Image: freeimages.com/Tomasz Kaczmarek
by Max Schwind
In March’s feature piece ‘The Refugee Crisis in Germany – Part I: Refugees Welcome?’ I have painted a broad, general picture of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Germany in order to provide a solid overview on this topic, especially for our many non-German readers. For the second part of this topic, it is my goal to provide an in-depth report on the highly complex integration of refugees into German society through the eyes of a refugee relief volunteer, how they live in a typical refugee accommodation in Germany and to describe the multifaceted everyday work of social workers and volunteers who assist former refugees in their integration efforts.
At the beginning of the New Year, months after German Chancellor Angela Merkel had opened Germany’s doors to over one million refugees, and several weeks after the initial euphoria among German citizens died down, Germany was faced with the challenging task to integrate such a massive number of newcomers into its society. Fortunately, as I have highlighted in my previous article, Germany has the luxury to look back at a rich history of immigration and is therefore already skilled in matters of integration and multiculturalism. I would like to recall the fact that in 2014, Germany has already been the second most popular migration destination in the world and that every fifth German had a migration background before the refugee crisis began. However, the unprecedented number of migrants within such a short period of time has even rocked the institutional and bureaucratic foundations of an immigration country like Germany and made countless major improvements and adjustments necessary. In order to accommodate, feed and finally integrate over one million people into a vastly different society, a radically new concept of integration had to be introduced.
Merkel’s government decided to draw upon one of Germany’s biggest strengths, namely its federal structure and therefore distributed the incoming refugees over its sixteen states in order to share the responsibilities of integration. This meant that every state and every city as well as thousands of villages across Germany got their own individual share of refugees. For the purpose of accommodation, nourishment, registration and integrating efforts, thousands of unused or scarcely used government owned buildings had to be completely renovated and refurbished.
image taken by the author
A perfect example of a completely renovated former government building (see picture above) is one of several refugee accommodations in my hometown, where I volunteer mainly as a German and English language tutor. This complex of buildings used to be a major regional headquarters of the Bundeswehr, the Germany army and was mainly used to carry out the physical and medicinal screening of new recruits. When Germany abolished its compulsory military service in 2011, the entire complex stood deserted without a new purpose. Soon after the refugee crisis hit Germany in late summer of last year, the local government decided to restructure the entire complex in order to transform it into an accommodation for refugees – I cannot think of a better way to use a former military building. The lengthy renovation was finally concluded at the end of 2015 and the new building officially opened in January. It now houses over one hundred refugees and has a capacity for at least fifty more. This communal housing is organized and structured like most of the other thousands of refugee accommodations in Germany and can therefore be used as a perfect example to provide an insight into the happenings and procedures inside Germany’s refugee housings, the main pillar of integration.
If one wishes to enter such a building, it is necessary to carry a badge which identifies one as either a government employed social worker, security or volunteer, in order to pass security – a grim but unfortunately necessary precaution to protect the residents against attacks from radicals, something that luckily only happened on a few and rare occasions in the entire country in the past. After passing through security, the first thing you notice is the overwhelming presence and the drowning in laughter from children. Refugee housings are only quiet at night and during school hours. Apart from that, they are places of bustling life, music and laughter are everywhere – a very uplifting place to work, even considering all the problems and challenges the residents, social workers and volunteers are facing every day. There is one building where residents and visitors can have regular meetings in a former dining hall and where a day care centre for infants can be found. The main building serves as a de facto apartment building, where every family is issued their own room with communal kitchens on every floor. It also has teaching and tutoring classrooms, and recreational rooms. Offices of government staff and social workers are also located in the main building. In short, communal housings like this make a great effort to provide its residents with all they need to start the process of integration.
