Correspondence interview with Denise Garcia Bergt conducted by Zofia nierodzińska

Denise Garcia Bergt is a Brazilian movie director, author of texts, activist and initiator of the self organised group International Women* Space. She lives and works in Berlin.

Could you please tell the Polish readers how you started the movement, which already exists for seven years?

The beginning of the International Women* Space (IWS) was influenced by several events that took place in 2012. I had started the year by releasing my documentary “Residenzpflicht” about the resistance of self-organised groups of refugees against the Residenzpflicht (German for mandatory residence), a legal requirement affecting asylum seekers living in Germany, who are constrained to live within certain boundaries defined by the Foreigner Office. The film also investigates colonialism and its legacy of oppression, still visible in the current fear-based power and control asylum system seen in Germany.

In August 2012, the same group portrayed in the film, organised a summer camp “Break Isolation – Refugee Summer Camp”, in the eastern town of Erfurt, in the state of Thüringen and I was invited to give a workshop about video filming and editing. The result was a 10 minutes video called “Der Embryo der Freiheit” made collectively with newly arrived asylum seekers. In retrospect, I still recall this as the most political camp I’ve ever been to. There were daily meetings, workshops and discussions ranging from topics such as the origins and perpetuation of colonial injustice; about ways to strengthen the migrant and refugee communities through self-organisation; against the Residenzpflicht, the Frontex, the political engagement of anti-racist campaigners and their support of the daily struggles of refugee and migrants against societal and institutional racism.

It was also at this Camp that I got to know the story of a 29-year-old Iranian refugee, Muhammed Rahsapar, who had committed suicide in January at a refugee centre in Würzburg, a town in central Germany, in protest at the conditions in which refugees were housed. After his death, a group of refugees went to set up a camp in a public space in Würzburg and began a hunger strike. Some also sew up their mouths in protest.

This group had come to the Break Isolation Camp to share their plan to make 600-kilometre march from Würzburg to Berlin. A four parts video show them in the Camp and later in march.

On the 8th of September they started their march and other refugees, living in Camps located on the route, joined the protest that was demanding the abolishment of the Lager system accommodation – the abolition of Residenzpflicht – the abolishment of the food packages and vouchers – the full stop of deportations and for a worthy life for asylum seekers in Germany.

The march reached Berlin on the 6th of October 2012, a camp in Oranienplatz, a square in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, in Berlin had been built with all the facilities needed for the protest to continue to grow. People had organised from electricity to toilets, tents for a living, cooking/eating, for the storage of clothes and other donations such as mattresses, bedsheets, etc. A big circus tent was erected to host political meetings.

I will cut this story short and go directly to the beginning of the IWS. I suggest anyone interested in a more detailed description of the protest visit the webpage of the Movements Journal for critical Migration and Border Regime Studies.

As the winter in 2012 struck Berlin and the tents in Oranienplatz began to crumble due to the heavy snowfall, the solution was to find an empty house and squat it. So, at the beginning of December an abandoned building, the former Gerhart-Hauptmann School (GHS) was squatted and many of us, the women involved in the protests, announced that we were occupying the space to create a women-only floor. After a couple of meetings, someone suggested to call our floor The Women* Space and later to call the group The International Women Space.
The reason why we did it was related to the fact that the refugee protest had been male-dominated until then and refugee women were not joining. We knew of so many women seeking asylum, who were surviving and fighting against the same injustices the men were fighting against and couldn’t understand why they were not coming. For my film, I had interviewed powerful women from a group called Women in Exile and knew how active they had been for more than a decade in Germany.

For me and for many in the group, the act of squatting meant a lot I had squatted in London, in 1989, and had felt a taste of freedom in doing it because, in my opinion, squatting always provides an opportunity for self-determination – enabling physical and spatial infrastructure for feminist activism and Berlin had this history of women squatting houses. The ’80s had been especially remarkable with regards to women forming groups and organising women’s spaces. Therefore, to combine the fight for the rights of refugees and migrants with squatting couldn’t be more perfect. Moreover, we put lots of effort into transforming the rooms and facilities of this floor, as well as introducing many activities during our 17-month stay at the GHS. There we held free German language classes twice a week for women living in the house and for women coming from the camps. There was pro bono legal advice from lawyers who visited us twice a month, assisting women to navigate the bureaucratic processes of their asylum cases, learning when and how to appeal for a decision. We conducted a variety of workshops and group readings of books written by women, as well as beginning to organise our feminist library. There were also regular weekly plenaries to discuss internal organisational matters, future campaigns and to write speeches for upcoming demonstrations.

Until the eviction, we considered ourselves part of the movement that had begun in Oranienplatz and worked a lot with everyone involved in the movement.

Well, this is how it started… more or less.

