• Germany's news in English
NGO seeks to integrate refugees, one friend at a time
Refugees and Germans share a drink a "Welcome Dinner." Photo: DPA

NGO seeks to integrate refugees, one friend at a time

AFP · 18 Apr 2016, 12:20

Published: 18 Apr 2016 12:20 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

That message is the name of the small but fast-growing organisation which teams up newcomers who fled war and misery with local volunteers who can lend them a hand as they start their new lives.

"At our first meeting, there were 10 people," said its founder Franziska Birnbach. "And then, when more and more people arrived in Germany... last year, we were literally inundated with offers [from volunteers], and it hasn't stopped since."

The concept mirrors language-study "tandem" partnerships between locals and foreigners, except that the emphasis is beyond swapping vocabulary and grammar tips.

In Start with a Friend, the local volunteers also help migrants find internships, jobs or apartments, or to navigate the bureaucratic thicket of German asylum procedures.

The aim is to also help them get to know Germany better and, in an exchange of equals, build relationships that are mutually rewarding and long-lasting.

Last year the group facilitated some 200 partnerships, and it aims for more than 1,000 this year.

Such has been its success that Birnbach, 27, and her project partner Sarah Rosenthal, 31, have now left their jobs to devote themselves full-time to "Start with a Friend".

The group now has seven coordinators and has branched out from Berlin to the cities of Cologne and Freiburg, with plans to also launch soon in Hamburg, Munich and Dresden.

'I have everything'

In the cosy kitchen of a central Berlin apartment, Nina Winzen, 27, is chatting and cooking with her new Syrian friend Ehab Masood, 26, as "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" by British pop band The Korgis is playing.

"When I met Nina, I asked her: why are you doing this for me?" said Masood, speaking in the German he has learnt since arriving in Berlin more than one year ago. "She said: 'I have everything in Germany.'"

Winzen added: "Here we grow up with such a privileged background, we have so much. And, parallel to that, people arrive with nothing and are trying to build a new life."

It seemed only logical to her to get involved in the programme, she said.

"We speak a lot about Syria," said Winzen. "We hear about it everyday, we see images on television. But to have direct contact with someone who is actually from there opens up a whole new perspective.

"For me, this exchange is a real enrichment, not only because of what I bring to Ehab, but also because of the things he teaches me."

'This can be done'

The project in people-to-people cultural bridge building comes as Germany takes a breather from last year's mass influx and searches for practical ways to turn into reality Chancellor Angela Merkel's motto of "we can do it".

Merkel's coalition government last Thursday approved a package of measures governing the integration of refugees, their rights and duties, which she labelled "a first in the history" of post-war Germany.

Story continues below…

"This can be done," agreed Winzen, insisting however that "this will only be possible together" and "if everybody plays their part".

Merkel's liberal refugee policy has drawn heavy fire from within her own conservative camp and fuelled the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party.

Rosenthal, of Start with a Friend, said that "this uncertainty which many people feel and that leads some to vote for extreme parties is very much related to a lack of knowledge about new arrivals".

She deplored a growing trend toward generalisations about migrants, especially in the wake of sexual and other attacks by mostly North African men against hundreds of women in Cologne on New Years Eve.

Rosenthal said she hopes groups like hers will help Germans and, more broadly, Europeans "realise that 'I don't have to be afraid'" and understand that a migrant "is a person who is completely normal, like me, who wants to take care of his family and build a future for them".

In short, she said, people will understand that a migrant can be no more and no less than "my new neighbour".

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd