It was still dark outside and the world seemed to be asleep, yet I was getting out of bed, trying not to fall asleep again. I knew that my train would be leaving in about an hour and I was way too excited for the day ahead to fall asleep again after all.
The day before, after receiving an urgent call for help, I decided to go to Berlin to volunteer in a makeshift refugee shelter in Berlin Lichtenberg, one of Berlin’s neighborhoods. Sitting in the train for almost two hours, I arrived in Berlin – a few subway stops later, I reached my final destination.
The building complex had been set up as a refugee shelter only 4 weeks before, in an urgent need to find a haven for the many newcomers. You can find similar establishments all over Berlin nowadays. If you had no idea that the buildings function as a refugee shelter, you would not be able to tell the difference to a conventional residential building. The refugee shelter I went to is a huge abandoned complex. It is made up of two apartment blocks, each with 13 floors and over 500 rooms. However, the second is yet to be prepared to accommodate refugees, as sanitation still has to be set up and the rooms need to be fitted with the adequate necessities. About 1000 people already live in the first apartment block, overseen by a team of 20-25 people made up of members of the German Red Cross and voluntary workers. Some of the coordinators are working in office/administration, some are responsible for security, others as interpreters, while many organize donations, the distribution of goods and supervise the whole situation. The people accommodated in this shelter come from a wide range of different countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq and Jordan to Eritrea, yet the majority of the newcomers are Syrian families with several young children.
When I entered the refugee shelter for the first time, my attention was drawn to a group of cheerfully smiling youngsters running around the courtyard. Excited, but also uncertain, I walked across the yard, went up the stairs and entered the building. After closing the door behind me, I felt like I found myself in a different world. I was surrounded by many people: women carrying their children, young and old men trying to communicate with the office workers, old women going along the hallway and children running around. After taking a second to orient myself, I went straight towards the room, functioning as the office. I knocked, waited for a second and then entered. Inside, I was warmly welcomed by 4 people. After filling out various forms regarding health, data privacy and some other papers, I was ready to get involved.
At first I was assigned to help with organizing the distribution, mainly clothes, diapers and baby milk. Afterwards, I spent most of my time taking care of the children and trying to keep them calm. Being accommodated in such a makeshift shelter is definitely not easy for anyone, yet it is especially difficult for the children. Forced to leave their home countries and finding themselves in a completely strange and unknown environment, it is hard for them to feel safe or understood. Even though the neighbours are donating lots of toys and goods, there is never enough for every single child. I was talking to a 13 year old Syrian girl, who learned English at her school back in Syria for quite some time at that day. She was telling me that her little brother, who was maybe 1 or 2 years old and followed her wherever she went, desperately wanted to have a bike, as he saw some other children driving around on their bikes. But after talking to some of the members of the German Red Cross, I had to tell her that they did not have any bikes left to borrow. It is quite obvious that the children are often unable to play, as their parents and older siblings are desperately trying to put their new life into order.
Given the diverse backgrounds of the refugees and the fact that many of the newcomers barely speak any German or English, it is hard to communicate without being interrupted. Languages spoken are especially Arabic (in various dialects) and Farsi. Additionally, you will also find some people speaking several Asian languages. Because of this linguistic diversity, it is hard for the volunteers and the members of the coordinator’s team to ensure that everything works properly. I myself, speaking German as my native language, English and a bit of Arabic, also found myself struggling to understand the people and the problems they were facing, and also found it difficult to figure out how I can help them. I experienced a fair share of misunderstandings and problematic situations, in which I found myself trying to communicate in a mix of German, English and Arabic. But being restricted in expressing yourself through words and the use of a particular language, you will gradually discover other ways to connect with people, may it be through gestures or even just a simple smile.
Smiling is a key element when it comes to the children. One of the numerous children I met that day in the refugee shelter is Tariq*, a 3 or 4 year old adorable boy from Syria. I originally reached the 4th floor to check if someone was supervising the children’s playing room and to see if they needed any help. But when I opened the heavy glass door, leading to the long hallway of the 4th floor, instead of finding the playing room, I found a little boy, sitting alone on the floor leaning against the wall, no one, except for me and the toddler. After a second of thinking what to do, I decided to sit down next to him to keep him company. He looked at me for a second, but was unable to stop crying. Although we did not share the same language, and I did not know why he was crying, I tried to alleviate his sadness by stroking his arm to prove he was not alone. After having been sat like this for a while, a door opened and his mum entered the hallway. When she discovered us sitting on the floor, her face lit up with a cheerful smile. She walked towards us, said something in Arabic and through gestures and the same cheerful smile as before, she invited me to come into their room. The room was not very spacious, comprising of only four beds and a little locker to store their belongings into. In the room there were also Tariq’s father and his sister, Reem* who were 10 or 11 years old maybe. They welcomed me with a smile and some words in Arabic, kindly offering me to sit down. Tariq, still crying, sat down next to me. As he did not seem to calm down, I pondered myself on how to solve this unfortunate situation. After a few seconds, I got the idea to play some Arabic songs I had on my phone, as music always soothed me when I was little. When the music started playing, Tariq – obviously surprised to hear Arabic words – listened carefully to the song, soon stopped crying and seemed to be pacified.
Afterwards, he went over to his father and even if I could only understand a few words of what the father was saying, I figured out that he asked Tariq to thank me for taking care of him. But Tariq was really shy and did not have the courage to do it. Yet, in a blink of an eye, his sister came over, gave me a hug and a kiss on my cheek and said “Dankeschön!”, which is thank you in German, with a big smile on her face. It was in that moment that I felt overwhelmed by the pure happiness and kindness she showed, making me speechless. This speechlessness still lingers in my memory and I will probably never be able to put the feelings I had in this moment into words, as some things simply cannot be expressed.
The day ended in the late afternoon. After checking if I really could not help anymore, I got my composition together, said goodbye to the members of the Red Cross and some of the Syrian people I spent my day with, exchanged a few last smiles and after looking at everything again, closed the door behind me. With my heart in a bit of pain, I left the building and went on my way back home.
I think a part of me forever stayed in this refugee shelter – with Tariq and his family, the little children whose precious smiles brightened up my world, with every single refugee who lived in this makeshift shelter in the past, who still lives in the present or who will do for in the future.
However, what I can be certain of is that I will come back one day. Even if it was just for a day, what I saw and experienced encouraged me even more to never stop standing up for the rights of refugees. These people are at their most vulnerable and it is just an act of mere kindheartedness to lend them a helping hand in times when it is urgent. The smiles of the children, the gratitude of the refugees, but also their worried faces, on which uncertainty, sorrow, and grief have left their scars – changed my view on our society and our ways to treat the wounds of others. It is ridiculous, how many people in the so-called “Western world” complain about their lives, wallowing themselves in fatalism, never realizing that they have not experienced true difficulty in their lives. With a roof over our heads, a place to sleep in and something to eat every day, we are far better off than we think.
Keeping in mind how privileged we are, it becomes clear that we are responsible to aid those who were not lucky enough to be as privileged as we are. Here is my final reflection: Try to put yourself in the shoes of these people, keep your mind and heart open and remember: “No person has ever become poorer by giving”. Never hesitate to donate, may it be money, support, compassion, a hug or just a simple smile, as I often did it that day.
Due to data protection reasons and with respect to the privacy of the refugees in the shelter, I was not allowed to take any pictures or videos.
*I decided to change the names of the two children from Syria aforementioned, as I believe it is their right to remain anonymous.