Letter from Germany 8 – Visit to an emergency accommodation

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Pensioner Sigurd is now called Baaba of the children of an Afghan family.

Christl Stephanblome - croppedby Christl Stephanblome

It is difficult to extract information from the newspapers because news is scarce.
One of the newest news is that up to now 1,000,000 refugees have entered the country. How
many came over the border and are not registered is not known.

There are a lot of activities by volunteers who simply do what is necessary. They do
it in their free time, they don’t get money. Without them the government couldn’t cope
with the situation. It nearly only gives the good news, but one becomes suspicious when
one listens to those involved. Things are not always going  smoothly.

By invitation of a member of an integration society I was able to see for myself how
refugees live in an emergency accommodation until they get the information whether they
are accepted for asylum or not. That can take up to 5 months or longer. Some can’t
nourish any hope because they are from so called safe countries as Bosnia, Serbia,
Macedonia, Albania (Kosovo), Montenegro. Over 18,363 refugees have been sent back to
their home countries between January and November this year. From North Rhine-Westphalia
almost 7,000 refugees went home by their own decision with the financial help of the land
to establish themselves in their own country. In the meantime fewer refugees are
coming.

In the classrooms, the gym hall, in containers as sanitary facilities of an old
primary school live 652 refugees from Arabia, Syria, Albania (Kosovo), Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Eritrea, Mali, Macedonia, Iraq etc., separated by ethnicity, the many
families and single men in different parts of the accommodation.

The security unit consists of 12 men who are present 24 hours a day. They all have a
migration background, speak different languages besides German. They don’t fear
coming into contact with the refugees, have a friendly manner and a natural
authority. Nevertheless the police have to come every day. Too many people in too
small an accommodation, a family has not more then 4 sqm. Fights erupt over
nothing.

It seems to be different with the social workers, very young, inexperienced, of all
people females in a male dominated environment, who seem not to understand what is
expected of them.

The different nationalities have different reputations, not all are easy going people,
not all have customs acceptable in our country, not all of them respect women
as our culture demands. They all have dreams of the Golden West. I was stunned as they
complained because they didn’t have warm and cold running water. You have to understand
my reaction: I grew up in wartime and after wartime with cold water.
There is one nurse, but no physician permanently in the facility, but a clinic nearby
is in charge of it. If someone is seriously ill the security has to call an ambulance.
It is necessary to provide company for those who have to see a physician. Illnesses are
mainly those which turn up at this time of the year, but also chickenpox and scabies.
But most of them are young and healthy people.

Stories told

1. A young pregnant woman with two small children, 1 and 3 years old, asks for winter
clothes for them, a sign of faulty distribution of donated clothes.

2. A woman from Syria came with her sons, 17 and 13 years old, and her daughter, 15
years old, because they lived in an area, controlled by the so called IS.

3. An eleven year old girl, well educated, fluent in English, no parents, came with
her aunt and her two children and her niece.

4. I saw a father, trying to teach his small son to ride a bicycle with no tube. But
in this case there was fast help. An educational institute in town started a project for
young people to start vocational training to repair bicycles which were donated by the
people of the town and which were sold to the refugees for 5 Euro, because it was
thought of self respect of the refugees. They came and repaired the bicycle.

5. I met a young family with two small children. They came from Baghdad, entered
Turkey with a visa, got the possibility to go by boat to Greece, “traveled” the Balkan
route, and finally arrived in Germany. Both had worked in a college in Baghdad after
they had finished their college education. She had taught mathematics. They couldn’t
understand as I asked them whether they didn’t entertain their children by teaching them
whatever they remembered from their own time in school. They were stunned. But the
language … They didn’t know the German language … They seemingly had lost their
capability to adjust to the situation. Maybe our bureaucracy has destroyed it, because
it “handles” them like things. Maybe the way they live at the moment takes away all
their creativity.

6. I saw a woman standing at a window, her face emotionless, looking at me, her gaze
was fixed, asking a question without speaking a word. We couldn’t talk to one
another. We didn’t have a common language. Later I was told that she and her husband
left home with their three sons, two of them 7 and 13 years old. They were forced to
watch as their oldest son was beheaded. The younger ones were kept in a camp for
refugees in Turkey and not allowed to leave with their parents. They are now in
Istanbul. How they will join their parents is an open question. The woman was driven to
the hospital to see her husband who has had an myocardial infarction. They came from Syria and speak a
language nearly nobody knows. They can’t communicate.
Food is difficult. They are not used to our food and we have to learn that they can
become ill by what we are giving them. In some places the helpers were successful to
engage the refugees in the daily tasks, e.g. to distribute the food. At first they
fought with one another, because they feared that there wouldn’t be enough food for all
of them. Now they know.

Maybe I am too negative, because there are a lot of places where things go smoothly
and rationally. That happens often in small towns and villages, where the population is in
close contact with the refugees and have many ideas to integrate them in sports, music,
theatre, and not only teach them the German language, but also such “nice” things as
needle work, knitting etc. There are also possibilities to get them work, but that
depends on their knowledge of the German language. They convince because they are eager
to learn. All this gives the refugees something to do that  they can use when they
finally can organize their own daily lives. They want to stand on their own feet and pay
by themselves, for their families and kids. For many German people the situation is
difficult and creates anxiety because there is a new world coming into their lives,
which they don’t know anything about.

In his speech at Christmas President and former minister Gauck referred to the
essentials of the present situation: Germany would master the challenge. Our elected
representatives would defend our liberal and democratic country, develop long lasting
solutions according to our ethical standards, which would not endanger the social bond of our
country, would consider the well-being of our citizens and not forget the plight of the
refugees. He expressed gratitude for the uncounted citizens who did what they could,
where the administrative body reached its limits. Controversial discussions were part of
democracy, but polarizations were no legitimate means of discussion. Violence, hate,
arson, attacks on defenceless people were to be disdained and deserved punishment. He
reminded us of the terror attacks and wars of 2015, of the air plane crash in the Alps,
of the increasing differences in the European Union. He ended his speech with a quiet
encouragement. The bible tells us that Christmas shows the philanthropy of God. That is
good, but it would be better to live this philanthropy by ourselves and to carry it into
our world.

As you see, I believe in my country no matter what happens, it will find its way,
even when it takes some thinking.

The winter didn’t come. That is good. My lobelia is still blooming. The tulips are
coming. The winter jasmine has yellow blossoms and the cloves dark red ones. The
lavender didn’t give up either.

May the next year bring us a bit nearer to peace.

Christl  Stephanblome is a retired German Gymnasium teacher living in Leverkusen, Germany, near Cologne. She taught in Germany for 35 years and  has traveled the world including several visits to regions of Canada.