Interpreting the Big City

I worked as an interpreter in Berlin – here’s what I heard

For a number of years, I had a (sometimes) fascinating job interpreting between the German and English languages for the Berlin police and courts, as well as other official offices. I was so intrigued about the people I got to know, stories I would not have otherwise encountered in my rather protected life, that I captured many of them in prose. Always changing a few crucial details, like names and places, but nonetheless working to capture the original flavor of the encounter and the individuals I met. This is a selection of some of those stories.

One of the most haunting jobs was a series of appointments I interpreted for an African woman forced into sex work in Frankfurt. Both telling Anna’s story and bringing myself in, my text was published under my pen name in Novelty (issue entitled "Spinning Stories") in Dec. 2017. The magazine has unfortunately been offline since 2020.

Bearing Witness to Anna

Four of us sit in Herr M.’s office at Berlin’s State Office of Criminal Investigation, a massive, rundown thirty-year old building of steel and glass: Anna, who is being heard, accompanied by Monika, a social worker from “Solidarity with Women in Distress”; Herr M., the detective; and myself, an interpreter whom the police call in maybe six times a year. I will transform Anna’s spoken English words into written German in a transcript to be sent to the public prosecutor if the questioning results in a case. As always, before we start I know nothing about what we will discuss.

Herr M. begins by asking Anna to give us a sense of her background: her home and family situation, what things were like for her growing up. Anna comes from the capital city of a large East African country. Her mother works a small farm in a village in the countryside, and she has five siblings. She attended thirteen years of school, three years of university and started working as a teacher in 2006.

I’m surprised—all that schooling, and more than ten years ago? Looking again, I see she is indeed in her mid-30s. The details emerge slowly, as if Anna has buried her early years. She tells how teaching at private schools was preferable to state schools because you earned more, but you had to pay bribes to get those jobs. The short-term teaching contracts she got over a few years barely sufficed to live on.

Herr M. pushes for facts to better substantiate her story. “What is the name of the school where you taught?” Anna starts to list them, but “there were too many; it’s hard to remember them all.”

She began working in the beauty business, opening a hair salon with her school friend Belle. She and Belle also lived together. Herr M. types the name and location of the salon. When asked the street address of their apartment, she waves her hand: “It’s not like here. You don’t have a contract. You stay in one place, then another.”

One day in 2013, out of the blue, Belle said: “I’m leaving tomorrow. For Europe.” Everyone Anna knew dreamt of travelling to Europe. Those who’d returned from overseas could afford to build nice houses and live well. In her country it’s difficult to make ends meet. Belle headed to the countryside to say goodbye to her family. Her phone was turned off, and the two didn’t speak again.

Months passed. Then Belle called to say she was in the Netherlands, studying and working too, everything was very good, but she had to keep things short as it was a borrowed phone. Later she called again, saying she’d been helped by her uncle, Mr. K., who wanted to help Anna get to Europe too. That he was a good man: he travelled regularly between Europe and their country, and would contact her the next time he was in the capital. (A little voice in Anna’s head said, “I’ve known Belle all my life. Uncle? I don’t remember her mentioning this uncle.”)

Mr. K. said he regularly obtained scholarships to study in Europe. Her dream had been to study medicine, but she’d had to become a teacher. Training in Europe to become a nurse? What an opportunity! She agreed that he should apply for a visa for her.

At irregular intervals, Belle’s “uncle” called Anna, and they met. He requested that she introduce him to her mother and siblings back in the village: to be able to contact them, he said, should anything happen to her in Europe. Late in 2014, she was issued a visa by the Italian Embassy. It would automatically be switched to a student visa, he said, and there was a place waiting for her at a university. She didn’t ask details about the country or the university—she simply trusted Mr. K.’s expertise in these matters.

When Anna left the room briefly, Herr M. asked me whether I was as surprised as he was that an educated woman hadn’t wanted to know more details about her future university. The detectives often ask my opinion of what we’re hearing. I said I wasn’t sure.

Mr. K. repeatedly told her how easy it was to get work in Europe—taking care of old people or children, even cleaning the streets. “Just imagine what 100 or 150 Euros could buy at home!” Though Anna longed to study, she was willing to work on the side. She’d do what was necessary.

