Malika and Fatima are waiting for me by the entrance to the women’s clinic at the Charité. The women are very quiet; I try to strike up a conversation. I ask them how they lived in Chechnya... An article of the "Berlin Anthology".


Day 1

It’s Monday, September 23, 8:30 a.m. Malika and Fatima are waiting for me by the entrance to the women’s clinic at the Charité. They told me only yesterday that they need help translating. I couldn’t find anyone on such short notice, so I’m taking on the task myself. Both women are in the late stages of pregnancy; they’re due this week. We go to prenatal counseling  and  sign  ourselves  in. Fatima has a referral from a gynecologist, just not the right kind of referral. We’re asked to sign a paper stating that we’ll bear the costs of the examination ourselves. I refuse to sign. Two hundred euros, that’s how much the examination would cost. Fatima won’t be able to pay that, and there’s no guarantee that anyone else will foot the bill later. For the time being we wait. The women are very quiet; I try to strike up a conversation. I ask them how they lived in Chechnya: in an apartment or a house?

In a house, one of them says. “The house is empty now. My husband had no work. A hundred and twenty rubles were paid for the children.” She doesn’t say any more. There’s no need to.

I use the informal address with Fatima and the formal with Malika, as always. I don’t know, I just can’t address Malika informally. She looks somewhere in the range of forty, is very guarded and quiet; I respect her. Later I find out that she’s younger than I am. They’re all younger than I am. Except they look very experienced, mature, old. These women have a whole life behind them, but they don’t say much about it. Maybe they think there’s nothing to say. They don’t think very highly of themselves. Their low regard for themselves, the endless patience they have, it amazes me and pains me at the same time.

Examinations: blood pressure, urine sample, the babies’ heart- beats. Two hours pass. Then we’re called in to see the doctor. Fatima and I go into the doctor’s office first. She follows me uncertainly; the doctor is a man. That’s a problem for her.

I explain that Fatima gave birth to her first baby by C-section but would now like to have the second baby without one. The doctor says that he prefers a C-section. He does an ultrasound and discovers that there’s no amniotic fluid left. He says that the operation has to be done today and we should go directly upstairs to the delivery room. I ask Fatima whether that’s O.K. with her. She only smiles uncertainly and says nothing. The doctor shakes her hand and congratulates her: today she’ll become a mother for the second time.
Malika is examined by a female doctor.

“Everything’s fine,” the woman says, “but … the baby’s head isn’t facing down. It’s no problem; we’ll turn it around right now. Frau Malika should tell me if it hurts.”
Malika groans; the doctor keeps going anyway. “It’ll be over in a minute. There, now we’re done.”

Malika stands up, pale-faced, holding her stomach. She’s six days overdue. The doctor suggests inducing labor tomorrow. Malika asks me quietly whether it wouldn’t be possible today. She’s tired; her stomach is heavy; she’s having trouble moving. And her husband doesn’t want her coming home today, again. She has a guilty conscience because she hasn’t had the baby yet.

The doctor asks about her previous births and writes the answers in her file. I correct her: Malika has four children, not three.
“She has four living children and this is her fifth?” the doctor asks me, amazed.
“Yes, her fifth.”

Then Fatima and I go to the delivery room. First we have to sign in. The employee demands to see her passport.
“Frau Ramirova doesn’t have it on her,” I say. “Here’s her baby’s health log and her maternity notes; can’t we start with that? Her husband can bring the passport later.”
“No, I need it now! Is her husband already on his way? When exactly will he be here? This isn’t how things work. As a non-German citizen she ought to have her passport on her at all times.”

She really said that. I search for words. That takes too long, so I say nothing and get angry that I can’t respond right away.
“Well, where was she born? Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Russia?” The conversation continues. “I need her exact place of birth.”
Fatima doesn’t know. She knows only that she was born in Kazakhstan and afterwards returned to Chechnya with her parents.
We wait. Time passes. It’s almost two o’clock. I have to get back to the home soon, to be with the children. I ask at the desk whether we can’t speed things up.

“No, there’s a lot going on right now, and if you don’t translate then we can’t operate on the woman today. We have to inform her of the risks involved; otherwise we won’t do anything.”

We wait.

Fatima tells me that the first time she gave birth, in Chechnya, the baby came a month early. She spent two days in intensive care, in unbelievable pain. The doctors told her that the child would be stillborn.

