The refugee crisis in the Middle East is no game. There are no clear rules, the information is untrackable, there are hidden variables that lead to utter chaos, and there is no endgame in site.
And yet, tens of thousands of refugees were welcomed into Berlin—my adopted home city—during the past year. As they have taken up residence in makeshift shelters and previously abandoned buildings all over Berlin, I find myself connecting with many of them through the shared language and experience of playing board games.
When we play games with anyone, we share each other’s stories. The game itself is not required to tell a story, it simply sets up the beginning, and determines when it will end. My already multicultural game nights are only the beginning to ongoing stories—relationships that go beyond meeting up to play games.
As I have volunteered at the refugee shelters near my home and the church where I work, it has been a privilege to play games with them, and through this shared language, learn their stories and begin relationships that have now gone beyond playing games together.
These are their stories, told through the games that made this possible.
Nuradin is an older man who fled here with his wife, who suffers from diabetes. He greets me with a hug and a kiss, always followed by “I miss you!” in heavily accented English. He was a philosophy professor in Syria, and is an excellent Chess player. I tell everyone who comes to watch us play that he is my teacher, and he smiles as he studies the board, not allowing my compliments to distract him.
During graduate school, my roommate and I taught ourselves basic Chess strategy, although I have rarely played it since discovering “German games” and I am far from a grandmaster. It is fascinating for me, at this stage in my gaming life, to rediscover the beauty of this game. And there is also something exciting about playing the game with an Arab man. After all, Chess may never have become the world’s most studied board game had it not been for the Arabs, who, after conquering Persia, adopted the game and brought it to Europe. In fact, they still refer to it by its Persian name, Shatranj.
Nuradin believes strongly in tolerance for all worldviews. Although he is Muslim, he has read the Bible and western philosophers such as Kant and Kierkegaard. But Chess is a war simulation. We advance our pieces, as each of us positions ourselves to take control of the middle territory. I think about the advances and retreats taking place this very moment in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there is no more room, and multiple pieces are captured. The death toll rises and the table next to the game board fills up with casualties. The board remains clean, devoid of actual bloodshed. Even so, I can’t help but project the images of my friend’s ruined city, Aleppo, onto the white and black squares. Can anyone win this game? My friend shakes me out of my daydream with a warm smile, as he says to me encouragingly, “You are getting better.”
Integration is a two-way street. When I meet Fayez, I teach him helpful German words and phrases, but I also try to learn his language. And it goes beyond language: when I engage someone from another culture, we are both changed and enriched. I ask Fayez what his favorite game is. For the next half-hour, he can’t stop talking about a partnership card game called Trex. He speaks about it as if he were speaking about his family. That is where he learned the game, and he is always seeking out people to play it with him. Playing Trex is one of the few things that makes the drab walls and bunk beds of the school gym disappear, and the pain and destruction of war fade—if only for a moment. A game of Trex with good friends makes him feel as if he were home again.
Turkish Checkers or Dama
While I play Chess with someone at another shelter, Amed and his friend borrow another Chess set to play on the table next to us—except they set the pieces up randomly, and move each of them the same way.
When we are finished with our game, I watch Amed’s game intently. “What are you playing?” I ask, using gestures, as he cannot speak English or German. They tell me it is called Dama, otherwise known as Turkish Checkers, according to the internet search I make when I am back home. After Amed finishes off his opponent, I challenge him to the next game.
I have to play it, however, without knowing the rules. I can only go by what I have observed. I make a move, he shakes his head. I gesture another move and raise my eyebrows inquisitively. He nods. I’m not just playing a variant of Checkers—it’s become a game of deduction for me. Furthermore, I’ve had to scrap my strategy multiple times because my plan was unknowingly outside the rules. This puts me at a disadvantage, of course.
This is my opponent’s life. In a foreign land, Amed is learning by doing. Even though there are many who are helping the refugees in navigating the rules to registering, filling out forms, and finding better accommodations, they are still on their own in having to deduce many of the cultural rules, especially the unwritten ones.
I am able to make a few clever moves, but Amed finishes me off in a matter of minutes. I ask for a rematch. I won’t give up, and neither will he.
Hey, That’s My Fish!
It is not enough for me to go to the refugee shelters on my own. I want to share my experiences and give my friends the opportunity to have some of their own. The appeal of boardgaming, after all, is making memories through shared experiences, and my gaming groups are already very multicultural—sometimes as many as 8 different countries on 5 continents are represented.
Aaron is a game designer from the United States who decided to work from Berlin for a month. He designs digital games for a living, and has begun to design “analog” board games as well, and that is how he found our game designer’s group. I tell him about my experiences with the refugees, and he takes me up on my invitation to help with a gaming café I have initiated for them.
