A place of dignity for refugees in Berlin

An outpouring of hospitality is on full display at a shelter in the German capital, where volunteers insist on treating refugees as people, not just victims. But as the gifts pour in, how deep is the well of kindness — and what is brewing under the surface?

Refugees march toward the Hungarian-Austrian border. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)
Refugees march toward the Hungarian-Austrian border, hoping to reach Berlin. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

BERLIN — A few young teenage Arab boys line up loosely, side by side, in a concrete courtyard. They are concentrating hard on four big guys dressed in black, who are busting hip-hop moves to music blaring from an amplifier. The boys bounce a little with the beat, then follow after the big guys, giggling and shaking their legs and hips, executing jumps and turns. One wears sport pads over his knobby knees.

A girl of four or five runs by, curls flying, her face painted from the nose up with swirls of red and silver. A skinny boy tries to stand straight, his feet plunged deep inside bright pink plastic roller blades. A group of men gaze at a guitar player, clapping and filming on their phones.

As scenes of misery roll in from the borders of Hungary, Austria, and the Balkans, this is not a calm country fair, but a snapshot of 763 refugees (last Thursday) from 32 different countries, living in a vast, vacated city hall building in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin.

In mid-August, German authorities began sending refugees here, with no infrastructure. The Arbeiter Samariter-Bund (Workers’ Samaritan Federation), an independent charity, got involved.

“When this place started,” said Holger Michel, one of the volunteers who is there every day, “there were 150 people, a security team that the municipality brought in, and nothing else.”

That was the situation when a young man named Philipp Bertram heard about it and came to see what he could do to help. He is 24 years old, with the blond boyishness of a surfer. He is originally from Saxony – an area with heavy anti-refugee sentiment, where the anti-Islamic movement Pegida was born. Philipp had worked with refugee projects in the past, and quickly developed “an idea” of the kind of place he wanted to be able to provide.

A few days later, Philipp established a Facebook group to recruit help. Within hours, 300 hundred people had “liked” the page. By that evening, there were one hundred actually volunteering, he says. One month later, there have been a thousand volunteers, some showing up just once, others working regularly. The number of refugees have swelled and since my visit, has reached capacity of 800 – some have had to be turned away. Syrians make up about 65 percent. Besides Arabic, some of the other languages include Urdu, Farsi, Albanian, Kurdish, and Tigrinya.

Holger is a 35-year-old freelance PR consultant who works largely for politicians. He had planned to be a one-timer. “I came for two hours and stayed.” That was weeks ago. His client aren’t thrilled with all the lost time and his friends tell me they are worried about his health. Philipp has been there for five weeks. He says he works 17 hours per day, and hasn’t taken a day off. Last Tuesday, the ASB formally hired him.

Philipp says that there is something addictive about being there. He recalls how, after helping one Syrian family deal with a range of needs, the man gave him a present. He digs into his slim jeans pocket to show me a small loop of red plastic prayer beads. “It was the only thing at all that he kept with him from Syria. He had nothing else. And he gave it to me.”

There is no mistaking his shy smile for self-gratification. Philipp had a fast and clear vision of what he wanted the shelter to be. “We always see them as refugees, poor victims. I wanted us to treat them like people, just people like us but from a different state, with a different history. So we try to make a place where they can be people.”

The values are in the details. Volunteers are scurrying around the rooms, busily arranging orange canvas cots. It is the only shelter, they tell me proudly, where people live three to a room, rather than communally in a large hall. Volunteer nametags bear the slogan “refugees welcome.”

A tight assembly line of young volunteers runs down a long hallway and they are shunting boxes along the smooth floors, hands slapping the boxes along. The contents are sorted with cliché precision. One room is stacked to the ceiling with boxes of shoes, each one marked by gender, adults or children, and size. A chart on the wall explains how to measure feet for European size numbers.

Boxes of shoes in a Berlin refugee shelter (Dahlia Scheindlin, 17 Sept 2015)
Boxes of shoes in a Berlin refugee shelter (Dahlia Scheindlin, 17 Sept 2015)

Another room contains shelves full of boys’ T-shirts, and racks hung neatly with men’s blazers and shirts, and other clothing groups. Only five people can enter at once. “We wanted it to be calm. But also we didn’t want to shove charity packages at them. It’s not exactly a shop, but at least it’s their choice,” Holger tells me.

Locals have donated a dizzying array of items. The hip hop teachers outside are volunteers, as is the vigorous acoustic guitar player, hairdressers and the circus I am told will visit the following day. Philipp says that some volunteers are charged with just walking around and talking to people: “to be social, to interact. Find out if they’re OK.” When residents go to the cafeteria for meals, names and room numbers are registered so volunteers can track if someone hasn’t shown up and check in on them.

