"The whole country has mobilized!" — How Berlin has received the Syrian refugees

October 15, 2015

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

“Germany has changed a lot over the years.  The people are more open and have become more receptive.  If the Syrian refugees want to fit in, then there is a good chance they will be successful, unlike the old guest workers” – Özge, second generation Turkish immigrant and doctor

“Unlike the Syrians, these people come with no skills whatsoever.  All they know is that they no longer want to suffer at home.  For most of them the only work experience they have is working as a slave in Lybia while they collected enough money to get to Europe.  They say they have neither past nor home, just the present”. – Ágnes Szabó, Hungarian teaching German to immigrants in Berlin

“Since they are here, Germany needs to do something with them.  They are constantly admonishing people to be humane and receptive.  But of course this is not a new thing.  Ever since the Second World War a very good social system has been built up, including the volunteer organizations, since money alone would not be enough.  In Germany it is not considered awkward to help.  Nobody knows when the wave of refugees will end, but while Hungary uses the refugees to make people fearful, we managed to create a different attitude”  – Anton Schüneman, ARRIVO project director

Translation of Illés Szurovecz and D. András Hajdu’s article “Syrians became luxury refugee sin Berlin” (“A szírekből luxus-menekültek lettek Berlinben“) published by Abcug.hu on October 8th, 2015. 

Listing all the refugee integration programs in Berlin is a challenge: flat, money, language classes, legal aid, kindergarten and school training.  Thousands are working tirelessly, among them Hungarians, to make this a success story.  But knowledge of German and work are only the first steps towards making a new home.  Our report from Berlin.

Das ist ein Stift!

Özge laughed with her friends at the entrance to the hairdresser’s while we struggled to figure out what was so funny.  “Ask a German Turk about integration, and he will response this way” explains the 34 year-old woman of Turkish heritage we met in Berlin.  “That means: this is a ruler”.  It was the first expression taught guest workers in the 1960s”.

“I just dropped by to say hello on my way to work. I’m a doctor at a hospital” she continued over a coffee on the terrace where we are sitting just a block away from the famous Kreuzberg Turkish market.

Though we did not travel to Berlin because of its Turks, but rather because of its Syrians, we still felt that we should start the story here on the banks of the Landwehr canal.  “Among the older Turks are those who only know the city within a radius of two metro stops.  They do not speak German well.  They have no German acquaintances, and they  have not adapted, and they sat at home in their Kreuzberg or Neuköln flats feeling lonely” says Özge.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

Germany hardly did anything to integrate its Turkish guest workers.  Nevertheless, the situation is different with the second and third generation.  Many attend university, speak English and German well, and shop for the same things as other German youth.  Of course, that doesn’t mean they have no ties to Turkey.  “Many go home to study because its more fun to attend university at the seaside in the sunshine.  But then they return, and they resume their lives here” she says, which is especially fortunate because she comes from a family of intellectuals. Her parents came to Germany as political refugees in the 1980s after a military coup.

“It is difficult to speak of a homogenous Turkish community.  Among them are rich and poor, as in the case of Germans.  The difference is not between nations, but rather between social groups.  Germany has changed a lot over the years.  The people are more open and have become more receptive.  If the Syrian refugees want to fit in, then there is a good chance they will be successful, unlike the old guest workers” Özge in response to our question about the refugee crisis.  “I hardly see anything of the whole thing.  The average person doesn’t ever encounter them”.

Let’s see what Berlin is doing with the refugees!

It’s an incredibly good feeling to be a good person!

Whether we’re talking about asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, or Kosovo, the first stop in Berlin for whoever wants to obtain refugee status is the LeGeSo (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales) or the state health and social office. This is where they accept asylum applications, and from here they assign housing to asylum seekers where they can wait out the difficult months until it turns out whether or not they can receive a residence permit.  There are many hotels like this in the city.  Most of them are run by state civil organizations and churches, but there are some that are privately owned as well.

Eszter Fojdl, who has nothing to do with any of the Hungarians dealing with refugees in Berlin, works in such a hotel. “Three years ago I won a scholarship in Dresdin.  From there I moved to Berlin,” says the women we met at a beer hall.  “I work at a 400-guest hotel which is in the process of expanding to accommodate another 100”.   In addition to new facilities, Berlin has converted covered sports halls and abandoned buildings into accommodations for refugees.

“The whole thing is like a strange college dormitory: there one finds families of every kind of nationality living side by side, sharing a common kitchen and washing machine, which of course is the source of some conflict and can result in some funny incidents” explains Eszter, who maintains a smile on her face even when describing the difficulties.  You can tell that she likes what she does.  “It’s a incredibly great feeling to be a good person, to help solve every day problems, even as I learn a lot about people and countries”.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

“It sometimes happens that I have to decide whether someone is using the washing machine too much and not allowing others to.  There are a lot of such minor conflicts, given that everybody wants to make use of everything, so I have to be careful to make sure everyone has equal access according to their needs, regardless of what country they come from.  But after a while everybody befriends one another.  It’s good to see Bosnian mothers and Syrian fathers joking around with minimal language knowledge, and how a Macedonia gypsy women makes coffee for the children from Kosovo, while the Kosovars and the Serbs exchange insults as the Syrians look on, trying to figure out what people who are not fleeing war zones are doing here.  Of course, there are those who believe Syrians should solve their problems at home”.