Anna speaks softly and deliberately with some hesitations, as if she believes her words have great significance. Her English is excellent and we understand each other well. Herr M. types the German version I dictate to him, sometimes adjusting my wording. I’m uncomfortable when he is typing, as I don’t know where to rest my gaze.

Upon leaving the Embassy, Mr. K. placed Anna’s passport with the brand-new visa in his own pocket “for safekeeping,” as he said. Though she spontaneously thought, “If I had it, I could travel to Europe without him!”, she told herself he knew how these things are done.

Anna is a woman of medium height, with beautiful, curly, shoulder-length dark hair and mocha-colored skin. She’s dressed in sturdy casual clothes that fit and look quite new; I imagine they were provided to her by Monika’s organization. As the hours pass, I become annoyed by Monika, her sanctimonious way of phrasing her words to Herr M. in a small-town southern German accent, how she fussily crosses her legs—what a self-righteous do-gooder! But at the same time, I’m irked by my own discomfort with Monika: Anna obviously trusts her. Why am I being so petty?

Her voice cracking, Anna tells us that something happened on the way to the airport: “He drove me to a shrine. I’d never seen anything like it before. We Christians don’t believe in witchcraft. But we’ve seen it work. And we’ve heard stories of animals being sacrificed, children being sacrificed. ...”

Herr M. asks her, “What do you mean by witchcraft? What do you mean, you believe it works?” She said there’d been many news reports on incidents of sacrifice and kidnapping. After the session I read online, horrified, that many children had indeed been kidnapped and even sacrificed in the 2010s in her home country, that the BBC and others had reported on the subject: “black magic priests” had led gullible nouveaux riches to believe these sacrifices would help them get richer. My quick-fire skeptical reaction had been unfair: the issue was genuine.

“We went through dark rooms, through passages, until we came to a man, a priest. And then they did a ceremony using my fingernails, my toenail, some of my hair—I wouldn’t let them cut into my head and draw blood. They smeared medicines on me. Mr. K. yelled at me, full of rage—never in our encounters had he been like that—‘You owe me so much money for everything I’ve done for you. I’m going to make sure you pay me back. I’ve helped so many people—and when they get to Europe, they disappear. I know where your family lives. I’ll kill you. Or I’ll hurt them. When we get to Europe, you’ll have to work to pay me back!’”

As they headed to the airport and flew from Kampala to Berlin, Anna had a sinking feeling she was in big trouble. Mr. K. said that the plane ticket had cost more than $1,000—and he’d done so much else besides, filled out the forms, introduced her at the Embassy. He had her passport; he knew how things worked abroad. She tried to appear confident and reliable nevertheless.

They got off the plane, took a train, then a taxi to a house. Everything Anna experienced was completely new. They arrived at an apartment where she slept for many hours. When she awoke, she looked around, surprised not to see Mr. K.’s wife and children—hadn’t he led her to understand that he lived with them in Europe? Later Mr. K. cooked, saying, “People usually cook for themselves here. Eating out is very expensive.” Two West Africans arrived—she recognized their English accent from films. Mr. K. didn’t involve her in the conversation, and she felt out of place. She went back to the small room containing a single bed, a clothes cupboard and a small table.

Suddenly, the three men burst into the room, and Mr. K. yelled, “From now on, you will do exactly what I say. You belong to me. I know where your family lives.” At this point the two other men began pulling her clothes off.

Herr M. asks what, in my experience, policemen always ask: “Did you put up a fight? Did you defend yourself?”

Bristling, Anna says, “Of course! I yelled and tried to get away. But what could I do—one woman against three men?”

And then, Anna reports, the men began to alternate taking her by force, raping her. When one was finished, another came in. Sometimes she could sleep for a few hours. It went on and on, endlessly, for two or three weeks. She didn’t eat much, just drank a little water. At some point Mr. K. started bringing paying clients.

Describing what happened in her first weeks in Europe, tears run down Anna’s face. I ask Herr M. and Monika, indignantly, if someone can please provide a tissue to this poor woman, who is by then choking on her tears. The detective stands up and walks next door to get a pack of tissues.

Herr M. shifts to question mode: Didn’t you say you had to work in a brothel, in various brothels? Where were they, did you see any signs? Did you catch Mr. K.’s real name or the other Africans’ or anyone at the brothel? Can you describe the place? Usually there’s a bar in front—do you remember the person who worked behind it?

And what about the money? What about the prices? Didn’t you have to agree the price with the johns before anything took place?