However, to accommodate and nourish refugees is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true purpose of communal housings. The final goal is not for its residents to stay in accommodations like this forever; its main purpose is the full integration of former refugees into German society and therefore, ultimately for them to move out and find their own apartment or house in Germany, but not before they have been assisted with all necessary paperwork, finding a school for the children, finding a job for adults, getting health insurance and so on. Therefore, housings like this also have a job centre, or at least a room where residents can meet with officials from employment agencies once they are registered for work. Moreover, these buildings provide the basis for networking with local sports clubs, social welfare and aid organisations all aimed at deepening social inclusion. Local government employed social workers have their offices inside these housings and it is them who supervise every single integration activity, scheme and programme inside a communal housing. They are also the first in-house point of contact for all former refugees and it is their responsibility that every single resident is being integrated properly – a responsibility so great that it cannot be stressed enough. And it is exactly because of the incredible amount of work and responsibility that these social workers have to carry that local governments decided to issue official volunteer IDs to all German citizens who wish to support refugees in their integrating processes. Volunteers have become invaluable in stemming the refugee crisis in Germany. Without them, local governments would not have the manpower to take care of over one million refugees across Germany.
image: freeimages.com/Liz Ashe
Just like social workers, volunteers are mainly working inside communal housings, but also have countless external duties and activities. To only give an overview of all the multifaceted work that volunteers do is quite a challenge, but I shall to do my best. In my hometown and across Germany, volunteers usually organize themselves after they have obtained their refugee relief volunteer ID. In order to try to cover all necessary areas where refugees need the most assistance, all local volunteer groups are divided into different branches such as catering, where volunteers are mainly concerned about the steady supply of food and water into communal housings, German and English language tutoring, day care for infants, recreational activities (sports clubs, trips, tours, etc.) historical and cultural tutoring, such as visits to local museums or historical sights, women empowerment, reading and writing classes, assistance with doctors and government appointments, transportation services, accompaniment to job centres, sponsorships between Germans and refugees and many, many more.
German language tutoring is one of the key pillars for successful integration and therefore always constitutes one of the biggest volunteer groups. It is an extremely versatile field since most arriving refugees have vastly different language skills, some have to learn to write and read for the first time. Moreover, most refugees come from four different countries (Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) and do not share a single language, culture or identity. To make things more complicated, all newcomers are obviously from majorly different age groups and had a very different formal education in their home country. We, as volunteers, can obviously not just throw all these different people in one classroom and start to teach them German. First, we have to talk to every single resident once they arrive in the communal housing to find out what kind of language tutoring they need. It is absolutely possible that a single refugee accommodation has over 20 different language classes in order to ensure that everyone gets into a class with the appropriate level and speed. It is important to highlight that every refugee who has successfully applied and registered is eligible for a 600 hour German language course, which are held by professional language teachers. Volunteers still give many of the language classes because most former refugees want to learn more than the required minimum and/or need tutoring that accompany these government programs. In short, there are as many language classes as are requested by refugees, but only if there are enough volunteers present to offer their tutoring. To this point I have neither heard of a case where refugees did not request additional tutoring, nor of a communal housing where not enough volunteers could be found.
This complicated network of integrating programs carried out by social workers and volunteers is supervised by local government staffs who are employed by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. These coordinators pose as intermediaries between social workers and volunteers on the one side and the Federal Office on the other side and bridge the gap between government funded integration projects and grassroots bottom up integrating efforts from volunteers. This brand-new system of integration largely revolving around communal housing such as I have described was virtually non-existent before the refugee crisis began. It is therefore a system that is far from perfect and is constantly being reviewed, reinvented and reformed. Main challenges include slow renovating processes, overly complicated bureaucratic procedures, still too little government staff despite doubling the size of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and no financial compensation for volunteers. Even though most integrating measures I have illustrated in this article seem to be working out very well it is at this point impossible to say whether or not this new method will ultimately achieve its goal of integrating over a million refugees into Germany society, since it is a work in progress that has just begun. This new system may not be the radically new society-transforming concept of integration an idealist like me was hoping for, but it is certainly a good start.