In the eastern German town of Altenburg, a weekly café is hoping to break down barriers between refugees and local residents. DW's Kate Brady reports from the open-minded "World Café."
Tucked away in the picturesque hills of Altenburg, refugees and local Altenburgers have been meeting every Tuesday for the past month. The town's residents, both old and new, have to opportunity to meet their neighbors, and in the long-term breakdown barriers in the hope of achieving successful integration.
For eight hours every week, the cafe is run by a mixed group of asylum seekers from countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and local Germans.
“This place is as important for Germans as for the refugees," says Christine Büring, the café's organizer and governor of Altenburg's Rotary Club.
With more asylum seekers arriving in Altenburg every week, Christine said she wanted to provide refugees with a 'normal' environment which would provide them with an opportunity to talk to other refugees, as well as Germans with whom they could integrate and improve their language skills.
The people of Altenburg also have much to learn from the project through talking to refugees about their experiences and welcome them into their community.
"It's rare in out German culture to just go up to someone and say: ‘Hey, where are you from?' And expect to be able to get to know these people. But here in the café, that's what it's about."
As refugees and locals begin to return on a weekly basis, the ‘World Café' is already becoming witness to the development of friendships.
"At first, there were even some Eritreans, for example, who didn't necessarily want to talk to the Afghans,” Christine recalls. “So the café isn't only responsible to creating more open-mindedness from the local Germans, but also between asylum seekers."
In a far corner of the café, sits a group of women: Germans, Eritreans, Sudanese. Their children are more than content, playing with each other, sharing their toys, and unknowingly making the steps towards the long-term integration of refugees into Germany.
For Christine, the presence of women at the café is of particular importance and plans for a women's morning are in the works,
"I think the “World Café's" an acceptable place for Arab or Muslim women to be and to socialize. So it provides them with that freedom to socialize alone. But first, they usually come with their husbands and kids."
Among the female refugees at the café is 27-year-old Sebel Girma, who fled from Eritrea with her 35-year-old husband, Alx Gesiaw.
Unlike many of the other mothers at the café, however, Sebel's 11 and 3-year-old daughters are still in Sudan with her brother.
"The journey was too risky," she explains. "First we will begin our new lives here and then, when possible, bring the girls."
Sebel dreams of becoming a hairdresser in Germany while her husband hopes to resume his career as an electrician.
Volunteer and refugee advisor Ingo Prehl hopes the project will improve the image of Thuringia after several right-wing incidents
"For now, though, the language is a problem," Alx says, adding that he hopes that coming to the café will improve his German and, in the long-term, improve his chances of finding work.
The "World Cafe" hopes also to provide people like Alx with the chance to network with local Altenburgers and businesses. In the corner stand two notice boards, one titled "I can offer..." and the other "I am looking for..."
Most of the refugees have written notices searching for internships or jobs nearby - from cleaners to car mechanics, the search is wide.
'I want to return the favor'
Run entirely by volunteers, the "World Café" is a non-profit project and receives a small amount of funding from the state to cover amenities such as heating and water.
Among the volunteering staff, are two young men from Afghanistan, 19-year-old Samim Khan and 24-year-old Zekira Nassery.
Samim arrived in Germany with his twin brother a year and two months ago. In remarkably good German, he says by helping serve drinks and snacks at the "World Café," he hopes to meet more locals while helping newly arrived refugees settle into their new home.
"I was lucky to find lots of friends when I arrived," Samim says. "So I want to return this favor to other people."
Not all of his experiences with local Germans have been positive, however.
“Some people in Thuringia don't want to get to know us. Sometimes I think they hate us,” he ponders. “I don't know why that is.”
The negative image of right-wing leaning Germans in Thuringia is something that social advisor and café volunteer Ingo Prehl hopes change.
"Anything we do can here at the café only help to improve the image of Thuringia and we're striving here to show and encourage open-mindedness," says the 44-year-old.
But without direct contact between refugees and Germans - which the café provides - integration and better understanding are limited, Christine says.
"We need to get to the bottom of why people feel threatened by these refugees arriving here."
Around 800 refugees have now arrived in Altenburg, with an estimated 1,200 expected to arrive by the end of the year.
"Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the population in Altenburg has dropped from around 55,000 to about 33,000, so these numbers of refugees aren't huge."
“For others, I think they're expecting a fast overnight solution to integration," she adds. "But integration takes time. Time and, above all, trust."
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