Asylum greeters

Why refugees volunteer to help other refugees, the challenges they face, and how they feel about it all.

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Muhammad. Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Why refugees volunteer to help other refugees, the challenges they face, and how they feel about it all.

Among the 25,000 people who’ve signed up to help refugees in Germany, not all fit the stereotypical mold of the expat do-gooder or German Gutmensch eager to extend a welcoming hand. In fact, roughly 100 of the people who volunteer at Berlin’s LaGeSo every week are refugees themselves. Fluent both in Arabic and asylum procedures, these helpers – mostly young men in their twenties – are also equipped with an intimate understanding of refugees’ circumstances. Sometimes, they’re still in the middle of the asylum process themselves.

That’s the case with Mahmoud*, a university graduate from Mosul who fled ISIS as they were tightening their grip over northern Iraq. Following a risky two-month journey across Syria and Turkey (he got shot at by guards at the border), the twenty-something was among the many hundreds of refugees waiting to register at LaGeSo, the central registration office for refugees in Berlin’s Turmstraße, in early September. Since 4am, men, women and children had been standing in long queues for a chance to apply for asylum. It was hot and they were thirsty, some nearing dehydration; water distribution was slow and exasperation grew. Thirsty himself, Mahmoud came up to the volunteers and offered to hand out bottles of water. The following day, he was asked if he would want to help on a regular basis – without getting paid, of course. “I was bored out of my mind waiting in line for 14 hours a day, so I thought, ‘why not?’” he says in impeccable English. 

As more volunteers were flocking to LaGeSo, including Arabic speakers, he decided to try and help out where it was needed the most: the makeshift shelter where he was staying, somewhere in western Berlin outside the Ringbahn. (He asked us not to name the centre, as he still fears for his safety.) The former hangar turned temporary refugee centre looks like a giant fishtank. A staggering 1200 people live there: Arabs, Afghanis and Pakistanis, but also people from the Balkans and even Central Asia – more than 20 languages and dialects under one roof. Among people speaking so many different languages, fights are quick to break out. Mahmoud, the self-appointed and much-sought-after translator, says the most common cause for problems at the camp is misunderstanding. “People cannot communicate with each other and this creates a lot of tension, often for very stupid reasons.” 

He continues: “When you walk into the centre, you can smell the desperation and regret in the air. Grown men having to ask somebody to change their sheets and wash their clothes – it’s embarrassing for them. People hardly get out of the centre. They look lost. They just escaped the war and now that they’re here, they don’t have any goals in life.” Many spend their days wondering whether it was the right decision to leave everything behind and go through such an excruciating journey just to end up here, stacked in endless rows of bunk beds – 17 people to a division. “The main factor that keeps them restless and edgy is uncertainty,” Mahmoud says. Many believe that their bureaucratic battle for asylum status will never end. Others wonder if they will be allowed to stay in Germany, as they were fingerprinted in Hungary and Austria. With constant shifts in the country’s position with regards to the Dublin regulation, their destiny seems to be hanging by a thread.

Abdullah finds it extremely difficult, and even embarrassing, to say no to people. ‘I know that Syrians wouldn’t ask for things that they don’t need, so I really get frustrated when I cannot provide what I’m asked for.’

The most common problems at the camp occur when people don’t want to wait in line for food and clothes, or don’t return things that they have borrowed, such as phone chargers or tape. Says Mahmoud, “There’s a problem with German discipline, and it is difficult to tell people to respect the rules.”

Mahmoud now lives on his own in a €50/night hotel room paid for by the state. His case is still under consideration, but he’s optimistic that he’ll be granted asylum. Although most of his days are spent studying – he’s taking classes at a Berlin university and hopes to pursue a post-graduate degree in engineering – he continues to volunteer at the centre a couple of days a week. “I made many friends there, and the relationship between employees and volunteers is really good. As long as people can understand each other, they work together well.” 

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, however, make him worry for the situation in Berlin. “I feel so sorry for the people in Paris, but I’m also wondering what would happen if such an attack happened in Germany – everybody would blame refugees.” He believes that if there are ISIS members among refugees, there are very few of them. “If I recognised one of them, I would act immediately and report them to the police. Back home I couldn’t go up against ISIS; they are so powerful I couldn’t do anything,” he says with frustration. “Last week they made a big show in my hometown, parading with vehicles and arms, intimidating the local population. But here, believe me, if I saw one of them…”

Abdullah*, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, was granted asylum last February. He came to Berlin with his mother in November 2014, joined four months later by his father and sisters. Back then, the journey to Europe was much more expensive – about €6000, as opposed to the €2500 that some refugees are able to negotiate these days. There were also far fewer refugees making the trip, which means it took Abdullah only four months to get asylum versus the five to 10 months it takes today. An economics graduate, Abdullah is polite and well-mannered and says that his life has changed completely in the past year. He’s learned German and made many friends in Berlin. Yet the refugee crisis which broke out over the summer didn’t leave him indifferent. 

“I felt a sense of duty towards the thousands of fellow refugees arriving daily. I thought I had to help.” In August, he started volunteering at LaGeSo as part of the citizens’ initiative Moabit Hilft. Twice a week, from 8am-7pm, he distributes clothes, food and, most importantly, information. “I’ve been down the same path,” Abdullah says. “So I try to explain the asylum application procedure as best as I can, and tell them how long it will take to get a residence permit and financial help.” 

