FRANKFURT AM MAIN
The table is laden with plates of muffins, cake and all sorts of pastries. More than enough for a busload of visitors. Seven or eight men and women, whose roots are clearly in a different world than ours, all with radiant faces, are waiting. I can see two black women in the kitchen busy with the coffee. Before we can say anything our bags have already been taken from us.
“Welcome”, I hear in broken German.
All four of us are surprised. The fatigue of five hours driving forgotten. It is our first stop on our trip around the world. Our quest is to find and record a broad range of stories from people living with HIV and we are overwhelmed by the warm reception.
Hands are shaken as if we are old friends. We exchange names. Sanit, Jate, Anako … Sonporm, Yasmin, Yordanos!
“I’m Erwin”, I reply.
Is this really Frankfurt am Main, Germany? The only person with a German name is Horst, who laughingly joins us from another room. Horst or Dr. Herkommer, you choose, is the initiator of Helping Hand which started in 2009. He faced problems as a social worker and psychotherapist with all the exotic languages many of his clients spoke. He devised the concept of Helping Hand, which in essence boils down to migrants who have been living for a while in Germany, helping newcomers with HIV find their way around the German health care system, in their own language.
We sit for a while with each other at the table. Lots of talking, lots of laughs. Food and cooking are the favorite topics of conversation. It’s fun.
After my third piece of cake I begin to carefully introduce the purpose of our visit. I talk about ATLAS2018 , the purpose and importance of the project. Marjolein, Willem, Bert and I are here to record as many personal stories as possible. We really want to film, photograph and interview the whole group.
Of course everyone knows already why we have come, but what we’re asking them to do for ATLAS is sensitive and after just a few sentences we are in a serious and emotional conversation. They like us, but not everyone trusts us enough to let us just get started, especially our plan to make one-minute films, which can be seen by anyone via a website. This is just going too far for some.
I explain that nobody has to do anything if they don’t want to, that they can tell their story anonymously. That seems to help. Slowly the clouds lift. The toughest speak out first, okay, they’ll do it. The whole world should know that they have HIV. It’s nonsense to be ashamed.
And then suddenly, like a cork exploding from a bottle, everything streams out. Anecdotes about where they come from, about the shock when they learned they were infected with HIV, about the intense dramas and about the small and large steps that they have subsequently made ….
There is much to tell.
Several hours later we say goodbye as friends. Tomorrow we can start work.