Meike Röttjer & Tatiana Kondratenko
The Boat that is Never Full
Whether German volunteers who take care of refugees are officially registered or not, both sides claim the same — the social work itself needs more transparency and less bureaucracy
'Settle in and integrate', helpful volunteers tell asylum seekers, as they provide them with food, clothes, apartments, German lessons and new acquaintances
Pop music is filling the café in Hamburg's northeast with an ever-repeating rhythm while Katja explains her many links to the current refugee situation. The young woman is sitting at the front corner of the antique sofa while she talks about her passion for social work, leaning towards the table that holds her coffee. She doesn't have much time— one of her colleagues called in sick and she has to cover the night shift at an assisted living community for unaccompanied minor refugees. It is her part time job to make a living while studying social work at Hamburg's University of Applied Sciences (HAW). But Katja is actually always quite busy. Asked how she organizes her time, she starts to laugh. "That's a good question! I don't know."

During the day, she currently works as an intern for "fördern und wohnen," the city owned company that is running most refugee camps in Hamburg. And in between she will meet her mentee from Ghana. She is part of a voluntary mentoring project, too.
"The project is a cooperation of "HAW Hamburg" and "Basis & Woge" and it is to support refugees who just started their apprenticeship. If a refugee gets a working permit and needs help with his or her language courses, legal papers or other appointments they can be matched with a voluntary German mentor who is willing to help. Even though support for their start into working life in Germany is the main goal of the project, and reports of the weekly meetings have to be handed over, discussing private matters or anything off topic is no problem. "Whatever is important for him, is what we'll do then." Strictly sticking to job and school topics while ignoring everything else where he might need support, "that's not how you can help. You have to see the whole situation and just help wherever he needs the help." Right now there are six refugees within the program.

Katja, volunteer
About 450,000 migrants have arrived in Germany this year. The country is expecting at least 800,000 in 2015 – by far the most in the 28-nation EU, according to Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
The central train station, Hamburg
A group of approximately 30 people, mainly women with small children, carrying bags and backpacks, are slowly walking behind a young guy in an orange vest. "Refugee helper," says a sign on the vest in English and Arabic languages. The guy walking in front, turns back from time to time to check if all of the refugees are following him. A couple more people in vests are joining the group with water bottles. As the train to Stockholm arrives at the 8th platform, one after another refugees from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the current situation force them to escape from the motherland, are hiding in shadows behind the closing automatic doors.
Bahaa has started coming to the train station, helping arriving refugees with couple of his friends. Now they are at least 50 people
The next train will arrive in just 30 minutes but Bahaa, a 27-year-old volunteer and member of a private initiative does not have time to take a break. Every day, he says, around 500-1000 refugees arrive at the station. Some will stay, some will get on another train to depart for a different city or even a different country and luckily, these days all of them are accompanied by Bahaa or his fellow volunteers to make sure they won't get lost in this busy station.

Bahaa came from Syria and has been living in Hamburg for six months now. He has started taking German courses and hopes to get a master's degree in international relations here in Germany. In Syria he used to work for the UN and the Red Cross as a volunteer. His family (one brother and three sisters) is still in Syria and they all have decided to stay.

As the refugee crisis has started to intensify, Bahaa and nine friends of his agreed to come to the train station every day to help refugees with some basic things, like water, some food and train tickets as most of the refugees speak neither German nor English.

"We are not like an organization, we just have a group on Facebook. So everyone interested is free to come to the train station and help," says Bahaa, adding, "now we are around 50 people. New volunteers appear almost every day."
At night, when there are few to no trains, volunteers help the refugees find a place to stay, forwarding them to the mosque nearby or to the theatre "Schauspielhaus," where they can sleep.

"There is a huge support from the Hamburgers. They come and leave food, water as well as donate money," says Bahaa.

Very often, he explains, the conductors at the trains let the whole group of refugees ride for free after volunteers explain that those people have nothing to pay with.

One of the German volunteers is in charge of making new lists of train schedules every day to split all available people into groups on time. Besides that, volunteers also collaborate with train stations such as Munich, Berlin and Düsseldorf from where they collect relevant information on the number of refugees that left the cities and are on their way to Hamburg.

The next one is coming in a couple of minutes. Two young men take their yellow jackets, quickly grab water bottles and turn to platform 12. This time it is a train from Munich.
"I've seen it with my daughter, who just said 'I want to help.' She called "fördern & wohnen" and the next day she was there and helped. So it's in fact very uncomplicated. You don't need a certificate of good conduct by the police and wait for three weeks for an application or something. You just go there the next day. And she gave away clothes and looked after children."
Markus Schreiber,
member of Hamburg Parliament (SPD)
How many volunteers are there in Hamburg with all of the private initiatives and official institutions? "Nobody knows," Katja says, "because there is no main structure." But as it seems, Hamburg cannot complain about a lack of willing citizens.

While working in one of the camps she gets an impression of the readiness of Hamburg's inhabitants. "The people who work there are just so busy just answering all those requests 'Hey, I wanna volunteer, I wanna help.'"

But it can be too much to handle efficiently at times.

"So that's what we do most of the times, we just say 'Ok, please look at our website. There is a form that you can fill in, cause we cannot coordinate everything.' Katja finds it sad because a lot of people even come to their office and say 'Hey, we were sent here from the Messehallen, they said that you need a lot of volunteers and we want to help,' but people from the office where Katja works do not have the capacity to deal with that many volunteers.

"There are so many people that want to help now and it's great! Because the situation half a year ago was completely different." But answering phones and talking to potential volunteers while keeping the camp running within the strict lines of German bureaucracy and an unclear political agenda won't make it easier for the people at the camps. No matter if volunteer, refugee or employee.

What they really need is more people working for the companies. Social workers for example, prepared for all the different aspects of working with the refugees and helping the volunteers to coordinate while taking some responsibilities from their shoulders.
"In the past it took probably around half a year. But we can't afford that anymore."
Markus Schreiber, (SPD) on employing new staff
A "Refugees welcome" sticker at the train station in Hamburg
"At my assisted living community for unaccompanied minor refugees one of my colleagues got pregnant and now we are looking for somebody and it has been months now without having somebody stepping in," says Katja. This is a situation well known for companies and initiatives relying on social workers at the moment. "And even at my internship at "fördern & wohnen" I can see that with all the people working there, they don't only take people who studied social work."

"They take a lot of people who have any kind of degree that somehow fits into this," but as Katja points out, "I know they are doing a lot for the people. Like organizing appointments with doctors or looking for lawyers and always trying to support the people." Tasks that many volunteers are helping with as well because they are needed badly. Being a volunteer is more than helping with the occasional arts and crafts. They make sure that no refugee will have to sleep at the main train station at night, explain the importance of official papers and forms once, twice or twenty times if necessary and will be the open ear for all those big and small problems or success stories.
"I think for the people at the main train station, for them it's easier to organize things because they don't have to make sure that 'this contract has to be signed' and 'this insurance thing covered.'" Katja adds that "as a volunteer I really like that mentoring thing that I do with 'Basis & Woge' because I have direct contact with my mentee and he is telling me what he really needs and I can react to that and I am free of how I do it." Does she think that politicians know what is really needed? No. She saw a politician visiting her camp when a very big newspaper was there as well. She got the impression that he just wanted to have some nice pictures of himself taking really good care of things. "I don't think that they really know what's going on." So what to do about it?
Katja thinks "there should be more information from down to top, you know. The people who actually work with the refugees, they should be heard by the people who make the laws and who give the structure. I think they are trying to listen to it, but I am not sure whether the information is really arriving up there," meaning the politicians having the power to change things on a larger scale while smiling into cameras and adding that "they really need to see that, you know, these are the problems and that's where we'll have to help."

A group of refugees listening to the volunteer who explains where to get warm food
Would it be possible without the volunteers?
"No!"

Markus Schreiber, (SPD)


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