This is one of a series of articles and interviews CONIFA is running as part of Refugee Week 2019. To learn more, please go to https://refugeeweek.org.uk/
SD: I’ve read that you were born in Skopje. Did you grow up in Šutka? [Šutka is the Roma quarter of the city of Skopje. It has been described as a ‘slum’. Two-thirds of the 18,000 inhabitants are Romani. It’s the only community in Macedonia with a Roma majority, which means that Romanes is an official language in Šutka, a unique occurrence globally.]
“Yes, I was raised in Šutka, which was in Yugoslavia at the time. It looked very different back then, though. It might be an exaggeration to say it was the most beautiful part of Skopje – it was incredibly green! Back then, it was perfect for a boy like me. We had a garden and played out a lot on the streets, as there was barely any traffic. It was a nice, rural, atmosphere, which was sadly lost over the years.”
SD: When and how did you get to Germany?
“In 1988, my parents decided to leave Yugoslavia when I was seven years old. We took the train and the journey felt like a great adventure to the little me. I’d never been outside of Macedonia before, let alone Yugoslavia. As a kid, I didn’t realise that we were just about to move our life to a new country.”
SD: So you were refugees in Germany?
“Yes. We applied for asylum and received a permanent residency status based on humanitarian grounds in the 1990s. We were lucky at the time, as we arrived in Germany before all the wars broke out and Yugoslavia collapsed entirely. Only a few years after we left, Macedonia declared independence, as so many Macedonians were drafted to fight in Bosnia, Croatia or elsewhere. That was unacceptable for all Macedonians.”
SD: Was your escape organised? Did you know for sure that you could stay in Germany?
“No, not really. We had friends who had settled in Germany a few years earlier and showed us the way. That was enough for my parents to take the chance and hope we would be received in the same way.”
SD: Did your whole family move with you, or do you still have relatives in Šutka?
“As a result of the endless wars all over the Balkans, I’ve got family all over Europe… from Italy to Sweden. Whenever I travel in Europe, I meet up with friends and relatives that I haven’t seen for years, who show me where they live now. Some stayed behind, or returned to Šutka, so yes – I do have relatives there.”
SD: Do you visit Skopje regularly?
“I do. My last visit was in 2018, and I have to say, I’m always overwhelmed by it whenever I go back. In a way, I miss the daily multiculturalism that Skopje experiences. Everyday life is so much easier for everyone, when heritage, ethnicity, language or passport play no role for anyone.
“As a visitor, I usually don’t even know if the waiter in the restaurant is an ethnic Albanian, Macedonian or Roma – and it doesn’t matter! Most of the people in Skopje are extremely friendly and welcoming to me whenever I go back there.”
SD: Is there anything you miss from your childhood?
[Laughs] “Everyone misses their childhood! I will never be so relaxed, so happily naïve and so composed ever again. Being a child is just beautiful in every regard. I’m not regretting that those days are over… but I love to remember those carefree days.
“Regarding Šutka in particular, I’ll never forget my neighbourhood, which was a role model for the multiculturalism and openness I often miss today. My neighbour to the right was Macedonian, my neighbour to the left, Albanian. Their doors were always open and I was welcome to come over and spend time with them any time I wanted.”
SD: Do you speak Macedonian or Albanian?
“I speak Macedonian, yes, but sadly never learned Albanian.”
SD: Do you think that the Balkans are still a part of you?
“Of course, the whole region and its history influenced me. Most people today just think of the Balkans as a region of endless ethnic conflicts. In fact, it’s the opposite if you look at the history of the region. Since Roman times, the Balkans were multi-ethnic and multilingual. Different tribes, ethnicities and cultures shared the Balkan for over 2,000 years and, mostly, did so peacefully. The borders we find on maps today are random administrative boundaries – they never existed in the minds of the people of the Balkans.”
SD: How was the journey to Germany that first time? And how hard was it to settle in Germany?
