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Their Stories

Max and Carolin offered a spare room to Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee.

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

The Germans Welcoming Refugees Into Their Homes

Spare rooms are no longer vacant and home offices have become bedrooms. Meet the Germans opening their doors to refugees arriving in Europe.

Their Stories
  • Written by
    Josie Le Blond
  • Photos by
    Ivor Prickett
  • Written by
    Alex Court
24 December 2015 24 December 2015
Germany

Many ordinary Germans are opening their doors to asylum-seekers in a year which has seen large numbers entering their country.

Wael and Ibrahim sleep in their hosts’ home offices, while Homam and Samira are sharing an artist’s home studio. Mohamad has his own room, and Mecid’s large family has been given an entire house to call their own.

For hundreds of thousands of new arrivals to Germany, home is currently a mass shelter – a temporary solution while they wait for their application results to come through. But a lucky few are kick-starting the integration effort, living side-by-side with Germans in their homes.

Meet a few of the many German hosts helping them land on their feet.

Andrea and Alex

Samira, 45, and Homam, 17, from Syria are living with Alex, 39, Andrea, 39, and their three children in their Berlin flat. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Samira, 45, and Homam, 17, from Syria are living with Alex, 39, Andrea, 39, and their three children in their Berlin flat.

Speaking just a few words of English, Samira and her teenage son Homam rely on a lot of hand waving to communicate with their German host family.

But through the universal language of eye contact and smiles, the two Syrians have forged deep friendships with German hosts Andrea and Alex, who took them into their Berlin apartment.

“It was a huge surprise that these people would invite us to stay in their home,” says Samira, 45, speaking through a translator. “But there was a moment when we arrived and Andrea picked up my bag and took it inside for me. I could feel her humanity. I felt she was a kind person.”

“I saw in her eyes she was someone good.”

“I had that moment too,” agrees Andrea, 39, an artist who decided to give over her home studio to refugees when she heard many were in need of emergency accommodation. “I saw in her eyes she was someone good. I generally trust people when I meet them, or I don’t. It’s a matter of the heart.”

Samira and Homam were living in a village north of the Syrian capital, Damascus, when fighting forced them to flee the country. Hopefully, mother and son will soon be reunited with Samira’s husband, who arrived in Germany earlier this year and currently lives in an all-male shelter.

“We said, ‘Stay here for a month until we can bring the family back together,’ ” says Alex, 39, a musician. “We want them to have a good start. We’re just showing them how life is here – in an everyday, normal way.”

 

Sarah and Stevi

Sarah and Stevi welcomed a family of Afghan asylum-seekers into their home in a village near Dresden. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Sarah and Stevi welcomed a family of Afghan asylum-seekers into their home in a village near Dresden.

Having survived a nightmare journey from Afghanistan to Germany, Mecid and his family were overjoyed when they were brought to a house in a village near Dresden and told they could live in it.

Mecid had fled his home in southern Afghanistan after bandits brutally murdered his younger brother and neighbours. The father of seven says he could no longer live in constant fear.

“They killed my brother for nothing at all. After that it was impossible to carry on,” says Mecid, 37, speaking through a translator. “I worried every minute that next time they’d come for my daughters.”

“The day we arrived at this house, we never dreamt we’d come here to live,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that my daughters could just go outside and play and be safe. It’s hard to get used to after everything that’s happened.”

“I couldn’t believe that my daughters could just go outside and play and be safe.”

Mecid’s new home belongs to a German couple, Sarah, 39, and Stevi, 43, who are musicians and co-founders of an artist community in the eastern German village of Röhrsdorf. This summer, as hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers crossed into Germany, the couple were busy taking out a mortgage on a nearby former guest house with the aim of hosting a family.

“We wanted to use it for refugees because so many were arriving who needed homes,” says Sarah. “It was obvious we had to do something practical. If we didn’t help them, where were they supposed to go?”

One month on, Mecid’s two eldest daughters are learning German at a local school. Stevi and Sarah often share Afghan dinners with their new neighbours, while their two young children play in the house with their new Afghan friends. “We’ve received a great gift from God,” says Mecid. “So many times my wife and I have wondered, how we can ever repay these people – our new family, our new brothers and sisters?”

 

Maximilian and Carolin

Max and Carolin offered their spare room to Ibrahim, an asylum-seeker from Syria, after he struggled to find somewhere to stay in Berlin. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Max and Carolin offered their spare room to Ibrahim, an asylum-seeker from Syria, after he struggled to find somewhere to stay in Berlin.

Ibrahim, a 29-year-old Syrian seeking asylum in Europe, has slotted easily into the lives of his German hosts, Maximilian and Carolin. The couple, both journalists, offered him their spare room when they heard he was having a hard time finding accommodations in Berlin.

