Many migrants who reach Germany find it difficult to navigate the country's bureaucracy and start living a normal life. But a new organization is helping migrants find a friend who can help them settle in.
Bassel Wali (above right) first heard about Start with a Friend from another refugee. The 23-year-old, who withstood the arduous journey from Aleppo in Syria to Germany, registered himself for the initiative and met the group's coordinators at their Cologne office, he told DW. A week later, he met Katharina Riethmüller (above left), a Cologne university student, who would help him find his bearings in the western German city.
"I always wanted to do something meaningful," Riethmüller told DW about why she chose to volunteer with the refugee initiative. Despite prejudices against refugees, especially after reports of sexual attacks by immigrants over New Year's Eve in Cologne, the volunteer decided to keep an open mind.
"I came across an Internet link for Start with a Friend that was posted on a Facebook group. And I thought, that's something I'd like to do, it doesn't sound like a lot of work and I decided to attend their information seminar," she added.
"We want to emphasize one-on-one support for refugees but also give families with children and other interested people the opportunity to engage with the issue. That was the idea behind Start with a Friend" Sarah Rosenthal, one of the founders of the group, told DW. Volunteers help migrants sort out their paperwork, find jobs or apartments, and develop sustainable relationships at a personal level.
The organization, which began as a volunteer initiative, now receives funding from the German government to carry out its work.
The perfect match
When Riethmüller attended the group's information meeting, she was asked about her hobbies, the things she liked to do and whether she had any particular preferences when it came to finding her perfect refugee partner. "They tried to find me a match and see which migrant had similar qualities. Shortly after, they said there was someone I might be interested in," the volunteer said.
Prejudices against refugees have risen after migrants of North African origin sexually assaulted more than 1,000 women on New Year's Eve at the Cologne train station
Before long, Riethmüller and Wali were taking a walk down the streets of Cologne, getting to know each other better. Wali had been a student of fine art and design in Aleppo in Syria, before his brother and he decided to leave the country and make their way over the Aegean Sea to Europe. He turned out to be the perfect companion for Riethmüller, a media student, who shares Wali's passion for photography.
Now, the Syrian migrant has become a regular fixture in Riethmüller's life. "It doesn't feel like work to me. When I think of going out with my friends, he's automatically invited," she added. She also introduced the 23-year-old Syrian to "Tatort," a popular crime series on German television. "It was very interesting," Wali said, adding that he did not understand everything, but that he was working on his German.
Developing a new understanding
The friendship also gave Riethmüller an opportunity to learn more about Syria. "I was not very interested in political matters before," she told DW, adding, "I did not know much about Syria. Now when my friend, Wali, shows me pictures of his house before and after the bombing, it has a completely different effect."
Riethmüller and Wali's friendship is just about a month old and Wali's uncertain visa status means it would be difficult to predict how long he will be here. "He came to my place and we looked at all his documents carefully to get an overview. Right now, things are stuck. He only has a document that says he wants to apply for asylum, which is one step before he gets a proper visa to live here," Riethmüller told DW.
Until then, Wali said he would concentrate on a four-month-long training course in Cologne to improve his design skills. He said he was lucky to meet Riethmüller through Start with a Friend because he barely saw anyone around his refugee quarters in Elsdorf, a suburb of Cologne. The German volunteer, Wali told DW, was his one reason to wake up in the morning.