By now we’ve been working for close to five hours, and the whole thing is obviously taking an emotional toll on Anna. We agree to continue two weeks later.

At home it occurs to me that her plane flight to Berlin should be traceable, so I call Herr M. again. He expresses his frustration that Anna has given him no leads he can follow, and “What does that tell us about her?”

“But she’s an educated and articulate woman!”

“Yes, yes,” he says, “but she wants to become a nurse, she says. Doesn’t a nurse sometimes need to remember a list of medicines?”

It hits me how poorly equipped a policeman is to deal with trauma. I feel frustrated about my insignificant role in helping to catch the men who’ve caused Anna to suffer. We’re getting nowhere. I can’t actually help her. And she doesn’t recall enough for them to investigate.

At the second appointment, Monika confirms when Anna is out of the room that, “Victims of such sexual abuse usually prefer not to recount the details of what they’ve experienced. It plunges them back into a very dark time. They need to focus on finding themselves again. She has embarked on a recovery process. This is taking her back.”

Herr M. begins by asking Anna whether anyone could confirm her personal details, meaning, I presume, her name and birth date, perhaps her university studies. (Anna has, of course, no passport or ID card from home, only the substitute German ID cards the organization has helped her obtain since running away.) She looks at him, eyes wide—is he disbelieving of her story? He suggests: “We could call your mother, for instance, from this office. She could confirm some things, for instance when you left the country ...”

To my surprise and relief, Anna bursts out emphatically: “If I were to talk to my mother—and I have not talked to her at all since any of this happened—I would have to tell her everything that brought me to this place. And I am not comfortable with that, not at all.” I’m proud of her outburst, glad she has the drive to resist him.

“Yes, okay, I just thought ...” the detective responds, dropping the subject.

Anna tries to recall the neighborhood, the apartment building and its layout. Herr M wants to know about artwork, photos, personal objects—anything to distinguish the apartment should an opportunity arise to conduct a search.

Again he asks about the transition to working as a prostitute: had Mr. K. or one of the others explained the process, the pricing to her? “No,” says Anna, “it wasn’t like that. I think the rape was to break me in, to get me used to the ‘action’. There was no formal transition: I just said that last time because it was easier to explain. Never did I see any money. I assume they were bringing the men to my door and collecting money from them, that at all times at least one of the three men was in the next room. I have no words for the filthy things those men did to me. I never looked them in the eyes. I never had any eye contact.”

My job is to help Herr M. put together a case, not to pose questions. But, curious, I ask Anna whether the men were black or white.

She answers: “Both. Mostly white.”

Is my question interfering with Herr M.’s criminological dramaturgy? Finetuning some wording on the desktop computer, he doesn’t even notice.

Anna thought that the woman who came occasionally to bring her clothes and do her hair could have been enslaved in a similar way. She asked her a few questions, hoping to evoke solidarity and perhaps come up with a plan to run away. Instead, the woman must have gone directly to Mr. K. and intimated that Anna was conspiring to leave. He and one of the others beat her violently, kicking her when she was on the ground. She begged to be allowed to call her mother. That’s when Mr. K. said: “I already did, I told her you’re fine.” At that moment, Anna understood she was in a hopeless situation, and she lost consciousness.

Herr M.: “Could you tell us who of the three was the ringleader? Who gave the instructions, who followed?” Anna looks at me with eyes wide again. I attempt to explain his question: did you get a sense that one gave the orders, that the other two were hurting you because he compelled them to? Perhaps you observed the power dynamics among them?

She shakes her head, saying: “How should I know?” And more emphatically: “Tell me, how should I know that?”

I feel shamed by her: what a luxury to think about such subtleties. Anna is fighting to regain a sense of her self—and we are asking her about psychological observations. At the same time I hear how little Herr M. has to work with.

A shift took place in Anna’s treatment after the beating, two to three months after her nightmare weeks of rape. Mr. K. started saying: “You’re my girlfriend now. I want you to dress nicely.” Anna told us incredulously she couldn’t fathom his use of the word ‘girlfriend’. Not content with leading men to her small bedroom, he started driving her to brothels (“in a nice car with tinted windows, maybe a BMW”; Herr M. would have preferred she remember the license plate). He issued threats: “The people here in Germany are cold and distant. Don’t even try talking to the neighbors.” And: “Don’t think of jumping out the window. They just sweep people up off the sidewalk here.” For a long time she undertook no further attempt to escape.

