Germans Open Their Homes to Refugees

6 minute read


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. 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.

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. 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.”

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 the country will reportedly receive this year. Ordinary Germans have opened their homes to strangers fleeing violence far beyond Europe’s borders. “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.


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 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.


Marlene Allaoui, center, found Farhan, 26, right, and 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.”


The 16-year-old 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 former city hall of the district of Wilmersdorf in Berlin, which has been converted into a refugee shelter. “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.”


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. “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. Maaz, who owned a small shop in Aleppo selling cell phones, and Sikkarit, a former hairdresser, would eventually like to work in Germany, but they are still awaiting their papers. 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.

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