“Frau Anja.” Hearing this name for a Berlin volunteer who teaches refugees German – and has become a second mother to many of them – brings a smile to Ahmad Madarati’s long, sad face.
Mr. Madarati, who fled war-torn Aleppo, Syria, and Anja Reefschläger met on a freezing November morning last year. A bus had just unloaded a batch of refugees at the entrance to the gym at the University of Applied Sciences, disturbing the tranquillity of this residential district some 30 minutes from the city’s famed Brandenburg Gate. The gym was where the 200 men, most of whom were Syrians, would sleep, and Ms. Reefschläger had responded to an emergency call for help setting it up.
As she built beds with the refugees, she knew she “didn’t want to do something for 10 days and then go away,” she says. So since that cold day Reefschläger, a professional translator and interpreter, has been coming to the camp daily after work to help refugees settle in.
Along the way, she’s taken Madarati, among others, under her wing. The only language he knows is Arabic, but when she discovered his talents, including a passion for woodworking, she encouraged him to capitalize on them. Today, Madarati works practically gratis at a youth center in Berlin, helping young people build furniture. And in a few weeks, he is set to move out of the so-called Treskowallee camp into a house. The house is next to Reefschläger’s, and she is the one who persuaded the owner to rent it out to Syrians.
“Frau Anja, she’s helped me open borders here,” he says through a refugee friend who speaks English. “She didn’t make me feel like a stranger.”
A little more than a year ago, as the refugee crisis grew in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We can do this.” When refugees then flooded into the country, there was a swell of solidarity, at least at first. Reefschläger was among thousands of volunteers who loaded up their cars with food and distributed sleeping bags and diapers to relieve overwhelmed municipalities.
Karlshorst, where Reefschläger lives, is a neighborhood of about 23,000 where the Soviet Army had its Berlin headquarters. When the busloads of refugees arrived near her home, the residents were caught off guard. As she rolled up her sleeves, she discovered what would make her want to return: the smile on Madarati’s face; the words exchanged with Ahmed Altabakh, an information technology engineer; the fear in Adib Alhabid’s eyes; the somehow childish ways of Muhand Ahmed, who, at 18, was her son’s age, “only he had different challenges to tackle,” she says.
Now, almost a year later, she’s become a fixture for many at the Treskowallee camp: a listening ear, comforting shoulder, reprimanding voice, and a surrogate mother for men who’d left their families behind in their war-ravaged towns. She gives them German lessons, takes them to concerts, goes to court with them, and talks with potential landlords.
“Frau Anja, she’s my family,” says soft-spoken Abdulrhman Hamdam. At first, he was told he’d stay at the camp for two weeks, until he received the papers that would permit him to officially live and work in Germany. But the weeks turned into months, and he is still waiting for his paperwork. “Sometimes I tell her I’m sad and disappointed, and she gives me a push on the back to go on,” he says.
Finding a roof for more than 1 million refugees has been immensely challenging for Germany. But the even greater challenge, that of helping refugees rebuild their lives here, is only beginning. It is one that Germany couldn’t master without behind-the-scenes volunteers like Reefschläger, a mother of two grown children.
Public mood shifting
After last year’s swell of enthusiasm toward refugees, the mood has been shifting. With anti-refugee political parties gaining ground and the number of xenophobic incidents rising, many agree the work of people like Reefschläger is more important than ever.
“Anja, she’s a connection between us and society, and she requires nothing in return,” says Mr. Altabakh, the IT engineer, who is also Madarati’s friend and interpreter. The two are having a dinner of Arab meatballs and bulgur at the Treskowallee, one of about 60 gyms the Berlin government requisitioned to house refugees. Laundry hangs from the basketball hoop. A permanent humming noise – a phone ringing here, laughing there – fills the thick air. It emanates from a maze of makeshift tents.
“People like Anja are terribly important: Not everyone is brave to come close to us,” Altabakh says.
Christoph Wiedemann, who manages the Treskowallee camp for a nonprofit group, says that “at the beginning, there was a lot of goodwill [among volunteers] but also a lot of naiveté. Many people just wanted to help and learned it’s not so easy.” But Reefschläger has stayed to accomplish one of the most needed – and difficult – tasks: to get the refugees out of the camp and in contact with others, so they don’t become ghettoized. Her successful track record of persuading landlords to rent places to refugees has been “one of the most impressive results of her work,” Mr. Wiedemann says.
Reefschläger tries to get her friends closer to refugees. She doesn’t always succeed. “People say things like, ‘When you invite one of them, the whole family comes,’ ” she says. “A friend said he didn’t want the whole civil war at his house.” But there are also victories – like when the owner of the house next to hers agreed to “try it out with the Syrians.” This is the house that Madarati is moving into.
“Some people are fed up with refugees, but as soon as they get to know the refugees, it becomes easier,” Reefschläger says. “People show commitment when they know individual people, not when they have a general view of them.”
After months of daily contacts with refugees, “I’ve learned not to judge the men, but to talk to them,” she says.
“I have understood that there are things I can change and things I cannot change,” she adds. “I see the guys as human beings.” Like big children, they sometimes make stupid mistakes, such as showing up late for interviews.
When the Berlin Wall fell
She knows how difficult it is to manage big transitions. She’d been studying Russian language and literature in Moscow when the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago. It wasn’t until Christmastime, when she came back to the East Berlin home she grew up in, that she fathomed the amount of upheaval to come.
“Things had changed from one day to the next, and it was hard to find a new position inside society,” she says.
She embraced her new life by making cultural understanding, and reconciliation, the heart of her work.
She became a teacher of German as a foreign language in part to learn about the culture of other young people. Then she became a simultaneous interpreter specializing in Russian, English, and Spanish. She also began leading intercultural seminars with young people from countries that had been adversaries, such as France and Germany.
People in Europe have largely made peace. But the war in Syria and its repercussions – the refugee crisis – have thrust Germany into a new challenge. “Maybe Germany expected other people to come,” Reefschläger says.
By now, experts agree that Syrian refugees won’t be the cure to Germany’s shortage of skilled workers, nor will they feed the country’s next “economic miracle.” Too many refugees come with low levels of education. But without Reefschläger, Madarati – the passionate woodworker, the artisan with a smile – might have fallen through the cracks. Others would have, too.
For Reefschläger, helping refugees find their place in Germany is not just a question of maintaining social peace. It’s also a question of humanity. “The history of our country doesn’t allow us to select people,” she says.
How to take action
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Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration is dedicated to protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Take action: Donate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender refugee support in Turkey.