Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Several years into a new wave of refugees entering the city, the grassroots organizations that sprung up to meet their needs have become part of the fabric of the city.
BERLIN—Inside, it looks like any other trendy café in Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough. There’s an espresso bar on one side, wicker chairs and plush couches strewn about, and Edison bulbs glowing against a pistachio wall. A couple of people are scattered around the room, working on their laptops. It’s 5:50 p.m—I’m early.
By 6:30 p.m., the long table against the back wall is full, and more and more people draw up chairs to join. The chatter swells. In English, broken and fluent, attendees from Canada, Croatia, London, Slovakia, Japan, and Syria introduce themselves. Someone passes around homemade lemon cake.
We’re at Refugio café, a city-owned space that functions as co-op-style refugee housing, community center, and café—and the headquarters of Give Something Back to Berlin, an organization that works at the intersection of advocacy, education, and community-building for newcomers to the city. Refugio is currently home to around 40 refugees, all of whom applied to live there. The events and activities, however, are open to migrants around the city. Apart from English workshops—like the one I’m sitting in on—GSBTB also hosts German language meet-ups, yoga classes, music and art workshops, job training sessions, and group cooking sessions and meals here. “In Kreuzberg, very little [sic] meeting points exist where different communities can come together and share,” says Annamaria Olsen, the founder of GSBTB.
Recent waves of refugees have been politically polarizing for Germany, but at the local level, welcoming and integration efforts that have involved native Berliners, expats, and other residents have significantly boosted the federal and local governments’ integration initiatives. A lot of the burden of teaching language and job skills, providing clothing, and even housing has been taken on by ordinary Berliners in recent years—facilitated by organizations such as GSBTB. And Olsen has witnessed the huge difference these kind of programs have made to in individual lives of both the newcomers and of the native Berliners. “Just creating that human connection that’s healing and eye-opening for both sides,” Olsen says.
At 8 p.m., the session had officially concluded, but conversations are still simmering. Near me, Ahmad has been recounting how he traveled by boat from Homs, Syria to Turkey—and made his way to Germany. “I thought I was dying,” Ahmad tells a woman named Naomi, who is from the U.K. “But there was no other solution.”
They’ve not spent much time together, but Ahmad and Naomi—who is in Berlin to conduct research at a local university—have long graduated beyond small talk. He tells her he lived with 12 other people when he first got to the city. And now, even though his quarters are less cramped, sleep is still elusive. Whenever he talks on the phone with his mother back in Homs, she tells him everything is fine. But he knows it’s not.
“Sometimes I don’t understand what happened,” he says, summing up the past few years of his life—the conflict in his country, his escape, and the separation from his family. “When I think of the past...” he trails off. “I don’t know if I can explain.”
“Some things are difficult to explain in any language,” Naomi replies.
At a Turkish café in Southeastern borough Neukölln, not far from the city’s famous Arab Street, I sit sipping tea with two members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany. They’d just concluded a meeting for the their party’s local working group on migration and diversity—a committee that organizes direct relief for refugees and took legislative action to push for changes in immigration law. Despite the fact that migration to the country is not a new phenomenon, “it’s kind of a new development that Germany regards itself as a migrant country,” says Timo Schramm, who is the deputy chairman of the working group in Neukölln.
Changes in immigration policy, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and unrest in Turkey and other nearby nations triggered new waves of migrants in the last few decades of the 20th century. And more recently, people have come from Romania and Bulgaria—attracted by work opportunities and public benefits. Then, of course, in 2015, the migrant crisis overtook Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn areas that were flooding into Germany, but the task of providing housing, services, education, and jobs exerted pressure on “arrival cities” like Berlin. “The local authorities were not prepared to handle the situation,” Schramm recalls. But he adds: “There was some huge welcoming movement—most of it was carried by civil society.”
When Germany’s city-state governments finally sprung into action, they were actually pretty creative about creating temporary housing and managing the influx of newcomers, a recent Brookings Institution report found. The efforts of individual volunteers, in particular, have “enhanced all phases of refugee reception and integration,”authors Bruce Katz, Luise Noring, and Nantke Garrelts write. Via the report:
While established players like Caritas, Red Cross, and others have attracted a great number of volunteers in structured efforts, a new generation of mostly young, independent volunteers has emerged who use online platforms to sign up for projects and who experiment with a variety of creative responses.
GSBTB was born long before the Syrian refugee crisis made international headlines in 2015—out of Olsen’s own experience as a newcomer to the city. Olsen was a transplant from Sweden. And when she first arrived in Berlin in 2012, she didn’t speak the language or know many people. At the time, she remembers thinking: “If it was such a struggle for me, how would it be for people who are even more vulnerable?”
In 2013, Olsen started GSBTB as a matching platform to connect Berliners with opportunities to volunteer with migrants. That year, she and some other folks went to offer their help at Oranienplatz, where a group of refugees had camped out after a march from South Germany to Berlin. They were protesting the treatment they had received in the country and told the volunteers their four basic requests: To learn English, to play music, to cook familiar hot food, and to connect to wifi so they could keep up with paperwork and communicate with family. Fulfilling those needs is what still informs the bulk of GSBTB’s projects today.
What makes organizations like GSBTB different from traditional refugee integration agencies or faith-based ones, is that the organization’s approach is driven by newcomers—of all backgrounds. Everyone uses different tools, and approaches, and timelines, “but the process of becoming a part of the city is the same,” Olsen says. “There’s another level of trust,” she adds, “The mix creates a much less helper-versus-helpee dynamic—it’s a big community.”
Her colleague Eli Wael Khleifawi has had a very different acclimation process than she did. He’d arrived from Damascus, Syria, in 2015—after hopping from country to country. And for first several months, he didn’t have a roof over his head—or a job. In Berlin, he found a cosmopolitan, diverse place, but also a disconcertingly individualistic one. “Back in Syria, you had your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your city—it was never one person,” he says.
Khleifawi was still making his way through the bureaucratic immigration pipeline, but he’d come a long way since those initial days—thanks, in part, to GSBTB. He has been a project coordinator there for 9 months.“I didn’t have the easiest experience when I moved here, but I’d do it again,” he says. adding that forums like GSBTB gave newcomers a slice of home and a chance to make human connections. “I guess, once you create a neighborhood, it’s better.“
Of course, the involvement of locals hasn’t been a silver bullet for Berlin. Programs like GSBTB haven’t completely neutralized tensions between different groups in the city. Rising poverty, homelessness, and unemployment are a persistent feature. And with a sluggish economy and recent waves of immigration, the anti-immigrant narrative of far-right groups like Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has gained traction. In the 2016 election, AfD gained gained in parts of East Germany while immigrant-friendly SPD and Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) lost ground.
Even the newcomers from other parts of Europe, like Olsen, or from other parts of Germany—like Schramm—who are relatively privileged aren’t free from rebuke as gentrification pressures mount in neighborhoods like Kreuzberg. “There are a lot of newcomers here—it takes time to grow together,” he says.
But increasingly, other programs have cropped up along similar lines as GSBTB—hoping to give refugees ownership over their new homes and helping them make connections. In a way, they serves as testament to their success and their positive impact. One non-profit employs refugees as city tour guides. Another gets them to improv with locals. And a recent government-funded radio project lets refugees broadcast their skills for odd jobs and then matches them with folks who need those services. These are programs with modern, creative approaches to integration that leverage the ordinary aspects of a person’s life—cooking, play, conversation, exercise—to create a sense of normalcy and community. “The daily routine: That’s where the connections happen,” Schramm says.