Refugees and asylum-seekers sign up to offer warm welcome in Germany
A German program is encouraging refugees and asylum-seekers to volunteer their time and welcome fellow new arrivals.
Hassan, 19, is one of tens of thousands of volunteers in Germany who help young newcomers settle in.
© UNHCR/Gordon Welters
“What shall we play today?” Hassan asks the lively sea of young faces gathered round him. “Football!” comes the unanimous response.
Hassan, 19, is one of tens of thousands of volunteers in Germany who are helping young newcomers settle into their fresh surroundings. He, too, is an asylum-seeker, having fled violence near his home in Ghazni, Afghanistan, last summer and made his way to Germany.
His eight wards for the afternoon, all of them under 10 years old, are asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Every Monday, Hassan and his colleagues from Berlin-based youth project Ankommen pick them up from their shelter and accompany them to a nearby youth club. It is a time for burning off excess energy, playing games and learning new skills.
“I like it in Germany. There are a lot of nice people here."
“I like it in Germany. There are a lot of nice people here,” says Hassan, who currently lodges with a German volunteer in her Berlin apartment. “Waiting on the asylum process can be very difficult, very frustrating. But the work is fun. It's good for me, I'm very glad to be doing something useful.”
Hassan is among the hundreds of asylum-seekers donating their time as part of Germany's Federal Volunteers Service, a nationwide, government-run volunteer program. Known in German as the Bundesfreiwilligendienst, the program is open to adults of all ages who want to spend a year giving back to their communities. Volunteers work 20 hours a week and receive a small remuneration.
Traditionally, volunteers are pensioners, students or people taking time out from their careers.
But last December, Germany's Families Ministry opened the program up to asylum-seekers and refugees in a drive to meet the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of new arrivals.
More than 1,500 newcomers have taken up the offer and are now volunteering with the program.
UNHCR supports and encourages asylum-seekers and refugees to come on board as volunteers so that communities can use their own resources to help one another.
“The kids sometimes have difficulties speaking German so I can translate for them.”
“At the core of UNHCR’s efforts to strengthen refugee integration is the idea of community-based approaches,” says Katharina Lumpp, UNHCR Representative for Germany. “By working to identify community-driven solutions and implementing these together, the refugee community’s own enormous capacities and resilience are recognised and made use of.”
Volunteers, nicknamed ‘Bufdis’ in German, can choose how they want to help out. Some lend a hand as an interpreter, or support newly-arrived children in schools and kindergartens. Others, like Hassan, choose to volunteer as a youth worker.
“I've never worked with children before, but I really like it,” says Hassan, who speaks Hindi and Persian as well as his native Dari. “The kids sometimes have difficulties speaking German so I can translate for them.”
Hassan also helps out by fixing up donated bikes at Ankommen, a project run by the Berlin-based Society for Sports and Youth Welfare (GSJ). For young asylum-seekers like him, volunteering can provide practical work experience, improve language skills and help with future access to the job market.
Once he's finished his placement next year, Hassan hopes to start an apprenticeship as a shoemaker.
In the meantime, he has a full schedule. Once a week, Hassan helps Ankommen arrange football tournaments with teenagers living in the hangars of Berlin's former Tempelhof airport. He then spends every other day visiting children in shelters all over the city, taking them swimming or to play table tennis, basketball, pool or table football.
“It's great work,” he says. “These children come from war, they had a lot of problems in their own countries. Of course they need help. We let them have fun. That's what we do, we let them be kids.”