"A city garden is considered very German. We were the first foreigners to get a garden here in the '90s." Gurdip Singh
"I didn’t understand a word of German and I had no idea where I had landed. I cried everyday for months." Kulwant-Kaur Singh
You probably can’t get it more German than this. Right in the middle of Berlin lies a colourful patch of gardens filled with blossoming flowers, trees and garden gnomes. Enter “Kleingarten Kolonie Steingrube”. A place where city people have their own small garden to retreat from the busy city life and grow their own vegetables. And yet, between the garden gnomes of the Steingrube gardens in Tempelhof, two people stand out. It’s the Indian couple Singh.
“It’s considered very German indeed. We were the first foreigners to get a garden here in the ’90s,” laughs Gurdip, sitting in front of their garden house. Not only did the retired couple get a garden, Gurdip has been the president of the ‘garden colony’ for 15 years now.
Gurdip Singh (64) and his wife Kulwant-Kaur (59) came to West Berlin halfway the 1970’s. 24-years old Gurdip arrived in 1974 from Punjab, a region in the north of India. He actually wanted to be an aid worker in Uganda and Kenya, but due to civil unrests there he decided to change plans and come to West Berlin instead. He got a placement in a hospital to become a nurse and learned German in the evenings. “It was exhausting,” he recalls, speaking German flawlessly.
He met Kulwant-Kaur on a trip to Canada. The wedding was arranged. Kulwant-Kaur: “We met through my brother and the next week we were married. Two months later I was in Berlin. I didn’t understand a word and I had no idea where I had landed. I cried everyday for months.” The fact that there were very few Indians in Berlin back then, and even fewer Indians from their Sikh religion, didn’t make things easier. But the couple didn’t let it get them down: “we decided to found our own Sikh community. We made a small temple in our house and other Sikhs could come here,” Kulwant-Kaur says. At some point their community grew that large that their temple had to be relocated outside their house. It still is main meeting point for the 2500 Sikhs who call Berlin home these days.
Patch of peace
Beginnings were hard, just like the first years in their garden colony. “People here were against that we as foreigners would get a garden. They never said that to my face, but I heard that people were talking behind our backs. Since we are here, we also opened the doors to more foreigners – which some people couldn’t appreciate at first,” Gurdip says, sitting comfortably in front of their garden house. It’s fitted with a small kitchen, a small bathroom – you can even stay overnight there.
In Berlin there are about 73.600 small city gardens. The popularity of city gardens has always been enormous; people still wait years to get their hands on a green patch of peace in the bustling city. As president of their colony with 27 gardens, Gurdip manages the work that comes with a community. “It’s almost like a full time job,” he laughs. “There are so many rules and regulations here. We also have discussions about who can get a garden if one becomes available. There are many people from different backgrounds here now. Some people still look at the nationality of future garden owners – fortunately it plays less of a role than a few years ago. I never look at someone’s background, I just look at people on a human level.”
Turban or no turban
Being a Sikh would normally require Gurdip to wear a turban. But he gave that up a long time ago. “As a nurse in the hospital, everyday you meet so many people. Back then not many people understood where I was from. Some never had seen a man with a turban – so they kept asking me what I was. I got a bit tired explaining it time after time again.” Gurdip also took it of in order not to scare the patients. “My boss told me that some patients that wake up after a heart attack or surgery, might see me and my turban as a sign that they have died.” He grins, “I didn’t want them to have a second hart attack off course!”
So the turban stays home nowadays, also when they enjoy or maintain their garden. It’s become a colourful mix of German flowers and Indian herbs. Right next to the garden gnome stands a Buddha statue. Are they the perfect example of integration? “We think so!” they laugh. Gurdip adds: “but integration is something you do for yourself, to be part of a society. I never integrated for someone else but myself.”