eye built up an invisible wall, due to their nationalities. Julia softens her voice: “I said; it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s safe to be here with me,” while showing how she kindly tried to calm the girl by touching her arm. But the girl was shocked and felt like she had done something terribly wrong. And so, the young Ukrainian has seen changes in the faces of several Russians in Berlin.

“For now, it’s easy to be Ukrainian. Not Russian here,” Julia says, referring to their social situation in Berlin. She also points out the Russians who are suffering from big and small sanctions, but keeps a strict look as she explains: “I’m sorry that your bank account is closed. I’m sorry that you don’t have an iTunes shop, but it’s the only way we can work with it.”

When Julia meets Russians, she is adamant about not quickly judging them. Other Ukrainian friends of hers, however, see it more “black and white”, as she describes. They are unwilling to see the person behind the nationality. Some want, out of principle, to have nothing to do with Russians here in Berlin. A silent war, one might say, far away from the actual one.

Although Julia has never personally experienced hostile attitudes from Russians, she fears that this is yet to come. She points out a specific pro-Russian demonstration in Berlin on April 3rd 2022, that has made her question Russians she meets in Berlin.

The protest aimed to draw attention to hostility towards Russians, with the participation of 900 protesters in a rally of around 400 cars, according to The Guardian. But what the protest turned out to also include, was pro-war elements.

“Hundreds of cars and flags were on the Berlin streets. They just went out to the streets with Russian flags, Soviet Union flags, Z signs on the cars.” Julia takes a quick breath and repeats demonstratively: “They were here in Berlin!”

The protest was legally organized with police presence, but at least one demonstrator was removed for showing the pro-invasion “Z” symbol, which is forbidden in the state of Berlin. The outcome for Julia was, though, to partly lose trust in the safety of her new city. “I’m afraid to meet these people here and never know who this Russian is – are they from the demonstration or who are they?” she asks worriedly.

In Berlin there are Ukrainians, Russians, Germans and all other kinds of nationalities living side by side. The sun has made its way around the Bode Museum and finally illuminates the room with a golden glow as Julia is finishing up her coffee. The warmth in the room spreads, but just around the corner, the next clash between a Ukrainian and a Russian could leave the room cold.

Energy crisis: Two traditional Berlin candy makers live close to the edge

A feature story by Lisa Maria Krause

Amid all the crises of today, Hjalmar Stecher and Katja Kolbe, founders of the Bonbonmacherei in Berlin, had to raise their prices in a shorter time frame than usual. (Krause)

Slowly, the machine turns the red sugar dough into raspberry drops. Hjalmar Stecher, owner of the Bonbonmacherei in Berlin, cranks the machine by hand, while explaining his work to the onlookers. “The candy has to be coated in powdered sugar, when it’s still hot,” he says. Most of the machines, the two-person business owns, are about 100 years old. The more “modern” ones are around 70 or 80 years old, Stecher recalls. Because of this, the shop’s energy bill has always been relatively low. Yet, the energy crisis has hit the Bonbonmacherei at Heckmannhöfe through other channels.

Sugar, flavored syrup, and water is all Stecher and his partner, Katja Kolbe, need to produce an abundance of different hard candy. Raspberry, caramel, or licorice? What brings most costumers back into the shop, located in the basement with entrance through the courtyard, are the signature recipes. They originate in Berlin. Most Berliners would recognize the taste of “Berliner Blätter” from other wood-ruff flavored candy any day. “We couldn’t keep the name Maiblätter,” Stecher explains. Another manufacturer has patented the widely recognized name for the leaf-shaped candy.

The prices for the few ingredients they need have risen drastically, influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Propelled energy prizes result in higher production costs for ingredients. “Licorice salt suddenly costs 200 percent more. Glucose syrup, too,” states Kolbe from behind the counter. Their wholesale traders charge energy and delivery fees on top of that. Due to delivery problems, those fees have persisted since the start of the pandemic.”Luckily, we only need small quantities,” Kolbe, who is co-founder of the Bonbonmacherei, explains. Last time they had to order a new charge of syrup was in the beginning of 2022. But the two-person business cannot rely on a fixed price.

