“The day has only just begun, but the phone in Anja Damerius’ office at the University of Siegen is already ringing off the hook. An elderly woman wants to read books to refugee children: “Yes, of course!” Damerius says into the receiver. “When are you available?” A family from the neighborhood wants to distribute food. “Come over.” Toys? “Please drop them off at the church, our garage is full.”
The masters student from North Rhine-Westphalia had actually planned on spending her semester break relaxing, sleeping in, meeting friends and doing a bit of partying. But instead, she’s been working on the campus from morning to evening, she says.
Damerius, 33, coordinates the program for 50 to 60 refugee children at the University of Siegen. She is one of a dozen volunteers at the university who are working with asylum seekers, known here as “guests.”
The regional government has placed approximately 200 asylum seekers in the university gymnasium. Initially, it was seen as a temporary solution, meant to provide shelter for a few days until space in the reception center opened up again. But by now, refugees have been living on the campus for almost a month — and nobody at the university is seriously expecting that the asylum seekers will be housed anywhere else by the time the semester starts in mid-October, despite official promises to the contrary. In fact, 17 additional refugees arrived just last week.
But hardly anyone in Siegen is complaining. The student union is organizing meals through the cafeteria; a student initiative has launched daily language courses, and almost 90 interpreters have been recruited; and, with the help of students, the city is organizing primary medical care.
Siegen University rector Holger Burckhart, who is also vice-president of the German Rectors’ Conference, says that given their status as public institutions, universities have a responsibility to help. “We are part of social life and can give something back to society here.” According to Burckhart, the students are getting a clearer sense of the scale of the world’s crises.
In the afternoon, two computer science PhD students bring by laptops and tablets from their department. In a makeshift Internet café set up in a red-and-white tent, children use the devices to watch music videos. In a corner, three Syrians are trying to reach their families via Skype and Facebook. When it finally works, one of them wipes the tears from his face.
A Nationwide Movement
The University of Siegen is an example of a popular movement taking place across Germany. From Munich to Berlin, Dresden to Hanau, tens of thousands of people are standing up to help refugees: high school and university students, workers, retirees.
Reports about extreme-right attacks on refugee shelters have been heaping shame upon Germany for months. The Federal Criminal Police Office has counted 199 attacks against refugee housing in the first half of this year — almost three times as many in the first six months of 2014.
The helpers from Siegen and other cities and regions embody a different Germany: solidary, empathetic, happy to lend a hand. The volunteers are less visible and less loud than the agitators and arsonists. But they are efficient, and there are lots of them.
In 2014, researchers at Berlin’s Humboldt University and at Oxford University polled 460 volunteers along with 80 aid organizations that work with refugees. They found that roughly 70 percent more people have been volunteering for projects in recent years. According to the research, over one third of the volunteers invest over five hours per week.
These activists protect asylum seekers from attacks by racists, help them look for apartments or jobs and provide medical treatment. More broadly, they prevent the support system from collapsing by compensating for what the state neglects. They also provide what no state can: friendliness and attention — and sometimes even friendship.
Hanau: Maritime Rescue
It’s a Thursday afternoon in August and Hagen Kopp, a 55-year-old warehouse worker, is sitting in a stuffy room in an office building in Hanau, in the central German state of Hesse. He is wearing an earring in his ear and a T-shirt reading “No person is illegal.” The eight-hour Alarm Phone shift has only just begun.
For two years, Kopp monitored the death of the refugees in the Mediterranean for the Watch the Med project. After 366 people drowned in a shipwreck near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, he no longer wanted to simply describe the catastrophe on Europe’s outer borders. He wanted to put a stop to it.
Together with colleagues from Watch the Med, he founded Alarm Phone, an unofficial emergency number, last fall. The activists take emergency calls from refugees on the high seas who have become stranded on their odyssey to Europe. Other helpers are waiting for phone calls alongside Kopp: Noori, from Afghanistan, Newroz, a Kurdish woman and Asefaw, a man from Eritrea. Hundreds of volunteers are now working for the project, not just in Hanau but in different countries in Europe and North Africa.
The activists have spread the Alarm Phone number online and in refugee camps on the Mediterranean. Desperate people are calling almost every day, usually from one of the satellite phones that is located in almost every boat. The helpers ask for coordinates in English or French and ask whether the boat is damaged, whether there are sick people or children on board. They are constantly confronted with questions of life or death.
