By inviting refugees onto the dance floor and into their communities, some clubs have been a force for good in Europe's ongoing crisis. Will Lynch takes a look at this new form of activism.
Amena and her brother Sami left around the same time. The civil war had extinguished any hope for a future in Syria, and Sami, like Ola, had been repeatedly kidnapped. (All three names have been changed to protect the subjects' identities.)
"In Syria, anyone can be kidnapped at any time," Amena told me earlier this year at K-Fetisch, a café in Neukölln, and one of many Berlin establishments that flies a flag now familiar in the city: "REFUGEES WELCOME." Imagine it, she said. You leave this café, step onto the sidewalk, and next thing you know you're drugged and thrown in prison, maybe for a day, maybe for 30 years, maybe forever. This, she explained, is a day-to-day experience in Syria.
Ola and Amena are in their early 20s, though they look much younger. It's impossible to imagine them enduring the standard horrors of the refugee, but they did. Each of them paid smugglers to take them from the northern coast of Africa to Turkey. They laughed as they described the details people like me know from the news: dangerous boats, threatening smugglers, and a preposterously dangerous sea journey for which most people pay around €1,000. They'd been through Turkey, then to Greece, then to Germany. Both ended up in squalid camps. Amena found herself near the Polish border in a small town where, she said, "everyone was either a refugee or a nazi." Ola's camp wasn't much better, isolated in the Rheinland, with stricter security than usual and locals trying to convert them to Christianity.
Both became depressed. In many ways, they were immeasurably lucky, having escaped a civil war that by now has killed around 400,000 Syrians. But they needed some semblance of a real life—in their current circumstances they might as well have been prisoners. Amena made a post on Facebook asking if someone could put her up in Berlin for a little while.
One way or another, the post made it to Luz Diaz. Diaz is one of the promoters of Room 4 Resistance, a queer femme party at ://about blank. To the casual observer, Room 4 Resistance would look like a lighthearted affair: décor is heavy on inflated unicorns, regulars wear as much color as possible, and a carefree atmosphere prevails, especially in the summer, when the party takes place outside in ://about blank's leafy garden. But R4R is a politically charged event. In its own words, it "runs parties, hosts radio shows and curates panels to promote women, gender queers, non-binaries, trans, black and POC artists, to explore the political dimensions of the dance floor, and to create bridges between different communities." The party books mostly queer and femme-identifying artists. By explicitly welcoming Roma and refugees, it likely has the most inclusive door policy in Berlin. Ultimately, it embodies house music's core ideals of inclusivity more than most parties around the world. (Not coincidentally, its organizers also include ethnomusicologist and RA contributor Luis Manuel Garcia, who wrote this website's alternative history of sexuality in club culture.)
Perhaps R4R's most significant form of activism has been its work with refugees. There is one center for queer refugees in Berlin, Schwulen Beratung, and since 2016 Diaz has been reaching out to them to invite their residents to her party. Earlier on, she'd done volunteer work in an asylum center, where, she said, 300 men, women and children lived on cots in two basketball courts. "It's just so surreal and so sad," she said. "When I did that with some friends, what shocked us the most was how people were basically put in a cage, like in a jail, they could not go out and they were getting nuts from having nothing to do, no real life, just waiting for papers. I felt that these people really need to have activities, that we need to do more for them than distribute food."
The experience got her thinking. "We had been talking a lot about taking action as a scene for refugees," she said. "There's Plus1, a lot of parties raising money for refugees. Of course it's nice to raise money, and it's needed, it's cool. But it doesn't create a personal connection. You still see the refugee as the other, you know what I mean?"
As she said this, I was aware of how much I'd been guilty of this until now. On my way that morning to meet two Syrian refugees, I wasn't sure what I expected, but it wasn't two girls who, by appearance, would fit in perfectly at any Berlin club, one with a boy's haircut and a neck tattoo, the other in an old Depeche Mode T-shirt. Both had been to clubs and gay parties in Damascus, but when Diaz reached out to them, she, too, was unsure of what to expect. Amena laughed as she remembered it. "Luz said, 'I don't know if you'll feel comfortable with this but there will be some drinking in the party…'"
Diaz smiled. "I mean, I didn't know their background! So first I talk with everyone I invite. I say, 'It's a queer party... we stand for what we are.' We want to share it and show that it's not a problem. We put a lot of care into protecting the party as a safer space. With the refugees, the goal is like, how can we create a bridge between this other who is in need and new people coming in town? These people are just new neighbors, new people in your community, and you want to welcome them. They need the opportunity to meet people outside the asylum centers, in another environment, where they're more relaxed."
This requires a fair amount of effort. In addition to putting them on the guestlist and buying drinks tickets for them, Diaz arranged with ://about blank to make sure they're not touched too closely by door staff and treated patiently by bartenders.
