Signs of a refugee crisis are not readily apparent to an ordinary resident of Berlin. Traversing the city each day I hear the same mix of Russian, Turkish, English, German and Arabic that I’m used to hearing in this city that is Germany’s closest approximation to a melting pot. But the media reports that Germany is expected to receive more than one million asylum seekers this year and that fights are breaking out in Berlin’s central refugee registration center. Angela Merkel has assured the public that “we will manage”, but opinion polls tell us that many Germans are not convinced.
I didn’t know whether to expect chaos or calm before my first volunteer shift at the refugee center in Rathaus Wilmersdorf this week. On earlier trips past the building I’d seen few signs of the hundreds of refugees given temporary shelter there. It seemed like one of Berlin’s many historical twists of fate that someone who fled Syria or Afghanistan would survive the trip to Germany and end up in a municipal office building that was a vestige of the Nazi era.
The four hours I spent inside the building confirmed everything I’ve read about why refugees have made Germany their first choice destination. More than 800 people are living in a clean and well-organized environment where they have access to medical care, regular meals, and vast supplies of clothing and other essentials. Abundant volunteers help out in all areas of the building and provide translation services in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. Berliners bring a steady stream of supplies to the donation drop-off point. My very limited exposure to Berlin’s refugee relief measures reassured me that the German traits of efficiency and hard work are in ample evidence (from Germans and non-Germans alike).
My tiny part in this mammoth relief effort took place in a glass enclosed Info-Point plastered with all kinds of brochures and flyers. Almost every resident who came to my window asked me for a SIM card or phone so they could call family members they’d left behind. It was hard to look them in the eye and say that I only had information, train tickets, and bottled water to distribute. I didn’t feel very useful, but I managed to answer some questions and help with a variety of small tasks. I also had a great vantage point for watching the little kids race around the hallways and the inner courtyard on mini bikes and scooters. Although no photography is allowed, I snapped a quick shot of Berlin’s newest transit brochure, one in which the German language is noticeably absent. I believe if we all try to help a little, “we will manage.”