They never know when or how much for the prize paid they will actually get, Kolbe notes. Because of their infrequent ingredient restocking, the prize hike is delayed. The woman describes the prizes super markets set these days as “horror”. If these are the real prices for sugar that candy makers will have to pay on their next order, the increase could have a big impact on small businesses.

The candy makers raised their own prizes twice in one year. From originally 2,25 euro until January 2022 to 2,50 euro in October per 100 grams of candy. This equals a price increase of eleven percent. “This is unusual within a short time frame,” Kolbe admits. But she cites personal extra expenses as the reason. The candy maker explains how they have always lived “knapp vor Kante”, meaning with little extra money to spare. The two don’t have much leeway, when the energy crisis and inflation influence their living expanses.

That those effects also trouble their customers, the two sweets producers mostly see it with walk-ins rather than returning customers. Their hard candy is a small treat one can still afford, Kolbe believes. Most of their patrons know what they want and stick with it.

The shop, located in the basement at Heckmannhöfe, has become an insider tip for tourists. They offer free demonstrations of their craft. (Krause)

Their customers are who keep them afloat through thick and thin. They helped the Bonbonmacherei through difficult times. Ordering with a phone call during the pandemic is one thing, though. The two-person business sells the sweets “from the stove right into the mouth,” how Kolbe explains it. “We never got as many tips as the last three years,” she adds. Not long after this statement a customer tells her to keep the change. “Passt schon,”(That’s alright) he says with a smile.

A young man in a long winter coat comes down the stairs into the shop. After browsing the shelves with different candy packed in small plastic bags for a bit, he turns to the woman behind the counter. “The selection really hasn’t changed in years,” the customer states with a surprised but pleased look. He has visited the store as a little kid with his parents and grandparents long ago, he explains later. How the Bonbonmacherei sticks to the classics, brings back memories for him. Not long after, the young man leaves with a bag full of candy to gift to his family for Christmas.

This is not an unusual occurrence, Kolbe notes. Quite often the love for the traditional Berlin taste transcends generations. She remembers a study on senses she has read before. “Sense of taste and smell is not something you loose. Those are memories that always remain somewhere,” Kolbe recalls.

The couple prides themselves in being the first who offered an open kitchen for candy making. Twice a day they demonstrate their craft, free of charge. Another way the Bonbonmacherei has turned into an insider tip for tourists. The two insist that the brass pot for melting the sugar and water mixture has to be heated over a gas driven flame. Despite this, Kolbe and Stecher have no interest in energy-saving advice.

Next to the vintage machines, the couple also uses old rolls to give the candy its signature shape. (Krause)

“Saving energy for what? Five euros a year?,” the seller retorts. There is no use in it with LED lights everywhere in the shop and barely any more energy to save, both of them believe. And yet, Kolbe reports of several energy saving consultants showing up in their shop. “They all left their business cards here,” she recounts. Consulting firms on energy-saving have reported an increased interest in their services by companies. Some say their number of on-site consultations has doubled.

The two candy makers already had to make some changes in light of the difficult situation over the past few years. Necessity certainly created the need to rethink previous structures. During the height of the pandemic, Kolbe decided to step down as co-owner of the Bonbonmacherei. Now, she is her partner’s employee. This way, she profits off the German statutory health insurance and short-term allowance. As an employee she also received 300 euro in energy prize lump sum by the government last fall. Though, that is but a mere drop in the bucket.

Political answers to the crises of today have been slow and unsteady. Especially small and midsize companies like the Bonbonmacherei seem to be overlooked. After Russia started its war against Ukraine, voices grew calling for support of the biggest energy producers in Germany. In wake of the energy crisis, the main companies driving the economy and offering jobs remained exclusively in focus. The first aid packages provided money to those companies with high energy consumption.

Only recently, attempts of support for smaller businesses have appeared on the federal state level. Despite those businesses being hit by increasing energy bills just as much as low income families. The Berlin senate offered a loan on a reduced rate to all companies and freelancers starting October 2022. This was not an option to Kolbe and Stecher. Barely any businesses took this opportunity, Stephan Schwarz, senator for economy, admitted. Though, he believes most people will be more interested in their grant program. This aid is still in the works and is expected to be implemented early 2023.

