Volunteers help refugees feel welcome | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.03.2014
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Volunteers help refugees feel welcome

With appeals for asylum in Germany on the rise, one organization of volunteers is doing everything in its power to make refugees feel welcome in their new country, despite the legal hoops and hurdles.

Verena Landes felt the need to take action after seeing a German play titled "Asylum Monologues," which gives insight into the emotional world of asylum seekers. Portraying real-life stories, the actors tell of torture, oppression and war in the refugees' home countries. They also portray the hardships associated with fleeing one's country and the feeling of not being welcome at their destination.

Landes, a political scientist, was left shaken by the play. Born in Guatemala, she has lived in several countries in her lifetime and says she understands how people feel in a foreign country. Alice Wichtmann has had similar experiences. The two women got to know each other at Refugees Welcome - an organization based in Bonn, Germany, that advocates refugees' rights. Among its members are many students and young people who have recently entered the workforce. They fearlessly campaign for their cause, even if it sometimes means breaking the law. "We got into refugee shelters," explained Landes. "That's not actually allowed."

Hope for a better life abroad

During one such visit they meet Karim and Mustafa (not their real names). The two Egyptian men, aged 23 and 25, want to remain incognito, even in Germany, out of fear of persecution. It is only at this refugee center that they came to realize that they arrived in Germany at the same time, on the same flight to Munich via Georgia. The local authorities placed them in Bonn. Now, they are friends and share a small room at the shelter with another Egyptian.

Refugees Karim and Mustafa (not their real names) pointing at a globe of the world (Photo: Karin Jäger / DW)

Karim and Mustafa have come a long way to start a new life in Germany

"We are both Christian," said Mustafa. "In southern Egypt, in particular, people are persecuted and murdered for not being Muslim." Karim's feeling is that around 99 percent of Christian Egyptians would like to leave the country.

Both men seem calm and settled, "even though it's sometimes hard to live with hardly any privacy at the shelter and spend the whole day just waiting around," as Karim put it. The organization provides support to individual refugees in dealing with the outside world, including the authorities and doctors. "We are grateful that people like Verena and Alice help us," added Mustafa.

"Due to our age, we are not biased - we are without prejudice," said Landes. "And we don't represent any authorities but act freely."

Negative response from the community

Wichtmann provided an example of the spontaneous type of help they offer: a clothing donation drive. Without any formal registration, they drove to the refugee shelter one Sunday afternoon and gave out donated jackets, shirts and shoes to the asylum seekers. This angered the local residents, however, who lodged a complaint with the local authorities, accusing Wichtmann and Landes of organizing an unauthorized flea market.

Asylum seekers often feel particularly unwelcome in the direct vicinity of the shelter they are staying at. Residents shy away from them, fearing harassment and theft. At the same time, according to Landes and Wichtmann, homeowners are angry that the value of their properties plummet when they are located near a refugee shelter.

Alice Wichtmann (left) and Verena Landes (Photo: Karin Jäger / DW)

Wichtmann and Landes are determined to help refugees

Foreigners are systematically excluded in Germany, said Landes. "Our system is set up for not accepting refugees," she explained, adding that once they are there, a lot of effort is put into making sure they leave again. The processing of their appeals for asylum is often drawn out to make them give up hope, she claimed, with the aim of discouraging them and prompting them to leave the country on their own accord.

The formal procedure also feels slow for Mustafa and Karim. Mustafa has a degree in civil engineering and Karim is a certified farmer, but their qualifications appear to have no effect on their chances of being granted residency. Before this process is complete, they have no right to a state-funded German course.

Finding ways to help

Refugees Welcome is planning to create support groups consisting of refugees who know English and volunteers who speak both German and English. This makes communication easier. At the moment, Mustafa and Karim rely on English and constantly apologize for not being able to speak German. It is hoped that through regular outings and parties with the support groups, refugees like them will feel more at ease. According to Wichtmann, the meetings are "enriching for all involved."

Both women would feel they have achieved success "if people like Karim and Mustafa were not deported and our involvement became unnecessary," said Landes. And after a short pause she added, "When people come here in winter and don't have any proper shoes, but are able to get them from us, this is already a success."

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