By İnci Nazlıcan Sağırbaşbaş
Regardless of our backgrounds, the concept of home is central to our belonging, it is a matter of feeling comfortable and safer. While the emerging housing crisis in Berlin results in a massive housing shortage, high rent prices, informal housing arrangements, and unjust rental procedures for almost everyone, it adds to the vulnerability of international students who are already in discriminatory and structurally challenging processes. Newly arrived international students are bound to go through various difficulties in finding a relatively stable or affordable place while also struggling with the barriers of language, law, and bureaucracy. They have to constantly navigate the various stereotypes ingrained in people’s minds, while not having the possibility of having a permanent place to live or basic utilities such as ‘a possibility of Anmeldung’.
I want to talk in particular about the experiences of finding a home in Berlin through online portals and the perceptions of the city for some international students through their various practices of home-making. How do these practices of ‘making a home’ such as finding an accommodation, settlement, building support networks, and dealing with the bureaucracy outline and influence the sense of belonging in the city? The process supporting this essay comprises auto-ethnographic research and semi-structured in-depth interviews with a homogeneous sample of international students. The following questions were asked according to the way conversations proceed: What were the biggest obstacles for you in finding housing? How did the process make you feel? What help did you get? How do you think your identity as an immigrant and a student has affected the outcomes? In total, 8 people were interviewed, 6 women and 2 men, all non-EU citizens and from middle-upper classes. The interviews provided limited data on personal and collective behaviors and trajectories while considering the complexity of the relationship between the immigrant’s experience in the city and the role of home-making.
‘While I was looking for an apartment I sent hundreds of messages without any reply, however when my partner with her German last name sent a few messages she got several replies and that’s how we found our first place.’
I, like most of my fellow international students, have looked at and applied to countless flatshares during my first months in Berlin. It became an automatic act to check new offers, answer questions, and send motivational, desperately positive, and personal messages to complete strangers on a daily basis. It was the first thing I did in the morning and the last in the evening. There were several identities crashing into each other in my mind, and I was struggling to describe who I was for the prospective flatmates who were so confident in their attempts to categorize us. With one short paragraph or two, we needed to build trust, find the correct length, and leave a positive memory. The pressure this task creates is overwhelming and non-ending. But, we were actively and collectively forming solidarities and making Berlin our home while we were searching for the houses that would contain our bodies and lives. The collectivity of the struggle and the humor that surrounded this practice of looking for a home in Berlin was one of the few things that made the anxiety of being without a stable place better.
‘The feeling that Berlin is full of immigrants also makes me feel like I’m not the only one in the same situation.’
The portals like ‘wg-gesucht’ are constantly building a collective memory of the housing crisis in Berlin which is steadily getting worse in the last couple of years. But after the months we spent on those websites and finally finding a flat in Berlin, what else does this experience teach us? What do we gain and lose, create and waste with all the time and effort we put into this? The main findings of the interviews showed that people from similar backgrounds or ethnicities were creating the main support systems and ‘arrival structures’ for the newcomers such as the established diaspora, old colleagues, or friends of friends. As well as more anonymous sources such as Reddit threads and Facebook, WhatsApp, or Telegram groups. These informal and mostly online practices were elements almost everyone utilized.
The last-minute changes and fast-paced nature of searching for a home in Berlin made it into a side job for most of us. We created fluid identities around requirements like a vegan diet, undying love of techno music, or open-door rules while the prospective flatmates were trying to navigate through the flood of hundreds of applications. We felt isolated, rejected, and without a community after hundreds of tries without getting any answers back while they were feeling confused, overwhelmed, and guilty. We were stuck in a type of “permanent temporariness” (Steigemann & Misselwitz, 2020) marked by uncertainty and exclusion as the outcomes of neo-liberal politics in Berlin. Maybe because we were privileged with our middle-upper class backgrounds and student identities, we all found a way to stay in Berlin. Now, when I asked ‘How do you feel about it now?’ to the interviewees, the memories of anxiety and stress faded into funny stories and anecdotes. But, even though the memories are almost always subjective, situated, and temporal, it doesn’t mean they are any less valuable.
‘Having some friends here and knowing the language helped me. Since I lived in Germany before, I already knew small stuff like the labels and brands of my favorite yogurt or toothpaste. Little things that make you feel at home.’
The temporalities of making a home in Berlin heavily affect our engagement in our daily practices and perception of the city. Our experiences as immigrants in a new country and city rely on our routines and daily life creating a ‘practical consciousness’ (Giddens, 1991). The findings reveal that the dynamic character of home-making and sense of belonging is also unilinear and temporal. Language and social citizenship are indicators of the more structural aspects of belonging with attention to individuality and ethnic backgrounds. However, an immigrant’s incapability to exercise their agency in everyday social practices results in a lack of self-confidence and a sense of disappointment. Despite these feelings, we actively make a home in Berlin while establishing relations and seeking security, control, and continuity.
‘I think it helps to be a student because you have the back of a whole university, so it’s easy to accredit why you migrated here. It is also very helpful to speak the language because they don’t notice you are new in town and act friendlier at the public offices. On the other hand, you are able to apply for social housing or any contract directly in your name.’
The initial struggles of migration make us focus almost entirely on finding an apartment and livelihood more than the socio-cultural relations we need to build to call somewhere home. However, through the struggles with our agencies, practices, and solidarities; many of us already started calling Berlin our new home. As an urban designer and architect from Turkey, the ghost stories of squatting movements and migrant struggles in Berlin were hanging at the back of my brain during these last months. Although Germany prides itself in free education and Berlin is known to be a hub for internationals from all over the world, it may soon only be open to a select and wealthy few, and the diasporic roots, solidarity groups, and the movements against the housing crisis may not be enough to make Berlin our new home.
Boccagni, P. (2017). Migration and the Search for Home: Mapping Domestic Space in Migrants’ Everyday Lives. Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-58802-9
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.de/books?id=Jujn_YrD6DsC
Hamann, U. & Türkmen, C. (2020) Communities of struggle: the making of a protest movement around housing, migration and racism beyond identity politics in Berlin, Territory, Politics, Governance, 8:4, 515-531, DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2020.1719191
Smith, E. (2022) Student Experiences of Berlin’s Housing Crisis, https://berlinspectator.com/2022/05/15/erica-smith-student-experiences-of-berlins-housing-crisis/
Steigemann, A. & Misselwitz, P. (2020) . Architectures of asylum: Making home in a state of permanent temporariness. Current Sociology, Special Issue: Researching Home: Choices, Challenges, Opportunities, pp. 628-650.
About the author
İnci graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Izmir Institute of Technology in Turkey. She studied at the University of Ferrara and Hochschule Koblenz as an exchange student. She later assumed a research position at the Architecture and Urbanism Research Academy Istanbul where she focused on engaging with different bodies and ways of living together with urban animals through informal design practices. She is resuming her studies in the Urban Design Master program at TU Berlin while taking part in several local and student initiatives such as Nesin İstasyon in Izmir and ifa_diaspora in Berlin.