“I don’t know, whether this energy aid will apply to small and midsize companies, too. It’s not clear yet,” Kolbe comments, “Obviously, it would be nice.” The senate has yet to release clear directions whether people can apply for the financial aid online or whether companies with low energy costs are even eligible. “The question is, what is realistic? Free energy for everyone would be great, of course,” Stecher notes with a grin. His newest batch, seven kilograms of raspberry candy, is ready to be put on the shelves.

Berlin’s Cold Aid Feels the Heat as Energy Prices Soar

A feature story by Jennifer Selby

Berliner Stadtmission does not only offer a save and warm place to sleep for the homeless. The visitors also get a warm meal and can take a shower.(Selby)

You see the queue first, snaking around the corner. Then a low thrum of voices: German, Polish, Romanian, some Lithuanian, their speakers silhouetted by their breath. Security guards stand watch as battered suitcases and tattered plastic bags shuffle along their nightly route. Occasionally there is a scuffle. It is 7:45pm.

This is a familiar scene for all those who know Berliner Stadtmission’s emergency overnight shelter on Lehrter Straße, near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. Here, every evening people arrive in search of food, shelter, clothing, and medical care.

What people seek above all is warmth. However this year, it is in short supply. As temperatures plummet below zero for the first time this winter, shelters like this one are facing a “perfect storm” of rising energy costs and decreased donations, while demand for support is greater than ever.

“We are seeing demand growing across the city. More and more people are coming,” says Barbara Breuer, a spokesperson for the charity.

Berliner Stadtmission is just one in a network of non-profit organizations scrambling to provide low-threshold, around-the-clock cold aid to the estimated 2000 people facing winter on the streets of Berlin. With over 90 social projects, Berliner Stadtmission is one of the biggest social aid providers in the city.

While costs vary from project to project, the price of heating and running shelters like this one have risen by “up to 50%” from this time last year, according to Barbara. Meanwhile, cost of living pressures mean much-needed donations are at an all-time low. 

“I don’t think that the people giving to us are rich usually, they just want to do something good and help others,” says Barbara. “But if people don’t have money themselves, they can’t give it to anyone else.”

While the Senate has provided some financial relief, it doesn’t cover all the costs, and things like food, counseling and medical care rely solely on donations. According to Barbara, these are the things that make the difference.

“The people that come to us need medical care and counseling. It’s not enough to give them a key and a place to sleep on the floor if you want to get them out of their situation,” says Barbara.

Berliner Stadtmission’s main food supplier, Tafel, which provides food to 400 social facilities, food banks and cold facilities across the city, is also facing unprecedented demand, reporting “more than 100% growth at almost all distribution points”. Tafel themselves are suffering shortages from corporate donors, while they fear energy costs will make a bad situation worse.

“What we will all find very difficult to bear is the price increase that will come in the utility bills,” said Sabine Werth, chairwoman of Tafel, to RBB Inforadio this week. “I’m looking forward to very bad times again.”

The reduction in food donations puts strain on services that are already overstretched. This shelter on Lehrter Straße officially accommodates 125 people, but every night this season they have admitted closer to 160. Some people queue from 3pm to guarantee a space. Latecomers sleep on the cafeteria floor.

“Usually the busy period is between 8-11pm,” says Dasza, 25, a Berliner Stadtmission volunteer, who is shivering despite her thick waterproof jacket. “But on cold nights like this people just keep coming and coming.”

Nevertheless, Dasza explains, they cannot turn anyone away.

“We can’t leave them outside. They might freeze to death,” she says, pointing a gloved hand to a sign that reads: ‘No Drinking, No Drug Use, No Discrimination, No Knives, No Violence’.

“When it’s cold, people are more stressed and more dangerous. Often they are alcoholised, because that’s how they get by. But so long as they follow the rules, they can come in.”

