‘Refugees Welcome!’ is more than a slogan in Germany
Twelve-year-old Assrien arrived from Al-Malikiyah in northeastern Syria five months ago, but today she chatters away in German.
Assrien plays soccer with German children on a makeshift field at a community event in Berlin’s Reinickendorf district. There are live performances, children’s activities, and food stalls designed to bring together refugees and locals to promote friendliness between the groups.
The slogans “No one is illegal” and “Refugees Welcome!” appear in graffiti and on paraphernalia around Berlin. As asylum seekers increasingly flock to Germany, a solidarity movement not only demands that immigrants have the right to stay, but provides its own support through language classes, sports, and mentorship programs.
Twenty-six-year-old Gloria Amoruso co-founded kein Abseits! in 2011 to encourage education through sports and mentoring. The organization’s name means “not offside” and invokes soccer terminology as a metaphor for not straying into the margins of society. Last week the organization held its first soccer training for young refugee girls as part of a new project called Heimspiel, another play on words meaning “home game.”
As the first person in her family to finish high school and go to college, Amoruso’s own experience of feeling like an outsider motivated her to support refugees.
“Everything is new and you feel like you don’t belong,” she says.
Assrien, whose parents asked that her last name not be revealed, used to play soccer at school in Syria; she taught herself, she says proudly. In a week her family will move from the shelter where they’ve been living for the past two months to the city Halle in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Assrien says she likes Germany, except for the food.
“Children of immigrants are often treated like interpreters for family because they learn German more quickly,” Amoruso says. “They grow up fast so this is a way for them to be kids again.”
Last year Germany received by far the most asylum applications of any EU member state with nearly 127,000 requests, according to the statistics agency Eurostat. Although Germany granted the second-largest number of asylum permits after Sweden, critics say a country with the largest economy in Europe and a labor market shortage could accept more.
“We have a history where our own people needed to run from a fascist regime,” says Oliver Wolters, a digital media designer who lives in Reinickendorf just over the fence from where the event is taking place. “Now we should welcome people who are in need.”
Amoruso sees the problem both ways.
“The number of refugees we accept in Europe is not enough at all, but the administration is not prepared for so many either.”
Two years ago, around twenty asylum seekers marched hundreds of miles from Würzburg to Berlin. They set up a protest camp in Oranienplatz, a square in Kreuzberg, the traditionally left-leaning neighborhood that became a home for many immigrants, including West Berlin’s Turkish guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s. The protesters are splintered into many groups with different legal statuses and needs, but their underlying demand is the right to stay in Germany. Authorities eventually demolished the camp and evicted its occupants, but Oranienplatz has become a symbol of opposition to Germany’s asylum policies.
“This protest couldn’t have lasted this long without a sense of solidarity,” says Jasmin Azar, who coordinates the soccer program for kein Abseits!
In a large, worn room not far from Oranienplatz, a dozen asylum seekers gather to attend free, two-hour German classes. Three young women stand before whiteboards hushing conversations in French, Spanish, Arabic, and Hausa. A disco ball hangs from cheap ceiling panels. The volunteer teachers bring out a plate of croissants, distribute textbook photocopies, and invite late arrivals to sit in mismatched chairs.
The lessons share space with a meeting of the Oranienplatz protesters, although they are not officially affiliated with any organization.
Not everyone appreciates the public welcome.
“I don’t want people to see all this,” says 22-year-old Ibrahim, gesturing toward an information stand in Oranienplatz with flyers, flags and slogans in support of refugees. He says he doesn’t like the attention — or sympathy — from passersby.
Like many of the men at Oranienplatz, Ibrahim came to Germany from the West African country Niger by way of Italy and Libya, where he worked at a supermarket. Ibrahim says he camped at Oranienplatz for three months before the government forced him to move. Now he sleeps in an abandoned building.
A man arrives carrying a plate of sandwiches, but Ibrahim ignores the handout. He wants to find work in a hotel or supermarket here. However, despite a national unemployment rate of 4.9% in July 2014, Ibrahim says there are no opportunities for him in Germany.
Some immigrants say the general attitude toward foreigners is far from a warm welcome. Though Germany has been host to asylum seekers and other immigrants from Asia and Africa for decades, plenty of Germans continue to resent their presence.
“I want to stay here but Germans don’t like me,” Ibrahim says. “They don’t like black people.”
German public opinion is closely divided on whether to limit immigration, according to a 2014 Pew report. Most Germans believe foreigners do not assimilate, and about half blame immigrants for crime.
Two years ago Oliver Rabitsch took up the newly-created post of Integration Commissioner for Reinickendorf district. He says problems with the local community arise from a lack of information.
Last year a citizen initiative tried to ban refugee children from neighborhood playgrounds. Rabitsch says that changed after the community hosted an event to introduce local residents to new arrivals.
“Now they wouldn’t do that,” he says.
Rabitsch warns that opening up institutions to refugees must be a long-term affair and more than a slogan.
“You have to be careful that it’s not just a trend.”
Clare Richardson is reporting from Berlin on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.
PHOTO (INSERT 1): 12-year-old Assrien waits to start a soccer game with neighborhood children in the Reinickendorf district of Berlin, Germany, on September 13, 2014. The match was organized by kein Abseits! and part of a festival to bring together refugees living in a nearby shelter and local residents.
PHOTO (INSERT 2): A sign saying “Kein Mensch ist illegal” – “No one is illegal” – is seen in a building where Oranienplatz protesters are meeting in Berlin, Germany, on September 10, 2014. The slogan appears in graffiti and window signs throughout the city as a show of solidarity for asylum-seekers in Germany.