Meet the German Families That Opened Their Homes to Refugees

4 minute read

Of course the Germans have a word for it: Willkommenskultur. It translates to “welcome culture,” and though it was coined a few years ago by politicians who wanted to encourage skilled migrants to move to Germany, it’s come to represent German generosity in the face of the refugee wave. While other European governments tightened border controls, Germany—having recorded 200,000 migrant arrivals in all of 2014—opened its doors to more than 270,000 asylum seekers in September alone, according to the interior minister of the southern state of Bavaria. At train stations, well-wishers greeted refugees with applause. The refugees returned the cheers—after sinking boats and barbed-wire fences, they had finally found their refuge.

Germany’s response hasn’t been perfect—waiting times for registering asylum seekers have been long, forcing some to sleep on the streets, still dreaming of a better life. And conservative parts of the country—especially in the east—have been less welcoming, with protests against migrants. But much of the country has followed the example of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said on Sept. 15: “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country.”

In September, Danish photographer Joakim Eskildsen and I spent time in Berlin with many Syrians and Afghans who had fled their homes. “The people we met were just like you and me, but their homes had been destroyed or their lives had been made impossible,” says Eskildsen, who wanted to put a face to a crisis that has tended to concentrate on depicting refugees during moments of despair on their journeys across Europe.

How those journeys end in the promised land of Germany seems to depend a lot on luck – how quickly their asylum applications is processed, if they are separated from their families, and whether they manage to find a new network of friends in Germany.

The government has often seemed overwhelmed by the influx – but charities and volunteers have stepped up, proud to be part of a grassroots movement keeping the welcome machine running for the estimated 1 million asylum seekers that Germany will receive this year. Shelters are so full of clothes and toy donations that they have had to turn people away.

“What is remarkable is that it is ordinary people who act independently and organize themselves to help, teach and offer assistance to the newcomers,” says Eskildsen. There are cooking classes, sports matches and ‘buddy projects’ all set up to help newcomers feel part of German society more quickly. And across the county, ordinary Germans have opened their homes to strangers fleeing violence far beyond Europe’s borders.

“It has widened our horizons so much,” says Judith Roëll, who has been hosting Syrian refugee Abdel Rhman Alali in her family home in the suburbs of Berlin since March. “We’ve learned so much about Syria, about another culture. And it’s great for Germans to see Abdel taking our children swimming or on bike rides.” Like many others hosting refugees, Roëll believes the more people that interact with the newcomers, the more tolerant German society at large becomes.

Not all newcomers are so lucky and Eskildsen was keen to capture a variety of living situations – refugees in temporary shelters, permanent camps, their own apartments and in the homes of German families. But wherever we went, we were amazed by the hospitality of both travelers and hosts, who always offered us food, tea and coffee. One young man, Muhammad Haj Ali, had even baked us traditional Syrian pastries.

Above all, people were generous with their time – something particularly valuable because Eskildsen was shooting on film, as he has done for nearly thirty years. That medium makes it all the more important to spend time with subjects to capture them at their most relaxed, natural moments: learning German; around the dinner table; outside in the September sunshine.

“It may seem like this crisis is ripping the continent apart,” says Tim Florian Horn, a Berliner who took in an Afghan family this summer. “But giving shelter to people who need help—that’s the true meaning of a united Europe.” A refugee crisis that has brought out ugliness in other parts of Europe is so far revealing the best of Germany.

Joakim Eskildsen is a Danish art photographer.

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.

Naina Bajekal is a reporter for TIME based in London. Follow her on Twitter @naina_bajekal.