Originally from Russia, Dasza is fluent in five languages. She explains her language skills are invaluable here, where many visitors don’t speak German.

“Many people don’t have documents. We have doctors and counselors here every evening and it doesn’t matter whether you have medical insurance or not.” she says, adding: “We get people here that have nowhere else to go.”

At 8pm, the doors open and the first people trickle through. From a steel kitchen counter, they collect warm potato soup in paper cups and pastries that are still good to eat. The mood thaws. There are smiles and laughter, nods of recognition. Some retreat to their regular spots along thin wooden tables. Wearier guests head straight to a church pew where they can get first in line for a bed to rest before 7am when they will be back out on the streets.

During the day, there are various services in the cold aid network that provide showers and laundry facilities as well as food, hot drinks and shelter. At these places, it is not just homeless people that are contributing to the increase in demand.

“We are seeing more people coming who have a place of residence but are on the poverty line,” says Barbara. “More people visit our hygiene stations towards the end of the month when their bills are due.”

Barbara says they have particularly seen an increase in elderly women at their city stations that provide a free hot lunch. “They have some money – they have their pension – and they used to make it work out, but they just can’t cope with the rising prices.”

Regrettably, they have had to start turning people away.

The situation is exacerbated by volunteer shortages, which drove the charity’s largest shelter by Bahnhof Zoo to drastically reduce its hours last month, on some weekends closing altogether.

Meanwhile, a fire at the air dome homeless shelter in Friedrichshain forced the urgent relocation of some 120 people.

Berliner Stadtmission has been appealing for donations in kind to redress the shortages during this period, especially food, sleeping bags, and warm winter clothing.

As the first cold deaths are reported, The Federal Working Group for Homeless Aid (BAG W) in Germany calls on municipalities to be more actively involved in protecting the homeless from the cold, and to suspend forced evictions during winter.

“The possibilities of emergency response facilities are not endless,” says Werena Rosenke, Managing Director of BAG W. “Now the municipalities are required, but also every single citizen. Together we must pay attention to those who cannot help themselves and have to live without a home or shelter. Every death is one death too many.”

Paper scarps with names and dates next to the Christmas tree commemorate people who didn’t make it.(Selby)

At the Lehrter Straße shelter, they are preparing for Christmas. Origami stars and snowflakes made from old magazines hang from exposed air ducts that line the low basement ceilings. In one corner, a heavily adorned Christmas tree brings some warmth to the room. Above it, there are scraps of A4 paper in yellow, blue and green, scribbled with names – Kathi, Aurel, Sandra, Marcin – and dates: 1980 – 2020; 24.06.2014; May 2021; 02.10.1985 – 03.05.2016.

“They are prayers for people who used to come here,” explains Dasza. “Some of them died in the queue.”

The Hopeful State of Mind of a Syrian Woman

A feature story by Merve Kartal

Widad Warrak, a Syrian single-parent refugee mother with four children, needed a great deal of resilience as she fled from the Syrian civil war in 2014 and attempted to hold on to geography she never knew. Although she no longer feels the death anxiety experienced during the civil war, she struggles to find a safe place and continue her own business, even after eight years. Still smiling hopefully: “The best things start when you say it’s over,” she said.

duvar, iç mekan, kişi içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturulduWidad’s colourful threads in he tailor’s studio give her hope for the future.

Syria has been going through one of the most severe humanitarian crises of modern times. The Syrian Civil War has caused a refugee influx of unprecedented size in Turkey’s history. According to the data published by the Ministry of Interior Presidency of Migration Management of Turkey, the number of Syrians under temporary protection status registered in Turkey was 3 million 764 thousand 193 people as of June 9, 2022. Widad Warrak, 43, born in Aleppo is just one of them.

As of June, 9 – There are 3,764,193 Syrian refugees.

Source: Ministry of Interior Presidency of Migration Management of Turkey

Widad begins to tell me about the journey she embarked on in fear not knowing where they were going with her three children aged three, six, 14 at the time, and her sick mother, 62, by reminding me that journeys don’t always start with joy and inspiration.

