It’s Tuesday evening in Berlin and the Neue Nachbarschaft community center is a hive of activity. Marina Naprushkina, an artist and activist, and the group’s founder, waits by the door to greet arrivals, who are swiftly matched with partners for a German conversation meetup.
Advertised by good old-fashioned word of mouth, Neue Nachbarschaft, which translates to “new neighborhood,” has blossomed into a community of roughly 400 refugees and asylum seekers, along with a host of willing volunteers. With a welcoming ambiance reminiscent of Berlin’s many vintage cafes, the center offers visitors a chance to practice German, learn Arabic, share a beverage or a meal, and, most important, get to know one another.
“When you’re new here, you’ve lost your home. It’s very difficult to begin without contacts,” says Ms. Naprushkina in a recent interview. “The idea behind the initiative is that we can change this very quickly by giving refugees and those who have been in the community longer the opportunity to socialize.”
More than 758,000 asylum seekers registered in Germany between January and October, according to Germany’s Interior Ministry. That’s four times as many as in 2014. Hailing from Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and elsewhere, many have made perilous journeys only to find that life in their new homeland can be fraught with challenges.
In Berlin, many are placed in emergency shelters, a situation that often ends up being more than temporary given the city’s housing shortage. As of Dec. 1, Berlin has received 68,000 asylum seekers in 2015. As space runs short, sports centers, former town halls, and even airport hangars have been converted to house recent arrivals.
In mid-November, Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, called on citizens to help the government welcome refugees. The city should be a “home for all,” he said, while noting that integrating new arrivals will provide “a very special challenge.”
Neue Nachbarschaft offers a welcome respite from crowded shelters and gloomy government waiting rooms, places that offer few opportunities to mingle with the city’s long-standing residents.
“We know from many studies that refugees’ and asylum seekers’ social and economic isolation in destination countries often has more devastating or traumatizing effects than the hardships of the journey,” says Serhat Karakayali, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research at Humboldt University here.
According to Dr. Karakayali, by being connected to people who are more settled, refugees and asylum seekers stand better chances of gaining access to jobs, housing, and other resources. “The state does what it can, but it really lies on people who have lived here longer to help these newcomers with integration,” Karakayali says.
Fighting for the well-being of others is nothing new for Naprushkina, a migrant herself. She comes from Belarus, where she was a prominent activist against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
She immigrated to Germany 10 years ago to continue her studies, but found that her life took a new direction when a shelter for asylum seekers and refugees opened near her home in Berlin two years ago.
“I saw the kids on the playground, talked to their parents, and learned there weren’t any activities for them to take part in,” she says. She began to offer weekly art classes and found a great demand. “There were so many kids, and even adults – everyone wanted to be involved,” she says.
Calling on friends, she formed a small group of volunteers who began to offer a host of activities for children and their parents. She and her small team began translating legal documents and accompanying refugees to meetings with lawyers, appointments at the job center, and doctor visits.
Since June, the initiative has rented a space financed through benefit concerts, flea markets, and the help of private donors.
Not a day goes by without activity at Neue Nachbarschaft. Staffed by a team of refugees and non-refugees, it is open every evening. Arabic classes taught by Syrian refugees are held twice a week, and dinner is provided on Wednesday evenings for anyone who drops by. Donated clothes piled on a bench are free for the taking.
On Saturdays, the “ladies cafe” gives mothers a chance to relax and socialize while volunteers lead their children in art lessons. The youths are learning to make linoleum prints, and many colorful examples adorn the walls of the center. Amid depictions of soccer players and flowers, one states, “nicht aufgeben,” “never give up” – a grim reminder of the obstacles the child may have faced.
“Politically, our voices are so marginal,” says Ruslan Aliev, one of the center’s volunteers. “But there are many other things you can change in the community, which is what we try to do.” In between school and work, he spends his time at the center holding meetings for volunteers, organizing events, and lending a hand wherever needed.
Born in Russia to a Muslim Azerbaijani father and German mother, Mr. Aliev says his youth helped him integrate into German society. But he recalls his father’s difficulties. “And that’s why I was attracted to what we are doing here” about 18 months ago, he says. Of Naprushkina, he adds, “Marina has her heart in the right place.”
In the basement of the center, which has been hastily furnished with tables and chairs, Zadran, a 20-year-old from Afghanistan with a large smile, sits with a German volunteer. Together, they write down basic sentences that will be useful for everyday life in the city.
An auto mechanic, Zadran was asked by Taliban leaders to plant a bomb in an Afghan government vehicle he was repairing. He fled the country instead of doing it. After two months in Germany, he has a grasp of basic German vocabulary, but he says the conversation practice at Neue Nachbarschaft is still very helpful.
Making new friends is also an advantage, he says. He attends a daily language course paid for by the German government, but he has difficulty understanding the teacher, who speaks in Arabic, a language he does not understand.
Although the center is filled with volunteer teachers and students learning German, Naprushkina says “we aren’t pretending to be a school here. The German teachers aren’t teachers; they are neighbors that speak German, and they come here to get to know each other.”
Shunning labels is tied to the initiative’s goal of creating relationships based on equality. “We want people to see each other at eye level,” she says. Integration should be a two-way street, equally beneficial for both sides, she says.
“When a volunteer says, ‘I’m doing this for myself because it’s an important experience for both sides,’ a lot of disappointment is spared,” Naprushkina says.
Berlin has seen an increasing number of Germans interested in working with refugees. But it was Neue Nachbarschaft’s down-to-earth philosophy that set that organization apart for Maria, a 29-year-old German who was attending a conversation meetup for the first time.
“I didn’t want to go somewhere where I would be made to feel like the privileged Western person helping unfortunate people, and all of the negative connotations that come with that,” she says.
Having just moved to the neighborhood, she points out that she, too, is a newcomer. She plans to come back again the next week.
While Naprushkina acknowledges Neue Nachbarschaft has come a long way in a short period of time, she knows there is still much to be done. “There should be an initiative like this in every neighborhood,” she says. “There has to be an interest in getting to know the people who are arriving. If not, you’re going to create a parallel society.”
How to take action
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