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Refuge in Hamburg

Afisha has visited the Hamburg refugee facilities, talked to the people who have spent months on their way to Europe from Syria and Afghanistan, and the Germans who are helping them to adjust to the western world.

This year, Germany going to accept a record number of refugees. Of course this decision has triggered very different reactions in different parts of the country ‒ the east is traditionally more right-wing, and the south is complaining about the lack of facilities to accommodate them.

In Hamburg and Berlin, on the other hand, the leftists are more active, and one can more often hear the voices advocating for the refugees, and against the right-wing activism.

In Hamburg, refugees often were settled in camps in the suburbs (moving out as soon as they got their applications were processed). But this year, the old camps weren’t enough any more, and a new camp was opened in the expo centre in the centre of town. In the neighbouring hangar, a donation centre sprang up. Inside, the donation centre looks like an IKEA warehouse: same towers of boxes with unintelligible writing, and a diverse crowd of people, mostly young, in between. At the entrance to the hangar, I am greeted by a big cardboard sign saying that the most needed donations are those of hygienic objects and warm shoes.



Donation centre volunteer

“I work in logistics, and when I first came here to donate my old clothes, I saw that they clearly needed help with organisation. In the first few days, everything was just dumped on the floor in a heap… now the centre works as a real warehouse. All the donations are packed in boxes, and every box is has QR code, and is part of an electronic registry.

“The centre grew from a Facebook group ‒ we had about 8000 members in the first two weeks, and all the big German media have already written about us. The stream of donations is huge, Hamburg hasn’t seen anything like that since after world war two. Most of the donations came from local citizens ‒ they bring old shoes and clothes. Some companies also donate things ‒ like hygienic items or boxes.

“Now we fully support the camp in the expo centre ‒ that’s about 1300 people, and send boxes to other Hamburg camps. They mostly need warm clothes and shoes ‒ most only have t-shirts and flip-flops.

“Most of the volunteers here are young people ‒ I think it’s kind of cool at the moment. Everyone knows about the refugee crisis, and has seen the news from Hungary, but people who work here only want to help. Others can sound concerned about their safety if they see so many foreigners in their city, but I haven’t seen any real negativity.

“The refugees themselves used to help us here in the first weeks, but we had some trouble in communicating with them, and couldn’t explain why everyone who wanted to help, couldn’t work in the donation centre at the same time. Since then all the volunteers who work here are locals. There are lots, sometimes there is even not enough work for all.

“I have talked to the refugees living here quite a lot, and I enjoyed it ‒ most in this camp come from Syria, and speak two or three languages. They are very grateful for the help they receive, and want to start working as soon as they can. They are very far from the uneducated people the media like showing.”


After talking to Moritz, I put on rubber gloves (mandatory), and spend about half an hour helping to sort the donated clothes. I am sorting womens clothes donated today. Every item needs to be carefully folded and put into the right stack on the table behind me, according to its type and size, onto a big table behind me. Then it will be packed, labelled, and sent to the right camp. The volunteers joke and discuss the news a lot, and talk on lots of topics ‒ except about the refugees. Finally, my neighbour ‒ a flight attendant with whom we have sorted a whole box of clothes donated by an unknown corpulent lady, ‒ answers my questions about why she came to work here.

“You know, I’m no expert on politics, but I know that these people have fled from a war, and have lost everything they had. It’s not their fault ‒ such things can happen to anybody. They came to Germany, because it’s a rich country, and we often forget about how good is the life we can have here ‒ and that it would be good to share it with somebody else.”

Fleeing from war is a topic refugees themselves tend to avoid, too. Anyone who has ever talked to a refugee tells the same ‒ that all they want is a normal life. This is exactly what I hear from the volunteers who teach languages to refugees. Many such lessons take place in a cafe ‘Rifugio’ ‒ a free communal space set up by volunteers in the vicinity of several camps in Hamburg’s southern suburb.