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Abdel Rhman Alali, back left, 29, was a pediatrician in Hama, Syria. He fled Assad's forces in May 2014 and endured a seven-month journey that included a stay in a St. Petersburg prison and four months in Ukraine, before he finally arrived in Berlin last December. In March, Judith Roëll, back center, a 38-year-old physiotherapist met Alali through a friend volunteering in the shelter he was living in. She invited him to stay in their family's spare room. Alali now speaks near-fluent German and already has two job offers from nearby hospitals. "I think of them as my German family," says Alali.Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Alaa Maaz, 23, left, with his cousin, Ibrahim Maaz, 35, in the Wilmersdorf refugee shelter in Berlin. Both men are from Aleppo, Syria and have yet to receive their asylum papers. “In Syria before the war, I was very happy. Nothing was missing from my life," says Ibrahim. "Now everything is gone, my brother is gone. My mother is in a small village near the border called Bab al-Hawa, which isn’t that safe. She can’t walk so she can’t go to Turkey. All I want to know is how I can bring my wife and family here from Turkey. Nobody tells me about the procedures.” “Of course I want to stay here and build my life," Alaa says. "There is no hope to go back home."joakim eskildsen
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Hasan Maaz, 32, with his wife Nahed Sikkarit, 24, and their two children, Muhammad, 7, and Mayyar Alhelwa, 4, in the Wilmersdorf refugee shelter in Berlin, where they have been living for over a month. The couple decided to leave and join friends in Germany the day after a rocket exploded just 50 yards from their home in Aleppo, Syria. “When we saw bits of bodies in the street, we couldn’t believe that this might happen to our children,” says Maaz. “Our journey was something like death,” says Sikkarit. “We were hugging the children wondering how we would get here.” The family was fingerprinted in Hungary but hopes to be able to stay in Germany now that Berlin is no longer sending refugees back to their country of first registration.Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Hasan Maaz, 32, owned a small shop in Aleppo selling cell phones, with his wife Nahed Sikkarit, 24, a former hairdresser. They would eventually like to work in Germany—but they are still awaiting their papers, living in the Wilmersdorf refugee shelter in Berlin. In the meantime, they are just grateful to have found sanctuary. “We thank Allah that we are finished with the rockets and bombs and are safe,” says Maaz. Their daughter Mayyar Alhelwa has something to smile about too: after losing her first doll on the boat to Greece, she now has a new one.Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Children play in the courtyard of the former city hall in the district of Wilmersdorf, Berlin. Volunteers helped convert it into a reception center for refugees in mid-August.Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Marya Sharifi’s husband was killed by the Taliban three years ago. When her son Rohen, 16, began to receive threats, Marya decided to sell their house in Mazar-i-Sharif and flee. “We were sick with fear,” says Marya. “I just wanted my children to go to school in peace.” When they arrived in Berlin on Aug. 28, the registration center was shut for the weekend. That night, Kathi Tennstedt-Horn, a teacher, and her husband Tim Florian Horn, director of the Berlin planetarium, heard on the news that refugees were camping on the street. Though the couple has a newborn and two small children, Kathi drove to the center and returned with all seven members of the Sharifi family. They stayed until they found a shelter five days later. “They had been through so much but were still so united as a family,” says Tim.Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Bashar al-Rifai, second-from-right, 30, left the Syrian city of Homs and arrived in Berlin in August. Unable to find a hostel that would accept the vouchers issued to him by the state, al-Rifai was lucky enough to meet Fabian Riek, center, who asked his two children to share a room again and invited al-Rifai to stay in their Berlin flat. "I would never have thought of leaving Syria before the war. But somehow, I lost everything," says al-Rifai. "Here, the people are so kind and so helpful. When they hear that you are Syrian, that you are a refugee, you feel it from their heart. I never expected someone like Fabian could do so much for me. Already, I am feeling German. I am feeling at home."Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Abdelkader Jbili, 16, arrived in Berlin in mid-August after three months of traveling. “I didn’t want my family to face that dangerous journey,” he says of his decision to leave without his parents and younger siblings. Instead he traveled with his uncle. Jbili is now staying in the Wilmersdorf refugee shelter in Berlin. “I just called my father, and I found out that today his shop was bombed. They are not safe in Aleppo,” he says. “But three days ago, I got my papers to stay. Because I am a minor, I can now apply to bring my family here. I hope we can all stay in Germany, because the people here are good.”Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Muhammad Haj Ali, 26, from Aleppo, Syria, in a more permanent refugee shelter in Buch, a north-east suburb of Berlin. He and his brothers used to run three restaurants in Aleppo and Homs before the war; he worked in order to fund his degree in business administration.Facing the prospect of conscription into Assad's army, he fled the country in February 2012, spending time in Libya, Egypt and Turkey before arriving in Germany in November 2014. Because he was fingerprinted in Hungary, his asylum application was rejected. Now that Germany has changed its laws, it's unclear whether he will be allowed to stay – despite having been in Germany for nearly a year. “It's just darkness. I don't know what the future is for me. There are people like me who come here and are totally lost,” he says. “After a while, you stop missing anyone or anything. You’re breathing, the days continue, but that’s it. I don’t have hope anymore. The truth is, when you have hope, you hurt.”Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Britta Leben, left, a 27-year-old German master’s student, helps Zakaria Edelbi, 30, center, with his German-language work. Edelbi came to Berlin in August 2014, leaving behind his wife and three children in Aleppo, Syria. He was reunited with them in March 2015 after months of trying to secure visas. Leben first met Edelbi in May thanks to Beginn Nebenan Berlin, an organization that connects locals with refugees. “I just wanted to get to know the people we’re sharing this city with,” she says. “And Zakaria’s family is so open-minded and fun to be around.” In late August, the Edelbis moved out of a shelter and into their own flat in Spandau, West Berlin. The children now attend school nearby and already speak some German. Edelbi says he fears for Syria’s future—but for the first time, he is no longer afraid for his children. Joakim Eskildsen for TIME
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Marlene Allaoui, center, found Abdullah Farhan, 26, right, and Mahmoud Abu Horan, 27, sleeping outside in Berlin, unable to find hostels that would accept state-issued vouchers. Farhan, a former schoolteacher, had fled ISIS; Abu Horan needed to escape conscription into the Assad army. “Can it be that people arrive here just to face another kind of hell?” says Allaoui, who has welcomed nine other refugees into her apartment in north Berlin since early August. “I had to do something.”Joakim Eskildsen for TIME

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