What are the fields of involvement of IWS? Could you tell us about the work you do? (publishing books, demos, care work, conferences…)

With the eviction of the School in the summer of 2014, we had to stop with many of the activities mentioned before and concentrate on the making of our first book project: “In our own words” (self-published, 2015). We already had the idea of the book and even the funding for it but because of the tensions regarding the eviction we couldn’t find the time or even the proper atmosphere to start this project. The last few months at the school got us involved in a variety of weekly meetings with the district, with the neighbourhood initiatives, with other political groups, activists and for a while, all we did was to try and keep the school and our space. However, when it was clear to us that our occupation had come to an end, we decided to go on the road, sort to say, and began to visit refugee camps in Berlin, in the outskirts, in other German towns to interview women.

“In our own words” was released in 2015 and documents the life stories of courageous women who have fought against difficult realities, women who fled all sorts of adversities, women who had struggled within Oranienplatz, at the school.

After the release of this book, we found ourselves two different rooms in Berlin where we could start meeting weekly again and slowly resume our former activities. Then we also decided that we should continue documenting, but not before gathering the perspectives of different migrant women who had organised themselves in previous times in Germany. That’s when we had the idea of holding a conference “When I came to Germany” which took place in 2017. The program had 22 women from multiple generations speaking on six different panels about their experiences, such as coming to West Germany as guest workers, to East Germany as contract workers, as migrants and refugees to the reunified Germany, and of German women who are affected by racism. All talks were translated simultaneously into German, English, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Vietnamese. The conference had 250 women attend each day – reaching maximum capacity. You can find the content of all the Panels online and in all the translated languages. In March 2019, the content of the conference will be released in the format of a book called “Als ich nach Deutschland Kam”, published by the Unrast Verlag and already in pre-sale. This time unfortunately only in German, but as usual we have plans to get funding to translate it in more languages as we have done with all of our work.

In 2018, we released “We exist, we are here.”  also self-published. This second book contains eight stories – at times enraging and dispiriting, in other moments empowering and uplifting. The stories recount a range of women’s experiences: being trafficked through Libya and forced into prostitution; fleeing state repression and societal oppression in Egypt, Syria and Iran; being persecuted for academic activism in Turkey, or for drug addiction in Russia; women robbed of their right to self-determination; women who have resisted deportation, and who fight racism and racist structures in Germany every day.

At the end of 2018 we finally rented an office for ourselves and since then we’ve been offering all the activities we used to do at the school: workshops, monthly legal advice, with the same group of lawyers we worked before, German classes, also with the same teacher from long ago, regular consultations on different issues regarding migration and asylum as well as preparing the two demonstrations we organise every year since 2015: the 8th of March and the 25th of November, respectively: on the women’s day and on the day to combat violence against women. All that plus the day to day administration of our organisation. In 2017 we registered the group and became an official association, which is very demanding, especially considering that the bureaucracy involving it is all in German and most of us are migrants and are still learning the German language.

As a movie director and author of the film‚ ‘Residenzpflicht’ (2012), you confront the viewer with the reality of the refugees lives in Germany. In the XXI century the difference between people who can move without restrictions and those who are deprived of this right is still very present and in most of the cases goes along with the division between the colonial countries (Europe) and the colonised ones (Africa). What are the conclusions coming from the film? What were your motivations to make the film? How could the situation of people coming to stay in Europe be improved?

I come from Brazil, and like all the countries in Latin America, we have a colonial past. Although Spain and Portugal left the area much earlier than it happened in African countries that never meant, Latin American countries had achieved sovereignty. It is just that the ruler changed from an official coloniser European country to the direct influence of the United States of America, which since always had interfered in the politics of Latin America, making the hell of the lives of its populations. The history of Brazil is a succession of coup d’etats, corruption and authoritarian governments as we are experiencing right now since the impeachment of the legitimately elected president Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of former president Lula and the election of Jair Bolsonaro “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world” a quote I like by the Intercept journalist Glen Greenwald. Last but not least it’s important to mention that Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in the Western World and is racist in its core even though the countries majority population is black or of black descent.

I guess my motivations to work with other migrants has a lot to do with these shared experiences, memories.

At the time I made the film “Residenzpflicht” and after it’s release, I must confess I was very optimistic. As I said, I had met with self-organised groups of migrants and refugees such as The Voice and The Caravan and I was lucky to be part of the refugee movement in Berlin.

However, then came the backlash. In 2015, refugees, mainly from Syria, got stuck in the outer borders of the European Union. At one-point Chancellor Angela Merkel decided she wouldn’t close the borders of Germany. This decision though was misunderstood as if Merkel had opened the borders of the country and allowed refugees in without having any control of it and this led to a prompt polarisation in the society. Whilst some welcomed the Syrian refugees, others joined demonstrations calling for the resignation of Merkel. The up until then inexpressive right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) also began to grow and in 2016 granted for itself around 100 seats at the federal parliament. Nothing similar to this had happened since the end of the second world war. So, this was the atmosphere we began to see unfolding before our eyes.