“Coming to Germany was easy in the ‘80s, as the Yugoslav passport was recognised then. Sadly, passports have become the most important feature of any human being or, as Berthold Brecht said: ‘A passport is the most noble part of a person. Thus it will be approved if it is good, whereas a person without a good passport can be just as good – but still not be approved.’
“The biggest challenge arriving in Germany was being granted a permanent residency status, which worked out in the end. I’m extremely grateful to my parents, who went out of their way to make sure settling in Germany was possible. I remember that asylum seekers were not allowed to work at the time. When a new law was passed to change that, and long before it was actually implemented, my dad went to the job centre to find work – successfully! We also only lived in a refugee centre for six months, as my parents worked hard to find a flat for us.”
SD: Did you get any further support in Germany, for example from your neighbours?
“Definitely! One of my best friends migrated from East Germany in 1990 or 1991, and lived next door to us. We went to school together and supported each other in any possible way. Now that I think about it, I get the feeling that there was a social cohesion at the time that is sadly lost now. We lived in an apartment block and everyone there used to help each other in many different ways.
“I remember that we collected money to finance the funeral of an elderly lady living in our apartment block, and absolutely everybody contributed whatever they could. That seems like an impossibility today, sadly.”
SD: How is life in Germany nowadays for you? I’ve read in a recent study that 60% of Germans don’t want to live next door to Romani People, Muslims, or refugees. Do you, as a Muslim Roma refugee, feel this rejection in your daily life?
“Not that much as, at one point in my life, I decided to follow Paul Watzlawick’s theory of radical constructivism. That means I’m constructing my own environment for my family and me. Just like I choose the books I read and the music I listen to, I choose my friends, my colleagues and my general environment too. This environment’s extremely diverse and doesn’t only include Romani People and Germans, but also Alevites, Yazidis, Jews and Sikhs, whom I all work with to fight for their civil rights. But these people all have one thing in common: they don’t judge me on my heritage, they’re very open minded and would never allow me to be discriminated against.
“Luckily, my kids have adopted this way of life, as they understand it’s an efficient way to protect yourself against abuse.
“It doesn’t mean, however, that I never experience racism or abuse – of course I do. It also doesn’t mean that I turn a blind eye to the reality of life, which can be grim and cruel. It just means that I try to make lemonade, when life gives me lemons, instead of crying about getting lemons again.
“Sadly, though, I do consider the study you cite as absolutely spot on. Romani People have a horrible image in Germany; throughout society, you find people thinking that Romani People are ‘primitive’ and ‘uneducated’, which is just wrong. It’s the definition of racism. Because of the omnipresence of such prejudices, many, if not most, Romani People in Germany do deny being Roma, which is very sad.
“I remember a situation back in 2015, when I had a work meeting with my Romani colleagues in Bonn. On the way back, we spoke Romanes on the train, as we would always do. When we left the train, a young woman came to me and asked if I would have time for a coffee. When I explained that I was a married man, she explained that she had heard us speaking Romanes, and that she was a student of medicine from a middle-class Romani family. She just wanted to get to know us. She said she won’t speak Romanes in public to avoid being stigmatised and asked us to speak with her in German.
“That random meeting is ingrained in my brain, as it shows that it’s seemingly easier, as a Roma, to climb the social ladder when you deny your identity. Many non-Romani I tell this story to are confused by it and ask me if it isn’t fine nowadays to ‘out’ yourself as a Roma, especially when you are successful. Sadly, it is not.”
SD: Do you feel like a Macedonian, a Roma, or a German today?
“I feel I am a global citizen! I always remember a publication by Alexander Gauland [leader of the right-wing AfD party in Germany], who spoke about a globalised class, which he described as follows: ‘The members [of that class] mostly live in big cities, speak English fluently, and if they move from Berlin to London or Singapore for work, they will find the same apartments, houses, restaurants, shops and private schools. This milieu remains among its own kind, but is culturally “colourful”.’
“I must admit, I would not find it easy to leave my home city of Düsseldorf, but I also do not find it absurd to think about moving to London or Singapore. I can identify with such a ‘globalized class’, which Gauland is obviously referring to as something terrible. I am even proud to identify with that class.”