The party proved to be invaluable for Ola and Amena. Never before had they been in a room with so many people like themselves. After years of feeling like they belonged nowhere, they'd discovered a loving community of people who looked after each other.
"When I go there," Ola said, "I feel like I'm at home. I'm with friends and friends of friends, I just feel really comfortable in that atmosphere. Everyone is really nice and awesome. I have so much fun."
Room 4 Resistance is not alone in its efforts to help refugees. Relief work of some form or another is common in Germany's music scene, and not just in the realm of dance music. Perhaps the best known effort is Plus1, an initiative started by a group of friends and music professionals that asks clubs to take €1 donations from everyone on the guest list at their events, and that over the past two years has raised around €200,000 for various charities that help refugees, choosing new ones every six months to spread their support and adjust to the evolving crisis (at the moment, their three charities are Watch The Med, Bündis Neukölln and the European Center for Constitutional And Human Rights).
Holzmarkt, the club and cultural center that grew out of Bar 25, is home to Omas Café, which is staffed by refugees and where all proceeds go to charities helping asylum seekers. The venue also hosts workshops where refugees learn German and trade skills like carpentry, as well as movie nights and free yoga classes.
Nightclubs, meanwhile, have arrived at a more unlikely form of activism: inviting refugees onto the dance floor. Frivolous as they can sometimes seem, nightclubs, at their best, play an important role in society. In big, anonymous cities, they create a scenario where people are relaxed and open to meeting strangers, offering a way into communities that can be hard to crack otherwise. This happens to address one of the main problems most refugees face once they've arrived at asylum centers. With no connections, a daunting language barrier and a general feeling of isolation, they have no clear way of joining the community they've arrived in. For some, clubs have become a way to move past this stage.
Elegantly simple as it may seem, this process is actually quite complicated. The millions of refugees who have poured into Germany over the past three years come from a range of countries and cultures, many of which are, of course, far more conservative than their adopted homes. Even those who might enjoy nightlife are unlikely to seek it out on their own. And many simply don't have the language skills or sense of confidence to simply turn up to a club. Reaching out to them, and doing the work necessary to make everyone feel comfortable, is a lot of work and a potential liability. But for some, it's nothing less than a matter of duty.
LCavaliero Mann is the head artistic director at SchwuZ, a gay activist group turned nightclub that's operated in Berlin for 40 years. (The name is short for Schwülen Zentrum, or "gay center.") SchwuZ's outreach efforts are similar to those at Room 4 Resistance, but on a larger scale—occupying a hulking warehouse in Neukölln, the venue has space for 1,100 people. This kind of activism, Mann says, is not just admirable, but crucial, especially for a queer club.
"As a queer community, we want to be included, integrated, more than tolerated," he said. "So, we need to behave the same way toward other groups that we want people to behave toward us." Mann said this feeling is common in Berlin's queer community. My mind jumped to the gay bar Möbel Olfe, which for years has displayed on one of its awnings a paraphrased quote from the Somali journalist and refugee Ahmed Nuur Ibrahim: "No one flees without a reason."
Mann had invited me to SchwuZ's office, a multi-room workspace a few blocks from the club. Sitting at the long table in their conference room, he explained how their refugee relief efforts began. When Europe's "so-called refugee crisis" became big news in 2015, he and others at the club were troubled by the wave of xenophobia that came with it. Particularly disturbing was the stereotype that refugees were misogynist and homophobic—suppositions that were supposedly meant to defend people like Mann, who is trans. "But that was all just racist discourse," he said. "So we said, 'OK, we really need to step up and say something.'"
SchwuZ started by throwing two big Refugees Welcome parties. The club was near two asylum centers—one of which has since shut—and people working there brought refugees along. "Some of them were not even gay, and they saw all these gay people dancing around," Mann said. "Some had never seen such visible gay flirtations before. That was the beginning." Word got around, and slowly but surely, refugees started turning up to SchwuZ's regular parties. But, as Mann put it, it wasn't enough to simply say "refugees welcome."
"We did a lot," he said. "We got in touch with different shelters. We went there actively. We tried for a long time to hire a queer refugee translator. For the first one and a half years, most refugees couldn't speak English or German, and they'd come to our club. Somehow you need to be able to communicate, so we needed to fill that gap."
Hiring that person meant convincing the Ausländerbehörde (the German office that processes visas) that this job must go to a queer refugee rather than a straight German passport-holder. "You can't just put anyone at the door," he explained. "This person needs to know what is queer, what are the sensitivities. They need to know the differences culturally between, for instance, queer in Syria and queer in Germany. And it needs to be someone with a refugee history, because these people really experienced the worst, so they might behave differently, or not. It's just important that they find someone at the club who understands their way of being." In the end, they succeeded.
