Making Heidelberg a Home while Longing for a Global City – by Magdalena von Drachenfels

For now our home is Heidelberg” says Laila Khan (all the names have been changed) and, pointing towards her one year old son, Shahid, she adds: “He was born here only” while her husband Amir smiles and says: “He is German only. Just like you.” As Ahmadiyya Muslims, the Khans were persecuted for their faith, so they decided to migrate to Germany where they claimed asylum. Prior to their migration, Amir and Leila lived in the metropolitan city Karachi in Pakistan. When I met them, they had already lived in Heidelberg for more than a year. This article will address Amir and Leila’s place-making practices with regards to their home and their metropolitan lifestyle in the city. In the contemporary world, numerous people are forced to leave their homes for a place of refuge and “drag their imagination for new ways of living along with them” (Appadurai 1996, 6). With migration, urbanisation and transnational belonging, the theoretic concept of ‘home’ gains more layers and scales. The homing strategies of the Khan family reveal how new and old practices of everyday life coexist, as in the process of migration, “habits, objects […] and histories have been uprooted” and are reclaimed and reprocessed in the new home (Ahmed et al. 2003, 9).

The Khan family was dispersed to Heidelberg by the German authorities without choosing it themselves. They live in an accommodation for asylum seekers, which is located directly at the railway track, the perfect spot for their baby to wave hello to all the trains passing by. Amir and Leila keep reorganising their room according to their baby’s needs. They enjoy inviting guests and cook delicious Pakistani food. Being able to choose what you eat is directly related to concepts on health and body that migrants bring with them. Thus, food is an “important aspect of home as an autonomous and culturally important space” (Blunt & Dowling 2006, 223). The small family shares the house with people of various origins and social classes. Their shared home requires adaptability and intercultural communication skills. They have a good relationship with their neighbours and stated that their place provides them with stability, as people can stay there “for at least four years.” Leila once prepared food for the neighbours when Shahid was unwell. According to her religion, “doing something good” would make the environment positive and speed up his recovery. The established relations between neighbours and friends became more visible in Shahid’s first birthday party. It was a transnational event in the sense of Stefan Krätke et al., as the networks and relations between the people revealed (2012, 2). The biryani was heated in the microwave belonging to “aunty from Gambia,” and “uncle from Afghanistan” helped set up the tables. Even though the children present were from various countries, the party was intended to be a German birthday party with cake, birthday songs and typical German children’s games. While everyone sat down, Amir and Leila walked their lucky birthday child around the table for the guests to feed him cake – a gesture of love and respect in Pakistan.

When going to the city, Amir and Leila like to display their metropolitan lifestyle, as they did back in Karachi. This shows that “senses of belonging and identity move over space and are created in new places” (Blunt & Dowling 2006, 2). Being from Pakistani upper middle class backgrounds, Leila and Amir are not used to riding bicycles. They would prefer having a car and use public transport for now. As they seem to have Karachi in mind when looking at what Heidelberg can offer, they lament the absence of big movie theatres and criticise the early closing times of some shops in Germany. Even their religious community, which has a mosque in Eppelheim, has a cosmopolitan atmosphere to it. The annual meeting of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Karlsruhe, to which Amir and Leila proudly invited me, was an event during which believers with very good marks in higher studies were publicly appreciated among 33,000 visitors gathering to see their Khalif. Media devices translated the speeches into many different languages and the Khans were clearly at home in this ambitious world-class environment. Their longing for a global city also is revealed in their love for burgers. By going to American restaurants such as KFC or McDonald’s, they are able to maintain an emotional connection to their place-making practices of Karachi. They position themselves “within the narratives of the past” (Hall 1998, 23) and thereby create a continuity to their notion of home as big city dwellers in Heidelberg as well. Although they miss their family, they cheer themselves up by celebrating those things that bring “little joy and happiness” into their lives. Hence, we went to McDonald’s to celebrate the combined success of Leila passing her German B1 exam and Amir receiving his German driving licence. Apart from their global city place-making practices, they also have new habits and responsibilities as young parents. In order to find “baby things” for their son, they regularly stroll through the flea market at Messplatz and look for “Schnäppchen” in the local malls. However, when shopping for her own requirements, Leila misses stores selling Pakistani dresses. Amir and Leila are comfortable in Heidelberg and have taken ownership of their environment. Moreover, Amir gained good familiarity with roads in and around Heidelberg, as he sometimes borrows a friend’s car and takes his family for a drive.

This qualitative analysis of the Khan family’s contextualised and personal place-making practices at home and in the city showed that Leila and Amir maintained some global city practices while they also enjoy the new challenges of being young parents in a small and peaceful German city. They actively engage in the opportunities of everyday life, which are also entangled with future plans. Shahid started going to a nursery school and spoke his first Urdu and German words. Leila wants to learn German fluently to be able to work as a doctor again and Amir wants to be an entrepreneur and have his own business. They both look forward to the moment when the law will allow them to proceed with their plans and support each other in dealing with the challenges of their new place of dwelling. Nevertheless, being asylum seekers, they constantly have to reframe their ideas and are sometimes left with uncertainty on how their qualifications will be recognised.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. 1997. Modernity at Large Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Delhi: Oxford University Press: 1-47.

Ahmed, Sara, Claudia Castañeda and Anne-Marie Fortie. 2003. Uprootings/ Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Oxford; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Blunt, Alison, and Robyn M. Dowling. 2006. “Home.” In Key Ideas in Geography. London: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart. 1998. “Cultural identity and diaspora.” In Rutherford, Jonathan. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Krätke, Stefan, Kathrin Wildner, and Stephan Lanz. 2012. “The Transnationality of Cities. Concepts, Dimensions, and Research Fields. An Introduction.” In Transnationalism and Urbanism. New York: Routledge.