Just a few weeks ago, a boat carrying 180 refugees was in distress near the Libyan coast. The desperate passengers turned to Alarm Phone, where the employees transcribed the call.
“Are woman or injured people on board?”
“Of course! Yes! Please!”
“Do you have enough to eat or drink?”
“There is no food, no water. Please, help us!”
“Is your motor working?”
“Please help us. Please. Please help us.”
Klopp and the other employees immediately contacted the responsible coast guard and asked the officials to help those in distress. They kept pushing, again and again, to make sure to make sure that a rescue boat was really on its way. “We don’t let things rest until the refugees are safe,” Kopp says.
Berlin: Communal Cooking
Approximately two years ago, when refugees were camping out on Berlin’s Oranienplatz square, a couple of students were busy thinking about how they could help the asylum seekers. They decided on communal eating. Ninon Demuth, a 25-year-old who studied biotechnology at Berlin’s Technical University, points out that such an activity is unpolitical, global and fun. They considered publishing a small book with recipes from around the world, written by refugees. “Our goal was to reach people who had never before encountered the subject of asylum,” Demuth says. In the end, 21 recipes were collected and 3,500 books were sold. Given its success, the students continued — and began organizing communal cooking nights with refugees and locals.
These events now take place twice a month, each featuring a refugee who cooks a menu from his or her home country. Participants pay €45, and the cook receives a small donation. The group also produced a second cookbook, more professional and printed on high-quality paper. It contains 36 recipes and sells for €25. Five thousand of the books have been sold.
One of the recipes, for a stew called dambou, comes from Mouhamed Tanko, a 31-year-old from Niger. On a recent Sunday evening, he demonstrates the preparation of the meal to 15 guests in a show kitchen located in Berlin’s Charlottenburg neighborhood. Fried plantains and thick slices of yam root serve as appetizers.
While peppers, chard, carrots, fennel, onions, tomatoes and black-eyed peas simmer in large pots, the chef shows photos from his homeland. He says he has ten brothers and one sister, but that he is the only one who made it to Europe. In 2011, he came to Italy via boat, then to Berlin in 2013. Mouhamed Tanko also talks about his grandfather, whom he claims is over 100 years old and has never needed glasses because he consumed so much palm oil, which he claims is good for the eyes.
When Mouhamed Tanko finishes his story, the guests applaud. One student has brought her father, there are several couples, and a woman who wanted to come into contact with refugees. The evening lasts long into the night.
Four of the early organizers have now mostly completed their studies and now work full time for the initiative. They finance themselves and their project from grants, donations and the revenues from their work. The amount leftover for the organizers is “far below the legal minimum wage,” claims Rafael Strasser, a 29-year-old industrial engineer. “It is all still very student-y.”
Perhaps. But the project — known as “Über den Tellerrand Kochen,” or “Cooking Beyond the Plate’s Edge” — has become so big that it demands a full-time organizer. There is a soccer team, a group that plants a rooftop garden and a group of established refugees that join students to cook for newcomers in the Berlin neighborhood of Moabit. The new acquaintances regularly meet for parties on a rooftop terrace in the Neukölln district or to grill on Tempelhofer Feld. The go on bicycle or canoe trips together.
These days, over 100 people come to the meetings. Strasser says they are all about understanding and making new friends, but also about practical issues. One of the refugees, for example, found a job through one of the participants in the cooking class and will soon be starting work at a taxi dispatcher. Others have been hired as cooks.
And the initiative is expanding. Together with the Technical University and Cocoon, an organization dedicated to construction projects, the helpers from Über den Tellerrand are building a so-called kitchen hub. During a five-week summer school session, the students and refugees are designing a communal kitchen for a new space in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood in which the meetings of Über den Tellerrand are to take place in the future.
Dresden: Protection from the Right-Wingers
The tents are lined up in rows. Men and women wait in long lines for food to be distributed while kids play in the gravel. The refugee facilities in Dresden-Friedrichstadt look more like a camp in Jordan or Lebanon than a home for asylum seekers in one of the world’s richest countries.
Julius, in his late twenties, a refugee activist from Dresden, walks around the property. The area is cut off from the outside world by a fence and tarps. He explains how the tent city was built in a rush and that, initially, there was hardly any staff to take care of the approximately 800 people in the camp. But the network Dresden Für Alle (Dresden for All) jumped into the gap and, in the space of just two days, assembled about one hundred volunteers and distributed food and clothing to the refugees.