Her struggle started at the age of 12 when she was working in many different jobs, from candy coating to the production of hair clips. She says that she separated from her husband, whom she married at the age of 21 because he was a person who was not aware of his responsibilities and did not take care of his family. She describes the moment when the situation in Aleppo started to get difficult day by day and she decided to flee to Turkey.

“I was both afraid and worried when I went to work because I had to take care of my mother and children by myself. Has my house been raided? Someone bombed? My six-year-old son passed away in Syria and my older brother died in the war. The increase in cases of abuse and rape against girls pushed me to decide to protect my family, which is why I left the country.”

From Aleppo, Syria to Ankara, Turkey in 2014

harita içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturuldu

At a time when she could not even access basic needs such as water, electricity, food, and she was in a position where life was becoming impossible, she sold the things from her destroyed house and set out for Turkey: “We found someone who would drop us off the Turkish border with the money of the things we sold.”

During the three-day journey, Widad and her family took refuge in Turkey illegally because the borders were closed. They slept in the streets, in mosques, and on benches. A new adventure has just begun with a country she never knew before, a language she never knew to speak, and the family members for whom she is responsible. As for the most difficult moment during the migration: “When my children were hungry, I could not say to them, ‘be a bit more patient, we will eat when we get home’. Because we had no home to go to and no food to eat,” she stated.

ağaç, açık hava, kişi, poz içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturulduImage: Widad of private

Her daughter and son 4 months after arriving in Turkey in 2014.

In this process, when I asked Widad, who only talked about her concerns about her children and mother, what her concerns were about herself, “I never thought of myself.” she answered by remembering the past.

Widad’s most difficult time began after she crossed the border. She says that when they crossed the border and travelled to Ankara by different sorts of transportation, almost all their financial resources were over: “With our remaining money, we could only rent a house where we could live. When we reached Ankara, we had only our clothes and a roof over us.”

She had a hard time choosing words to describe her feelings on the first day in Turkey: “I was in pain of losing my little son and big brother, and I had lost all I had been trying to establish with years of effort.” And recurring questions in her mind are, “How will I take care of my children and my mother in a country whose language we do not know and whose people I do not know? Where will we live? Will we have a home? What will happen to my children’s education? What future awaits us?”

When I asked her why she preferred to come to Ankara, “We always heard that living conditions in Ankara were easier,” she said. “We thought that we could get help from each other because we knew that there were more Syrians here.” It happened like that. Over time, they have begun to meet people who can help them. The new people they met have supported them by giving the staff they don’t have at their home.

According to the normal procedure in Turkey, a refugee who has a valid residence permit in Turkey for 5 years, can apply for citizenship. Widad, who has not yet gotten citizenship and has been living in temporary protection status, emphasized that becoming a citizen is not easy, but also talked about how it gives confidence to their children to school with their current identity cards and to benefit from health and security services.

Widad has begun to meet people over time, although not until she arrived in Turkey. Then she had the opportunity to start learning Turkish. She described the moment when she felt comfortable for the first time as the first day she started working as a tailor in her workplace. Widad’s problem with the language barrier and the lack of equivalence which caused her inability to be employed as a nurse, her real profession, is only one of the most common problems of people who had to immigrate. She decides to establish her own tailor’s studio in Turkey because Syrian people have been forced to work for longer periods for lower wages.

According to the data of the General Directorate of Migration Management, 31% of Syrians have a work permit, at least half of which have established their own company. Widad is among the Syrians who started their own business. First, she set up two sewing machines in her own house and started to sew and sell clothes.

A short time later, upon the advice of her close friend, she attended the Micro Business Game Training organized for entrepreneur refugees. After understanding the meaning of thinking like an entrepreneur and learning basic accounting principles and main financial tools, she expanded her own business with debt financing and created employment opportunities for 11 refugees. She established good friendships with the people she met during this training.

metin, kişi, iç mekan içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturulduWidad was one of the Syrian participants of the Micro Business Game Training.

