Welcome to Germany: Inside the Bavarian refugee hotel

Matthias Kossmehl discusses his film Cafe Waldluft, which is an intimate look at the new “home” of 35 refugees.

Witness - Cafe Waldluft

Cafe Waldluft, nestled in the small village of Berchtesgaden amid the clouds-covered Bavarian Alps, was once a busy tourist destination. In 2015, however, it became home to refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, as they navigate bureaucratic hurdles waiting to be granted asylum, while worrying about the families they have been separated from and wondering what the future has in store for them.

Flora Kurz, the nurturing, elderly owner of Cafe Waldluft, looks out for her new tenants. She now turns away would-be guests as her hotel is completely occupied by about 35 refugees, who call her “Mama Flora”.

Filmmaker Matthias Kossmehl followed Cafe Waldluft’s residents as they get to know one another, tourists who come to eat at the hotel and locals from the village, sharing fragments of the rich cultures and lives they left behind, their customs and personal stories. 

Al Jazeera spoke to Kossmehl about following this social experiment of sorts – a microcosm of what is happening across the European Union. His film uncovers an important vision of empathy towards accepting the ongoing refugee crisis as found in the remarkable place which Cafe Waldluft has become.

The refugees at Cafe Waldluft call the hotel owner “Mama Flora” [Matthias Kossmehl]

Al Jazeera:  Why did you decide to focus on this hotel?

Matthias Kossmehl:  I grew up in a small village near Berchtesgaden, Germany, a rural place where traditions are still very important. For many strangers, this place is Bavaria as they know it from idyllic postcards and films.

As a child, I grew up in a paradisal state, where problems like international conflicts were far away from western societies. The world’s crises were limited to television reports, watched to pass the time.

But within the past two years, I saw how the arrival of refugees transformed the sleepy villages and the societies within them. As a filmmaker from this region, it was interesting to observe how the environment in which I grew up in changed so much.

When I read about a small hotel nearby which hosted asylum seekers, I started my research into other nearby villages and visited a lot of different hotels. I followed the increasing number of refugee arrivals and heard about more and more hotels which were being transformed, overnight, into homes for asylum seekers and refugees.

These developments were sometimes followed by strong protests from the local residents.

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I visited a lot of different locations until I came to Berchtesgaden and found the hotel Cafe Waldluft – a unique place, a very special place, which was so different from any of the hotels I had been to before.

Run by an old woman named “Mama Flora” by the refugee residents, the hotel impressed me from the very beginning. As I discovered the place, with its strange visitors and encounters, I found more and more a kind of utopia.

In all the discussions about the influx of refugees, the questions on how to handle the situation, how to integrate the people, to find this place of humanity, which showed how simple it could be and what unconventional ways people will find to get on with each other, were far away from any politics.

The hotel’s history is also interesting. It was built at the end of the 20th century, and it hosted the first tourists in Berchtesgaden, while the former owner of Cafe Waldluft, the mayor of Berchtesgaden, had to flee from the Nazis to the United States, where he started a new life.

Soon after he fled, Flora’s father-in-law bought Cafe Waldluft. He, too, was displaced from his former hotel in Obersalzberg, a place best known as the site of Adolf Hitler’s former mountain residence. Berchtesgaden was also used by the Nazis as place of Arian propaganda.

Cafe Waldluft is located in the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden [Matthias Kossmehl / Al Jazeera]
Cafe Waldluft is located in the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden [Matthias Kossmehl / Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera:  How are the hotels compensated for taking in asylum seekers?

Kossmehl:  As the amount of refugees arriving in Germany at the moment is so high, the government and the municipalities are desperately searching for hotels, apartments or rooms. It’s a kind of situation in which they have to act without delay. They call hotels, ask homeowners or advertise in newspapers.

There is no one process; they’re mainly improvising and trying to handle the situation as best as they can. There are still people arriving on a daily basis, so this chaos is not about to get any smoother. It might even continue for the next few years. The government pays the hotels for hosting refugees.

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Al Jazeera:  Are there many hotels that have become solely occupied by asylum seekers, like the one featured in your film?               

Kossmehl: I don’t know a precise number but there are many hotels all over Germany taking in refugees and asylum seekers. It’s important to note that before the refugee crisis many of these hotels were not as profitable as they once were.

