W is for Willkommenskultur

Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule
Photo credit: Schülervertretung Humboldtschule

Willkommenskultur [welcoming culture] has just been declared the official Wort des Jahres [Word of the Year] in Austria. It sums up the aspirations of those in Austria and Germany who want to create a welcoming atmosphere for migrants, both institutionally and individually. Based on my own experience as a foreigner in Germany, I believe that Germans as individuals are often more welcoming and open than they give their society credit for, but the current challenge is immense.

I asked friends about their personal encounters with refugees and their experience as volunteers. I received many responses, but one stood out, and I want to share it. Our friend Martin and his family live in a small village (fewer than 4,000 inhabitants) in a rural region of southern Germany. Here’s his story:*


In January 2015, before the “refugee crisis” (you know I’m often an early adopter!), I noticed a “foreign-looking” family of four at our church. I didn’t know them, but they seemed nice. After the service, I asked a friend who’s on the church council about them. She told me they were an Iraqi family who’d already spent two years in the local refugee shelter. They’d converted to Christianity and were trying hard to get established, with only limited success. I asked her what the church was doing to help refugees. Not nearly enough, she said, but the church council was planning to take the subject up at its next meeting.

Disgusted by the Pegida marches in Dresden and unhappy about my own passivity, I followed the people – father, mother, two young boys – and spoke to them on the street in front of the shelter. At first, they didn’t know what to make of me, but once they realized I meant well, they invited me into their 20-sq-meter [215-sq-foot] room for tea. That evening, I invited them to a spaghetti dinner in our home. Very pleasant. We all felt good for an hour and a half.

When I woke up the next morning, I asked myself, “Now what?” What was the point of this encounter? For me, it was the equivalent of the feel-good welcome rallies by Germans at the Munich station this past summer, with a teddy bear for the children and a subsequent Facebook post: “I was there.” From my initial contact with the family, it was clear what they needed: language, mobility, integration in the local community, work.

Looking for a place to start, where I could make a difference, I decided to launch “Project Driver’s License”. The man’s Iraqi license wasn’t recognized by the German authorities. With the help of Google translator, I texted Kasim at 7:00 a.m. to say he should come to my place in an hour and we would figure out how to get him a license.

That’s how it started. In August – after months of waiting for a document from the German authorities, the Red Cross first aid course, eye test, driving school, failing the written test the first time because of language – Kasim finally got his German license (with 0 mistakes on the written test). Since January, we’re in contact with the family almost weekly. We see where they need help and figure out how we can help them – preferably, to help themselves.

They had to leave the refugee shelter. A municipality only needs to provide accommodation for 2 years; then the county can send refugees wherever they want to and wherever there’s space. Through a concerted effort by the church and private individuals, we were able to prevent them being relocated out of our village, out of their new support network, and convince the authorities that they should be allowed to stay here.

An apartment was found overnight. Now that they have their “own address”, the little boy can attend the local Kindergarten. The older son is doing well in fourth grade and should be able to attend my son’s Gymnasium. He takes art classes and is in the local ski and soccer clubs. Their mother sings in the choir and participates in a women’s exercise class. Last winter, they all helped out at our local cross country ski race, handing out tea to the athletes. My approach is to integrate them into life as it is here in our region – not to try to imitate the world they left behind. What do I know about Baghdad?

These people had to wait 3 years for a first hearing on their asylum application. Syrians have priority. The fear of being deported almost killed them. The husband had to give up his job (which he’d found with great difficulty) because his wife had become suicidal and he had to take care of the family, but also because, with a low-wage industrial job, he had less money than when he wasn’t working. It’s a German problem: As soon as he had an income, the authorities demanded reimbursement for housing, Kindergarten, medical care.

The crisis was overcome with the help of many. Their hearing before the immigration authorities took place a couple of weeks ago. It now looks as if they’ll be able to stay here. The decision won’t become official until spring 2016. Until then, they’re going to work on improving their German, so they can hit the ground running with job training and employment.

A lot has happened in our village since the spring. There are now two (competing) volunteer organizations. Language instruction, job search, donations, help with homework, and an international café where people can socialize have all become institutionalized. For the people in our village, it’s reassuring to know that the dark face on the other side of the street isn’t a terrorist, but Kasim, the friendly Iraqi who greets everyone and who is liked by those who know him.

This year has also changed our family. After a lot of discussion, we decided to get actively involved with what has become omnipresent in the news media. We are convinced that a proactive approach by both citizens and government is the only way to ensure that Germany/Europe isn’t overrun. In the end, it’s about human beings and human cooperation. Each of us should try to imagine what it’s like to leave one’s home thousands of miles away. It’s an extremely difficult and painful step, to leave one’s family and friends. Some of these people are literally dying of homesickness – not to mention the parents who’ve stayed behind, who don’t know what’s happening to their children and grandchildren in some distant, foreign place.

My own grandmother and mother were refugees from the Sudetenland (now the Czech Republic)[after the Second World War]. The government forced a German family to take them in. They lived in the cellar, unwelcome, their belongings reduced to the contents of a hay wagon. It was a matter of leaving behind everything previous generations had achieved. Sure, in that case you can say there was a reason for it: the Germans mistreated the Czechs, too. That’s another story. But I, too, experienced and felt the effects of the trauma they had experienced and never overcame, as long as they lived.

So it was a special moment for me last week, when I went cross country skiing with Kasim’s older son. On the way there, I did most of the talking; while we were skiing, we were too out of breath to talk. On the way home, out of the blue, he started talking. He told me that there was a second refugee shelter now in our village; that in the first shelter, he’d hardly been able to sleep through a single night, because some of the residents would get drunk and bang on doors; that the police were there almost every other day, settling minor disputes among the asylum seekers of different nationalities. Now, in their own apartment, they’re finally able to settle. That makes me happy.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten to know my little village much better. I met people who really helped selflessly. I got to know a pastor who doesn’t just preach Nächstenliebe, but actually lives it (in unpopular situations). I was able to give a social worker [from the charitable organization of the Lutheran Church] his first experience with refugees and to see for myself, that, here too, it’s the people that make up the institution.

And that’s exactly what we need to concentrate on: For all our good and necessary efforts at organization, institutionalization and the search for a system, we must remember in our own “micro-lives” to live in cooperation with each other. Day in and day out, no matter what we’re doing or with whom we happen to be interacting. I think those of us who are privileged (with an education, job, home) can do a lot individually without jeopardizing or completely changing our own lives. Everyone wants autonomy. When we help people to become autonomous, they reach that goal more quickly.

For myself, I know that, through my actions, I can make a difference. Hiding behind politics or feeling impotent because the problem is so big is in my opinion just an excuse. 500 million people live in Europe. 2 million refugees are on their way. That’s as if, in a room with 500 people in it, 2 more were added. It should be manageable – if everyone gives an inch.

* I’m so grateful to Martin for sharing this very moving story and his personal insights. Martin isn’t his real name. He gave me permission to translate and publish his letter to me, but didn’t want his village or his friends to be identifiable. I’ve changed or left out names and have condensed his story somewhat.

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