Monday, 18 July 2011

Memories of Berlin - 2 - the underbelly of a city

In September this year it will be 30 years since I came to live and work in Berlin - just for a year. I came to work at the Evangelisches Johannsstift which is a large Protestant diaconal institution based in Spandau. I worked in a children's home as a volunteer worker. I was just 18 years old. The five "children" I was working with were aged 12-17. Until half way through the year when we started to talk about birthdays they all assumed I was about 30 ...
The children were a family, they had the same mother but different fathers. Being in care saved all of their lives. The two youngest who had been in care and a stable home the longest were coping well with their education. The others were struggling.
Being a tourist in a city there is lots that we choose to turn a blind eye to, hidden and obvious poverty, clear sexual and other forms of exploitation, old people pushed to the margins, people begging ... homeless people.
Thinking about the five young people I shared a year with, about the couple who lived with them day in day out and their three year old daughter, I feel a bit guilty. I know nothing of their current lives. I was just another carer moving through. Was I part of the continuity of care or the discontinuity of care? Did I show them they were loved and important and worthy of better lives, or were they just part of the well-meaning CV of a privileged young woman. Quite probably I got more out of my year than I was really able to put in. Thirty years on I recognise much more clearly how much they needed continuity of love, relationship and care. But they were in a system and systems only rarely offer any of that. Caring for and living with disturbed youngsters takes its toll on the adults, the professionals being paid to do the job. Often the system ends up dealing with their needs as much as with the needs of the youngsters.
Big cities are wonderful vibrant cultural places. They are also places with many cracks for people to fall between. All of our societies need to be measured on how well we are looking after and tranforming the lives of the most disadvantaged.
Being a tourist today I still remember that one of the first sides to this city which I discovered was a side not in many guide books.