A study carried out by the Human Development Foundation in 2019 signifies the importance of the entrepreneurship pathway for the improvement of the Syrian community’s welfare within Turkey. Widad sets out on this path to take care of her family and improve her quality of life. But before she could fully experience the comfort of the time when she signed with some textile companies in Turkey and started to expand her business, the pandemic has begun. Last month she thought gained momentum with the end of the restrictions, but she had to take a break from her work due to the license problem.

In Turkey, where living conditions are getting harder day by day due to economic reasons, difficulties have come one after another just when things started picking up country. On the one hand, she has continued to struggle with finding a home again. When I ask why it’s a problem, we talked about prejudices and discrimination in the country. “We know a lot of people who say we shouldn’t be here. Once, the residents collected signatures and forced us to move out of our apartment. They started insulting my children, then criticizing the way I dress.” Both economic conditions and discrimination against them made the process of finding an apartment difficult. On the other hand, she can’t help but think about how she will pay her rental fee and bills.

Although she has been saying that she has struggled with different difficulties in both countries, she describes the best thing Turkey taught her as:

“There is always hope. Being able to meet good people even under hard conditions makes you have that hope. Because there are people who want to support you on a journey where you lost everything and started from scratch. This is a sign that there is still hope for all of us.”

Apart from Ankara, she visited Izmir, Istanbul, and Mersin as well. I ask what surprised her the most in Turkey, “We were very surprised that Turkey is such a beautiful and organized country. The nature of Turkey is so beautiful, I was amazed.” answered she.

When she looked back at Syria long after her migration, she realized that an environment that respected human dignity has not been presented to people there. While saying that the opportunities in Turkey make the lives of citizens easier, she gives examples of infrastructure and health services necessary for life. She defines the only beauty of being in Syria as being able to express herself and communicate in her mother tongue.

She has not been planning to return to Syria anytime soon. According to her, the war will not end in a short time, and its effects will take a long time to pass. “I am trying to establish an order for my family here, to provide a future for my children, I cannot leave these things and go back to a ruined order,” said Widad.

Asked what she misses most about home, she answers in her tiny voice: “The smell of its soil.”

She hopes to produce and sell in her tailor studio, without debt to anyone in a short while.  She dreams of expanding her business and seeing the fruits of her labour for her children.

kişi, iç mekan, cihaz içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturulduWidad hopes to produce and sell again in her tailor studio.

She has a dream of there being no war, there is no evil, and humanity living in solidarity and peace. “The world has gotten so bad that I dream of having people you can trust, a sincere smile, a disinterested helping hand, in short, being able to trust the world again.”

Asked if she has hope, “There is always hope,” she said and added


This story was originally published at Merve’s personal blog:

Lesbian Couples in Germany Are Waiting For The New Government to Make Good on Its Promise to Reform Parental Rights Laws

The ‘traffic light’ coalition has promised to bring an end to the practice of subjecting same-sex families to an adoption process before the state will recognize both partners as the legal parents of children born into their relationships.

A profile feature by Michael Grubb

On a rainy December evening Emma and Jolanda sit across the dinner table from their daughter Irma. The bubbly two-year-old alternates between enjoying her apple slices and insisting on participating in the conversation, unphased by her underdeveloped sense of grammar and syntax. Her interjections command the attention of the room, her parents nodding affirmingly to the baby babble. She has lots to say and seemingly strongly held opinions – the coherent, adult conversation can only continue once she is satisfied that her point of view has been taken into consideration. 

She is also a dancer, born with an innate appreciation for music, which is a constant feature of the household. An eclectic, tasteful collection of vinyl records occupies a portion of the long wall in their living room. Jolanda throws on an album of classic reggae, and Irma begins to dance almost immediately. A wiggle of her hips, sometimes a tap, or stomp of her feet, hands clapping to the beat. Her dancing is improvised and joyous, and it continues for the entirety of the song that flows through the speakers.

Emma and Jolanda met in 2011 while working at the same institute in Berlin. They are molecular biologists, and at the time were conducting basic research – Emma as a postdoctoral fellow, Jolanda as a PhD candidate. While searching for answers to the fundamental questions of biology, they also found each other. 

