“Mo-thur?” Ali questions, his eyebrows knitted together in doubt.
“Mother,” I repeat slowly and we laugh at the difference in pronunciation.
It’s a warm summer evening in July 2019 and Ali, in halting English, is telling me about his family in Sudan and why he has fled to Germany. We're in Berlin’s culturally diverse Neükolln neighborhood, sitting at a long wooden table in the back of Refugio Café, a coffee house, residence, and meeting place for activities run, in part, by the grassroots organization Give Something Back to Berlin.
Standing about 5'6," Ali is small and wiry, with a warm smile and an easy laugh. His hair hangs down in shaggy, Jheri curls and he frequently has to brush the bangs away from his forehead. He's wearing a brightly colored shirt of vivid blues and oranges and a necklace made of twine. Since arriving in Germany 16 months earlier, Ali, a former engineer, has learned basic German and is eager to pick up some English before entering the prestigious Berlin School of Economics and Law in the fall. (“Write down the name of the school,” he says proudly, pointing to my notebook.)
About 20 people have gathered around the table – roughly a dozen refugees, most of them from Syria and Afghanistan, as well as native Germans and visiting internationals like me. The meeting is part of a weekly series of German and English Sprachcafés, or informal language classes, hosted by Give Something Back to Berlin, one of Germany's largest and best-known grassroots organizations that has sprung up to support refugees in recent years.
In 2015, responding to Europe’s refugee crisis, German Chancellor Angela Markel instituted an “open door policy” that resulted in more than 1 million asylum seekers entering the country. As a result of the massive influx of migrants, which saw the largest groups coming from Syria and Afghanistan, a German “Wilkommenkultur,”or Welcome Culture, quickly developed. Instigated by German civil society, groups voluntarily mobilized en masse to support refugee integration in numerous ways. This included the establishment of a number of grassroots organizations – an estimated 150 in Berlin alone.
Our mission isn’t rocket science. We just want to bring people together at eye level, relating human to human."
Many of these initiatives have adopted an egalitarian approach that embodies the German government’s definition of integration as a “two-way process,” with responsibility shared by both the host society and refugees. While these organizations provide support in the key domains of integration – including education, employment, housing, and health – their main contribution appears to be in building a sense of community, solidarity, and autonomy for refugees.
Yet these initiatives, which bridge an important gap in Germany’s social aid ecosystem, also face challenges. Underfunding, chronic understaffing, and lack of professionalization continue to raise questions about the organizations’ long-term sustainability. In the meantime, the groups’ fresh approach to meeting refugees’ needs, including their desire for language proficiency and education, has captured international attention and may serve as an example for other countries dealing with similar population streams.
Students helping refugees
Following his text directions, I find Andreas Eibelshäuser standing in Bebelplatz, the infamous square in central Berlin where the Nazi book burnings took place in 1933. It's just to the left of where I have been waiting for him, in front of a beautifully ornate, sandstone building that is part of Humboldt University’s main campus.
Tall and thin with glasses, Eibelshäuser is dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. When I explain my confusion about our meeting place, he smiles. “We are associated with Humboldt, but we are actually not located in their building – we’re in more modest accommodations,” he says, and leads me to a one-room trailer in the courtyard behind the sandstone building. We settle at a picnic table outside the trailer where a few students nearby are eating lunch on the lawn.
As a law student at Humboldt, Eibelshäuser is also an active volunteer and board member at Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, a student-organized project offering free legal advice to asylum seekers and refugees. The legal clinic was founded in 2014 by Humboldt law students who wanted to help refugees, but found few opportunities to gain immigration law experience. According to Eibelshäuser, they were united behind the simple belief that “everyone should know their legal rights, not just the people who are more integrated or have means.”
“In the U.S., law school education is often tied to clinical practice and this helps people who can’t afford lawyers,” he says. “But in Germany, giving free legal advice was illegal before 2007. When the refugee crisis happened, these kinds of grassroots law clinics shot up in many university towns.”
In the beginning, the volunteer staff offered open office hours as well as appointments in refugee shelters and various Berlin neighborhoods with high refugee populations. “We found that by going to the shelters, you often reach people who wouldn’t, or can’t, come themselves – like women, because it’s often men who are sent for asylum counseling,” he adds.
Eibelshäuser explains that in their office, there is a “safe space” specifically for women’s counseling. During open office hours, the staff field questions ranging from how to appeal an asylum decision to housing questions, which they then refer to experts in their network. But Eibelshäuser is quick to note that as a clinic predominantly staffed by students, their work has limits. For example, they are not allowed to represent clients in court and they must work under the guidance of two supervising lawyers who specialize in immigration law.
Germany needs more workers and we are these people. We need – and want – to make money, not be dependent on the government."
The work is “very, very time consuming,” says Eibelshäuser, which presents a real challenge for full-time students. “But,” he laughs, “in Germany, our studies are paid for so we can say this work is more important than grades – maybe not so much in the U.S."
Since the clinic began, it has grown in popularity with both students and refugees, attracting the attention of Humboldt University, which now helps fund their legal group although it remains an independent association not directly tied to the university. This autonomy has allowed the clinic to pursue a counseling project on the Greek island of Samos, which Eibelshäuser says would have been “too politically charged” for the university to support.
