In a gloomy, dank school gymnasium in a backstreet of Berlin I got a tiny insight into what life is like for the displaced people of Syria who find themselves trying to settle in Germany. One sports hall in the complex was turned into a makeshift community centre for children and families. Adjacent to this was the living area for up to 150 families who have come to Germany in search of a better life. In my role as Head of Public Engagement at De Montfort University, I was with a delegation of (DMU) students researching the city’s response to the huge influx of Syrian people – so they can reinvigorate a programme to help refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester,
United Kingdom. During my time in Berlin – I learned there are scores of school gymnasiums and empty buildings that have been turned into emergency shelters. Outside the shelters, security officers patrol the entrances, apparently to ensure safety of the families within the accommodation. Initially, you can be fooled into thinking that this arrangement isn’t too bad. The families arrive, get a temporary bed and then they are dispersed across the city. Only it’s not that temporary. The families we met had been told they would stay for two weeks. However, two weeks became three months, that became six and now after 12 months, they might finally move somewhere more appropriate in a couple of weeks. Volunteers from the local community support the people living in the gymnasium. This time last year, support for the new arrivals from Syria was high – on the crest of a wave of media coverage and Refugees Welcome campaigns. “The welcome parties in Munich, Berlin and elsewhere were great,” said the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung in a recent editorial. “They showed a generous and open Germany of which we can be very proud, headed by a chancellor who seemed to surprise herself with her response, (and) tens of thousands of volunteers … but now we’re in the stark light of day which consists of overcrowded refugee centres and local authorities and police stretched to their limits.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed as an angel of mercy. But I learned that the mood was turning sour. In fact, just weeks after Merkel responded to the refugee crisis with the declaration: “Wir schaffen es – We can do it” – the euphoric mood has been replaced by a more sombre response with the realisation that the newcomers are here to stay, with all the challenges it brings. The people of Berlin are coping well with a difficult situation. The media, certainly in the UK, caught up in its own post-Brexit anti-immigration agenda does not tell a full story of what is happening. The UK’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis tells its own story. Germany has taken 1 million people fleeing war and famine. The UK has committed to 20,000 over 5 years. Berlin has taken in 300,000 people this year alone – and could hit 800,000 by the end of the year. The UK, all things being equal, will help just 4,000 in that time. The question is, do you try to help like Germany? Or do you stand by and do nothing? Or at least very little. Incidentally, refugee numbers are increasing rapidly in the city of Leicester – but not necessarily from Syria. Some Syrian families may have arrived, but the arrivals have been largely from the Middle East and North Africa. DMU Square Mile, through #DMUlocal has a support programme for refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester delivering health outreach, education and legal advice. As part of DMU’s #LoveInternational campaign, we wanted to use the trip to Berlin to show the UK is not insular and unhelpful, and that people do care about the plight of refugees. We wanted to demonstrate that we are doing something positive in spite of a tough political stance by the UK Government and the media mood swings on the issue of immigration. There is still a hardy bunch helping out across Berlin, but numbers are dwindling. In some communities tensions are growing. In certain pockets of the city, parents want the school gyms back for the use of their children. I was told it is becoming something of a political football. If the local government invests in infrastructure to cope – they get criticised for spending money in times of austere measures across Berlin. If they do nothing… well, you get thousands of families living in gyms and empty buildings for months on end. Germany is an attractive destination for Syrian refugees, who consider it a wealthy, welcoming land that will provide them with housing, schooling for their children, and jobs. When people request asylum in Germany, they’re first sent to an “initial reception centre” (in some cases, gyms and empty buildings). The typical stay there is generally three months, according to reports in the press, but the refugees I encountered had been waiting for a year.