Finding their way through the terrible bureaucracy

Eszter’s most important task at the refugee hotel is helping them find their way through the terrible bureaucracy.  “We have to run from office to office.  We help them understand the German letters . . . Those who receive a three year residence permit have to register at the work center, where they have to grapple with new bureaucratic obstacles.  We apply for a health insurance card, fill in five-page forms . . . .” she lists.  “We have to organize the days of 400 people.  If a child is sick, then we have to get an appointment with a doctor.  We continuously consult with schools, kindergartens, volunteers, or I just look for a language course, if they happen to need one.  We try to pay attention to everything because, even though we are a private company, we have to meet very strict governmental requirements” she says.

“It’s much more difficult than English or French”

Nowadays it is mostly Syrians who can apply for asylum with a chance of success, which comes with serious state support:  they receive EUR 400 a month for accommodation, the same amount for food, receive health insurance and 660-960 hours of lessons on integration, which includes 600 hours of German lessons, which, in theory, is enough to obtain a B1 language certificate and an employment center referral.   If someone fails to pass the test, they can receive another 300 hours of instruction free of charge. But if they again fail to pass, they can only undertake work that does not require knowledge of German.  The whole thing is supplemented with 60 hours of integration training which teaches them about German history, culture, and such values as equal rights and tolerance.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

“It’s much more difficult than English or French” say Omar and Ali, who competed with one another when we asked them about the difficulty of learning German.  The two Syrian boys arrived to Germany about a year ago.  Now both of them live in a refugee hotel.  We are talking to the two of them in the kitchen of BBZ, one of the civil organizations helping refugees.   While the state helps a lot, integrating the refugees is primarily depends on organizations such as these, which can be found virtually on every street corner in Berlin.

“We put the asylum seekers into contact with LaGeSo, and help them find accommodation” says BBZ director Walid Chahrour who is of palestinian descent.  “We give them legal and psychological help.  Our most important project is teaching German to children of obligatory school age until the state is able to school them.”

Unfortunately, there is no money for this for the time being.  Perhaps they can start another round of courses in the following months.  “Unfortunately a lot more money goes to the large aid organizations and the churches than to the civil organizations, even though, unlike them, we are specialized in refugees.  For this reason we cannot run every program.  Meanwhile, we have to fight for every Euro and generate three times the results” complains Chahrour in the BBZ meeting area when he is able to get away from work for a few minutes.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

“They money goes to them, but meanwhile they have been asleep for years.  Now they wake up when the problem is big, even though it has been apparent for years that this would happen.  But the same applies to the government.  German’s foreign policy neglected the fact that where there is war, there will be refugees” he says.  For this reason the BBZ depends mostly on the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF), although Chahrour believes it would be better if the Berlin Senate played a larger role in supporting civil organizations.  “The city is responsible for integrating and helping these people”.

Where did the child disappear from school?  She got married, but no problem!

Although Chahrour is dissatisfied with the financing, it is still apparent how many civil organizations help refugees adapt, including those that deal especially with children.

“In the district of Reineckendorf we created a mobile school help group” says Csaba Szikra, who works as a social worker for the Aufwind organization.  “We give extra help to the children attending the wilkommensklasse (welcome classes).  Thee are special classes where extra integration German lessons are held for immigrants and the refugee children, so they can adapt as easily as possible” he explains.  Problems sometimes arise in such classes that require the help of experts.  “It can happen that certain children do not attend school for a lenthy period.  If they tell us, we go to the family and we try to figure out what the problem is.  For example, it once turned out that an immigrant girl had got married, and for this reason was no longer permitted to attend a co-educational school.  The college dormitory helped us to find a girls school where she could continue her studies” says Szikra.  “Often there’s need for cultural interpretors.  For example, in hospitals, if a girl’s culture does not allow her to disrobe in front of a male doctor.  At such times we accompany them and try to help the two parties can understand one another culturally”.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

It is not by chance that the school help program was only recently launched, as huge numbers of immigrants and refugee children have arrived to Berlin over the past few months, where the birth rate happens to be higher than the death rate anyway.   “The entire country has mobilized!  Because of the large number of children many hundreds of teachers have been transferred from Bavaria to Berlin.  The kindergartens organize collections, volunteers offer up their flats . . . Originally I was hired to work with handicapped and long term ill children wanted to hire me.  It only turned out later that I should work with refugees instead, an opportunity for which I was happy” says Szikra.

