Curatorial Statement

The Archive of Refuge was created as a digital memory site where histories of flight and displacement to Germany in the 20th and 21st centuries are preserved and reflected. Both East and West Germany – and the relationship between them – were influenced from the outset by the experiences of people who left everything behind and found refuge there. The people who tell their stories in the archive talk of flight and displacement, of torture, exploitation and the deprivation of rights, but also of hope and happiness; they tell of home and exile, of belonging and new beginnings – and ultimately they also reveal surprising, wide-ranging perspectives on German history.

Their stories show that flight and migration to Germany is neither an exception nor an anomaly triggered by crisis; rather, it is historically commonplace. Only with and through these stories can we understand the present and the future. What similarities exist between these different experiences of flight, and what differences? How do experiences of flight change over the decades? What hopes and ambitions and what traumas have people brought with them? Is there any recurring pattern to the way people settle in their new homes or sense exclusion? How are the social, political and cultural thresholds to belonging in a place negotiated or shifted? What does that tell us about here? What does it actually mean to seek refuge?

The Archive of Refuge took its time coming into being. A year and a half of workshops with an interdisciplinary team of interviewers and advisers was undertaken to reflect on several issues: What concept of refuge underlies this archive? What time frame should it cover? How can we make sure that the conversations filmed on camera do not echo the experience of a hearing by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees? What themes and motifs should be common to all the conversations? But at the same time, how open and loose should the interviewers keep the conversations? How do we ensure that the depth of the narratives and the width of perspectives and backgrounds complement each other?

Together, the team drew up guidelines for the interviews: each begins with childhood and ends now, passing through the initial decision to seek refuge elsewhere and then onto the sometimes speedy, sometimes slow and tortuous, journey, until arriving at the person’s short time or several decades in Germany so far.

The interviewers bring very different academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds to the project. Along with a variety of experiences and forms of knowledge, the group also contributes a wide spectrum in terms of age, migration experience and origin. The interviewers who embarked together on this multiyear project are Jewish, Muslim, atheist, homosexual and heterosexual, of Color and white.

Only after that intense preparation did we start reaching out to and communicating with various communities, associations and aid organizations in search of participants. Care was constantly taken to ensure that the choice of conversation partners did not replicate the usual mechanisms of exclusion and discrimination: the quest for specific experiences and countries of origin was highly targeted. The narratives of women, people with fewer educational qualifications and older people were to be just as visible as those of young, employed men.

Although we made every effort to cover a broad spectrum of narratives and experiences, we realize that our project is incomplete. An archive always signals an ability and a desire for it to be continued and extended. The final sample we compiled lays no claim to full representation.

The Archive of Refuge collects memories from different generations, ranging from people who had to flee from Silesia in 1945 to those who fled Libya in 2016. It covers a wide spectrum: the storyteller may be young or old, it may have been a mother or a daughter who was forced to abandon everything.

The archive unites contributors from a total of 28 countries of origin in South America, Africa, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Near and Middle East, Southeast and East Asia. They also have extremely varied social and cultural backgrounds, religions and sexualities. Out of 19 women and 23 men, four identify as LGBTQIA+. They are shepherds and professors, working class and upper class. At the time of recording, the protagonists ranged in age from 19 to 87 years old.

In collaboration with the filmmaker Heidi Specogna, the conceptual approach devised for the shoot creates a distinctive visual style and aesthetic for the archive, one meant to clearly signal our respect for the people who have trusted their narratives to the archive and thus made them public. All of the interviews will be available online starting September 30, 2021.

The interview films in German and English will be made permanently available to the public and usable for not only political education and migration research. Together with the publication of the online archive, the films will appear in an installation at HKW and simultaneously at the Goethe-Instituts in Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Istanbul, Sarajevo, Tirana and Zagreb. For the duration of the installation at HKW, workshops with students and teachers will initiate political education projects. The Archive of Refuge will open at HKW with four opening days aimed at producing a memory politics contribution to current migration discourses, during which theorists, activists and project participants will discuss the necessities of a pluralistic understanding of society in light of current political circumstances.

Carolin Emcke and Manuela Bojadžijev, curators of Archive of Refuge