“I met Max when he interviewed me for an article. He invited me to stay if I had any difficulties,” says Ibrahim, who fled fighting last summer near his home in the Syrian port city of Latakia.

After five months moving between emergency shelters in Germany, Ibrahim was told he had to find a hostel. But an administrative problem meant he quickly found himself without a roof over his head. Ibrahim remembered Maximilian’s offer.

“What we’re doing is the least we could do.”

“It’s unbelievable, really. If it weren’t for volunteers offering their places, many people might be out on the streets,” says Maximilian, 29. “What we’re doing is the least we could do. We have a three room apartment – it’s easy.”

Ibrahim made it clear to the couple that he was anxious to stand on his own two feet as soon as possible, and that he needed to stay for just a month. “It’s very strange to be staying in someone else’s house – because I had a good life before,” he says. “It’s hard now to be relying on others.”

Weeks later, Maximilian and Carolin now view Ibrahim just like any other lodger. “At this point I don’t see Ibrahim as a refugee that is staying at our place,” says Maximilian. “He’s more like a flatmate who joins us for football every Monday.”

 

Alex, Vincent and Mona

Mohamad, 24, is enjoying student life in Berlin with his new German flatmates, Mona, Vincent and Alex. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Mohamad, 24, is enjoying student life in Berlin with his new German flatmates, Mona, Vincent and Alex.

A 24-year-old law student from Syria, Mohamad dreams of finishing his studies in Berlin. And since moving in with a group of young flatmates last month, he’s one step closer to living the German student lifestyle.

“I’d been living away from home at university in Syria, so I already knew what this kind of independent life was like,” says Mohamad, who fled fighting near his home in Aleppo last summer. “It’s a different culture, of course,” he adds. “New country, new people – but I really enjoy it.”

Upset by the scenes of asylum-seekers being housed in emergency mass shelters, twenty-something flatmates Alex, Vincent and Mona decided to do their bit by offering up their spare room.

“It’s a moment in our lives where we’re so much part of history,” says Mona, 26. “You have to take a position. This was a very easy way to help, but we felt we needed to do something. But before he arrived we didn’t know what to expect.”

“This was a very easy way to help, but we felt we needed to do something.”

The flatmates registered their spare room with Refugees Welcome, a volunteer initiative matching asylum-seekers with German hosts. A month later, Mohamad was sitting at their dinner table, sharing his Syrian cooking tips.

Since launching last year, Refugees Welcome has placed 200 asylum-seekers in German flat-shares. The idea is to match newcomers individually with the right shared flats, helping to speed up the integration process.

“We said we’d take anyone who’s coming and needs help,” says Alex, 27. “But when I heard we’d be getting a 24-year-old law student, it seemed more like a normal student exchange than anything else. It was so easy.”

“Now it’s about making the integration process go as fast as possible,” says Vincent, 26, who helped Mohamad wade through the German-language paperwork needed to get his rent covered by the job centre. “Once he gets onto a language course we’ll start talking German with him at home.”

 

Janine and Steve 

Wael, a Syrian-Palestinian, plays computer games with his German host, Steve, in his Berlin flat. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

UNHCR/Ivor Prickett
Wael, a Syrian-Palestinian, plays computer games with his German host, Steve, in his Berlin flat.

For German couple Janine and Steve, the decision to host Wael, a young Syrian-Palestinian asylum-seeker, was completely unremarkable.

“We’re not these great, generous volunteers you read about,” says Steve, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Berlin who met Wael after responding to his social media post asking for somewhere quiet to study German.

“There’s nothing special about what we’ve done,” he adds. “We saw the post and thought, ‘That’s something we can do to help.’ It was all very spontaneous.”

But for Wael, 20, who left Damascus this autumn when shelling made studying impossible, the welcome he has received from the couple – and their dog and two cats – is invaluable.

“It makes me wish I were German.”

“It makes me wish I were German,” Wael says. “I can’t imagine how proud you’d be to know there are so many good people in your country.”

And Janine and Steve couldn’t have hoped for a better guest. “He’s happy with everything,” says Janine, a 28-year-old accountant, also from Berlin. “It’s definitely made us think about how insignificant the things we get annoyed about really are.”

“Wael was very worried about outstaying his welcome, but we told him he can stay for as long as he wants,” she adds. “We’re Berliners, we speak our minds, we’d definitely tell him. Steve’s mother met him, and she’s invited him around for Christmas day.”

Wael’s determined attitude certainly helps. Just weeks after entering the country, he’s settled into German life remarkably well. Every morning, he packs away the air mattress on the floor of Steve’s home office and sets off for German class at a local university. Once he’s fluent, Wael hopes to continue studying and follow his dream of becoming a programmer for Google.