A man in a tiger costume and a woman dressed as a rabbit huddle together while waiting at a bus stop. Animal onesies were all the rage at this year’s carnival in Constance, a German university town nestled amid stunning scenery and lined by its eponymous lake, through which the German and Swiss border meanders. Despite the low temperatures, spirits soared among the revelers. The carnival crowd, fueled by alcohol, blaring music and the thrill of being disguised, kept the festive momentum up throughout the evening. Villingen-Schwenningen, where rightwing extremists had hurled a hand grenade over the walls of a refugee shelter in January, is only an hour away.
In Frank and Alexa Best’s terraced home with its panoramic views, their two charming children are performing a carnival show of their own for the grown-ups. The readily obliging audience members – Frank, Alexa, and the new member of the household, Abdulahi – are sat carefully on miniature chairs. Abdulahi is a young man from Eritrea who moved in with the family a week prior after spending a year in refugee shelters. He has a shy smile, which sneaks up on him when he doesn’t understand his hosts’ conversational exchanges, and at other times when he is lost for words. His smile appears to be his armor.
In 1995, three years after Abdulahi was born, Eritrea introduced compulsory military service. Conscription is open ended and the serving period of what has essentially become forced labor, according to reports by human rights groups, lasts a little more than six years on average. Young people are not allowed to attend university or take up formal jobs unless they have finished their national service. According to a 2014 UN report, entire villages have been depleted of the younger generations, for the sake of the largest and possibly least effective army in Africa.
Many minors in the country flee military service, and are often sent off by their own families, who would rather see their children take perilous journeys towards the possibility of starting new lives than serve in the armed forces. Abdulahi, who is one of about 4,000 Eritreans who flee the country every month, talks to his family once a month on the phone. Three of his siblings are still at home. Will they try to escape, too? He shrugs as his striking smile resurfaces.
At least 400,000 Eritreans – roughly 9 percent of the country’s population – have fled the country according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Eritrea has been deemed one of the fastest emptying nations, and many who flee are minors evading the draft with limited means of getting to Europe.
It took Abdulahi three months to travel from Eritrea to Libya through Sudan, and then to Italy by boat – a route that has become a notorious smuggling channel. “Maybe [there were] 100 people in the boat,” he says, although it sounds more like a question. When he left the transit camp in Italy he didn’t know where he was going other than that he was going north. One of the few things he knew about Germany before entering the country was the name of a football team. “Bayern Munchen,” he says and smiles, adding “and the cars.” He wants to become a mechanic once he finishes high school. But the journey into exile for many like him does not often end with an arrival in the “promised” land. Abdulahi is among the fortunate few.
“We ask, but we give him time to tell us what he wants to tell,” says Frank while he stirs the food he is preparing for dinner. Everyone has gathered in the kitchen after the performance. There is a little linguistic confusion and self-conscious bantering. It’s only been a week since the group started co-habiting. The Bests anticipate that Abdulahi will stay for at least a year.
“We had a few conversations last summer when we realized that refugees pile up in sports halls here in Constance, too, and about what will happen if people continue to live in these parallel societies of ‘we’ and ‘them’,” says Frank.
The couple quickly decided to rent out their guest room. ‘But to whom,’ was their main question. It took a while until they stumbled upon the recently founded initiative 83 INTEGRIERT. The civic action group facilitates flatshares for refugees, acting as an interlocutor between the refugees and potential hosts. They aim for one room per every thousand inhabitants of Constance, with a total population of 83,000, which is roughly 83 – hence the name of the initiative. The Bests and Abdulahi are one of the first host-refugee pairings. As the matches are carefully selected based on the ability of the hosts and the needs of the refugees, the process can be time consuming. The initiative says that a six-month period is easily manageable as far as host commitments are concerned. Sometimes this is enough for the refugees to get their bearings, but sometimes the assimilation period takes much longer – whether in terms of finding a job or social acceptance.
For Frank and Alexa, it’s more than just providing a bed, some assistance with routine bureaucracy and a healthy environment where Abdulahi can practice German. “We may not be your run-off-the-mill example, but we want to show Abdulahi how a German family functions, also in terms of gender [roles],” explains Alexa, who works as an architect.
“To gain a foothold, he needs to understand German culture,” says Alexa. “Of course, there is a reciprocal learning process,” adds Frank, a professor who teaches international management. “We read about Eritrea. And I cannot wait to talk about more complex topics and his world views.”
