July 29, 2016
Volunteering: expectations, experience, evaluation
Who am I and why do I volunteer?
My name is Sidar, a student at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, originally from Bulgaria. My name as well as half of me is Kurdish. My father comes from the Kurdish populated part of Turkey but because of his activities for the rights of his people he had to flee. He arrived in Europe as a refugee in the time of the Cold war, he met my mother and consequently stayed and settled down in Bulgaria. Although his story is different from the ones of the current refugees, I feel connected with them, I feel that someone has helped my father and thus helped me. Therefore, I want to assist the newcomers, to let them have the chances someone took from them at home. Furthermore, as many of the refugees are Kurdish, I see it as an opportunity to learn more for the culture of my father, to listen to the language and to get to know them.
What did I expect and what were my responsibilities?
At the time of the biggest refugee crisis I was away from Europe and I could only see it as a distant phenomenon. However, when I came back quite a lot felt different. Back home in Bulgaria people looked scared, unsure of their future and bothered by the refugees. The media was spreading so much negative information it was impossible for someone not to become uneasy on the topic. On top of this, everyone was telling me that it will be much worse in Germany, that Berlin is filled with islamists and homeless people. I couldn’t believe what is being said and decided to check for myself before taking anything for a fact.
Fortunately, they were wrong, the situation in Berlin had already settled down when I arrived and the locals were much more supportive than criticising in contrast with the Bulgarians. The next step was to see how all this is happening and I decided to try volunteering to achieve that. I expected the situation to be still kinda hectic, to have less people volunteering because it was already more than half a year after the peak of the crisis. I had heard and seen so much online, I expected everyone to be very frustrated, impatient and sad. However, almost all of these concerns were dismissed when I started helping at NUK Tempelhofer Ufer and later – NUK Flughafen Tempelhof. At the first place my responsibilities were to assist with the dinner preparation and serving. It was my first chance to have a look at where the refugees live, how they do that and who they are. However, my responsibilities were not many and I felt I am not really doing much. Thus I tried in NUK Flughafen Tempelhof where I was working at the Klederkammer, the place where the residents of Berlin’s biggest refugee accommodation centre could come and receive donated clothes for free. My part was to talk to the people and offer them whatever they need and was available, a position I liked much more and found myself more needed there, so I stayed at this camp for the rest of my volunteering.
What did I learn in the process?
Helping feels good and although doing it for the first time, I realised this is something that should be part of my free time in the future as well. The work with the refugees showed me that they are people just like me, families, students, kids who dream, work and strive for better life. However, some of us have the chances to live a calm, uninterrupted lives and we can at least give some of our free time for causes of social benefit. I learned that receiving a smile from a person for your work sometimes is worth more than a salary. I learnt a lot about the refugee situation in Berlin, I learned a lot about the local participation and initiatives, I learned about the preferences and interests of people of different cultures, all important lessons that I am still processing in my mind.
I was not really there for the first few moths to see how the refugees arrived and were taken care of. Nowadays, they all seem quite well settled down but not exactly as part of the society around them but as a separated group of people that doesn’t look like in the process of integration. The fellow volunteers at the camp are the people who have made me feel that there is a bright light after all, they are all extremely nice to the people, doing always more than the required, helping in many ways and treating everyone with respect. On the other hand, outside of the camp the people are not that positive and with the current news coming from south Germany, the population might become even less welcoming towards the refugees.
The refugees I had the chance to communicate with shared that they do not really feel good here, mainly due to the conditions that were supposed to be just temporary but have not changed for the last at least half a year now. They told me the system for receiving asylum is in particular exhausting and frustrating, some waiting for 6 months without any progress and what is more annoying – without information.
My personal feeling is that the welcome culture in Germany is much better than the one in Bulgaria. However, there is, of course, room for improvement – I believe the refugees should be more actively involved in language classes and programmes to be integrated more effectively in the society they are living with.
The NUKs or in other words – the emergency housing, I had the chance toward at were quite well organised. I heard many problems that could be observed in the beginning of the refugee crisis were overcome continuously and by the time I joined there were no more visible serious shortcomings. I couldn’t get into details of how everything gets done and who does it but from the surface I could say that the places are organised in a manner that keeps everything in order and functioning but without making the residents feel in prison. There is a lot of security but it is not intrusive, there are many workers but they feel as part of the NUK itself and not just some daytime visitors. The place I was helping at – the Kleiderkammer, had introduced a voucher system, corresponding to the ID cards given to the residents at the camp, all helping for the identification, efficient working and limiting the givings of some of the stuff there is just in limited numbers. For this there is a computer, barcodes, scanner and software keeping track of who takes what, when and thus creating some statistics.