One day a fancy black car pulled up outside, Holger recalls. An old man who looked over 80 emerged and said, “’I’m too old to help, but I am rich. What can I buy?’ It was getting chilly just around then, so I told him, blankets. The man went away and came back with 1,000 blankets. He didn’t say who he was, but now we have blankets!” Others have donated furniture, including chairs, a leather sofa, a flat-screen TV. One hundred teachers have volunteered to provide daily German classes.  During my visit, conversations are interrupted by the thrum of brand-new washing machines being rolled through the hallways.

There are volunteer interpreters, doctors, a dentist, psychologist, and a midwife; they are expecting three babies. That day, an eight-day-old infant is checked in from the hospital.

The classrooms happen to be empty while we walk around and suddenly a small boy speeds headlong into the room, stopping unexpectedly when he sees us. Holger ruffles his hair. “Kif halek” I say spontaneously and the boy curls up a bit and laughs “hamdallilah.”

Holger says, “we wanted to make them into children again. You see them when they arrive, some of them are just blank, dead in their eyes. Little by little, days at a time, they become children again.”

Signs posted on the walls in a Berlin refugee shelter (Dahlia Scheindlin, 17 Sept 2015)
Signs posted on the walls in a Berlin refugee shelter (Dahlia Scheindlin, 17 Sept 2015)

The results couldn’t be clearer. A 30-year-old Syrian with flashing eyes and a broad smile tells me, “the people here – Germans – they are angels. Their hearts are white.” The man, whom I’ll call Khaled, repeats this at several points throughout our long conversation of his journey.

His tale is a litany of hell in Syria, taking his wife to Egypt and then going to Turkey on his own. From there he paid double, 2,000 euro, he says, in order not to travel in a rubber dinghy. “We got in the wooden boat and prayed to god not to drown.” What followed was a chain of relentless exploitation by smugglers from the moment he reached Greece straight through every Balkan country, to Hungary, through Austria, and finally Germany.

“When we first entered Serbia from Macedonia,” he said, “we reached a Muslim village. They said ‘Salam Aleikum! Welcome, our brothers’ – and they asked us if we had called our parents to say we are OK. Of course we had not. They sold us SIM cards for eight euro to call home. When we got to Belgrade we saw the same SIM cards sold for two euro. ‘Our brothers!’” he says bitterly.

But transportation was the real sinkhole of money. They are charged between 50 to hundreds of euro from their dwindling funds for taxi rides, both short and long. A public bus in Serbia, he says, knows not to stop for refugees so that only the taxis will take them.

“I was a rich man in Syria,” he says. He is a veterinarian who has completed medical school, but at 30, he has not yet practiced. Before this, he had a textile business, exporting throughout the Middle East. He lost most of it as the Syrian currency plunged and he took the remaining 6,000 euro in cash. The best place to hide it, he shows me, is in the waistband seam of his pants, opened up and stitched shut. “Because everyone knows that everyone hides it in their underwear, and they will make you take off your pants. But they never look here.”

I can’t use his Khaled’s real name, which he was happy to tell me, for political reasons. He says he is being treated here like “the president.” A volunteer befriended him and has since invited him to live with his family – a couple with two children. Khaled has only amazement at the kindness he has received. He wants to bring his wife and make his life here. Germany, he says, is “the mother of veterinary medicine.”

A Der Spiegel cover depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel as Mother Theresa.
A Der Spiegel cover depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel as Mother Theresa.

But it is not clear how long the good will can last. Germany may budget as much as 9 billion euros to handle the influx of possibly 1.2 million refugees; when I landed there last week, the estimated number was 800,000 people. Projections are rising constantly. The country’s finance minister will ask all other ministries to cut their budgets, along with other means, to save roughly 2.5 billion euros from the 2016 budget, reports the German magazine Speigel Online.

“People think a dollar spent for the refugees is one less dollar spent for them,” say friends in Berlin. They point to the worrying spate of refugee centers being torched, the growing voices of the anti-refugee organizations, and mocking photos of Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as Mother Theresa. Underneath the material outpouring on display at the Wilmersdorf shelter there is a tense expectation that the goodwill is shallow, and resentment lies just ahead. Philipp, the 24 year old, says he has received death threats – by regular mail, to his home address.

For Khaled, none of this has registered yet. For him, “everybody’s good, trying to help.” Moreover, he is inspired and passionate. He says he writes unapologetically on Facebook. “I say openly, to me own people – we need to change…We have to learn the language of this country, be one of them. They took us in.”