Last summer, writers Sven Lager and Elke Naters teamed up with the Berliner Stadtmission to create a new communal home in Kreuzberg for students, locals and those who have had to flee their country. The Sharehaus Refugio is more than just a place to stay; it’s a place where everyday life is not just experienced, but shared.
Text by Laura Storfner / Photography by Renato Silva
Fatuma leans over the iPhone and peeks at a picture of herself displayed on the screen. She would have preferred a professional photo job, but today the schedule is tight. She needs to leave for her job interview in an hour and still has to update her résumé one last time. She adjusts her headscarf, poses in front of the café’s white wall, stretches out her chin, and waits until the shutter clicks. World maps and black and white pictures decorate the room around her, and chalk writing on a slate by the bar reads: “Cappuccino 2.50 Euro, ginger tea 2 Euro”. Students working on their laptops are getting up every now and then to order. It feels like every other café in Neukölln. But somehow, the atmosphere is di erent.
“Do you know how to insert a picture into a document?” Fatuma asks me. A few minutes later, she glances happily at her laptop screen. Originally born in Somalia in 1989, she had to leave the country when she was still a child. After growing up in Kenya, she’s found a new home here at Sharehaus Refugio, just minutes from Hermannplatz, where she’s now working and having co ee in the foyer.
“We want to show how easy it can be to not just live door to door, but to be a community,” says Sven Lager, who opened the house with his wife Elke Naters in July 2015 as a project of the Berliner Stadtmission. Since then, not only Lager and his family, but also people from all across the globe have followed the Sharehaus’ idea of creating a “place of refuge, community and renewal”: on ve oors, individuals and families from Syria, Nigeria, Turkey, Bosnia and Croatia live in private rooms for up to a year and half while sharing communal areas, taking care of everyday tasks and learning from one another. A large number of these residents were forced to ee their home country, and not all of them have been granted o cial refugee status in Ger- many. Other residents are locals, but still not all have a German passport. To be part of the Refugio community, one has to send in an application, Lager explains: “It’s important to know what the people are interested in and where they want to go so we can support their dreams and talents.” On the ground oor, the residents operate their café, and whenever they have time they cook together or visit the chapel that regular- ly holds Sunday Mass. During summertime, they have a beer or lemonade on the roof, enjoying the view of Neukölln while students of a landscape
Rise above: During wintertime, when it's too cold to stay on the roof garden and look into the sky of Neukölln, the residents meet on the top oor for an hour of meditation. They decorated the room themselves – the writing on the wall reads "love and trust"
Sven Lager on the roof top recalling his wish for the future: that the residents living at Sharehaus Refugio will one day be giving the interviews while he stays in the background architecture course at the Technical University Berlin take care of the gardening. Again, it feels like sitting on any other rooftop in Berlin. But here, there is so much more.
The idea of the Sharehaus is a concept Lager and Naters brought over from Africa. The two have been a couple for over 20 years and were famous in their own right when they used to live here, back when Berlin was quite a di erent place. “We arrived just before the Wall came down, but immediately liked the city for its roughness. There was no glamour, and the only bit of smugness remained in Charlottenburg.” In the very peculiar decade that was the 1990s, both belonged to the circle of the so-called German “pop literature” writers who battled the business' favouring of academic writing with their everyday observations and language, which was as rough as the city they lived in.
Before publishing her rst novel, “Königinnen,” in 1998, Naters completed her apprenticeship as a tailor in Munich and subsequent studies of art and photography. Lager was a freelance radio critic, and in 2000 he released his debut, “Phosphor.” At that time, the couple also launched the project “ampool,” one of the earliest online German literary platforms.
Writers such as Christian Kracht and Moritz von Uslar published short text snippets long before the existence of Twitter and blogs. Eventually, however, Lager and Naters found themselves jaded by Berlin's long winters, the never ending search of the self and the literary scene, which didn’t seem to get ahead. In 2004, both decided to leave the capital together with their two children.
First stop: Bangkok, then on to South Africa. What they planned to be a two month trip turned into a decade. They settled in Hermanus, a small community on the southern coast of the country. “At a rst glance, it seemed quite posh to us,” Lager recalls. “The apartheid had strongly shaped the country and as we got there, the resemblance to ordinary German suburbs was strong. Yet, there was a big di erence, namely the belief of those people who consider themselves poor to become wealthier by sharing.”
It was this thought that led to Sharehaus becoming a place of gathering, help, and exchange. A space of possibility – somewhere in-between a literary saloon, a workshop, and a café – that could have any function, as long as its form was devel- oped jointly. “It was important to us to see eye to eye – ‘ubuntu’ as they call it in South Africa,” Lager says. “It is a traditional term used by the various tribes and stands for common humanity. We used this idea for the Sharehaus and took it one step further: everyone should have the opportunity to develop as an individual and simultaneously act as part of society”.
The search for meaning and self that began in Berlin seems to have arrived at its destination in South Africa. The couple found their way to God, as Lager calls it. It is an answer one would immediately begin to question in Germany, as the Church appears to be one of the last institutions that can commonly be rejected. However, when listening to Lager speak of his belief, one can only agree that his own form of faith has little to do with religion as an abstract set of rules. Sharing, tolerance, charity, and openness are after all the building blocks of any society. “Though many people have no religious background, they still have faith in their hearts because they are helping others,” he explains. “Many of our friends would probably have been more understanding if we had become drug addicts or vegan. But in some ways, Elke and I did not change our rebellious attitude. We question the church, we scrutinise the church. This is what faith is to us.”
Back in Berlin both came across different forms of faith in activities like car sharing and co-working. Together they started working on their own publishing house, “Der Verlag,” where they want to publish love stories by refugees, provide writing classes and develop books with well-known authors and friends – all of which will be financed through crowdfunding. “Although the shareconomy has its advantages, “sharing” is often only used as a term. We want to show that it is possible to grow in a community without obstructing others. In Germany, many people want to help but do not know how to. We would like to emphasise that helping starts by giving support in its smallest forms in everyday life situations.” It might even just begin by sitting in a café in Neukölln, like Refugio, taking a photo of the person sitting next to you who shares a story like Fatuma's.