Then it was a healthy boy. I know him; Rustam comes to see me every day and paints with great concentration.

But now I understand why Fatima didn’t want to have a C-section, why she said nothing just now, in the doctor’s presence. Finally the surgeon comes in. A nice man. He explains that he’ll be making a horizontal incision. The first time Fatima gave birth, the abdominal incision was done vertically. In Germany it hasn’t been done that way in fifty years. It’s painful and leaves an unattractive scar.

Then he explains all the risks to us, counting off all the things that might be injured during the operation, what all might be cut: kidneys, blood vessels, the baby … Fatima only smiles. In between I say that all this happens very rarely, but the doctors have to tell her about it. Those are the rules. I don’t know what effect it all has on her or whether she’s even listening. Then the anesthesiologist comes in. Nausea, diarrhea, paralysis: the possible side effects of the anesthetic.

“But that all happens very rarely,” I say again.

“Why not general anesthesia?” she asks straight off. It’s the first question she’s posed.
“Because it’s worse, the risks are higher and the baby is anesthetized along with you.” I’ve learned something new today too. And now I may go. I look at Fatima; her face tells me nothing.

She’s probably terribly afraid and feeling abandoned. But she even smiles a little. I hope  her  husband  gets  here  soon.  I  go  back  to the home with Malika. “Are you coming with me to the hospital tomorrow?” she asks.

Day 2

9:30 a.m. In the delivery room with Malika. The sign in, again. The same woman from yesterday, again. I can already guess what’s coming. Malika doesn’t have her passport on her either. Later I learn that their passports were taken away by the authorities when they entered the country.

The woman raises her voice again: “I can’t  sign  her  in;  I need her passport. Where is she from anyway? She was already here yesterday!”
“That was another woman,” I explain to her.

“How do they all get here anyway, in a truck or something?” “I hope you never have to ride in such a truck,” I say.


“Her husband should bring her passport as quickly as possible,” she says, entering Malika’s information into the computer. That’ll do, I think …

We wait some more.

Cautiously I ask Malika who’s looking after her four children today.
“Amina,” she says. Amina is her eldest daughter, ten years old.
“And why not your husband?” I ask.
“He doesn’t help much. He’s very nervous. During the day he goes for walks. He lies down a lot. At night he sleeps poorly. He has an appointment with a neurologist soon. Islam, my eldest son, is the same way, like his father,” she says.
“Are you religious?” I ask.
“My husband is very religious. He tells my daughter not to play with boys.”

I try to explain to her that Amina will be going to school here, that classes in Germany aren’t divided by gender and that even the phys. ed. classes are coed.
“Yes, I’ve told my husband that again and again, but he doesn’t listen,” Malika says.

The midwife calls for us. She enters the specifics on all of Malika’s previous births into her computer. Year, weight, sex, whether there were complications and whether the baby was breast-fed.

The midwife explains to us that they’ll be inducing labor; Malika will be given a pill. I translate all the risks again. Malika has a vacant look in her eyes. Afterwards she’s asked to sign a paper releasing the pill’s manufacturer from any liability for its effects.

I have to go  now.  It’s  one  o’clock  in  the  afternoon;  the studio at the home opens in an hour. I still have to set everything up and go shopping. Bread and Nutella. The children are used to that and expect it. It’s a ritual. It pains me to leave Malika by herself. She looks so lost. She’s hardly eaten anything. I convince her to come with me to the cafeteria; there I buy sandwiches.

“Call me, Frau … call me, Malika, if anything comes up.” I finally use the informal address, trying to bridge the gap between us.
“Thanks, Marina,” she says.

I hope she’ll manage all right. Of course she will. Only, at what price? She’s becoming more withdrawn all the time.
She doesn’t call me once all day and doesn’t answer her cell phone.

The next morning I call her again. This time she answers. “So, did everything go all right? Is the baby out?” I ask.
“No, not yet. I’m in my room again. I’ve swallowed three pills already. The contractions won’t start.”
I know she’s all alone in her room. Shit, someone has to visit her there

Translated from German by Philip K.  Zimmerman.

Togehter with the International Literature Festival Berlin we have called on authors to contemplate the fates of refugees and asylum-seekers in literary form. The "Berlin Anthology" is now available for download.