How a German project uses shared interests to bring refugees and locals together

How a German project uses shared interests to bring refugees and locals together
Hand in Hand volunteer Wael Kayyali leads a drawing workshop. Photo: Wael Kayyali
Volunteers found that common interests and social events were key to fostering friendships between old and new residents of the German city of Wuppertal. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, they're having to find new ways to help.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

When Wael Kayyali arrived in Wuppertal, Germany, from Syria in 2016, he had no trouble finding friends. However, these friends were all Syrians.

“It might not sound great to say this, but a lot of Syrians came to Germany back then, so I didn’t have to get in touch with Germans to have a life here,” he says.

It was difficult for him to find German friends as he is “from a different culture and a bit older”. Kayyali is 29 years old. It's not an age that most people would consider old, but he says that most people his age have their friend circle and are not looking for new contacts.

The second big hurdle was the language: “I didn’t dare speak German because I was scared that I would be judged,” he says.

All of this changed when Kayyali found out about Hand in Hand – Contact People for Refugees, a local initiative that aims to bring refugees and locals together.

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Hand in Hand was founded in 2017 by two students from Wuppertal, a city close to Cologne in western Germany. They felt that existing support for refugees was too much focused on legal counselling, interpretation of documents and language courses. What was missing was the personal touch and a relationship between refugees and locals at eye level.

“We wanted to create a meeting place where people could get together, find social contacts, and just meet people who want to do something together,” says Matilda Flasche, a volunteer turned project manager at Hand in Hand.

Initially, the organisation offered to pair up refugees with locals. A refugee could get a single contact person, a couple, or even a small group of people. Over two years more than 30 contacts were established and over 60 people brought together.

However, it soon became clear that there were quite different expectations on either side. “The problem was that many locals couldn’t commit to meeting three times a week, for example,” says Flasche. “Many refugees wanted to meet more often and that eventually led to an imbalance – we had more and more refugees and fewer locals.”

She and the other Hand in Hand volunteers sat down together and figured out a new plan. Since the beginning they had offered events alongside the contact person matching – city walks, bike tours, movie nights. They decided to focus entirely on events rather than matching people.

“The idea was that it might be better to get people together who are interested in the same topic. That way, relationships can develop more naturally,” says Flasche.

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It seems to have worked for Hand in Hand and certainly for Kayyali. While Hand in Hand could not find a contact person for him before it switched its approach, he quickly built up a network after he went to his first event, a drawing workshop: “At the workshop I mentioned that I am quite good at calligraphy,” he says. “The other participants were really interested and asked me to organise a workshop myself which I really enjoyed.”

He even decided to join the team as a volunteer – a big step for someone who had no real contacts with locals before. In Flasche’s opinion, this is the best way to ensure that refugees actually make friends: “We have some 10 or 15 team members who came here as refugees,” she says, “and with them I really feel like a group of people has emerged who now have a good social network.”


A Hand in Hand event. Photo: Wael Kayyali

Since their new approach was implemented, Hand in Hand has organised ten different types of events, some weekly, some monthly, and two annual ones, with participant numbers ranging from as few as a handful of refugees at language meetings to 150 people at the annual summer party.

According to Flasche, refugees like Kayyali who are part of the team have played an essential role in the transformation process. So has striving to improve. “When an event doesn’t work out the way we wanted it to, it’s really important for us to reflect and ask what we could do better,” says Flasche.

Especially in the last months before the first coronavirus lockdown came to effect in Germany, attendance at Hand in Hand events decreased a little. So Flasche and the rest of the team talked to participants and asked them what they would like to get out of the events, and what Hand in Hand could improve.

The response they usually get is flattering and frustrating at the same time: “We usually hear from people that everything is great and that they will come back next time,” says Flasche. She suspects that the circumstances and different culture prevent people from uttering real criticism: “They are all incredibly nice, affectionate and grateful. But there is a lack of understanding of the fact that we would really like to hear criticism in order to improve.” Of course, the volunteers appreciate the praise, “but sometimes it’s better to know what is really needed”.

