Berliners open their doors: “My Roommate the Refugee”

standing-facing-sarah-refugee-source-allison

ALLISON WILLIAMS

As the snow begins to fall, authorities in Germany are struggling to find sufficient housing for a steady flow of refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. But some Berliners are opening their homes.

Rachel Wangari joined her flat mate at the kitchen table.

“I had a bad dream,” she said. “I called my mother right away.”

Ms. Wangari is a refugee from Kenya in her mid-thirties. She has just moved in with Sarah Diehl, a German writer and filmmaker who shares an apartment with a friend in Berlin’s multicultural Kreuzberg district.

The two had an open room and offered it to Ms. Wangari – for free.

“Why don’t you Skype her?” Ms. Diehl said.

“In Nairobi, it’s easier to call,” Ms. Wangari explained, as both sipped coffee from chipped mugs.

Ms. Wangari came to Germany six years ago. She works as a house cleaner to support her daughter and pay for her schooling in Kenya.

Ms. Wangari misses her family and is worried about the violence in Kenya.

“Rachel’s not a refugee, she’s a flat mate,” Ms. Diehl said later, standing in her own room, stuffed with papers, books and records. “For legal reasons, she can’t make a living to pay her rent, so we support her. That’s not her fault.”

Until recently, Ms. Wangari lived in a crowded home for asylum-seekers in Brandenburg, the rural state that surrounds Berlin.

Berlin’s authorities are struggling to accommodate the influx of more than 40,000 refugees, and thousands of asylum applications are waiting to be processed. Often, refugees are eventually given places to live far from cities or other communities. “The women in these places have no space to themselves at all, they’re desperate even for a few days of privacy,” Ms. Diehl said.

“I have another roommate and right from the start it was easygoing and natural between us,” she added. “We have the same sense of space I feel.”

Ms. Diehl said was easy to help Ms. Wangari settle in: “When she moved in, I showed her everything; she’s very autonomous. I set up a room and made space for her toiletries in the bathroom and we plugged in a TV.”

Ms. Diehl said her friends had mixed reactions to her decision to host people. ‘The first thing they ask is whether I’m not afraid something will get stolen, but I think that’s weird,’ she said. ‘I’m an easy person, I just give them a key. Trusting people has been a very fulfilling experience.’

Ms. Diehl had previously hosted three other refugees. One man in his mid-twenties had made the journey to Berlin across the desert in Libya. “He didn’t originally want to go to Europe but police told him they would arrest him, so he got a boat to Lampedusa,” she said, referring to the tiny Italian island south of Sicily in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Another came from Congo, and a third from Niger. Each spent days or even weeks in the spare room, before moving on to the couches of friends.

“The layout of our flat is a bit funny. The shower is in the kitchen so there is less privacy – it proved a bit awkward,” Ms. Diehl said. But she decided she wanted to provide more than temporary accommodation.

“I wanted to focus on one person and really help them for a longer period of time, instead of people here and there,” she said. She approached Women in Exile, a refugee support group, where she met Ms. Wangari. “We clicked right away.”

Ms. Diehl said there is no limit to how long Ms. Wangari can stay in her apartment. “She can support herself better than the others could.” she said.

Ms. Diehl first became aware of asylum-seekers’ needs during a demonstration last year when refugees occupied a school in her neighborhood. The refugees wanted to be housed closer to their communities and have a say in what happened to them.

“The school helped me understand the complexity of the problem and understand you deal with people on eye level, not to see them as aliens,” Ms. Diehl said.

Ms. Diehl said her friends had mixed reactions to her decision to host people. “The first thing they ask is whether I’m not afraid something will get stolen, but I think that’s weird,” she said. “I’m an easy person, I just give them a key. Trusting people has been a very fulfilling experience.”

Ms. Diehl had previously launched a network for women coming to Germany and started by letting Polish women stay in her home. “It’s an organization to enable Polish women to have abortions as it’s illegal there. I have had four Polish women at my place,” she said.

As the media continues to show the numbers of refugees coming to Germany, the hundreds dying on the way, and as temperatures have fallen below freezing, others are starting to take in refugees, but their approaches differ widely.

Some are classical families, others high-profile hosts such as Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a mother of seven.

The social security offices provide advice to citizens who want to take in refugees and give instruction about the amount of space that should be available. Charitable foundations also have set guidelines, including advising people to charge rent, to prevent dependency. Websites have been set up to coordinate between refugees and hosts that imitate the Airbnb principle.

Ms. Diehl, who studied gender and African literature and has traveled frequently, recalled when she needed help. “For us there are things that seem easy but they are complicated and scary for them, like dealing with bureaucracy,” she said. “It’s a big maze they can’t understand.”

The experience opened her eyes to a greater sense of community – and also what prevents it. “You learn to question legality and you think about if it’s necessary to overstep legal boundaries for humanity. You realize what keeps people from solidarity, that’s so sick, so sad.”

“I’ve realized it’s a really cool thing to have an open house. Once you change how you think, it’s empowering.”

Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author:williams@handelsblatt.com

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