We can be heroes
The heroes of the story are the people who give their time selflessly to work with this new community in Berlin. The local volunteers show so much love and care for the families, it is deeply moving. They do this work on a shoestring budget. However, volunteer support has dropped, and likewise, donations. There are some welfare benefits paid to the families by the state. Some of the money is taken immediately back to cover local services, like use of public transport. There is really not much money to go around. DMU students met with many refugees and support agencies, shared ideas and swapped stories in a packed five-day trip. While we were there, we wanted to help the refugees and agencies where we could. There were 18 of us in Berlin, willing and able. The students spanned all disciplines. That’s a reasonable amount of support, even for our short five-day visit. We planned ahead – writing to the Berlin refugee support agencies connected by the ‘Fluschlingekirche’ network to tell them that we were coming and we wanted to help if we could. There were two common themes to the responses from the agencies; could we do something practical, like organise a mountain of donated clothes into some kind of order so new arrivals could sort through them? And; could we simply have social interactions between the students and the refugees? The latter was a significant request. Adults and children based in gyms and buildings across Berlin get limited chances to interact with people outside their accommodation. On at least three occasions I saw the power of how a conversation, a game of football or cooking a little food could make such a difference. Take this in the context that there is very little for the families to do but wait for change, day after day. This circumstance is challenging on mental health alone. So we helped where we could with what little time we had. In the gymnasium complex, the DMU students took two
garage-sized rooms full of clothes in complete disarray and organised them into bags; girls’ t-shirts, men’s trousers, baby clothes, women’s socks and so on. The students also found time to interact with the children and their parents. We had ice cream together. Never underestimate the power of a Magnum choc-ice to bring people together. The volunteer manager of the gym, let’s call her Frau A, was almost in tears watching the students organise the clothes in to an order where she can make sure the families who needed them most get access to exactly what they need. She said the clothes had been in disarray for months and she had no idea how she would’ve got them sorted.
Student learning through new experiences
The students, for their part, were also beneficiaries. They worked as a team, built new
friendships, learned new soft skills and got a big sense of satisfaction. In future job interviews if they get asked that hardy perennial of all interview questions: “Can you give me an example of when you worked as a team?” They’ll say “Yes, when 18 of us moved a mountain of clothing down two flights of stairs in a gym in Berlin, sorted them into a neat order for refugees, then put them back so people could access them easily.” As a potential employer, I’d be impressed with that response. Amongst the many activities the students did in Berlin, another key activity was to talk to Syrian arrivals at a social café event organised in a community hall. The students cooked a course of food for sixty people, had fun with the children there and danced to Syrian music as the refugees clapped enthusiastically. The event organiser, let’s call her Frau J, said she was very moved that students
would want to come from the UK to give service to the refugees, and that together the refugees and the visitors had created a “powerful energy” by working together. The verbal feedback from the students has been equally strong. Over the next few weeks I hope to be writing a research paper on the impact of short overseas’ volunteering trips on students’ identity with Professor Richard Hall at DMU.
What I learned from this trip:
Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time and I believe no matter how challenging, Germany’s response it the right one. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Germany is likely to receive 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, four times the number it took in 2014 and more than all the other EU states took combined last year. In July, Germany received more than 37,000 asylum applications, a 93 percent increase over the same month last year. I feel that the United Kingdom’s response is truly embarrassing. Incidentally, Germany is currently home to 7.2million non-German residents – and their media is puzzled by how Britain is up in arms about a migration crisis. While I was there I saw that most Syrian refugees are women and children, dispelling a myth I had been told that most Syrian refugees are young men. Most of all, I learned a little help goes a long way and in academic year 2016/17, I will be encouraging students at De Montfort University to get involved in DMU Square Mile to share learning and give time to people who have been displaced through famine, war and political asylum both in Berlin through #DMUglobal and in Leicester.
If you wish to work with DMU’s refugee support programme, contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org
Our Berlin schedule was as follows:
Arrive and attend the WeAreBornFree! Café in Kreuzberg to hear refugees’ experiences and their campaigns for better services and human rights.
Visited Humboldt University to hear about its response to the refugee situation – which included a networking event for students and staff to create ideas for support, free lectures, scholarships, a buddy scheme to partner students and refugees, an and impressive student-led law clinic.
Visit the Refugee Church (Flüchtlingskirche) to meet staff and volunteers who dedicate their time to support refugees.
Monday evening, the whole group was given an inspiring talk about the Build-On Berlin Chapter that is fundraising to build schools in Africa.
Students sorted through a mountain of clothes in a gym that is home to 150 refugee families. The students also spent time with the children, playing sports.
Group attended #LoveInternational event in central Berlin to hear speeches from representatives of DMU and their reflections on the outcome of the Brexit vote. Later that day, the students cooked food and spent time with 60 people at a social event in a community centre in East Berlin
Sightseeing and returned to UK
Students will be meeting back at DMU shortly to discuss the following:
The provision of the existing programme for refugees in Leicester
Adopting new projects from the ideas gathered in the trip to Berlin
Establishing regular trips to support agencies in Berlin through the #DMUglobal programme.
Anyone wishing to learn more about DMU’s support for refugees is asked to email DMU Head of Public Engagement email@example.com