SD: So, in a way, you feel like a Roma, a German, a Macedonian… and much more?
“Yes, in a way those are all parts of me. But it is hard to describe such feelings. When I am in Skopje, however, I do have a feeling of happiness.”
SD: A sense of being home?
“Yes and no. I am very happy being in Skopje, but Düsseldorf is my home. Whenever I return to Düsseldorf, I’m very glad to be back in my structured daily life. At the end of the day, I’m a product of a neoliberal society. That said, I want to be productive. I want to write my next article, prepare or hold another seminar – I need that and I do that in Düsseldorf.”
SD: In which language does Merfin Demir think and dream?
“I think and dream in German.”
SD: So German is your ‘natural language’?
“Correct. It’s not my mother tongue, that is Romanes and Macedonian, but it is the language of my life. My first book was in German and everyone around me speaks German most of the time.”
SD: Can you write in Romanes and Macedonian?
“Sadly, I can’t write in Macedonian, as I can only read printed Cyrillic script, but I can read and write Romanes in my dialect, yes.”
SD: Is there a large Roma community in Germany and Düsseldorf, in particular?
“In Düsseldorf, absolutely. In Germany as a whole, not that much, no.”
SD: Did the community welcome you, when you arrived in Germany?
“Well, there is no homogenous Roma community. It would be more precise to speak of the Roma communities. Those communities, sometimes, have little in common and rarely any links between each other. Apart from the language, they have little in common, and even the language varies depending on their geographical heritage.
“When I speak Romanes, I do use Macedonian ‘loan’ words, while German Romani People use German ‘loan’ words. Those who are speaking Romanes very well, and I would say I do, are able to understand the other variations of the languages – but Romani People are heterogenous and diverse. This is a very important point to make: the Roma identity or, better, the Roma identities are strongly linked to regional identities. That said, I am part of a symbiosis of a Roma identity from Skopje and Düsseldorf.
SD: Does that mean that there’s no strong sense of unity between Romani People, like the Kurdish People, who live in different countries, but very much identify as Kurds – and mean the same by it, when they use that term?
“It’s very different. Kurds have a historical and current homeland, the non-recognized Kurdistan, which spans several countries. Kurds have a second, a geographical, base of identity, which Roma miss. Identities are always characterised by such bases, which can be a geographical area, like Kurdistan for Kurds, or a book, like the Tora for Jews.
“For us Romani People, language is probably the only such base and that is not strong enough to create a strong sense of unity among Romani People.”
SD: As you mention religion… Romani People are also religiously diverse, right?
“Exactly. Most western Europeans believe that all Romani People are Catholics. In fact, there are a lot of Protestant Roma. I myself am a Sunni Muslim. The majority of the Romani People, I believe, are Christian – but orthodox, not Catholic.”
SD: Could you imagine going back to Macedonia one day?
“I can’t. The centre of my life is Düsseldorf. The unstable political situation back in Macedonia also makes it difficult. I do believe, though, that the European Union has a massively stabilising impact on the country. So that said, I might reconsider where to spend the autumn of my life, should Macedonia be accepted as a EU member…”
SD: Could you imagine going back for work, for instance, with the local Romani community in Skopje?
“No, as I lack the network back there, which I have here in Germany. This enables me to achieve something for the community as a whole. I can do much more for the Romani People here, but also globally, from where I am now.”
SD: What is your one big dream for the future?
“I have many dreams, but I want to mention one that is very close to my heart: I believe that we need a much stronger Romani People FA within CONIFA. We know that we all can and have to do a lot more, but I am convinced that we should start that work! I believe that a strong Romani People team can be an important tool to make the Romani People more visible and create role models in Europe and across the world – something we often lack and that could empower us.
“A football team is definitely something that creates a sense of identity, and I am convinced that we have to do exactly that far more than we do – creating a sense of identity or identities, strengthen them and represent them to the outside world!”