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Immigration: Report From Germany’s Front Lines

Helping refugees in practical ways, while trying to be more than a drop in the bucket.

September 14, 2015

Helping refugees in practical ways, while trying to be more than a drop in the bucket.

In December of 2014, the residents of our small town in the vicinity of Frankfurt am Main in Germany learned that 120 asylum seekers had been housed in a hotel nearby. All of a sudden, the migration issue was no longer an abstract matter. The question was how to respond?

For many in our town and for myself, this was a chance to stand by the refugees and help them integrate into their new home.

At first, the 120 people from various countries (mostly from Syria, Eritrea, Iran, Afghanistan and the Balkans) were left totally to their own devices. That, of course, led to tensions and conflicts.

The Social Welfare Organization of the Protestant Church provided a single social worker/teacher as a resource person to deal with all the needs of the migrants. That was what you call a beginning, but it was hardly adequate.

The critical factor in getting the integration going was the engagement of many volunteers that – over the span of five months – set up five work groups to assist the migrants in their everyday lives and to provide a basis for further skills.

Under the leadership of the Integration Office of the town of Mörfelden-Walldorf, volunteers set up:

  • An Events Workgroup to do a benefit concert and a summer festival.
  • A Daily Life Workgroup to run two cafes and to provide companions for visits to doctors and government offices and to apply for places to live.
  • A Donations Workgroup to coordinate donations of clothes, furniture for permanent apartments and for the temporary housing for asylum seekers.
  • A Movement Workgroup to provide access to sports and to set up a workshop to learn how to repair bicycles.
  • A Language Workgroup to provide three levels of language learning.

Language learning is the key

The formation of the language workgroup – to which I belong — was very important. It usually takes a rather long time for asylum seekers to be recognized in their status in Germany – a hurdle they must pass before refugees are eligible to enroll in state-sponsored and funded language courses.

You might ask why we got engaged in these tasks? One key reason is that we are all very much aware of Germany’s past mistakes in dealing with migration issues, especially with Turkish “guest workers” in the last third of the 20th century.

The false assumption made at the time was that most of these guest workers would go back to Turkey, so it really wasn’t necessary to help them integrate into German society. Indeed, other groups of guest workers – for example, those who had come from Spain – did indeed return home after making money in Germany to get a real leg up for their lives back home.

Language matters

Of course, completion of such a language course is ultimately required for refugees – whether to get a job, an apprenticeship or engage in other educational activities.

But it is also well known that language in general is the key to integration. What was clear to us was that, administrative procedures, hurdles and delays notwithstanding, there was really no time to be wasted.

What is the point of being condemned to doing nothing for months at a time, while the legal status is being investigated? That’s the time span where it is especially critical for volunteers to step up.

It takes a village — and much more

These refugees tend to be traumatized and they certainly lack a daily structure in their lives. Having to cope with a personal sense of being forced to be very unproductive, in addition to dealing with the legal limbo, certainly is no winning formula.

Our experience with refugees on the front lines of our own town has proven that they tend to be highly motivated and want to learn the German language as quickly as possible. Sheer self-interest and even a rudimentary sense of self-preservation dictate that.

That motivation among our students – the average age is 27 and they are hungry for knowledge and eager to work – is the reason that my colleagues and I, for all the hard work, actually experience great joy in teaching them and find this work a great enrichment to our lives.

Syrians in particular have proven to be productive students. They tend to have a high educational background – and many speak English. Such language skills are a good basis from which to expand into German. Of course, there are also illiterate people among the refugees, who find learning the language particularly difficult.

As regards the world of policymakers in the government, the way forward also seems to be pretty self-evident. Based on my experience of dealing with refugees who have been in the country for nine months and have had seven months of volunteer-guided language instruction, it is critical that the refugees be allowed to move ahead with their integration.

Getting a job – most essential

The next steps are clear: They need to get jobs, be able to bring in family members that were left behind and look for permanent housing.

To be sure, the resources of local communities, cities, states and the federal government are going to be stretched thin by the demand.

Given that tens of thousands of people are on their way, trying to escape their hopeless existences – people who have nothing more to lose “except their lives” and therefore don’t allow anything to stop them – we in Germany and Europe stand before one of the greatest challenges of our time.

In the hope that the leaders of our nations finally begin to address the root causes of the movement of refugees, my colleagues and I will continue to teach the refugees who come to us, trying to be more than just a drop in the bucket.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Richter is the sister-in-law of Stephan Richter, publisher of The Globalist.


We hope nations will address root causes of the movement of refugees. Meanwhile, we will teach them.

How can refugees learn the German language when condemned to doing nothing for months at a time?

We are mindful of Germany’s past mistakes with Turkish “guest workers” in the mid-20th century.

The Syrians tend to have a very high educational background – very many speak English.

With thousands on their way, Germany and Europe face one of the greatest challenges of our time.