Witnessing Willkommenskultur, Germany’s Welcoming Culture

By Laura Vazquez, Senior Immigration Legislative Analyst, NCLR

Just before Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to participate in a Transatlantic Migration Study Tour to Germany, cosponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America and NCLR. Our group of 10 Latino leaders, mostly composed of executives of community-based organizations affiliated with NCLR, visited with government officials, refugee reception centers, human and civil rights activists, and nonprofit organizations in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, and Stuttgart

group photo Dusseldorf
Photo: Laura Vazquez.

Our trip took place at an opportune time for this dialogue—the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, and our own country’s vigorous debate on immigration policy on the eve of a presidential campaign.

Jose Rodriguez
Jose Rodriguez, President & CEO of NCLR Affiliate El Concilio at the Turkey Center in Dusseldorf with a sign about not budging an inch to racism and welcoming refugees. Photo: Laura Vazquez.

What was most impressive was the welcoming response that those we spoke with in Germany have had to the refugee situation. Germany, a nation of about 81 million people, is expected to receive one million refugees this year. By comparison, the United States, which has a population of more than 321 million, has admitted an average of 70,000 refugees annually in recent years, and President Obama’s proposal to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees has been met with a storm of controversy. In Germany we heard about an outpouring of volunteers wanting to help. We learned about a “helping network” of volunteers who wanted to offer German language classes, teach sports, assist in job placements, and more. In Düsseldorf, 5,000 people have registered as volunteers with at least one faith-based organization in the past year. One person described the welcoming culture as “almost euphoric” and we heard repeatedly that this is an opportunity for Germany to invest in its future and to grow its economy.

Refugees Welcome grafitti
Signs in Germany welcoming refugees. Photo: Laura Vazquez.

In Berlin we visited a refugee reception center (one of 120 refugee shelters in Berlin alone), which opened in August and provides shelter for 950 refugees from 22 countries (65 percent of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan). The center is mostly run by the 150–200 volunteers who show up regularly from the pool of 5,500 registered volunteers, including an 83-year-old woman who volunteers twice a week. Through this incredible volunteer network the shelter provides medical care, mental health counseling, legal advice for asylum claims, and German language classes are offered eight hours per day, every day. Recognizing that many of the refugees have made a treacherous journey, the center has a boutique of donated clothes and a hair salon. A group of men who were tailors in Syria and want to put their skills to use are offering to take in and adjust clothes for others in the shelter. On the evening that we visited a group of musicians played in the lobby. Neighbors who were initially suspicious of the center that inhabits the former government building now show up as volunteers and drop off donations.

Refugee Law Clinic announcement

We also visited the FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum in the multicultural neighborhood of Kreuzberg that has been home to many immigrants and is now a hip, gentrifying neighborhood. We were fortunate to meet Wafaa, one of the founders of the museum who started the project in 2001. She was born in Kreuzberg to Palestinian parents from Lebanon and she described growing up seeing her mother afraid to be in public and scared to make any noise. Wafaa founded the museum to “show other people a culture that isn’t seen from the outside” and to “break a wall” by sharing the culture of the Arabic-speaking communities in the neighborhood. The interactive museum invites people to record their stories and memories of a place in the neighborhood. I listened to a story of an immigrant woman who described the fear that she felt when she was driving and saw a police car stop a driver in front of her.

Juan audio tour
Juan Salgado, President and CEO of NCLR Affiliate Instituto del Progreso, Latino listens to a story recorded at the FHXB Museum. Photo: Laura Vazquez.

Wafaa also conducts tours in the neighborhood for German school children and local tourists highlighting businesses owned by Turkish immigrants and the local mosque. She works to strengthen the neighborhood by involving immigrants and the native-born Germans. She sees the future of her neighborhood as one where it’s recognized as wonderful to be multicultural. Not only does the museum share the history of the diverse communities that have lived in neighborhood for decades, but it works to integrate newcomers today by offering German classes for refugees.

Wafaa, co-founder of FHXB Museum leads our tour of the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Photo: Renata Soto.
Wafaa, co-founder of FHXB Museum, leads our tour of the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Photo: Renata Soto.

Over the course of our trip, the numbers that we heard were staggering. One million refugees are expected to arrive in Germany this year. The state of Baden-Württemberg is receiving about 1,000 refugees per day. Nearly 1,000 refugees are seeking shelter in one building in Berlin. Just as striking were the numbers of volunteers responding with offers of help and donations. And while there are debates about how to respond, Germany is leading the charge in pushing back against building a fortress around Europe that keeps people fleeing for their lives from coming in. As one volunteer told us, “this situation presents the biggest chance for integration we’ve ever had. It’s our investment in our country.”

Refugees Welcome Dusseldorf