This is a period of political and social change in Germany. Voices from the Right have been loud in denouncing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy. There have been violent attacks on individual asylum seekers and the places where they are living. Away from cosmopolitan and multiracial cities such as Berlin, local peoples’ fear of immigration polarises opinion and causes concern. On the other side, there is a pride that Germany is leading the world in its response to the refugee crisis and allowing people from war zones such as Syria, Iraq and north Africa a place of safety and the opportunity to rebuild shattered lives.
The volunteer army which assembled spontaneously last summer and has continued its work throughout the long, bleak winter months came together largely through social media. Without a developed charity sector in Germany, it was left to people to collaborate, share ideas, pool resources and skills and set to work organising collections of clothes and other essentials, provide frontline medical care and develop networks of social care which afford refugees the chance to participate in everyday activities, such as trips to the cinema, playing sport or having access to German language courses and other education.
There is still a need for help with the basics, especially during the freezing German winter. Whilst there has been a drop off in numbers volunteering to help, their activities have become more organised and professional, which in turn is taking some of the pressure off. And as the German government announces a toughening and tightening of the rules allowing people into the country, the focus will slowly turn towards integrating those who have arrived over during 2015.
In the meantime, the volunteers continue their work, unheralded. It’s hard to know numbers involved, but one website talks of 36,000 volunteers who have contributed 112,000 working hours across Germany. And that’s likely to be just a snapshot, as a trawl through Facebook reveals individuals, friends, groups and organisations offering all types of help and support. What is in no doubt is that it is people of all ages and backgrounds who are involved, across the length and breadth of Germany.
As Germany comes to terms with the consequences of its government’s policy of welcoming and accommodating almost one million refugees who have found sanctuary in the country over the last year, I met and talked to a number of volunteers whose mission has been to help and assist those fleeing war and persecution and who have found themselves in Berlin.
Each volunteer spoke about their determination to “do the right thing” and how they felt it was a moral obligation for people across the Western world to offer a safe haven and support to men, women and children many of whom have arrived in Germany following traumatic and harrowing journeys from their native lands.
Here, five young, creative Berliners talk about their experiences of those remarkable months when the face of Germany began to change forever.
Monique Fritzsche, 28, a textile designer from Berlin started volunteering in summer 2015 as the first wave of refugees came to the city. She is currently involved with a group called We Picknick, cooking and handing out food for newly-arrived refugees who have not yet registered with the authorities and therefore have no entitlement to state assistance.
“Getting involved was all my own initiative. In August I was at home ill, lying on the sofa and watching all the television footage of the refugees arriving in Germany. I thought to myself: ‘It’s time to do something.’ You cannot just be a spectator.
I put some clothes into an IKEA bag and went to LaGeSo, the administration facility for health and social welfare here in Berlin, where thousands of refugees were arriving to be registered. The place was full of asylum seekers and volunteers. As it was the holidays, there were students and even school pupils all helping out. I started by sorting out clothes and other items which had been donated. But that felt insufficient. So I began to work more directly helping in a more hands-on way. I was really scared to start with. The fear came from not knowing what to expect. And from the language barrier too. I soon realised that I could communicate using sign language and that the refugees were really thankful.
I remember the first time I saw refugees coming off the buses which brought them to Berlin. What made an impression on me was that here they were arriving without any possessions. No luggage, no suitcases or rucksacks or anything. I saw young kids on their own and thought: ‘where is your mama?’
Later, through Facebook, I got involved with We Picknick, a volunteer group established to feed newly-arrived refugees who have not yet been registered and so don’t qualify for any food or meals. We meet at the weekends in the park opposite LaGeSo and helping there feels like being part of a little family. You are never asked: ‘how often do you do this?’ or: ‘what job do you do?’ It’s all irrelevant because in that moment you are helping so everyone is equal. People are so supportive and tell you how cool it is that you are helping out. Then there’s the atmosphere with the refugees. You should not expect too much. You don’t go there to get some kind of award or official recognition – that’s certainly not what I want. I mean, many refugees are so ashamed to be in this situation, taking handouts of food. But the reward for me is just to hear them say: ‘thank you’ or: ‘that’s great’ to you – that’s the greatest compliment you can get from these people.
I believe Germany can cope with this influx of refugees. They will integrate into society. Yes, it will take time and it will be difficult but it will happen. So it’s important that we carry on volunteering.”