In recent years, the tourism industry in Germany has gone through a slow period, especially in former tourism hotspots such as Berchtesgaden. Until the late 1990s, tourists stayed in hotels, on average, for about one week. Now they stay for a maximum of three days or less. Basic bed-and-breakfasts are not what modern tourists expect any more.

Mama Flora’s old-fashioned Cafe Waldluft was struggling to make money so she decided to take in a handful of asylum seekers, to stay at the hotel, alongside tourists. The asylum seeker to tourist ratio was roughly 50/50.

This worked very well for international tourists, who didn’t even identify the asylum seekers as such. But Mama Flora found that some local tourists refused to holiday in the same hotel as asylum seekers, which caused a lot of problems for her business. Flora then took the decision to host mainly refugees and only rarely makes an exception for her regular clients. Generally, hotels with asylum seekers don’t take normal guests any more.

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Al Jazeera: Can you tell us a bit about the back stories of the main characters in your film?

Kossmehl: Twenty-seven-year-old Jamshid Hamta, from Afghanistan, became the cook and right hand of Mama Flora. He also became the accountant of Cafe Waldluft, so he managed to make the most of his time there, but things were not so good when he first arrived.

He had a good life in Afghanistan and was member of a well-respected family. In fact, his father was an officer in the Afghan army. After various threats by the Taliban, the family decided to send him out of the country, but the Taliban caught him before he left and beat him up very badly.

Soon after, he escaped out of the country and eventually ended up at the hotel with a bad head injury from the attack. After few days in Berchtesgaden, he received a call from Afghanistan and was told that his father was shot dead by the Taliban. He shut himself in his room, crying every night.

For Flora, it was the first time she understood that her new guests were special. It was also the moment that she found purpose in helping asylum seekers and refugees as best she could. She went beyond simply hosting the residents and did everything in her capacity to give Jamshid a new perspective on life. He is paid for his work at the hotel, and he sends the money to his mother and sister. 

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Soon after Jamshid Hamta, 27, arrived in Germany the Taliban killed his father [Matthias Kossmehl]
Soon after Jamshid Hamta, 27, arrived in Germany the Taliban killed his father [Matthias Kossmehl]

Abdul Razzak is from Syria. In his former life, as a trader dealing in pistachio nuts, he travelled all over Europe for business.

When the demonstrations in Syria began he went on the streets to protest against Bashar al-Assad. But he was arrested by the regime and spent 59 days in prison where he was tortured. He fled with his wife and his three children to Jordan.

From there, he travelled alone to Germany with the plan to be reunited with his family as soon as possible. While we were shooting the film, he was trying to bring his family to Germany, which he was unable to do because of missing papers. Some months ago, however, his wife arrived with his three children and she is now pregnant with their fourth child, who will be born in Germany.

Abdul Razzak, from Syria, spent much of his time at Cafe Waldluft trying to bring his family to Germany from Jordan [Matthias Kossmehl]
Abdul Razzak, from Syria, spent much of his time at Cafe Waldluft trying to bring his family to Germany from Jordan [Matthias Kossmehl]

Imthias Ahmad, 28, is from Pakistan. Currently in a state of limbo, he has spent the past four years away from home and misses his family terribly while he waits for a decision to be made about his legal status in the country.

Every day, he falls deeper into a state of depression about his unclear status. He has a job in Berchtesgaden as a painter and earns enough so that the government no longer has to supplement his income. It’s not much, but it makes Imthias proud to be able to stand on his own two feet.      

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Hardy Jallo, also 28, from Sierra Leone, is another key asylum seeker at Cafe Waldluft. After staying for one year, his application to stay in the country was rejected and he was told that he would be deported.

He refused, and tried to kill himself by jumping off the balcony. But he survived and was told that he would be deported to Sierra Leone, after he had recovered from his injuries.

A group of people from Berchtesgaden, however, led by Mama Flora, intervened and fought against the deportation order.

They even brought him into church asylum in Berchtesgaden, where police could not enter. After a month of staying at the church, the government was forced to revisit his case. Jallo eventually won and now has permission to stay in the country legally. He has since found a job as a health carer.

Update: In 2017, Cafe Waldluft was forced to close because Mama Flora could not afford the 200,000 euros needed to meet new government fire safety regulations.

Only five refugees are allowed to stay at the hotel. Many of the the others had to relocate to fire-safe accommodation.

Source: Al Jazeera