Both have since continued to excel professionally. After defending her PhD, Jolanda spent some time in the administration of a prestigious research institution in Berlin, and for the past few years has been working with a software provider that helps laboratory scientists more efficiently manage their resources. 

Emma has reached a level of success as a molecular biologist that very few achieve. Highly awarded and respected in her field, her list of publications in prestigious journals is extensive. The European Research Council now provides the funding that supports the laboratory she oversees.  

It was after the pair purchased and moved into an apartment in Berlin that they began contemplating children. “Once we had a home, we felt that we were ready to start a family,” Emma said.

They decided she should be the first one to carry. “It was clear that Emma wanted to have the first baby, because she is older.”

In the summer of 2019 Emma and Jolanda married. In November of the same year Irma was born. Raising her over the last few years has been a joyous experience, accompanied by the crocodile tears and sleepless nights that all new parents endure. Their non-traditional family has also been treated with respect and acceptance in their community.

However, their most significant source of stress and insecurity has been the fact that until very recently, Jolanda was not Irma’s legal parent.

“We have a marriage for everyone, but it’s not complete,” Jolanda said. “No one that I’ve talked to – even the butcher in my parent’s village, or my 80-something year old aunt, no one has anything against our family. And yet nobody knows that we have to go through this. Everyone is happy with the two of us having a child, but nobody knows that we have to adopt.”


When homosexual couples decide to start a family, the decision is always explicit. There are no accidents. For lesbian couples becoming pregnant often involves sperm donors and fertility clinics. Health insurers in Germany will cover initial fertility treatments for heterosexual couples, but not for women in same-sex relationships, meaning they must bear the full cost. For many it is prohibitively expensive.Depending on the length of treatment, it can cost anywhere between €10,000-20,000. The process can take years, and the decision to go about it is never taken lightly.  

According to German law, when a child is born to a married lesbian couple, only the woman who gave birth to the child is considered the legal mother. The other woman in the marriage must adopt the child before the state will recognize her as its legal parent. This process is arduous and intrusive, and its outcome is subject to judgements of both the Child Welfare Office and the courts. 

Heterosexual couples, whether married or not, are not subject to such institutional oversight. When a married woman gives birth to a child, the husband is automatically recognized as the legal parent, even if he is not the biological father. For unmarried couples, the woman can simply declare her partner the father. In both cases parental rights are granted with the stroke of a pen on the day the child is born. 

From the day she was born, and for the following two years, Irma had only one legal parent. 

“I was treated nicely by everyone at the hospital,” Jolanda said. She was allowed to be present for the birth. “But I am not mentioned in the birth certificate. I was basically nothing to her legally.”

Childbirth comes with obvious risks, and the laws governing the allocation of parental rights are meant to ensure that a child will be cared for by a second parent in the event of the mother’s death. In Germany, obligations of care and inheritance are predicated upon legally recognized parental relationships. Because parental rights are not allocated to the second partner in a same-sex relationship at the time of a child’s birth, those children come into the world without the legal security afforded to children born into heterosexual relationships. 

This fact was a primary concern for Emma and Jolanda before and after Irma’s birth. Jolanda’s lack of legal status vis-à-vis her daughter restricted her ability to take full responsibility for her, at the pediatrician for example, or in other contexts where important decisions must be made on her behalf. If something had happened to Emma, if she were killed or incapacitated, Jolanda’s right to continue parenting Irma would not have been assured.  

“A woman can die during delivery, and you don’t want a child to be orphaned right away, so you need a second parent,” Julia said. “This should apply to us as well. If Emma had died Irma would have been an orphan. But I’m there! I’m married to Emma! I went through the pregnancy with Emma, I’ve been in Irma’s life from day one. Where is the difference?”

Two German courts, as well as the new German government, would seem to agree. 

Nodoption (a play on the words ‘no’ and ‘adoption’) is a non-profit legal advocacy organization that has helped same-sex families challenge the laws governing parental rights in German courts since 2018. They argue that the law fundamentally discriminates against same-sex couples, and endangers the children born into those relationships. Though most of their initial cases were lost on procedural grounds, they have succeeded in two instances in the past year. 

