How the refugee crisis has ignited volunteer spirit in one German city | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.08.2015
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How the refugee crisis has ignited volunteer spirit in one German city

While some German towns grapple with xenophobia amid soaring refugee numbers, others are dealing with unprecedented levels of volunteer spirit. Kathleen Schuster reports from Bonn.

Bonn's refugee processing center is housed in an old military barracks whose dull yellow façade contrasts sharply with the gabled town houses half-hidden behind lush trees. Looking across the courtyard, there are few visible signs of a rumored onslaught of eager citizens clamoring to help refugees.

That is, until a Red Cross volunteer unlocks the door to a storage room buried deep inside one of its roaming hallways: There appears to be no path up, around, or over the small mountains of furniture, board games, toys and baby cribs to reach the other side of the 15 square-meter room. A window looks out onto some of the residents trying to escape the sweltering heat under the shade of trees lining the far side of the courtyard. Some are sitting in lounge chairs, which have been donated, like most everything else here.

These donations are the physical manifestation of an outpouring of goodwill in Bonn, where - according to a number of local aid organizations and churches - hundreds of people say they just want to help the refugees pouring into Germany.

"No one comes to us when we're cleaning up a playground and says 'I want to help.' But now there are a lot of people who want to help, who want to donate things, who want to spend hours there, who want to spend time with refugees, who want to play with the children," Bonn Red Cross emergency response manager Elke Feuser-Kohler says.

In her 20-odd years at the Red Cross, she expects that level of engagement from fellow aid workers, but to experience such a "massive" level of interest from outside the organization is rare, she says.

The estimates provided by Bonn's two main networks of Christian parishes – primarily, Lutheran and Catholic – suggest that well over 500 people, perhaps even up to 1,000, are currently involved in volunteer work with asylum seekers. That number could be much higher, given the "countless" local initiatives active in the scene.

Some volunteers have also been wait-listed temporarily. The local Red Cross chapter, for example, has registered roughly 50 people from Bonn to work at a later date.

Deutschland Georg Fenninger

Over 200 people attended an information evening in late July, hosted by Bonn Red Cross head Georg Fenninger.

'To be expected'

Over 1,000 asylum seekers from 37 countries are living in Bonn, plus the 100 or so residing at the former barracks, where they must wait several weeks for a decision on their asylum status before being relocated to a refugee home.

The former German capital, like many other cities across the country, doesn't have the structural capacity to care for all of these refugees and is running a decentralized housing program. As the city's Integration Commissioner, Coletta Manemann, puts it: "It would be absolutely impossible without volunteer support."

According to Manemann, the number of volunteers began to grow in 2013, when images of the Syrian war and the plight of their people dominated German media.

The natural progression of city outreach efforts and establishing a network of volunteers city-wide led to the high numbers seen now. The same high numbers that allowed the Red Cross to set up bedrooms, a medical station and communal closet at the refugee processing center within 24 hours in order to accommodate 100 residents – or a third of its intended capacity – as an emergency measure.

Manemann says the outpouring of sympathy "was to be expected." But, she adds, the high number of people interested in helping, "correlates with the high number of refugees."

Refugees welcome

Georg Fenninger, who heads Bonn's chapter of the Red Cross, and Pastor Ulrike Veermann, whose parish has been working closely with the aid organization, both cite Bonn's international flare as a reason for the wide support. Roughly 15 percent of Bonn's 320,000 residents come from abroad.

Veermann says that local residents are keenly aware of the turmoil and violence that have driven so many people to flee their homes.

"They're thankful that they are not themselves living in plight. And that's why we are saying: We want to give what we have and we want to create a welcoming culture that says you can be here and we want you to be here."

Driven by curiosity and conviction

Reasons for signing up, according to a handful of volunteers, range from curiosity, to interest in the politics surrounding the refugee crisis, to a personal history involving a loved one who was, himself, a refugee.

One thing they all had in common was a previous history of volunteer work. And one thing they all could confirm was the reaction of their friends and family to their direct involvement in the refugee crisis : overwhelmingly positive.

Family and friends are "really interested to hear my own stories," Red Cross volunteer Valentina Petri says. They're not necessarily interested in volunteering themselves, but they appear to be open to using her "insider knowledge" to inform their own opinion in the heated debate surrounding the refugee crisis.

Bonn Kleiderspende Sachspende Flüchtlinge Erstaufnahmelager

Volunteers have been receiving donations, like these bicycles, but also baby clothes and shoes

Is it sustainable?

However, there is no guarantee that this wave of volunteer work– which is by no means unique only to Bonn – will remain at its current level.

Carina Stäger, an 18-year old university student who taught German at a local refugee home and now helps set up language exchanges, has noticed some inconsistencies between words and actions.

"When I talk about it with classmates, their eyes light up immediately and then they say, 'I want to do something!' But the proportion of those people who actually get in touch is, of course, much smaller," she says, adding that sometimes the interest wanes after a few months of working as a language exchange partner.

Moving away from stereotypes

The overall mood in Bonn has remained calm, according to the mayor's office and the police department. There have been no threats and no inundation of complaints about housing migrants.

Efforts have also begun toward connecting asylum seekers and residents in a more natural ways. One example of this is a running group, founding by Lena Schröder, who protests against the idea of it all being a huge challenge.

"There are actually a lot of really great moments," she laughs, when recounting how running breaks down language barriers and helps people move past labels such as "refugee" and "migrant."

"It's such a shame because behind [these words] is first and foremost a human being and a person with his own personality, who isn't necessarily distinguished by the label 'I'm a refugee,'" she argues. "He's distinguished by it because this is his status in Germany, but it's not what makes him a person."

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