Aufwind’s other project tries to help those unable to attend kindergarten for lack of space.  “Unfortunately, there are few places in Berlin, and for this reason my colleagues are holding child development programs for those who are left out.  The organizations always involve the parents as well, and we end up creating a mini-kindergarten” he says.

Not everyone is a “luxury refugee”

Although people mostly talk about Syrians, among those arriving to Germany over the past few months are numerous African, Middle-Eastern, and Asian immigrants who needn’t fear persecution in their homelands but have decided to try their luck.  Although the state is not as generous towards them as it is refugees, there are programs designed to help them adapt as well.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

We met Anton Schüneman, the director of the ARRIVO project in an old factory building on the southern bank of the river Spree.  “It is in these workshops that the immigrants take the first steps towards finding employment” says Schünnemann, showing us around the workshop equipped with tools. While we spoke with him, Ágnes Szabó held German lessons several doors down for a group of immigrants, among them people from Kosovo, Benin, and Bangladesh.  “These are the pillars of our program.  While one group participates in intensive language courses, the other learns a trade, and then they trade places.  They spend an average of two months with us” he explains.

ARRIVO has contracted with a number of Berlin businesses to provide immigrants attending their courses with a place to practice their skills.  “We are building a bridge between unskilled immigrants and businesses” says Schünemann. “I was afraid that it would be difficult to persuade businesses, as one would think people working in such small workshops would be less receptive to people.  But we haven’t had any bad experiences.  So far those who completed our courses were able to adapt to their work place and perform their tasks.  This is advantageous for the companies as well because they get motivated people who do what they are told, as opposed to a lot of German youth who are not eager to perform this kind of work.  Meanwhile, it is also good for the immigrants because they can remain in Germany if they have a workplace”.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

Ágnes Szabó has been working in Berlin since 2012.  Before that she was a cultural correspondent for a newspaper, but nowadays she prefers to work with immigrants, both at BBZ and ARRIVO.  “Originally I trained to be a German teacher, so I also teach German to children at BBZ and to adults at ARRIVO” she says while racing from one place to the other in her car.  “By the time they arrive to us at ARRIVO, they’ve already picked up some knowledge of German on the streets.  Our goal is to supplement this over the course of a couple of weeks, especially something that could be useful in finding a job, for example writing a curriculum vitae or expanding their vocabulary” she says.  Unlike the Syrians, these people come with no skills whatsoever.  All they know is that they no longer want to suffer at home.  For most of them the only work experience they have is working as a slave in Lybia while they collected enough money to get to Europe.  They say they have neither past nor home, just the present”.

Although everyone is preoccupied with the Syrians, Schünemann believes Germany was better prepared to receive them than the other immigrants.  “Refugee regulations are more advanced that immigrant ones.  Society wants to accept the refugees, especially the young ones, and the economy needs the new labor force—both skilled and unskilled.  On the other hand, the politicians need to take care not to make integration too easy, because then people will be afraid that still more are to come” he says.  “This is why they distinguish between the good and bad refugees.  The Syrians became real luxury refugees, for whom the bureaucracy is even more flexible, but afterwards this will be a huge problem for us” he adds.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu

The real question perhaps is not even those arriving from Syria, but whether they learn German and find jobs” says Eszter, the Hungarian woman working at the refugee hotel.  “With so much help they are sure to succeed, and they need to, because without it there is no adapting to German society.  The large dilemma is whether they understand the cultural differences, which is a struggle for every refugee throughout the world—that the reason their child got punched at the playground by a German child is not because he is a Muslim, but because that is how children resolve disputes here.  Or that the gynecologist does not want to insult a pregnant woman’s religion when he or she objects to her observing Ramadan”  he says.  “Before them is a great task, but they are very determined.  Many Syrians do not even understand how it is that Turks who have been living here a long time do not speak German. They do not want to fall into the same trap”.

“Since they are here, Germany needs to do something with them.  They are constantly admonishing people to be humane and receptive.  But of course this is not a new thing.  Ever since the Second World War a very good social system has been built up, including the volunteer organizations, since money alone would not be enough.  In Germany it is not considered awkward to help.  Nobody knows when the wave of refugees will end, but while Hungary uses the refugees to make people fearful, we managed to create a different attitude” he continues.

“Many different kinds of people have arrived to Germany.  There are those for whom finding a job or adapting is already not a problem, as well as those who still have much to learn, but in any case they are confident and hard working.  This is a new kind of situation, that we have to solve.  There is no turning back.  It is not necessarily enough for someone to be less religious.  Just because somebody drinks and smokes doesn’t mean they are integrated.  They have to confront the questions of homosexuality and sexual equality which the majority of German society has already done.  But, like the Hungarians, they have yet to do so.

The question is whether they will feel at home in Germany or remain foreign bodies.  No integration program has an answer for this.

In our next article from Berlin we will see how an English teacher from Syria who was simultaneously persecuted by the Assad regime and Islamic State spends his days.

Photo: D. András Hajdu
Photo: D. András Hajdu