I didn’t learn how her second attempt succeeded, as it’s not relevant to the criminal case. She broke out of the house, and somehow made it to Solidarity with Women in Distress, who have supported her over the past months.

During both sessions Anna expressed frustration with her memory— “I wish I could remember more. I wish I had noticed more.” But “it was a nightmare, and I never knew what terrible, painful things could happen next. I was always aware that they could kill me.

“After our first session here at the station, I asked Monika to keep her phone on at all times, just in case I needed to call her. I’m not sure why it’s worthwhile to keep living. I’m always scared.”

Herr M. hopes she’ll be able to remember details of the car, the drive, the brothels, names that were uttered around her. But she may not be able to dig more out of her consciousness and still maintain her will to live.

I’m not sure if Anna can return to Uganda. When she had a health scare recently, she called her closest brother, the first sign of life towards her family in close to two years. He told her, “Mr. K is looking for you everywhere; he keeps calling and asking me where you are. Where are you, actually?”

When we are finally done, I want to reach out to her—she has such a pleasing presence, and has been through so much. I imagine inviting her over, loaning her English novels from my collection. Then I consider that bringing her into my comfortable life with my husband might alienate her. In addition, can I break my professional code, one day supporting the cops in finding the perpetrators of an ugly crime, the next reaching out a friendly hand? It isn’t allowed; it isn’t done.

I think of meeting at a neutral place—a walk in the park, a café. But then I think that’s presumptuous of me—just because I like her doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for me to imagine us as friends hanging out. I have experienced nothing comparable to the trauma in her life. Who am I to think that we have actually made a meaningful connection because she has a gentle manner and seemed amused by my occasional sarcastic asides?

I ride my bike home, open the door of the apartment I own with my husband, and try to write Anna’s story.


The cases revolving around sexual and emotional abuse were the most unsettling:
Pink Hair– first performed at This Berlin Life
Two Hours Every Two Weeks (first published in the online magazine Pure Slush, Nov. 2014)


Pink Hair

“Hey, Pink Hair … hey, would you like a beer?” Four guys were standing in front of a scruffy little bar on a warm night in June, plastic tables on artificial grass, passing around a joint. The name Pink Hair fit Leila, as she has coarse, thick, Koolaid pink tresses down to her waist. She was walking home. She’d had a few beers—“maybe five big Hefeweizen”—at a bar deep in Berlin’s Kreuzberg.

The word ‘home’ is not precise in her case. Leila has been in Berlin for just three months, travelling around Europe for maybe nine, carrying her guitar with her, living as a street musician. She sleeps wherever she finds a place. Just that afternoon she’d moved into a squat where she’d been given a key and assigned a mattress. She didn’t yet know the people living there, nor their routines. As she had a feeling that the squat was quite a distance from the bar, she thought she’d really better get a move on. She’d had her friend Annie draw her a map of how to walk there, said goodbye to Annie and the others at the bar, and set out.

The blocks were stretching out interminably. She had no sense yet of how far it was. And the beer was hitting her. She gratefully accepted the guys’ invitation—“Hey, join us for a joint and a beer!”—interrupting her trek back to that unfamiliar mattress. But again, it felt like she should get ‘home’, so she set off a second time. (

A car pulled up, silver, big, relatively new—“a lot newer than any car I ever had.” Leila smiled a one-sided smile at me, and I translated her words into German, “ein ganzes Stück neuer als irgendeins, was ich je hatte.”

I get called in occasionally to work as an interpreter for Berlin’s cops when the suspect or the victim doesn’t speak German and their testimony needs to be captured. The questions are posed in German, which I translate into English. And then I translate the answers back into German. There are always two cops doing the questioning, and they really do play good cop / bad cop: one asks the nitty-gritty physical details, the other is more conciliatory. The dominant cop, a small wiry lesbian with glasses, kept reminding me that it was imperative I translate everything the witness said just as she said it, “You left something out: didn’t she say the guy had brown eyes?” staring sternly at me. I tried—after all, I was being paid by the German state to help capture the witness’s testimony.

But I also felt Leila reaching for my understanding. And for an American solidarity. You see … according to her passport she’s 23 and from Kansas originally. Fair or not: we Americans associate the state of Kansas with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz saying to her little black terrier, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Implying that the rules have been turned upside-down, and nothing will ever be the same again, whereas Kansas, in contrast, is the epicenter of normalcy.