What I felt was not certain enough at the Kleiderkammer was the volunteer participation. There were always people, something I found surprising but at the same time, it was never sure how many people will come to help and there were always many refugees to come for clothes. The organisation is working with volunteer-planner.org and this is the main way to find volunteers and to have them on a schedule.
There are weekly meetings at the NUK to discuss problems, opportunities and whatever else comes to people’s minds. Many initiatives are taking place, many independent, many from different small organisations and many from the NUK itself. However, most of these initiatives are to happen within the NUK and its residents. I would suggest more activities in the direction of integration should be though of, some mentoring, pairing or anything else that would let the refugees get out of their closed environment.
All in all, the experience and lessons gained volunteering are rewarding. I managed to see another world, do a bit of good and have fun. However, the last few times at the Kleiderkammer made me feel I need to move on, find something else to help with. I realised many of the people I see, come every week and not abuse but wisely use the system of giving and that they are not that much in the need of clothes as they are trying to show us. I understood for myself that this exact volunteering position has stopped making a difference in my view, that it doesn’t feel I am really contributing to the improvement of the refugee situation but on the contrary keep it as it is, at a stagnant state of waiting for something to happen, not even knowing what or from where. I am happy with my time spent at NUK Flughafen Tempelhof but I am certain I need to seek another opportunities to assist more efficiently, towards a more sustainable goal.
Volunteering at Flughafen Tempelhof
The Emergency Housing Unit at Flughafen Tempelhof is the biggest of the kind in Berlin, becoming home to over 1,300 refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The former airport has been reorganised in order to accommodate the big number of newly arriving refugees in the capital.
It is supposed to be a temporary housing for up to 6 weeks but due to the serious problems of finding more permanent housing, many of the residents of the airport have been living there for over 6 months without any idea when they will be able to move forward to a more comfortable accommodation.
First Volunteering Experience
Before getting to volunteering at Flughafen Tempelhof I tried doing that at NUK Tempelhofer Ufer, located closer to my home it looked as an interesting opportunity. First I sent them an email that never got answered but as I understood later they rarely have time for such activities. Therefore I directly took a shift through the Volunteer Planner and went there on a cloudy Monday. My responsibility was supposed to be helping the dinner preparation and distribution. However, when I went there, there were more than enough people doing it already, all residents of the NUK, which I was very happy to see. They didn’t need outer help at least for this evening. Nevertheless, I stayed and through the guidance of Julia, the social worker on duty, I did some minor things in the preparation period and afterwards distributed some of the food items.
It was interesting to see what they eat, mainly breakfast food and leftovers from lunch. Everyone was mainly interested in the salad, the flat bread, onion and bananas. The cooked potatoes and vegetables were widely ignored. It was interesting to see with how much concentration they were cooking the salad, it was the masterpiece on the table and everyone knew it. I had the chance to drink the salad juice at the end and it was amazing!
Anyway, it was an experience but I really felt not needed there. The refugees couldn’t speak neither English nor German and without previously knowing them and without enough time to get to understand each other, there was virtually no communication between us. The social worker was friendly and was also very close to the refugees after working there for 6 months. The people were from different Middle Eastern countries and spoke mainly Kurdish and Arabic. They were living in a sports hall, having some of the beds just behind the tables where they eat. There were more men than women but I later realized that many of the women are in another room and that’s why some of the women that came to take food took 5 portions at the same time. I didn’t really have the chance to walk around and see how the building is organized. In the short time I was there I saw men fighting twice, no idea what for but it all finished rather fast. Many of the refugees were also not there for the dinner. Julia told me there are more than 130 residents in the NUK but maybe less than half of them turned up for the food. There was a lot of security, they asked me for my ID on the entrance, wrote down the time of entry and gave me a badge of helper to identify who I am.
I was the only volunteer and it made me feel as an outsider, an intruder and eventually not really in the right place. Furthermore, I didn’t really help much and thus I felt there is no sense going to NUK Tempelhofer Ufer again. I had a short talk with the social worker who told me I am more than welcome to come whenever I have time and that she would give me more information on the whole situation whenever she has time. That would have been interesting but I have not gone back since the first time because I decided to try helping where I might be more needed. Therefore, the week after I shifted to the biggest NUK in Berlin – Flughafen Tempelhof.