He admits that he sometimes has trouble dealing with impatient people. “Many new arrivals get angry because they need to wait for one month to get registered as asylum seekers. Sometimes I think that people who just escaped the war don’t need to be in such a rush.” There are other cases where people don’t like the clothes Abdullah gives them. “When I say that I cannot change the clothes, some people start screaming at me,” he says. Another thing that doesn’t sit well with him is the ‘hierarchy’ among the different groups of asylum seekers. “Many Syrians think that they are first-class refugees,” Abdullah says. “I hear them saying that they should get their papers and money before everybody else because they had just escaped the war.” Since the German government announced their decision to take in Syrians, nearly anyone with a passport from the war-torn country is granted quasi-automatic asylum, at the expense of migrants fleeing other regions. Once, Abdullah witnessed tensions rise when a group of Afghan people organised a small demonstration to protest the news of their asylum applications’ rejection. As a matter of fact, no matter how dangerous the situation in their country, Afghans face a highly uncertain future in Germany right now, and reports of deportations have triggered more protests. “I think that all refugees are equal – Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians all deserve the same treatment,” Abdullah concludes. He goes on explaining that there is great variety among the Syrians in Berlin – some are wealthy and not looking for charity; others are truly needy and desperate. 

For him, managing newcomers’ expectations is the most difficult part. “I try to help with whatever I can, but there are limits to what I can do,” he says. “Some people look at me and see that I have nice clothes, and they think I’m rich. But it wasn’t always like this. Until a few months ago I was still wearing my old sneakers. Only recently did my family start receiving financial help and we could afford to buy some new clothes.” After getting their residence permit, his family obtained a flat in western Berlin where they can stay permanently. “Sometimes people ask me if they can stay in my house, but I cannot do this – my two sisters live with me.” 

He finds it extremely difficult, and even embarrassing, to say no to people. “They tend to get extremely worked up when they don’t get what they want. They have been through hell and they expect to have finally found a place that respects their rights as human beings. I know that Syrians wouldn’t ask for things that they don’t need, so I really get frustrated when I cannot provide what I’m asked for.”

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Volunteers at the LaGeSo centre in Moabit. Photo by Boryana Ivanova

He recalls how once, an old Syrian man whose shoes were completely broken asked him for a new pair. Abdullah went into the storage room and asked a fellow volunteer to give him some size 43 shoes. Even though he saw that the shoes were sitting on the shelf, his colleague told him there was no size 43. “I don’t know who the woman there was, she was speaking broken German and broken Arabic. I got really angry but didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be rude or start a fight,” Abdullah says. The young man is eager to stress that this was an isolated case. Problems between volunteers almost never arise, even though they’re a diverse bunch. The son of Palestinians who fled to Syria in the late 1940s, Abdullah is proud to share that he is also working side by side with Israeli volunteers.

We met Muhammad at a charity event for refugee projects at the riverside club Yaam, where the young Syrian was busy effortlessly translating lengthy presentations from English to Arabic. An English literature student back in Damascus, he’s now fluent in German as well. He’s not affiliated with any NGO or Heim – instead, he’s committed to helping out wherever he’s needed. His many refugee and German friends regularly ask him for translations and advice.

Some people look at me and see that I have nice clothes, and they think I’m rich. But until a few months ago I was still wearing my old sneakers.

Muhammad left Syria shortly after his graduation in 2014 to avoid conscription in Assad’s army, bribing an officer to ‘erase’ his name from the list and escaping through the Turkish border. Once in Berlin, he had to wait over a year to get his asylum application processed. Now happily in possession of the coveted three-year residence permit, he remains acutely aware of the demoralising effect that the long wait has on asylum seekers. “I know something of the boredom and disappointment and stress; I know how hard it is…”

In fact, the first advice he gives to newcomers is to make peace with the fact that they will waste a long time waiting for their papers in Germany, be it at LaGeSo or sitting in their tiny rooms at the Heim, expecting letters from the State Department of Migration and Refugees. “I tell them that instead of sitting in the Heim and getting agitated, they should make the best out of this time –  explore Berlin, forget the war and make German friends,” Muhammad says. “I tell them it’s very important to go out and integrate. Learning German is essential, even if it’s through volunteer language classes. This helps them meet more people and get a different perspective on life in Germany.” He himself has been studying German intensively in order to pass the TestDaf, the language test that will allow him to enrol in a German university. He hopes goal is to become a high school teacher. 

The most important thing for Muhammad is that refugees make a good impression here and become accepted. “I want to tell them how to behave here, how to respect the rules, be polite and stay out of trouble.” He hands out doctors’ addresses, phone numbers for language schools and information about events where refugees can go to meet the locals, like the weekly Sprachcafé in Dahlem. And he’s passed on information about countless special classes and programmes for refugees offered by universities, organisations and volunteers. “I was amazed by the sheer number of local initiatives,” he says. “But there’s one that hasn’t found any takers: a degree in political science!” After what they’ve been through, refugees are fed up with politics. Who could blame them?  

*Names changed

Originally published in issue #144, December 2015.