The guy driving the big silver car pulled over, opened his window, and asked Pink Hair if she wanted a ride. She named the street she was heading for, asking whether it was on his way. “Did the conversation take place in German or English?” the cop asked. “Well, if he asked me first in German, I didn’t get it. I can’t understand a thing!” The police had already asked her what she subsisted on: “A scholarship I was getting to take courses online recently ran out. So from my music.” She’d brought the guitar along to the police station.

“Do you have a special street, a particular corner you tend to play at?”

“Well, mostly just on the subway, basically on the U1.”

“What did you talk about in the car on the drive home? Can you remember anything in particular? Did he tell you anything about himself?”

“You know,” she said, reaching into her cloth handbag to pull something out, “You know, I hitchhike quite a lot.” Though the bag itself seemed very light, almost empty, it took her a while to find a crumpled piece of paper among other scraps. Someone had written ‘RICHTUNG HAMBURG’ for her in big black capital letters. She smiled a bit apologetically, “I know I really shouldn’t hitchhike, but it’s how I get around. And the drivers always tell you something about themselves, what they do for a job, where they’re from. You know: it really doesn’t interest me; it’s all the same. I’ve stopped listening to what they tell me. … His English was broken but clear enough. He must have said, ‘You want ride?’”

En route the driver didn’t behave in any way that unsettled Leila. But, as she said with a rueful smile to both me and the cop, “I guess I was pretty drunk.”

“Very drunk, more like,” the cop said laconically.

She pointed to the house, gesturing “up there on the left”, and he double parked. As she got out, she was surprised to see him getting out on the driver’s side as well. “No thank you, that won’t be necessary,” she said, thinking he intended to see her to the door in a gentlemanly way. Close on her heels, he followed her up to the front door. Leila doesn’t like anyone invading her personal space that way, and she again tried to make him disappear, “No, no, just go. Please go!” But he stayed close as she fumbled with the key in the lock, and he then pushed his way in the front entrance. In no time he was feeling her up, reaching for her breasts under the halter dress “in some kind of black and green leopard pattern,” she said, again smiling in a self-deprecating manner as if to say it was just a cheap dress off the rack.

The cops took her twice through every physical detail of what had happened—how he pulled her by the arm down the stairs into the basement, kept squeezing and touching her. “He focussed on the lady bits”, she said with an embarrassed smile. He removed her underwear and raped her, first standing against a wall, then pushing her onto her back on the stairs.

“What exactly did he do? Where was he standing then?”

She repeated what she said to him as it was happening: “no, no, please God no, please stop,” in a dozen different pleading, hurt shades. I cringed, torn up by the pain she was feeling then, the shame and discomfort she was feeling of recounting it again … twice … only 36 hours after the deed.

She had not put up much of a physical fight: “I was somehow frozen.”

They returned to that repeatedly. “Did you call for help? Were you resisting?” I could see her body language expressing embarrassment—she was new in the squat, she hardly knew anyone by name, she didn’t want to impose, she hadn’t imagined the situation would go from bad to worse. And she hadn’t thought that a ride like so many she’d taken in the years before could slip into a nightmare, a man forcing himself on her in an unknown basement.

He abruptly broke off the act of sex. I hated translating the cop’s question, “Did he ejaculate?” could see it would hurt her.

The lesbian cop returned to the moment when he removed his cock from his pants: “Was he erect?” “I didn’t want to see.” “That’s no answer. Was he?”

Her piteous way about her—like a doused cat—hasn’t let me go since. How vulnerable is she, travelling through Europe, living on tourist visas that run out all too quickly, her only money what she collects that day on the subway? Did something terrible happen in her childhood, some abuse or extreme neglect that caused her to run away? What about her extreme politeness, always pardoning herself if she bumped into my leg, excusing herself when her tears slowed down her ability to provide answers? She wasn’t raw, wasn’t tough, she was no street urchin brought up in a rough and tumble environment. She’d learned her manners, I could tell. Why did she become a drifter?


Two Hours Every Two Weeks

Daniela can tell us the day, practically the minute she met Jan: on the first of January in the year 2011, walking on a Miami beach. She can tell us how Jan courted her after he returned to Berlin—“we Skyped every day for three hours!” She can describe her move to Berlin, their wedding, the birth of their son (she got pregnant just two months after the marriage). And then how cracks started appearing in the fairy tale facade he’d created for her.