Instead, they applied and won a grant that funds their work internationally. While grateful for the university’s support, Eibelshäuser believes the group’s independence and lack of hierarchy has allowed it to remain creative and nimble.
Today, with over 70 active counselors and a nine-member board, the clinic is one of the biggest law clinics in Germany. Though it is largely staffed by volunteers, funding has allowed the clinic to hire three part-time law students on salary and a part-time research lawyer.
For Eibelshäuser, the work is personal. “I think integration is a two-way street: it must be both parts of society working together. You take someone who is likely traumatized and then put all of these conditions and administrative procedure on top of it,” he says shaking his head. “It isn’t fair.”
I ask what he thinks about the backlash to Germany’s “Welcome Culture,” which seems to dominate media stories about refugees in Germany these days. “A lot of focus has been on the backlash,” Eibelshäuser says, “but there are probably many more people who work [helping refugees] for free on a daily basis – quietly and without question.”
The One Percent
It’s a humid and drizzly morning when I meet Ali again at Refugio Café. He has come by train from the apartment he shares with other refugees in Potsdam, about 20 miles southwest of Berlin. He wears a dark sweatshirt with jeans and carries a black backpack over his shoulder. Inside the cafe, it smells like roasting coffee; a few people sit at small tables talking quietly as folk music plays in the background.
We sit with tea on an old couch by the front window, and I ask Ali why he left Sudan. He talks about the “very bad conditions” there, from lack of jobs to terrorism to the new prime minister, who he simply says “is worse than the last one.” He mentions missing friends and family, then shrugs. “In order to get something, you have to lose something.”
The move to Germany has been a culture shock for Ali. “We come from poor countries with bad systems and now we are in a modern country,” he explains. “It’s hard to know how things work in this culture.” He describes attending a birthday party in Berlin and the confusion he felt seeing people arrive with gifts, like flowers. He shakes his head in bewilderment. “We don’t do this. We don’t even have flowers in Sudan.”
Ali believes true integration must be a shared process between both the host country and refugees. “I can’t integrate alone. People have to come together—I need to learn your culture and behavior, but there needs to be an attempt to understand my culture, too, because I can’t give that up,” he says, playing with a hole in his jeans where his bony knee protrudes.
The rise in popularity of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s right-wing, anti-immigration party, and the government’s shift away from Chancellor Merkel’s liberal immigration policies, are just some indications of the internal “Welcome Culture” backlash. Ali says he has personally experienced this dichotomy.
“In Berlin, everyone is very friendly and helpful. Potsdam is a smaller town, so people are a little more mixed. They don’t always look me in the eye,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m in a store, I get suspicious looks.”
I ask if any of the local grassroots organizations that help refugees have been especially useful to him. He praises the informal language classes at Flüchtlingshilfe Babelsberg, near his apartment, and Give Something Back to Berlin. He believes the extra language support helped him pass the German secondary education examination, or Feststellungsprüfung, a challenging prerequisite for university studies.
Both organizations have also provided Ali with a sense of community and inclusion. “When you work through the government services, they do everything for you – you don’t have a chance to interact with people. At both organizations, I have met Germans and other refugees and made good friends,” he explains, sipping his tea. His experience seems in keeping with the goals of many of these grassroots organizations. As Give Something Back to Berlin founder Annamaria Olsson told me, “Our mission isn’t rocket science. We just want to bring people together at eye level, relating human to human.”
Ali is one of the lucky ones. Because of numerous barriers, only one percent of refugees globally attend university. Dr. Vera Axyonova, coordinator for Frei University’s Academics in Solidarity program, acknowledges the challenges. “When you are coming to a country as a refugee, there are so many issues you have to deal with, from insecurities like ‘How long can I stay here?’ to legal issues. Even once all that is dealt with, language is a huge hurdle on the way to better education,” she says.
For Ali, elation about his admission to university gave way to anxiety as he realized that even the modest tuition of approximately $332 would absorb his monthly living stipend from the government. He decided to take out a loan, but “the bank would not give me one – I still don’t know why,” he recalls, playing with the string on his tea bag. “I don’t think [the government] is ready to handle these types of issues.”
Ultimately, through a separate grassroots student organization, one of Ali’s friends raised money to loan him for tuition. “In the end, my problem was not solved by the government, but by my friends,” he adds.
I ask Ali what he hopes to get out of attending the Berlin School of Economics and Law. “Germany needs more workers and we are these people,” he says emphatically, pointing to himself. “We need – and want – to make money, not be dependent on the government.”
Ali says he is eager to make a good wage so he can start sending money to his family in Sudan. According to Sudanese custom, the males in the family – in this case Ali and his brother, who is living in Saudi Arabia – are expected to financially support not only their aging parents but their three sisters as well, so that they “don’t do something bad” like become prostitutes, he says.
As our conversation draws to a close, Ali leans forward intently. “I’m not sure of my future. Good things and bad things have happened to me, but I am happy here and thankful to have a chance to study,” he says, pausing. “So when we talk about all of these, what you might call problems or obstacles, I choose to call them challenges.”