News

Germany’s most famous concierge

4 Nov 2020

Ever since German newspaper ZEIT ran an article on him, concierge Ehsan Ghafoory has been known throughout the country. Those who have not yet heard of him really should do!

It is a common occurrence to see students standing in front of Ehsan Ghafoory. The 54-year-old sits at the entrance to the Geschwister Scholl Institute (GSI) on the edge of Munich’s English Garden. Many students are looking for a particular room, and the man behind the glass panel does not have to stop and think: He points each one in the right direction. Most just want to say hallo, wave goodbye or stop for a little chat. He knows every student by name, of course. Here a shake of the hand, there a high five: Ghafoory is the kind of person you feel you have been friends with all your life after talking to him for five minutes. “He’s the best. Write that down!” someone calls. He is certainly one of the best-known concierges in Germany – ever since ZEIT recently wrote an article about him.

“The GSI has not only the best but also the most famous concierge in the country,” the institute proudly twittered after the report was published. Say that to Ghafoory himself and he just smiles modestly. He smiles all the time actually, despite a life shot through with setbacks and tragedies. He was born in Afghanistan in 1965 — “a beautiful country”, as he says. His childhood memories have remained thoroughly positive. He went to elementary school, completed high school and went on to study. Then came civil war. Ghafoory initially worked as a Russian translator for NATO but is not allowed to say more than that: It was “all secret”. Then came the fateful year of 1991. A landmine lay buried deep in the ground. Although several cars had driven over the same spot, the pressure did not build sufficiently until Ghafoory’s car rolled over it. The mine exploded and everything went silent in the Afghan’s head. Despite being in a critical condition, he just managed to survive but has been wheelchair-bound ever since. “I now know what death means,” he says quietly. The aim had been to paralyze government structures with pneumatic bombs – without giving a thought to the life of civilians. “War is merciless.”

“I just had to get out”

Ghafoory was still reluctant to leave his home country. But when the Taliban swept to power in 1998, his work for NATO suddenly plunged him back into mortal danger. Nor could he cope any longer with the scale of the suffering: “I just had to get out,” he says, almost apologetically. Since Germany was the only country that still had its embassy in Afghanistan open at this time, his path led him to this country. Alone. He invested his meager savings in a German course at the adult education center, which asylum seekers still had to pay for out of their own pocket back then. Although unemployment in Germany peaked in the mid-2000s, Ghafoory was taken on by LMU after an internship made possible by the Employment Agency. After his professional experience in Afghanistan, the graduate openly admits that being a concierge was not his dream job. Today he is the one who opens and closes the doors. He is the first port of call for any problems that arise in the building. He sorts the mail and makes sure rooms are well aired before seminars begin. “I’ve come to a point where I am very happy to be able to work with so many young people.”

What he especially likes about his job is the chance to stand by students’ side as they develop. “It’s like watching a beautiful flower grow,” he says poetically. Many of those he initially got to know in their first semester are now doctoral students, professors or famous politicians. Which is why Ghafoory is sad that his line of work is dying out: He is one of the last traditional concierges to grace Germany’s universities. Lots of tasks are being farmed out to security services or rendered superfluous by the advance of digitalization. “But a machine can never tell a professor: ‘The letter you have been awaiting so urgently arrived today’,” Ghafoory explains. And how has life on campus changed over the past 15 years? “The students and professors are getting younger all the time,” Ghafoory laughs. You never used to see any professor under the age of 50. And they used to be people like Professor Werner Weidenfeld, who to this day still politely raise their hat to the concierge. “The professors these days are much more laid back,” he says. “They just say bye.” Yet there is less partying nowadays, even though student bodies used to organize regular parties. Ghafoory is very pleased that barrier-free access is gaining ground. For example, while there used to be only one disabled toilet at the GSI, there are now four. The concierge naturally always has helpful hints for wheelchair drivers.

Notwithstanding, Ghafoory cannot conceal a touch of jealousy. He too would have liked to continue his studies. “German studies would have been a dream,” he says, beaming all over his face. When he first came to Germany, however, he needed to earn money quickly. So why didn’t he resume his studies later on? “I’m much too old for that,” he claims, waving the thought aside. That said, he does sit in on lectures from time to time when the subject is his native country. Although his relatives still live in Afghanistan, he has not set foot on home soil for over 20 years. It is too dangerous: “And as long as the war goes on, the past resurfaces every time,” he says with a forlorn look. The influx of refugees in 2015 likewise rekindled many memories of his flight and his country. “I got very emotional,” he recalls. So many young people fleeing from need: No one does that willingly, he stresses. Ghafoory is thus deeply grateful that Chancellor Merkel did not turn a blind eye to people and their fate. “It is said that some people abused what she did for racist purposes,” he sighs. For a moment, he seems lost in thought. He feels fortunate to have never personally experienced discrimination. But all of a sudden, there it is again: Ghafoory’s infectious joy and bubbling exuberance. He loves Munich’s international flair and the university setting, he says. “Here,” he notes with a touch of pride, “it is irrelevant where you came from or what language you speak. All that matters is what you know.”