We make coffee and tea, set up some games on different tables, and I go to the shelter down the street to help them find their way. Soon, the room is packed, and I am thankful I have Aaron to help me. I get my Syrian friends started playing simultaneous games of Chess, then introduce the German classic, Lotti Karotti to several children, and I teach Aaron Hey, That’s My Fish to play with a mixed group of Afghans. Co-designed by Berlin friend Günter Cornett, it’s one of those games I know that I can teach without being able to use words. They catch on quickly, and play the game all afternoon with Aaron. We are both exhausted when they leave, but enjoy the time we spent with them, even if our communication was often limited to moving pieces on game boards.
I want to encourage more people to step out of their comfort zones and connect with refugees through shared interests. I want to show them how easy and rewarding it is for everyone. I write invitations on various Facebook pages and report on my experiences on Boardgamegeek.com. A gamer named John from the United States writes to me and says that he and his sons want to get involved. They do not have refugees in their neighborhood, but they do have a German au pair, and they want to send board games for the refugees.
Ali is one of the only teenagers in the shelter in my neighborhood. He is not really interested in games or competition. He wants to fit in. He cherishes the times he is allowed to visit a local high school and interact with German teens. A friendly extrovert with a warm smile, Ali greets several teens as we walk together on the sidewalk outside, and they answer enthusiastically, “Hallo Ali!”
I find out later that he speaks great English, but he chooses instead to struggle through German because he is determined to master it. He knows his future depends on it, and he has much more of a future ahead of him than the older people in his shelter.
The two of us play La Boca, sent by John and his sons. It is a partnership game, and we play it cooperatively. It is also a communication game, and it fits the bill perfectly as a fun activity that exercises his increasing German language skills. John’s sons have written personal letters to give to refugee children who might play the games they sent. They are in English and German, translated by the boys’ au pair. I give them to Ali, and he is touched by the letters and photos of the boys, and he takes them home to practice reading German.
I bring games to a local youth club every other Sunday afternoon, where they host a “Café Without Borders.” I sit at a table with a mixed group. Susanne and Per are Berliners, but she is originally from western Germany and he is from Sweden. They have lived in Berlin only slightly longer than refugees Abdul and Bilal, who also join us. I ask if they would like to play Tsuro, one of the games John and his boys sent me. They oblige, but after a few rounds, it is clear that no one wants to knock another player out of the game. We decide spontaneously to play the game cooperatively instead. We try to keep as many of us on the board as possible until the last tile is placed. The Tsuro board looks like a big puzzle that has just been completed, and we look at it for a moment with satisfaction before we go back to our pre-game conversations.
All of us came from different places, yet here we are, trying to put together the multicultural puzzle that is modern Berlin. And we are choosing to do it cooperatively. I meet at this same youth club every month with scores of volunteers from the neighborhood who tirelessly work to help individual refugees with integration and paperwork and also provide opportunities for the community to connect with them. It is clear that, even with extensive government aid, the refugee effort in Germany would be unmanageable without the cooperation of so many volunteers.
The influx of refugees has, in fact, had a wonderful side effect: it has helped the rest of us get to know our neighbors and learn to work together for a common cause. It makes me wonder, I think aloud at the café, what else we are capable of accomplishing if we can continue to work together.
I help my wife and several people from our church with a craft and music time at another shelter. Most of the children are excited about the opportunity to paint and make beaded jewelry that they can use to decorate themselves and their rooms. Some of the children, however, are a bit stir crazy, as there are no playgrounds in the area, and many of the parents here do not venture out except for official appointments or to buy necessities. Some boys get aggressive with each other, and I have to separate them several times. I improvise a flicking game using a paper football, and we have wheelbarrow races down the hall. I also ask the director if they have any board games, and she tells me that they did, but that the pieces go missing. I have the idea to make board games out of common materials that can be easily replaced.
Later, as I am picking up some things at the hardware store, I see a leftover white square masonite board for 2 Euro. It’s the perfect size for Crokinole. I take it home, drill a hole in the center, and draw concentric circles using a permanent marker. Then I take out two colors of plastic bottle caps I’d been saving for children’s game design workshops. I bring the game to the shelter the following week, and it’s a hit. The kids can’t stop flicking the bottle caps towards the center, and they sometimes keep flicking them across the room. If they lose any, however, they can simply ask the kitchen for more.
It is often difficult to find space in which to play at the various shelters, yet this is essential for the children’s development. The games we play with them every week, whether board games or improvised role-playing, give them the opportunity to experiment, test and adapt in safe environments—all of which will be vital training for the challenges they face in the future.
Piece o’ Cake
One day, I finally decide to introduce one of my own games to Chess buddy, Rustam. He has shared much of his life with me, and I want to share a part of myself—a game that I’ve created. The rules are easy to explain and he grasps the strategy. At the end of the game, he smiles and tells me that it was a good game, but he is ready to play Chess again.
He is young, but his world is already filled with enough newness. His future is unclear and the rules he must learn to survive are so many, that playing the game he knows is a welcome reprieve.
And, just as with all the games I’ve played with refugees over the past year, it is a connection: both to his new friends in Berlin, and to the people from home who taught him the game, many of whom are still left behind.