The atmosphere is reminiscent of a university cafeteria: dozens of people sit in small groups around tables, with heaps of flyers piled on them. A constant hum of voices fill the rooms. An energetic grey-haired woman with a booming voice teaches German to a big group of people. One of her students, Farid*, is 24. He arrived from Afghanistan four months ago, and now lives in a container camp nearby. With his tidy haircut and clean, well-fitted clothes, he doesn’t resemble pictures of refugees that fill the internet, and would easily blend into a crowd on a Hamburg street. But he has spent twenty months travelling to Germany all the way through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Balkans, and Austria, mostly on foot, and sometimes by car and boat. He doesn’t like talking about his journey ‒ he prefers talking about Hamburg, which he has already seen by now. It will take several more months for him to get all his documents, and he then he will apply for an apprenticeship in mechanics, and start working. In the meantime, he comes to Refugio every day to learn German and chat to people.

I hear a very different story from Ali*, a middle-aged Syrian, who shows me the map of his native Latakia on a phone, and the street where he used to work as a chef. This summer, however, he had to flee to Turkey, and then across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa, Italy. He managed to get to the mainland after that, and then got on a train to Germany through Milan.

Germans, he says, are more open than Italians, and much friendlier towards migrants. But he’s only been to Hamburg for a couple of months, and is now waiting for his documents to be ready ‒ and works a few hours in a Turkish restaurant in the meantime ‒ even though he’s not supposed to.

Most of the volunteers in the cafe are retired people living in the same neighbourhood. I talk to Gisa, a woman in her 50s, who works in insurance, but comes to help out on weekends. She was first brought here by a friend, who has already retired and volunteers here full-time.



Refugee cafe volunteer

“We have always supported left parties, and when this whole refugee crisis started, we decided to help out our friend Michael, who has opened this cafe. I help in the kitchen, chat to the refugees, and often help with with filling out the forms. We get to know some pretty well ‒ it takes many months to process all their papers (although it is supposed to take only three), and all this time they are suppose to live in camps, and, of course, many come here to us, to learn some German and get to know other people.

“The refugees need help ‒ even though Europe cannot take in everybody who is fleeing from war and poverty. But I still don’t understand those right-wing politicians who say that we should close our borders. What about those who drown in the Mediterranean, then? I can, of course, understand those Europeans who are scared of an influx of migrants ‒ if the state starts spending our taxes on helping out those people, our own benefits might shrink ‒ but at the moment this is still not the case.

“I do not see the immigration in only a positive light ‒ of course, it is good that those people bring their own culture and enrich ours with theirs, but they don’t only bring the positive things… Most of them come from extremely corrupt countries ‒ what if we change in that direction, too?

“But on the other hand, I help the volunteers who work in this cafe, and see that most of the refugees here are very nice and hard-working people. Have you seen how they start speaking German after just a few months here? It’s not easy at all, and I know I would have never been able to do that in Arabic ‒ I have tried learning it here, but it’s too hard for me.”

Volunteers also teach refugees English ‒ there are many native speakers in Hamburg. I meet one of them, Ian, on the university, campus, where he works most of the time.



English teacher, volunteer

“I have been teaching English and German for a few years, and at the moment I have three refugee students. On of my students, Ahmed*, is more like a friend now. We had a connection from the start, since we both are big Liverpool fans. Since our first meeting, I took him out to bars in town a couple of times… but the last time we went out, there was this big demonstration of the extreme left, in the same area. I was curious and wanted to have a look, but he was so obviously scared when a firecracker went off, that we had to leave at once. Ahmed doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a refugee at all. First, he’s Christian (which makes going to pubs a lot easier). Second, he’s not poor, or uneducated. Back home in Syria he was a finance manager in a small company, and had a normal upper-middle class life. Now he has lost everything because of the war, and fled to Europe, but he really wants to find a job and go back to a normal life as soon as he can. He’s almost 40, and I can see why he doesn’t want just to wait till the war is over and go back to Syria. He’s not that young, the war can go on for years, and nobody wants to start their life anew at 50. I understand the refugees who didn’t stay in Lebanon or Turkey, and went to Europe ‒ those countries have hundreds of thousands of refugees, much more than Europe, and they have no chance of a normal life there.”Classroom

 Words and pictures by Daria Sukharchuk

Original article published in Russian on 

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