Cars race past the camp on the way to the nearby Autobahn. But some roll by at a snail’s pace and come almost to a standstill in front of the camp entrance. One man takes some photos and keeps driving, only to return 20 minutes later. Julius claims suspicious people like him are right-wingers wanting to cause trouble and provoke the refugees. Together with other activists, Julius collects the license-plate numbers of the spies and organizes night watches to protect the refugees.
Sometimes the helpers themselves become the target of attacks. In late July, Julius sat in front of the tent city on a street corner with friends after a solidarity event. Shortly before he wanted to leave, 50 people in masks marched up to them, some throwing bottles. “We just ran,” says Julius. One member of the group was beaten up, he says, and had to go to the hospital. Nevertheless, Julius returned to the tent city the next day. “We can’t leave the refugees alone with the neo-Nazis,” he says.
Munich: Healing Deep Wounds
Mathias Wendeborn is on vacation, which means he has more time for the refugees. The 56-year-old pediatrician has established an on-call practice in the Bayernkaserne, a former army barracks, together with other doctors. His goal is to put an end to the conditions that last year turned the overfilled reception center into a symbol for government failure. The doctors, who treat the refugees, call themselves Refudocs.
A young Afghan man with a fever is curled up on a stretcher, his face pale. He has caught the chicken pox, but a Refudoc is worried that he may also have contracted meningitis. To be safe, she wants to send him to the hospital.
About 70 physicians are part of Wendeborn’s association, taking turns so that the practice can be opened on every workday. They include retired doctors and one former clinic director, but also plenty of younger medical professionals, like the general practitioner taking care of the boy from Afghanistan.
Wendeborn runs a pediatric clinic near Schloss Nymphenburg, one of Munich’s most affluent neighborhoods, and his normal tasks involve cuddling babies and calming mothers. At the Bayernkaserne, he also has to take care of the usual complaints: coughs, fevers, sore throats. But he and his colleagues frequently see evidence of their patients’ hardships. “Scars, poorly healed gunshot wounds, burns,” Wendeborn says. An asylum seeker recently came to see him with bloody feet, full of blisters and wounds. The man must have travelled hundreds of kilometers without proper shoes.
Wendeborn is proud of what the Refudocs have established. He had suggested his concept to the authorities, he claims, long before the situation escalated. But it wasn’t until the newspapers reported about the misery, distress and chaos in the barracks that the politicians jumped in. Crisis teams met, task forces were established. The Refudocs started their work in November.
Normally, refugees need to get a document from the social welfare office prior to being treated. But the Refudocs, because they receive an hourly honorarium from the government of Upper Bavaria, see their patients immediately. The doctors see themselves as idealists, but they don’t want to take on the medical treatment of thousands of refugees for free. That, Wendeborn argues, would release the state of its responsibility.
Schwabhausen: Promoted Together
In the end, they were in each other’s arms: Coach Franz Gottwald, his protégé Kanteh Buba from Mali and the other players from TSV Schwabhausen. The soccer team managed to make it back into the regional league on a June afternoon, with a 3:1 win over the FC Pontos München. For Kanteh, it was the moment when it became clear that he had arrived in Germany.
Kanteh, 20, and his compatriot Zoumana Fofana, 21, had arrived in Schwabhausen a three-quarter year earlier after an odyssey through Africa and Europe. Schwabhausen is a community of 6,600 in Upper Bavaria and the two are housed in a container on the edge of town, together with over two dozen other refugees. They live there in close quarters and try to find things to do to pass the time.
Kanteh, Fofana and three other asylum seekers decided last fall to wander into town to visit TSV’s training pitch. Some of them had kicked the ball around a bit during their journey to Germany and they knew the rules from TV: offsides, penalty kicks, hand ball, yellow and red cards. They asked Coach Gottwald if they could join practice and he immediately said yes. He badly needed additional players.
A local aid group donated football shoes while the club itself had sufficient warm-ups and uniforms for the newcomers. On the field, the refugees and their teammates communicated in English, German and with gestures. And it worked: The newcomers were faster than most of their opponents. “We practiced dribbling and kicking technique,” Gottwald says. Kanteh scored three goals last season while Fofana plays defense.
The refugees have since become an integral part of the team. The other players have added them to their Whatsapp group and they take them along when they go to parties in the area. “We are friends,” says Kanteh. His team shirt bears but a single word: “Climber.”
By Martin Knobbe, Conny Neumann, Maximilian Popp, Anna Reuß, Barbara Schmid, Timo Steppat and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt