The Plight of the Tiergarten’s Black Birds
The 520 acre Tiergarten park in Berlin, home to the is a well-known place for a lovely summer stroll or a beer by the lake. But the north side of the park is also a hot spot for refugee sex workers.
Although it’s been legal in Germany since 2002, regulations prevent undocumented refugees from legally engaging in sex work – or any work, for that matter. The refugees play a waiting game, unable to work or go to school, while the gears of government machinery slowly grind ahead. Refugees from non-prioritized counties, countries that aren’t currently experiencing armed conflict, often have to wait even longer for papers, and are more likely to face deportation. It’s this profound lack of options that have driven some male refugees to participate in the sex work trade to generate even some kind income.
Word Press Photo award-winning photographer and visual researcher Heba Khamis was able, through careful persistence, to connect with some of the boys – mostly Shi’a Afghan Hazaras – and document a side of life that otherwise mostly goes unnoticed by the tourists and Berliners otherwise enjoying the park.
The resulting photos paint an eerily gothic picture. Dark and slightly unsaturated, with deep greens and playful shadows, the pictures are accompanied by snippets of conversation between Khamis and the boys, who’ve been kept anonymous to protect their identities.
“The place is vertically divided into three areas,” says Khamis. “The first part is for Afghan and Iranian refugees. In the middle, there are Romanian and Bulgarian male sex workers, and the last part is the border for sex workers where they can not cross nor work. During the summer, naked men enjoy the sunny days in cold Germany. In the first two parts, many men circle around on their bikes while young sex workers call out “Hello, all is good?” to everyone, hoping to catch a customer.”
Heaven and earth cry when we do [this] stuff. What should I do? I don’t steal, I don’t disrespect people but I have to earn money.”
It’s a tense, uncertain life for refugees, where drug use, depression, and homelessness are pervasive.
“Once you are in the park you are one little step away from hell,” says Ahmed, who frequents the park.
“Heaven and earth cry when we do [this] stuff.” says Ali, another refugee. “What should I do? I don’t steal, I don’t disrespect people but I have to earn money.”
The Shi’a Hazaras that Khamis met talked of fleeing persecution from the Taliban in their native Afghanistan. The sex work is something of a Sophie’s choice for them, as well. Their religious tradition take a dim view of homosexual activity, and they could potentially face violence or death were their families back home to discover what they were doing to survive.
“They use drugs to forget about their situation, their lives pause, and fight the boredom,” confirms Khamis. “To afford the drugs, they start prostitution and continue using drugs to forget about the shameful feeling they have after prostituting themselves. They end up in a blind alley, escaping the reality. The need of drugs and the pain without it, give them a mission to go out to work. It becomes the only thing that they have.”
*Publisher’s Note: The original photos were removed from this article at the request of the rights holder.