But she cannot tell us who Jan is—because she no longer knows. She doesn’t know why, three and a half years later, he has exclusive custody of their son Leo while she lives in a women’s shelter, permitted to see Leo only once every two weeks.

When I work as an interpreter, I have no personal flesh in the game. Here, I was a conduit, creating a bridge of language between the slender blonde 30-year old American and the court-appointed German psychologist. When the questions grew multi-layered, the explanations tricky, both were glad I was there.

“It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hinde,” she said to me as we left the psychologist’s office. I excused her for not knowing his name was Hyde. Originally from Slovakia, she ended up in the US when she was fourteen.

Her English is fine, though. It’s German grammar and sentence structure that give her headaches. Nonetheless, she can express herself clearly and correctly when she concentrates.

Perhaps her mother moved from Slovakia to the US to bring up her daughter in an environment with more stability and opportunities. At any rate, Daniela did well in school, attending college and majoring in political science. She dreamed—vaguely, it seemed—of returning some day to Europe, using her education for work. When she got a job with the US Department of Defense, she moved from Washington DC to Miami. There she rented a nice apartment and bought furniture and a new car. Jan “discovered” her on the Florida beach just a few weeks later.

She had not dated much over the years. She told us she was waiting for the right man to come along. When Jan took her out in style that January in Miami, she brought along a girlfriend as chaperone. After all, she wasn’t sure she could trust him.

He soon invested all his considerable persuasive power to get her to become his wife and move to Berlin, where he runs several businesses.

“He was like no one I’d ever met. Strong, eccentric, full of energy. A very intelligent man. On his shelves lots of books about psychology and sociology.”

Daniela told us that Jan said: “Once you come to Berlin, there’ll be no need for you to work! I will take care of you. You can help me develop my business ideas—a smart, educated girl like you. But it’s just servitude to work for a boss who’s using your labor to get richer! We have family businesses—you can help me with them.”

Though Jan, too, has Slovakian parents, he grew up in Germany. He works in premium real estate. He’s fond of eating out, of travelling in style. In fact, he insisted on buying Daniela a completely new wardrobe—and on throwing out all the clothes she’d brought with her, she told us in a bemused voice, still in a way admiring his chutzpah.

“Soon after Leo was born, he told me that he couldn’t stand how I smelled, he found me disgusting. He stopped sleeping with me. Almost always he slept on the couch. Before we were married, in the early months—he was so passionate. It was such a huge difference.

“When we fought, he’d sometimes take his ring off and head into the night. Sometimes he came back a few hours later, sometimes not at all.

“I learned only after we got married that he’s been seeing a therapist for aggression issues for eight years. Eight years ...”

The psychologist said, thumbing through the many pages of testimony and court papers, “But you only reported him to the police once, in the files there’s only one incident of domestic violence.”

“The last incident, the one at the pediatrician’s,” Daniela said, “the one you’ve got in your files—that’s the only time he was violent in public. And even then he found an out-of-the-way corner of the waiting room to stamp on my foot. He’s a big guy and he stamped with all his might—it really hurt! And to turn to the police ... I wasn’t sure I could trust them. My German’s not good—I didn’t know if I could make myself understood,” Daniela said.

Though not in tears, she was incredulous about her situation: “I’ve got poor German. I’m in a city with high unemployment. I have no money of my own—everything is in his name. There’s no way to get an apartment without a job. My parents spent everything they had to get me a German lawyer—and then the lawyer said she could do nothing more for me.” Leo, just 18 months old, now lives completely with his father, Jan.

“You talk about your husband as if he were magical,” the psychologist said, wrapping up the three-hour session. (She was drafting an expert opinion for the court.) “You sound like you have no say in the whole matter.” I heard disdain in her voice, as if a modern woman must know how to control her own life.

“Magical?” she asked the psychologist. “I don’t understand what you mean. Until now he’s gotten everything he wants, step by step by step.”

Daniela walked slowly to the underground train to return to the shelter deep in East Berlin where she now lives.

She won’t be travelling anywhere soon. If she does, she wouldn’t be able to see her son. Even for just two hours every two weeks.