Unlike the event attendees, the team members with refugee backgrounds are more direct in their feedback. “They often say that the event itself is great, but that people have other problems that prevent them from attending,” says Flasche. For example, personal issues ranging from childcare to job search keep refugees from coming to social events, which might be lower down in their priority order. “Whether we can help someone really depends on each person’s situation and if we offer the right thing for them,” she says.

For Kayyali, Hand in Hand certainly had the right thing to offer. “I had no issues, finding friends via Hand in Hand,” he says. “But I am also a bit fearless, so it was easier for me than for others.”

He thinks that one of the main issues that keeps refugees from attending Hand in Hand events is that “people don’t want to be treated like victims”.

“We really don’t do that at Hand in Hand,” he says, “but when a refugee hears that there is an event specifically for refugees, they might feel like they’re being treated like a victim and wouldn’t go to the event.”

This is why the best way to reach new participants is by word of mouth. Here again, the refugee team members are invaluable to the initiative as they can spread the word and encourage other people to come to Hand in Hand events.

Considering that Hand in Hand is a fairly small and young initiative, it has undergone substantial changes. “We often get praise for our motivation and perseverance – for not giving up,” says Flasche, who initiated the transformation process in 2018. “I think what makes our initiative work is the willingness to change,” she explains. “Nobody ever said, ‘well, this didn’t work, so I’m gonna leave’. Instead, we are all open to adaptation.”

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Their efforts have earned Hand in Hand the support of a funding programme from the state of North Rhein-Westphalia. KOMM-AN NRW (‘Arrive in NRW’) supports Hand in Hand with rent subsidies and money for the organisation of events. In addition to that, team members have the opportunity to attend workshops and events at the integration centre.

“The city of Wuppertal really appreciates the committed work of this young association,” says Ulrike Kusak from the communal centre for integration. “Through their work, encounters and exchange between ‘old and new’ Wuppertalers are promoted.”

For Hand in Hand this is a “great opportunity”, according to Flasche. However, the money from the state programme has to be spent directly in connection with one specific event. This leads to the problem that the organisation is usually short on money even though it gets government funding.

“It might happen that we need €50 for an event, but the lump sum from the funding is €250,” explains Flasche. As Hand in Hand tries to be sustainable, they do not want to spend the money on just anything to use up the money. “At the end of the month we have €100 to spare which we can’t spend on anything else we need.”

That is why Hand in Hand also relies on donations. They can be used for anything, but are not as reliable as state funding. “It would be ideal if we could finance everything with donations, but that is not possible. It’s just too little,” Flasche says.

While money is a constant struggle, the coronavirus crisis added another issue. At the beginning of the pandemic, Hand in Hand needed to change their approach again. While they were able to do some meetings outdoors, their regular events were disrupted. That is why the team decided to offer individual support for refugees. They help in writing applications, translations, tutoring, learning German, and offering access to computers in their office space. 

All their other plans had to be put on hold: “To reach out to more people we wanted to go to a second neighbourhood where the percentage of refugees is higher,” says Flasche. They had contacted a different organisation already but were interrupted by the pandemic. Kayyali says that another idea was to shift the image away from being an organisation for refugees only to a place for all people who newly arrive in Wuppertal. “But because of corona, we couldn’t test this,” he says.


A pre-coronavirus event. Photo: Wael Kayyali

From his first attendance at a Hand in Hand event to today, Kayyali has seen multiple changes in his life: he speaks German fluently, has a German friend circle and found a job at the university of Wuppertal. He is part of another programme called In Touch which helps refugees who want to enrol in studies in Germany.

“Without Hand in Hand I would have never gotten this job,” he says. A friend from the organisation even helped him write the cover letter.

While he loves the volunteer work at Hand in Hand, he is planning to step back a little in the coming months. In addition to his job, in October he started studying for a bachelor’s degree in media design and design technology, which will require more of his time.

He feels confident about his future: “Because of Hand in Hand I feel strong, and strong enough to help others. And I do exactly that with my volunteer work and the programme at the university.”

Originally from Germany, Valerie Krall is a journalist based in the UK.


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