Many mosques all across Germany opened their doors to the people fleeing the war and mayhem of the Middle East. But many now find themselves overstretched, as Naomi Conrad reports from Hamburg.
The dimly-lit mosque in a converted underground car-park in central Hamburg seemed a far cry from its proud name, Al-Nour, Arabic for light: Fans whirred lazily above the faded brown carpets, while a mere slither of sunlight crept in through the main door.
Until May of this year, up to 400, sometimes even 600 refugees would crowd into the small room every night, the mosque's chairman Daniel Abdin told DW. "Just imagine how stuffy it would get when all those people slept here!"
The number of refugees arriving in Germany, which reached an estimated 1.1 million last year and saw German authorities struggling to accommodate them, has dropped significantly this year. This is due, in part, to a deal struck between the European Union and Turkey, which allows for the deportations of migrants who enter Europe illegally.
Germany has also significantly tightened its asylum policies, speeding up both deportations and asylum processes and taking steps to declare several Middle Eastern countries as “countries of safe origins.”
Strain on mosques
But even so, the influx of refugees has put a strain on mosques like this one, which opened their doors to those coming to Germany: "It was our duty", Abdin said, but admitted it had almost bankrupted his small community.
Donations from local churches and other organizations had helped to alleviate the strain to some extent, though, he added.
Other Muslim communities, who like this mosque rely on unpaid volunteers, Özlem Nas told DW, were also finding it hard to cope: While mosques had rallied almost immediately to house and feed the refugees, the many volunteers were often stretched to breaking point as hundreds of refugees streamed into the city, many in transit to Scandinavia. "I was afraid some of the younger volunteers might have a burnout," Nas, an eloquent member of the Alliance of Islamic Communities in Northern Germany, said.
"It's hard to be confronted with so many stories of war and violence."
Today, she said, the situation had calmed down – at least "somewhat."
But many mosques are still faced with the influx of new members: Abdin says his mosque is now made up of more than 40 percent refugees, most of them from Syria and Iraq. He has even had to introduce a second Friday prayer to accommodate the many new worshippers.
Hard to access mental health care
One of them, Abdilfatah Youssef, a polite, softly-spoken 28-year-old businessman who fled Damascus with his wife and two daughters when the war broke out, said he felt at home at the mosque. "It's good to know you have a place to go when you have problems or maybe need money in an emergency," he told DW in almost fluent German.
Others turn to the mosque because they are struggling to deal with the trauma of violence and bloodshed: While Imams, Abid said, play an important role in giving pastoral care - some need professional psychological help.
And that, Nas said, is often hard to access: It may take a year for refugees even to get the first appointment and many psychologists and psychiatrists may be reluctant to take on patients whose language and culture they don't share.
Nas says she draws upon a network of personal contacts, including doctors and health care experts to provide the much-needed counseling. Without these contacts, she admits, “it would be very hard.”
Fear of rising anti-Muslim sentiments
But even as they struggle to accommodate refugees, leaders like Abdin say they feel frustrated that they are constantly called upon to take a stance against extremists who commit atrocities in the name of their religion. "Look, I'm sick of having to justify myself every time a criminal who has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam commits a crime."
His comments come at a time when Germany is reeling from a spate of violent attacks, several of them committed by refugees, of whom Abdin says: "criminals are abusing our religion."
Indeed, radicalization, experts agree, occurs outside of established mosques, most often via the internet or in small, closed groups.
At the same time, anti-Muslim sentiments have reached an all-time high in Germany, with more than a third of respondents saying they're believed that Muslims strongly supported Islamic terrorists, according to a poll conducted by the University of Bielefeld and published this month.
Abdin shrugged: "Fighting Islamophobia is incredibly hard work, particularly when we have so many other tasks."
Not least, trying to accommodate and integrate their fellow Muslims: The mosque's congregation was, Abdin said, "struggling to cope."