In March 2021 both the Regional High Court in Celle, Lower Saxony, as well as the Superior Court of Berlin ruled in their favor. 

The law states that only a “man” can be the “father” of a child, thus excluding the possibility of the second parent being a woman (or non-binary person). Both courts ruled that as such it discriminates against same-sex couples. The rulings have been bundled together and sent to Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which will decide on the constitutionality of the law. When the case will be heard and decided upon remains to be seen – the process can take many years. 

In a statement given after the ruling of the Superior Court in Berlin, Lucy Chebout, the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in both cases, called it a historical moment and a clear call to action for the federal legislature. “Two high courts have stood on the side of same-sex families and are supporting them in their fight for equal rights. The legislature should seize the opportunity and finally institute reforms to the laws governing parental rights,” she said. 

If one is to take the newly installed German government at their word, then they intend to do just that. 

The “traffic light” coalition of Socialists, Greens, and Free Democrats included in their governing contract the statement that, “If a child is born into the marriage of two women, both are automatically the legal mothers of the child, as long as no other legal agreements have been made.”

Governing contracts are of course not the law of the land – they simply lay out the intentions of the coalition for the coming legislative period. The former “grand coalition” government of Christian Democrats and Socialists had similar language in the contract they signed in 2018. The effort to turn those promises into legislation never made it to a vote in the Bundestag. 


The adoption process involves two institutions: The Family Court, and the Child Welfare Office. The party in the marriage who did not birth the child must first petition the court, stating their intention to adopt (a document which in Germany must be produced by a notary), and the party who gave birth to the child must give consent for the adoption to the court (also via a notary).

The court will then ask the Child Welfare Office to make a “judgement” of their situation – it is this part of the process that, for Emma and Jolanda, felt the most intrusive. It means submitting to interviews, the purpose of which are to elucidate deficiencies in one’s character. It means allowing a stranger into your home so that they might scrutinize the setting in which you raise your child, and pry into your routines and methods of parenting.  

They would not be subject to such scrutiny by the state if they were in a heterosexual marriage.

Their adoption process was complicated by two outside factors; the onset of the corona pandemic, and that nine months after Irma was born, they had to move cities. Emma was to start her own research laboratory in Cologne, a move that was in the works even before her pregnancy. The home visit was thus delayed, stretching the entire process out beyond the normal time parameters.

A man from the Child Welfare Office, similar in age to themselves, came to evaluate their home a few months after they moved to Cologne.

“I was nervous, obviously, because I felt like I was being tested. He is coming to judge – based on one visit, during lockdown, after we have moved and are not in our normal environment, wearing masks – if I am a good mother, or potential mother to my child, that I have raised since birth and who he doesn’t know. It feels so shitty.” Jolanda said. 

“You think all kinds of things – should I have her in my arms? What if she doesn’t want to come to me and only wants to go to Emma because of, whatever, and how will he judge me because of it? These things are obviously totally unnecessary to think, but still you do this.”

The Child Welfare Office found them and their home to be suitable to raise their daughter, and in November 2021 the adoption became official. 

This recognition of their family changed little for them in a practical sense. In an emotional sense, it represented the long-awaited end of a journey they felt they shouldn’t have had to be on in the first place. 

 “It has done something to me. I’ve loved Irma always, in ways you can’t express in words, and it hasn’t changed anything in terms of my relationship to her or Emma, but I feel better. I know now that the German state recognizes that legally I am her mother. It’s a big deal, a huge deal.”

The last 16 years of conservative led governance in Germany has meant stagnation in the march towards equality for sexual minorities; Angela Merkel’s government was not explicitly homophobic, but certainly wasn’t ready to expend political capital addressing the issues facing same-sex families. The new government under Olaf Scholz has made it clear they intend on making up for lost time. Whether reform of the laws governing the allocation of parental rights for lesbian couples comes of legislative initiative or is ordered by the highest court in the land remains to be seen. 

“Let’s see how quickly they change the law,” Jolanda said. She is currently pregnant with their second child, a boy. The pace of reform will determine if they once again must ask permission to be recognized as a family.