Königswinter builds a rare refugee camp with heart | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.10.2015
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Königswinter builds a rare refugee camp with heart

It took just two days for the small town of Königswinter, near Bonn, to set up a camp for 100 new refugees. It's not perfect, but the staff there have worked hard to create a friendly atmosphere.

A quickly assembled camp to host about 100 migrants in the western town of Königswinter is made up of six white tents, a portable facility to house the washing machines and a gymnasium that serves as a dining room. It's fairly similar to many other camps that have been erected across Germany in recent weeks.

Residents seem to be very pleased with their arrangements. An older man from Pakistan stops to greet Silke Lohr, an official with the city of Königswinter, or "Miss," as he calls her. "Miss is very helpful, very nice," he says. "She's a good person, she has a good heart. She has helped us so much." Atif, also from Pakistan, is also full of praise for Lohr's work, and stresses how welcome he feels. Her cheeks begin to redden, and she laughs and looks away.

Lohr heads up Königswinter's Department for Social Work and Asylum. Usually, she works from her desk. But things changed very quickly when she got a phone call from the municipal government on a Wednesday at the end of August asking her to prepare a home for 100 refugees by Friday.

From that moment, Lohr's usual eight-hour workday became a thing of the past. She says she stayed at the camp until midnight one night last week because one of the kids was sick. "You have to open your heart to these people," Lohr says. "And, if you're always looking at the clock and thinking, I really need to go home, then you're not in it with your heart."

Recently, discussion in Germany has focused on problems at temporary residences, the potential segregation of refugees by religion, and curtailing the subsistence assistance applicants receive while awaiting a verdict on their asylum status. In Königswinter, however, Lohr and her team are just working to find pragmatic solutions to challenges as they encounter them.

Königswinter, Bonn, NRW

Lohr, center, will eventually have to give up full-time work at the camp - but she plans to return

Senior citizens volunteering

Until he retired two years ago, Hubert Dütz worked for the city for 18 years, overseeing the accommodation and care of asylum applicants. When the mayor of Königswinter asked the 67-year-old to help six weeks ago, he immediately said yes. "I enjoyed my work before, and I still enjoy doing it now," Dütz says. Two other former city employees work with Dütz in the red trailer that serves as the camp's administrative office. They receive a small sum to compensate them for their work.


Dütz and Petra Prangenberger have made productive use of their retirement at the camp

The camp's 80 refugees come from 10 countries, including Syria, Albania and Eritrea. The organizers try to put people from the same country or with the same religion into the same tents. When arguments arise, the people involved are given different places to sleep. Rather than have a long discussion, officials in Königswinter simply act to remedy the situation.

A father pushes his daughter on a bicycle across the campground. Half in English, half in German, Lohr explains to him that there is another bike with training wheels he could use. She points toward a parking lot that she created after stumbling several times over kids' bikes and toy cars that were left lying about. Since then, the children have learned to park the toys and bikes in one place.

A family atmosphere

Conditions at the camp in Königswinter are not the best. The six tents sit directly on a parking lot, and the camp is set next to a railway line, so every few minutes a cargo train thunders past. The refugees sleep in tight quarters on basic camp beds. They have to walk across the camp to get to the toilets. And, despite heating in the tents, it gets very cold at night, says Valerie, a young woman who fled from Cameroon.

Yet, somehow, Silke Lohr and her team have managed to create a place where people who speak different languages and who have been traumatized by wars in their home countries and the dangerous journey to Europe can live in harmony.

"There's a familiar atmosphere here because it's not so big," Lohr says. "After two days, everyone knows everyone's name." She says the same atmosphere would not be possible in some of the larger camps in Germany, which can house up to 700 people: "I've known everyone since they arrived, and I'm also familiar with the problems they have."

The camp is emergency accommodation only. People can stay until they've filed their applications for asylum. "We've had some very tearful goodbyes," Lohr says. "And, when I see some of the men cry because they have to leave everyone they've come to know and go their separate ways, it makes me cry, too."

Soon, the German Red Cross will take over management of the camp. Lohr has mixed feelings about that: "I'll have a bit of free time again, and that's something I haven't had since working here because something else always came first. But the people here and their stories have come to mean a lot to me." She already knows what she'll do with some of the free time she'll soon have: stop by the camp and see how everyone is doing.

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