Former Essen school offers haven to refugees | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 15.08.2014
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Former Essen school offers haven to refugees

Refugees from Iraq and nearly a dozen other nations live together in a former school in Essen. They escaped terror and persecution in their home countries and want to offer their children a better future in Germany.

At first glance, the large house in the western German city of Essen could pass as a university residence hall. There's a laundry room with a signup sheet so people don't fight over the washers, and a common room where two men play pool while a cartoon is blaring on the TV-set in the corner.

But the gray building in the Essen suburb with the very German name of Kupferdreh-Dilldorf doesn't house college students. It's a refugee home. "We're at the maximum number of 80 residents," the director of the facility, Ridda Martini, told DW. "We currently have residents from Eritrea, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo - we're a very diverse group here."

Refugee home Essen-Kupferdreh. (Photo: DW/C. Bleiker)

Bleak and gray from the outside: the refugee home in Essen-Kupferdreh

Not comfortable, but safe

In the first six months of 2014, 97,093 people applied for asylum in Germany, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. That's a 62 percent increase over the same period in 2013. Most news refugees in Germany came from Syria, followed by Serbia and Eritrea.

Refugees have lived in the former Essen school awaiting the decision on whether they'll be granted asylum in Germany since September 2013. They fled from violence and persecution in their home countries - one of the men playing pool in the common room is an Iraqi Yazidi, the minority that is currently being hunted down by the "Islamic State" militias.

Space is tight. Two families share one classroom in the old school while people who came alone sleep in quarters shared by 13 or 14 people. The home lies directly at the intersection of two major roads and despite photos of European cities like London, Paris and Copenhagen on the walls, the gray halls don't have a very welcoming feel.

The refugees, however, said they were happy right where they are. They traded in comfort for personal safety and the chance for a better life. Ahmed came to the refugee home from Kosovo. The 31-year-old Roma man arrived in Essen six months ago with his wife and his three children: two boys aged 13 and 5, and a 10-year-old girl.

"I just wanted a refuge, a place where I could feel safe with my family," he said. "In Kosovo, all Roma are treated badly."

Sami (name changed) from Eritrea said he doesn't mind sharing his space. "When I first came it was difficult for me," said the 29-year-old, who came to Essen alone eight months ago. "But I'm good now." He lives with 13 or 14 other people. "I like social life. For me, it's no problem," he added.

From potential nuisance to well-accepted neighbor

Riddar Martini. (Photo: DW/C. Bleiker)

Martini is happy about the good relationship between the home and its neighbors

Martini runs the home for the social service group European Home Care. He said he liked the feeling of community prevalent in the home, for which Ahmed is living proof. His family shares a room not with another family, but with a single female refugee. Since she is by herself, as a woman in a foreign country, he said he takes care of her a little and feels somewhat responsible for her.

Residents eat their meals together, with a hot meal for lunch. All religious or dietary restrictions are taken into account: no pork or alcohol is served, a vegetarian option is available and there is always food suitable for diabetics - "and if someone really hates fish, he gets something else, too," Martini quipped.

A temporary solution

The rooms where the refugees live don't have their own kitchens, because the school-turned-refugee-home is only a temporary solution for the city of Essen. If enough apartments and permanent refugee homes have been created for the growing number of refugees in Essen by the end of the year, the building will go back to being an unused school.

In December 2012, when the residents of Kupferdreh-Dilldorf learned about the city's plan to convert the former school into a refugee home, many locals lobbied to keep the home from opening at all. The residents even staged a candle-light vigil, because they feared for peace and quiet in their town. Today, the relationship between the refugee home's residents and the local German population is very good, Martini said. Many locals donate clothes or volunteer their time and some pensioners, who used to go to the school as students, teach German classes to the refugees.

"We get along really well," said a neighbor, who requested anonymity. "They are well taken care of. The Catholic congregation next door is also really involved, for example." The Birth of St. Mary Church is an imposing presence right next-door to the refugee home.

Feeling of family

While arguments occasionally occur they're resolved without violence, Martini said. There have been no incidents similar to a fight that ended in a stabbing at a refugee home in Cologne in early August.

Azemina Mehmedovic looks at a book with a little boy. (Photo: DW/C. Bleiker)

Mehmedovic uses the picture books to playfully help the children with their German

One possible reason for that is the large number of children at the home: 37, almost half of all residents. During the summer vacation, they gather in the common room to watch cartoons, look at books with social adviser Azemina Mehmedovic or play in the home's large yard. In short, there are always a few children around, and it is hard to imagine any of the older refugees starting a fight in front of them.

"We see ourselves as a big family," Martini said. "The residents get to know each other through their children. That's also important for the individuals who come here alone: the older ones suddenly act like grandparents and are 'adopted' as grandparents as well."

Martini, too, said he has become part of this extended family. When it started to rain on a recent August afternoon, he yelled at the kids dancing in the rain to come inside before they caught a cold. "I'm a father myself," he said with an apologetic smile.

Ahmed, the Roma father of three, came to Germany because he didn't want his children growing up in Kosovo. "I don't miss anything from my country," he said. "I've wanted to come to a country where we are safe, where my kids can go to school. I want to be able to offer them a secure future."

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