My name is Linda and I am a 25-year-old student of Non-Profit Management at HWR and HTW Berlin. As I was thinking of how to organize my time this summer semester 2016, aside from uni and work, it was clear to me that I finally wanted to properly get engaged in volunteer work, especially for the cause of newly arrived refugees in Berlin. Engaging properly to me means to do more than working in the kitchen of a NUK, since the management aspect of voluntary work and charitable work in general is not only what I study, but also my personal interest. Early spring I was approached by a friend who lives in Berlin but just arrived from Syria two years ago. He proposed his idea of setting up a small organization, in the German legal form of a Verein, to help with integration and community building on the ground in Berlin.

His idea sounded exactly like something that I would want to be a part of. The essential vision is to enhance newly-arrived people with the instruments to enable them to have equal opportunities as Germans or migrants who are a bit freer from the restrictive and tedious bureaucratic asylum system. These instruments are imagined to be language skills, a local network and a social circle of Germans residents of Berlin. In order to connect all of these, we want to find volunteers who speak German fluently and pair them with refugees in order to help them practise their German on top of the classes that they are visiting, all of this should be done in a community-building frame, focusing on social activities and shared interests.

In this first phase of drafting I pitched many ideas and we added them to what Nebras and the friends he already had on board had in mind. Thus we got to work pretty soon. Both of us advertised the idea among our friends and we found the necessary seven people to register the Verein. From then on we divided our tasks and I was in charge of finding and coordinating volunteers and their work. This means mainly receiving and analyzing applications of both volunteers and refugees and interviewing as well as briefing them. One of my biggest concerns was that we would not find enough people who want to volunteer and it turned out to be semi-valid. I got this idea from the general decline of enthusiasm among people who were posting “refugees welcome” on facebook half a year ago. Indeed the numbers of refugees applying would exceed the number of volunteers, but all of the Verein members could win enough people to be buddies for five refugees, and this number, although small, seems to be a good start for a project in baby shoes that still needs a lot of controlling and evaluation.

One of the biggest aspects of the work that we will be doing is that it contributes to people actually feeling welcomed here. In my opinion, it often only needs a human connection and a smile to make somebody feel welcome. Making these connections possible beyond desks in BAMF offices or kitchen counters in NUKs is the essence of what I think can be done on integration. Social and cultural integration is the key, in my opinion, and cannot be achieved in any integration course with the teacher as the only local person. From our part, we will try to match people with locals according to their field of work, education or just their interests and hobbies in order to get them engaged in common activities or just talks beyond small talk.

Another aspect was how to differentiate our concept from others, which is necessary from a management perspective. However, aside from the competition over volunteers, there might not be an urgent need to market our concept with a unique selling proposition: There is never enough opportunities and frameworks to bring human beings together, as we still live in a society where it is considered weird when a stranger just approaches you in the street and starts talking to you in order to get to know you and connect. From what I can tell so far, the refugees who made the effort or were lucky to meet with and make new friends here feel very welcome. On the other hand, there is also clearly many people who feel most comfortable among themselves, the group that they came with from home, and do not need the feeling of “personal” welcoming but rather the general idea of nobody bothering them being here. One idea for structural improvement of the new start initiated for refugees here would be providing them with the tools to find communities on their own. This could be as practical as a list of Vereine that they can get engaged in, be it neighborhood meet-ups or sports or musical clubs close to the place they are staying.

One of the essential things in the work with refugees is to actually see and treat them not as refugees, as people who need your help, but simply as humans. This was clear to me before but is now more evident than ever. Especially in the field of where we are active, social and cultural integration, it is essential to put first the individual will and self-determination. Integration cannot be anything that is forced. As much as people living in Germany for years cherish the freedom here and their individual choice of how to spend their time, as much refugees do the same. Integration should not be seen as one newly-arrived group assimilating to the existing one but rather two or more groups making an effort to become a new and distinctive community.

In the past few months of getting started with the Verein I learned a lot about myself, too, especially by meeting many new people. Why I started it is mostly my idea that this “refugee crisis” is rather an interesting mission for all of us, locals and newly-arrived locals, the whole German society. And I think because we are dealing with humans and not numbers, the ideal way to turn this challenge into a success story is to start connecting at eye level.

Linda Mattes, July 2016