I had my first shift at FLughafen Tempelhof on yet another cloudy Monday. The position was at the Kleiderkammer which I was not quite sure what it means but was soon to understand. The building of the airport is notorious with its gigantic size and structure. Of course, I went to the wrong hangar at first. There are two main parts of the whole building that are used to accommodate refugees – Hangars 1-4 and Hangars 5-7. The Kleiderkammer is located in Hangar 1 and used to be only one room full of unorganised clothes just some months ago. Nowadays it consists of two big rooms, one acting as the display part, the place where the refugees have access to and the storage room which is double as big and is where all additional clothes are kept.
On the way to the Klederkammer I had a few encounters with the security but no-one checked my documents, the magic word was “Kleiderkammer” and all doors would open without further questions. Later I realised this might be also because of the people who come everyday to donate stuff and have to be let to enter.
Anyway, I managed to find the place fairly easy and on the way got to see that there are many more volunteers or workers, involved in activities in the neighbouring hangars and the area outside. Hangar 1 looked emptier and not that busy but inside the Kleiderkammer the situation was different.
Once again, there were many security personnel on each door and they all looked quite serious but by telling that I am there to help I was free to enter anywhere. Inside of the display room or as i understood some call it – the shopping room, there were already 5 people behind the counters and a few refugees, looking for clothes. I was introduced to he shift leader who’s name was Soli and had to put a name tag on my shirt so we can communicate easily and become closer to the refugees. Soli happened to be a very friendly person and explained how everything works in English without sparing effort or time. I found this very nice because I could start afterwards working directly without having too many questions.
Everything that could be found in the two rooms were donated by individuals and organisations. Every table, shelf or pair of socks had come from good people throughout the last 6 months. There were tons of clothes, shoes, bags, accessories etc. but none of it was enough. The Kleiderkammer’s idea was to cover the needs of the residents of NUK Flughafen Tempelhof of clothing and do so without funding from the government. While everything sone around the accommodation and feeding of the residents is paid by Germany, the operation of the Kleiderkammer is not. There I understood that the volunteering position I had in NUK Tempelhofer Ufer shouldn’t have been even offered because the food, its distribution and preparation are already paid by the government and contracted to some companies.
My job at the Kleiderkammer was to stay behind the counter – a raw of tables, and help the refugees find the right clothes they need. The residents didn’t have direct contact to the clothes but had to tell me or my fellow volunteers what they need and then we would bring a selection of the clothes so they can find what suits them the best. One of the reasons i heard later was the hygiene – touching and trying on clothes is one of the easiest ways of many diseases to spread around this anyway limited and closed environment. Another reason was the overloading we constantly have – there are many people who want new clothes and not always enough volunteers. Of course, we would like everyone to get what they really like, although not much is available, but we also had to do it as fast as possible so everyone could have the chance. Thus not letting the residents browse on their own saves much time reorganising the place, lets us control more or less the flow and ensures the supervision of who takes what.
Because of the big number of people who live at Flughafen Tempelhof and the limited number of stuff we have at the Kleiderkammer, some months ago a voucher system was introduced in order to track who takes what and how much. There is a computer and a scanning machine next to the entrance and every refugee has a voucher that is registered to his/her resident ID and works only together with the ID cards they receive when coming to live in the airport. They get a new voucher every two weeks and thus can get more clothes if they have already used up the ones they are allowed to get for the previous period. Some items are special and can’t be taken more than once each 3 months due to the very limited amounts available and the serious interest. Such things are the suitcases, backpacks, shoes and jackets.
It has been a lot of fun helping at the Kleiderkammer. We meet, talk to and interact with hundreds of the refugees letting us see a big sample of our new fellow Berliners and sometimes hear a bit about their life. The most exciting part of the job is to see what type of fashion interests them and what stuff has been donated by the locals. There is a visible difference between the two but with some creativity and rebranding the gap might be closing down. However, the refugees come from very different cultural and religious backgrounds and therefore have different expectations and needs of their clothing. Women are looking for more covering items, men on the other hand prefer skinny jeans and tight tops. It is not very easy to find anything fitting to their desires but with some compromise we usually find solutions.
All in all, the experience and lessons gained volunteering are rewarding. I managed to see another world, do a bit good and have fun. However, the last few times at the Kleiderkammer made me feel I need to move on, find something else to help with. I realised many of the people I see, come every week, not abuse but wisely use the system of giving and that they are not that much in the need of clothes as they are trying to show us. I understood for myself that this exact volunteering position has stopped making a difference, that it doesn’t feel I am really contributing to the improvement of the refugee situation but on the contrary keep it as it is, at a stagnant state of waiting for something better to happen. I am happy with my time spent at NUK Flughafen Tempelhof but I am certain I need to seek another opportunities to assist more efficiently, towards a more sustainable goal.