Margaret arrived two hours early to give her witness statement at the police station. She was confused about the numbers “8 point 11 point” on the piece of paper someone at the Frauenhaus pressed into her hand—she thought it might mean from 8 to 11 am. Both victim and accused, it’s no wonder that she’s nervous.

The Kenyan woman first attempted to enter Germany via Poland in 2009. She was detained at the Frankfurt Airport and sent back to Poland. Her second attempt shortly thereafter worked. She’d been given a passport to use – by whom she doesn’t say – and advised to throw it out once she had made it. Which explains why she was without official documents.

At first it appeared that Gordon, a white German man, would be her rescuer. Her friend’s apartment, where she stayed when she first arrived, was too small. Somehow, Margaret and Gordon became acquainted, and he took to calling her. So when her friend told her she’d have to move on, she asked Gordon whether she could live with him. Three months after moving in, she was pregnant.

Margaret is about 30 – though the information on the temporary document issued by the German authorities need not accord precisely with the truth. Her skin is a light milk chocolate brown, her chin has a determined set to it. Her English is fluent, and she’s comfortable with my American accent. In Kenya, she tells me and the two police officers, she worked as house cleaner and nursery school worker.

“Gordon beat me very bad.”

“With his fists? Or did he slap you with his open hand? Or did he use objects to hit you?” The cop’s questions themselves feel like large blunt objects, unwieldy and disproportionate.

“He put his hands around my neck and strangled me, simply because I’d been out with a girlfriend until 10 one night.”

“Was that the same incident as when he hit your right eye?”

“I loved him. He helped me in my moment of greatest distress. I truly loved him.” He beat her severely, and on at least four occasions, the screams were so intense that the neighbors called the police. What kind of “love” did she feel for Gordon? It was a neighbor who told her about the women’s shelter, and pressed on her the need to get away from her abusive boyfriend.

He insisted on their inequality: “You are to just stay in the apartment. There’s no need for you to go out with friends.”

She tells us that he sometimes played with the tiny baby, but alternatively shook her or bopped her on the head or squeezed her cheek, saying, “This is a nigger baby—it’s not my baby. Who says it’s my baby? Who’s to say you didn’t sleep with someone else?” She suggested softly he could get a DNA test if he doubted his paternity. He brushed her off.

At the beginning of the questioning, the cop tells her, “He has filed a criminal complaint against you for beating him. He claims you hit him.” She pulls out a piece of paper where someone has printed clearly “Self-defence / Notwehr”. Practical advice, I think. She describes how she took a picture frame from the wall, or perhaps it was leaning against the wall, baby still on her arm, and held it up as he tried to hit her face, “as if I were a man, like he was boxing.” When he came towards them again, she threw it at him.

She tells the two police officials that he called her the previous day and threatened to have her deported, to have the baby taken away from her if she dared to say anything against him, if she spoke about anything whatsoever other than corroborating the complaint he had filed.

“You need to get your phone number changed as soon as possible. No one needs to put up with that kind of treatment,” the cop says, not looking her in the eyes empathetically as a woman might. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head and looks away. “Do you wish to file a criminal complaint against him?”

Margaret sets off on a tirade: “When I was seven months pregnant, he chased me out of the apartment. Literally! That time he drove me to the shelter himself. He wanted me out. When he comes home from work, the first thing he does is put on loud music. The neighbors complain about it constantly. And it can’t be good for the baby. Sometimes I just take the baby and go into the bedroom and lock the door, just to get away from him and get some sleep. He says it’s his apartment and he can do what he wants. He goes to prostitutes. I ask him for money for my seven-year old daughter—she’s still in Kenya. To pay her school fees. But he refuses. He has money—but he uses it for prostitutes!”

The cop asks again, “Do you wish to file a criminal complaint against him?”

“Yes,” she says, determined and serious.

“You simply need to make sure you stay clear of him,” he repeats.

“I will, I’m never going back. Definitely not. Never.”

The cop says to me, “Das habe ich schon so viel mal gehört!” (“I’ve heard that so many times.”)

Gordon hit Margaret’s eye so hard that she needed stitches. That night, her baby was taken into child protective services. “I haven’t seen my baby in three weeks. Can you help me see her?” she asks piteously.

“That’s not a matter for the police. That’s determined by the youth office. Normally, they should want you to be able to be together.”

Margaret will be getting a small apartment of her own. The youth welfare office has told her that when she is settled in a place she will get her daughter back.