Finn Pelke, 33, an assistant film director from Berlin works up to three days per week as a volunteer sorting boxes of clothes and other items donated to Kreuzberg Hilft, established in the summer of 2015 by a group of citizens to help alleviate the refugee crisis in the city.
“I think Germans, given our history, like to see ourselves as open to the world. After the 2006 World Cup here there was a lot of talk about how welcome the world felt coming here and how well it all went. Even seeing the German flag being waved in a friendly manner was a good thing.
Kreuzberg is a particularly mixed area of Berlin. There’s more openness to outsiders and refugees here. If you live in more rural places or somewhere which has a population of a couple of thousand then I totally get it if people are worried about the impact of 500 refugees suddenly coming into that community. The impact is going to be far greater than 50,000 coming to Berlin with its population of 3.5 million. But there are examples of small villages where refugees are now contributing by, for example, opening new businesses. Germany’s population is getting older and older and many people are saying it’s a good thing that new people are coming in. There’s always two sides to it and of course there’s fears that it could all be too much to cope with.
If you want to see problems then there are problems, but if you want to see the possibilities and chances then they are also there. And I prefer to stick to the positive side.”
Tobias Muhlbacher, 35, a volunteer doctor working with newly arrived refugees at LaGeSo, the Berlin administration facility for health and social welfare. A trained children’s doctor, he has been working as a volunteer two to three days per week since October 2015.
“I am here because I believe that these refugees, many of whom have undertaken such difficult and dangerous journeys have a right to good care, especially good medical care.
Many people have had to wait for weeks, months even to complete their registration and are therefore only entitled to the emergency treatment we give here at LaGeSo. As a paediatrician I am particularly concerned that the children are looked after, although if there are no children to examine at a particular time, I’ll see anyone who needs a diagnoses.
One problem we have at the moment is that refugees have to re-register again after three months in order that we can continue to provide care for them. This often means sick or injured people queueing up overnight in freezing conditions in order to be first to register the following morning. That’s not a nice picture.
The atmosphere amongst the medical team is good. There is now a mix of volunteers and permanent staff from a local hospital but we all cooperate as we are all here because we want to be. There’s no sense of competition.
I will continue working with the refugees alongside my regular hospital job and will make myself available when the need arises for as long as necessary.”
Berlin-based professional storyteller Britta Wilmsmeier, 37, helped establish the Phoenix-Gruppe of volunteers with fellow artists, teachers and other people in the creative industries to utilise art, therapy and cultural connections to reach out to refugees.
“I heard about all these refugees and thought that no-one would ever choose as a family to do such a journey without a good reason. I was thinking about these women, these mothers, sitting in there with hundreds of other people, with no privacy. I thought one way of keeping them sane and keeping them entertained – which is also important – is by telling them stories.
A colleague and I developed a story which we tell to audiences in German but have objects and use gestures and sounds to communicate. It’s not only about them learning German. We want to learn their language too. It’s a dialogue we want, so that they feel we are interested in them too. Storytelling is a very good way to give people stability because the story always comes back to something good in the end.
People are happy to have a concrete reason to help. We are safe and secure here and have enough generally, so we are happy to share what we have. Through my storytelling, I can help them in my own way. I can give them some sort of release. It’s what these people need: some hope, a spark of hope.”
Born in Mexico, Hector Marroquin, 32, is a music composer and volunteers at Kreuzberg Hilft, where he acts as the group’s press officer. In addition, he helps out at a home for asylum seekers and accompanies groups of young Syrians on trips and outings such as to concerts and rock climbing.
It got really big, really quickly. Within one month from September 2015 we had around 40 refugee houses and homes where we would drive to every day to deliver things like clothes and other essential items.
I could see I was really helping but at the same time it wasn’t enough for me. When we were helping the refugees I was only spending something like 10 minutes with these people and then not seeing them again until the next time we turned up. I wanted to know who they were as they just seemed like normal, cool people to me. Of course they needed our things, our money, but most of all they just needed time with people like me, rather than with the authorities, or officials or the police. So I started to work at a refugee house and now I divide my time one-third composing, one-third at Kreuzberg Hilft and one-third at the refugee home.
In the home there are 54 boys, all here without parents, or family or friends. So they are here alone, just waiting for their government interviews which will decide if they can stay in Germany. This might take anything up to six months. In the meantime, by taking them to concerts or sporting events – normal free-time activities for young people – it will help them integrate into German life if they are allowed to stay here.
People have come here because they want to start a new life. They want to be part of Germany. They want to integrate.”