"More and more refugees showed up at the venue," Mann said, "and eventually they said, 'There are so many of us here, why not play some of our music?'" With that, SchwuZ started Tasty, a party with a floor dedicated to "Middle Eastern beats." Mann says refugees are now a cornerstone of the club's audience, at Tasty and other parties.
Not all such efforts have been successful. At Conne Island in Leipzig, a similar outreach program backfired spectacularly. In 2015, the club began hosting German lessons, skateboard and cycling workshops and other activities for refugees. They also let them into their parties for an entry fee of €0.50. Young refugee men would turn up early, get very drunk, and, in some cases, harass women on the dance floor. More than once, the club was forced to call the police.
"To party together and in the process, as if by itself, achieve the integration of young refugees into Conne Island, turned out to be a naive plan," the club wrote in an official statement last year. "The authoritarian and patriarchal socialisation in the home countries of some refugees and liberal western (party) culture sometimes makes for an explosive mixture."
This put Conne Island in an impossible position, torn between its activist impulse and its obligation to protect its regular patrons. Any course of action would invite fierce criticism. "We want to throw out an arsehole because he's an arsehole," one employee told the newspaper Die Tageszeitung, "and other guests yell at us that we're racists." The fracas became a matter of mainstream national news, and validation for the many people in Germany who see refugees as a threat.
"It is a general problem of patriarchal social structures," said Franz Thiem of IFZ, another Leipzig club with a policy similar to Conne Island's. "[These] are present in the minds of German men (and women) too, but are even more problematic when it comes to men from societies where women are viewed and treated differently, where women do not take part in public life like in Germany for complex reasons (and don't go to clubs for that reason) and where sexuality and consent are taboo topics."
Like Conne Island and SchwuZ, IFZ was compelled by a sense of basic compassion to begin inviting refugees to the club. "It felt very important to send these signals," Thiem said, "because authorities were completely overwhelmed, there were Nazi-attacks on camps and shelters every other day and especially in Saxony, where we live, refugees faced gross racism from the general public. Pegida and Legida, one of the major movements of the new and now even more growing alt-right party AfD had their high times in Leipzig and Dresden. For us it was crucial to do something for those affected by it."
A misstep like Conne Island's may have been inevitable. The refugee crisis is an unprecedented and utterly baffling problem for everyone involved. There is no established way of dealing with it. Everyone is simply improvising and doing their best to adjust to its surprises.
"What happened to Conne Island could have happened to us," Mann told me. SchwuZ, too, had incidents of refugee men harassing women at the club, to which they reacted as best they could. Beyond throwing out the offenders, they printed leaflets in 12 languages directed at both refugees and regular patrons, explaining what to do if someone harassed them or made them uncomfortable. But in the end, the problem was nothing new.
"In a club this size, harassment is a reality," Mann said. "Disrespectful behavior or harassment is never tolerable, but unfortunately it can happen, between lesbians or between gay men, too. For sure, there are some assholes in the refugee community, as there as assholes in every community. But if a white guy does something wrong, it's just a white guy doing something wrong. With a refugee, it's the biggest drama ever. People think a terror attack is coming next."
SchwuZ and Room 4 Resistance both reflect an important truth about this kind of activism: necessary as it is, it must be done carefully, and with real dedication. "If we just said 'refugees welcome' and see what happens, we wouldn't succeed," Mann said. "Inclusion doesn't work just from one side, you really need to put in an effort. We put in so much time and money to make this work, because we think it's so important. And it only worked because we did that."
Amidst such a vast and overwhelming crisis, the efforts of underground clubs are, of course, relatively limited in scope, but they are still significant. These clubs and promoters have shown how relief can come from unlikely places, finding in nightlife something many refugees need: a place to come together with strangers, form new relationships and feel at ease in their adopted homes. Other institutions might be more effective in other ways—raising money, for instance—but this integration is something clubs are uniquely positioned to offer. And it goes both ways, affecting locals as well as refugees. Berlin clubbers might seem like a progressive bunch, but for most of them, the refugee remains a mysterious other. On the dance floor, that traditional breaker of social boundaries, they become more familiar, more real.
More importantly, these parties have made life better for the people they've reached. Mann gets goosebumps when he talks about Tasty, the refugee party at SchwuZ. "Almost every time it makes me cry when I'm on that Middle Eastern beats floor," he said. "People are dancing like it's their last chance ever. I know them, I know they are very thankful they have this big party night, especially that's celebrating their culture. They are so homesick, and they can't go back. But they have this club now, a place where they're not on the sideline but in the center."
At Room 4 Resistance, Ola and Amena have found a peace of mind that eludes them even in the relative safety of Berlin. "People here, you can see on their faces that they're carefree," Ola said. "I can't imagine feeling that way, I might never feel that way again. But at Room 4 Resistance, I feel it. It feels like I'm at home."