German religious initiative helps Syrian refugees | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.04.2014
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German religious initiative helps Syrian refugees

Last year, 12,000 Syrians applied for asylum in Germany - not including refugees reunited with family already in Germany. A Christian group is making sure they get everything they need for daily life in the new country.

Chili-infused cream cheese? In broken Arabic, Andrea von Schmude is trying to explain the contents of the package to three Syrian women. When her Arabic fails, she switches to English. Battol, the only one among the three women who understands English well, shakes her head. She'd rather have cream cheese with herbs. And two liters of milk. They're still debating whether to get chocolate pudding, as well.

The next stop is even more fraught: meat and sausage. They decide against it altogether, out of concern that the products could contain pork - which, in Germany, is highly likely.

Every Wednesday, von Schmude picks up the three Syrian women in Bonn and drives them to an ecumenical food bank in a nearby town. Showing their discount card allows low-income people to get groceries there. Each family pays 1.50 euros ($2) to pack out as much as they need.

Von Schmude tapped her contacts to help the women access the town's food bank. In Bonn, the facilities were already overrun.

Shopping and doctor visits

Women walk at a damaged site after an air strike in Aleppo (Photo: REUTERS/Hosam Katan)

More than 2.5 million have fled the civil war in Syria

"When I heard that the refugee families were coming here to Bonn, I wanted to help - they're basically our neighbors, after all," said the 45-year-old. "I'm happy to know that people from a conflict region can get back into a normal life."

Von Schmude also accompanies the women to the doctor, translating between German and Arabic or English. When that doesn't work, she resorts to that awkward but useful international language of gestures.

She came to know about the Syrian refugees through her Catholic church community outside of Bonn. She's been supporting Syrian Ahmed Kiwan, who has German citizenship, since the start of the year. Little by little, he's been bringing his relatives out of the civil war and into Germany.

Kiwan has already managed the paperwork to get 27 people from his extended family over - seven more await in Jordan. Kiwan alone is responsible for his family's expenses, from airfare to rent. He simply wouldn't be able to get by on his own.

Congregations collecting donations

Syrian refugees after they crossed the border, near Ramtha, Jordan (Photo: EPA/JORDAN ARMY)

The stream of refugees crossing from Syria into Jordan shows no sign of letting up

This is why church congregations created the "Syria Help Network." Lay Pastor Guido Zernack calls it his "Christian duty" to help other families. "We can't just collect donations for refugees around the world when there are refugees right here who need help," Zernack said.

Since the beginning of the year, they've pulled together 50,000 euros ($69,000) which should stretch for a few months. The Syrian refugees have been diligently studying German, and hope to be on their own feet soon enough.

"There is no good life in Syria," explained 30-year-old Battol. When they fled to Jordan, the entire extended family lived in one small apartment where Battol shared a room with her husband and daughter.

Two months ago, she was able to leave Jordan for Germany to reunite with her brother-in-law Kiwan. The church network helped them get an apartment. Now she shares a room with her husband, and her daughters have their own room, she explained, adding happily: "there's a big salon, and terrace."

Every Wednesday

Von Schmude (left) helps Raghed (middle) at the clothing bank (Photo: Juli Rutsch, DW)

Von Schmude (left) helps Raghed (middle) at the clothing bank

The Syrian refugees can surely count on von Schmude. After helping them get groceries, she's arranged for a visit to a clothing bank. The discount card for low-income people comes in handy again, allowing them to "shop" there. The clothing bank has been run by a women's initiative for 25 years.

Von Schmude introduces the women, each gets her own helper. Von Schmude lays her arm on teenager Raghed's back, and they stroll through the racks of clothing together. Raghed picks out a sweater and disappears into the fitting room. Meanwhile, Battol looks for children's clothes. The third woman, Elham, discovers an attractive new arrival: a set of dishes.

More than an hour later, the women leave with full hampers and bags. They seem worn out, but happy. "It was a successful afternoon," said von Schmude. She'll be back to help them next Wednesday.

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