Speaking of improvement of the lives of asylum seekers searching for protection in Europe, I would say that it is also essential to discuss why people are being forced to come.  The Caravan group used to work with a slogan that I find very powerful “We are here because you destroyed our lands”. So, it starts there, and for those of us working with migrant women, it is also imperative to bear in mind that the fact that fewer women than men claim asylum in Europe should not lead to the conclusion that women are less persecuted than men. Women face additional forms of persecution such as rape, as spoil of war, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, trafficking of women, forced abortion, honor killing, punishment for adultery, for not accepting the gender assigned at birth, punishment for violating dress code, forced marriage… and we haven’t even started to analyse how much globalization and the modernization of agriculture, reorganized on a commercial and export-oriented basis affect women who work in domestic agriculture in countries in Latin America or Africa for example.

To go deeper into the subject, I suggest Silvia Federici’s book “Women, Globalization and the International Women’s Movement”.

Once people had been already forced to move to Europe, the minimum required for a common struggle and improvement of lives, in general, is to deeply understand what migration all is about and take a side, a clear position. People can either decide that the freedom of movement of people is a human right or accept laws and regulations that deny this fundamental human right to a specific group. The consequence of accepting that minorities are treated differently than the mainstream society is always dangerous, and the tendency is that in the end society as a whole loses rights achieved in more progressive times.

Poland is the only country in the EU that hasn’t accepted any Syrian refugees escaping the war. The right-wing government explains that Poland already granted asylum to Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians and Chechens and that war refugees from the Arab countries are too culturally and religiously distant and should be supplied in their countries of origin. The irony is that after the II WW almost 120.000 Polish refugees escaping from Siberia to Teheran from the Russian totalitarian regime, found shelter in Iran and live there happily until the present day.

In this kind of nationalistic, anti-refugees’ argumentation, Christian often equals European’ identity is mentioned as being under thread. This latter fear exists and is used as a political force in every Western country, from Poland, through Germany to the United States. Do you have some experiences in how to dismantle those white, Christian and very often male gendered fears?

Yes, the irony you mentioned: the fact that thousands of Polish refugees fled to Iran and found shelter there versus their refusal to accept refugees in Poland. I also ask myself where empathy is gone? Partly it has to do with ignorance. People are told that there is a wave of migration to Europe, that Europe cannot be responsible for accommodating all refugees. Well, but it does not! Reality is that for the fourth consecutive year, Turkey hosted the most significant number of refugees worldwide, with 3.5 million people. After Turkey, comes Pakistan, Lebanon and Uganda, informs the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Then comes racism. As long as people believe that white people are more humans than people of colour and therefore have more rights we are not getting anywhere. The same way with religion: as long as any religion denies the right of existence of other forms of religion, we are stuck. So of course, as long as patriarchy perpetuates the violent idea that men have more rights than women no one will live in freedom.

To dismantle ideas of superiority from one group against the other is a daily individual and collective struggle. The question is: are the dominant groups willing to get rid of their privileges to create equality in societies? We can only answer that by acting upon it, by refusing any discrimination.

In Poland since the Black Protests in 2016 — the grassroots demonstrations of women fighting against the tightening of one of the strictest abortion laws in the world — feminism became a mainstream topic. The reproductive rights of women in Poland haven’t been improved since then, but at least the protesters prevented them from going worse. Do you think that the refugee women’s struggles and for example Polish ones, could be combined, could we support each other? Is it possible to build up an international, intersectional and multicultural feminist movement, and if yes then how?

Yes, I think the struggles must be combined beginning with the recognition that patriarchy is a global problem that affects each one of us wherever we are. It manifests differently depending on the region of the world you are in, but it is there, and it continues to be a real obstacle for women’s emancipation.

We followed your strikes in Poland and the mass protests of women in Argentina against the abortion ban; the Brazilian women went to the streets all over the country to shout “Ele Não” (Not him!) against the fascist now president elected Jair Bolsonaro. We are aware and connected with the women organising marches in Latin America against macho violence. We work with Kurdish women in Germany, who are very active in support of the struggle in Rojava and other Kurdish areas. In our group, there are women from South Korea and Ireland who report about the mobilisations in their respective countries also in defence of women’s reproductive rights. We followed the march of women against Trump, which is especially relevant due to the importance of the USA in global geopolitics.

So, it is possible to combine our struggles against sexist violence, opposition to precarious work and wage inequality, while also opposing homophobia, transphobia and xenophobic migration policies. I have the feeling that a new international feminist movement with a broad, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, anti-patriarchy agenda is forming. Though I think we have to be stronger when addressing the problems of women migrating to Europe, who in most cases, are carrying out domestic work, taking care of the children, the elderly and becoming part of a phenomenon called “global maternity” and “global care”, quoting like Silvia Federici.

The moment for internationalist feminism is there, and we have to start putting into practice what we’ve been understanding and discussing under the banner of intersectional feminism.

In Berlin 2015, we formed, an Alliance of internationalist Feminists and we invite you to visit and subscribe our Facebook page, where you can find out more of how we have been organising on an international level.