Voluntary Helpers: Moments of Pure joy at Work with Refugees —By Andrea Marshal on Goethe de

By the end of 2015 Germany will have taken in almost a million refugees. Most of the people helping in the reception centres are working there on an unpaid, voluntary basis. How does it work when two different cultures come together? We went to Berlin to find out.

Hend from Syria and the German helper Heike have become friends

Hend from Syria and the German helper Heike have become friends. | © Andrea Marshall

The play room

There is a playroom for the little ones. Anybody who would like to work on a voluntary basis in the playroom requires a criminal record clearance certificate from the police.

The canteen

The canteen
The canteen on the top floor is open from seven a.m. until ten p.m. The food supplier works with Turkish and Arab chefs. They deliver dishes that are exclusively “halal” – which means they are allowed in Muslim food culture.

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Loud oriental music blares out of the former town hall in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf. In December 2015 there are about 1,000 refugees living in the former offices of the town hall, which the administration had to give up for reasons of cost. By the end of 2015 Germany will have taken in almost a million refugees from various war zones and trouble spots.
On the third floor there is a room reserved for women where female refugees and voluntary helpers can enjoy some privacy. The mood this afternoon, however, is particularly elated.

Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries have just finished their German course. While the men are out and about on official business, applying for residence permits or asylum in Germany at the various offices, the women are in high spirits dancing on the carpet, swaying their hips in a kind of belly dance. One woman suddenly trills a very high, shrill tone – an expression of great joy.

Happy because they survived

“They are happy that they are still alive. That is not something to be taken lightly,” says Heike, one of the German helpers, who regularly spends time at the accommodation centre. One of the women told her about how she had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in a rubber dinghy and how dangerous it was. Another woman, Hend from Syria, showed her photos on her mobile phone of her modern house in Damascus that she had to leave behind in the bombed out ruins of the city.

Heike and Hend have in the meantime become the best of friends. The Syrian woman had studied and taught English in Damascus. The German woman, a free-lance photographer, also speaks good English. Between the other refugees and voluntary helpers, on the other hand, there are huge language barriers. Sometimes some women who can speak Arabic or Farsi help out as interpreters, but they, too, have difficulties if they have to interpret for people who have been traumatised.

200 helpers a day

It is these voluntary, unpaid helpers who set up the Women’s Room and who run it – the same goes for the playroom for the almost 300 children, the clothing store, the medicine rooms and the donations acceptance point. Everybody calls each other by their first name and they use the informal “du” form for the word for you, which is not always so common in Germany. Every day there are about 200 of these volunteers working in the building on a shift basis, among them there are doctors, psychologists, teachers and interpreters, says centre director, Thomas de Vachroi. There are only a few permanent employees. The voluntary helpers organise themselves via the Internet, their Facebook group has more than 5,000 members.The voluntary helpers are “paid” in a very special currency – it is the feeling of pure joy they get, working together for a good cause, many of them say. Sociologists call this feeling a “Helper’s High”. “It’s so moving,” says Patricia – the tears welling up in the nurse’s eyes. Back in 2010 she had travelled round Syria, before the civil war of course, and she was met with tremendous hospitality. Now she wants to give some of that back.

Building cultural bridges

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