Integration, as this family explains, is a mutual process. Inviting those like Abdulhadi into German households has inevitably introduced discussions related to identity, cultural values and religion within this small German community.
“I’ve been asked if I am not worried for my wife and children to live with an African Muslim male,” says Frank as he refills the tea cups. “Not more or less than with a German, is my reply. Of course, you choose carefully who you live with. 83 is doing a good job.”
The 83 initiative is one of many examples of civic action taking the lead when authorities have struggled to cope with the influx of refugees. However, cracks have appeared in Germany’s much-trumpeted “Welcome Culture.” Approval ratings of Merkel’s progressive approach to dealing with refugees are fast declining, while right-wing intolerance of these “outsiders” is on the rise, both in rhetoric and physical assaults. The “ghettoization,” resulting from the mandatory overpopulated camps and shelters has become a jutting feature in German cities and town.
To leave the shelter for a “normal” life is not an easy step for refugees, even after being formally granted asylum in Germany. Many real estate companies and landlords do not want foreigners. Germany and other European countries seem both incapable and unwilling to effectively manage the resettlement and integration phases that an influx of refugees entails.
Sometimes private enterprises are the only option. “We wanted to take in a family from Nigeria; we knew them from church, really nice people. But they were deported to France,” says Rudi Steppan, who has also hosted refugees. There is plenty of space in the house amid the green hills of the Allgäu since his four grown-up children moved out. Rudi and his wife have had several “flatmates” who moved there from a near-by refugee shelter. Rudi is positive that the fastest way to understand and gain access to a society is by living with a local family. “We had a couple of young lads, and often it’s really about simple things. How to do your laundry, manage expenses.”
He muses a little and continues: “If only there was something like an organization to make it easier, where both sides can apply, which steps in to mediate if necessary … ”
The founders of Refugees Welcome had exactly this in mind. During a semester abroad, Mareike Geiling let a refugee from Mali stay in the flat that she and co-founder Jonas Kakoschke shared in Berlin. And that was it. The wish to improve the living situation for refugees and create easier access to German society and language led to them developing a web platform that now spans Europe and even Canada, where residents can offer spare rooms to accommodate refugees. A small team checks the offers and connects them with potential flatmates; the website also acts as a resource to help the “landlord” make up any shortfall in rent by connecting them with donors, sourcing government funding or even raising micro-donations from friends and family.
The response has been overwhelming.
“We receive mail in which people write how long they’ve been waiting for something like this. I think the need has existed for quite a while,” says Mareike. Since the platform was founded in November 2014, almost 270 refugees have moved into homes in Germany. “It makes a huge difference for every individual involved.”
The idea spread quickly to other countries. “People from more than 50 countries contacted us asking how to implement the idea, “ says Sophie Mirow, who works on expanding the reach of the project. “So far, eight countries in Europe have launched similar initiatives, to whom we provided assistance with setting up the website, technical systems etc.” Other initiatives in Germany, like 83 in Constance, have partnered with Refugees Welcome in order to take advantage of their expertise and infrastructure.
The Austrian branch of Refugees Welcome, which has created almost as many matches as their German counterpart, explains that a rigorous follow-up process is a key part of their success.
“We have a team of volunteering psychologists and conflict mediators, and we host regular hang-outs,” explains David Zistl, one of two people who manage the Austrian chapter. They currently have approximately 1,500 refugees on a waiting list. To galvanize more support from host communities, the tiny team is planning a promotional bus tour through Austria.
“We’ve seen great things happen,” says David. “Through private housing, not only rooms become available, but also other possibilities like jobs or simply networks of friends.”
But support for such initiatives is waning among certain demographics in Europe. The founders of Refugees Welcome received death threats recently. It is indeed a grim warning of the changing political climate.
“The support in Germany is declining after Cologne,” claims Alexa, the host in Constance. Abdulahi looks up, but this time he does not smile. The New Year’s Eve attacks, when a group of ethnic minority men sexually assaulted women, has become a watershed moment marking the growing divide in European public perceptions towards refugees. A building due to host a planned refugee center in Constance recently suffered an arson attack.
There is a moment of silence at the generously laid-out dinner table in the Best family home. Then Abdulahi says something and Alexa nods. After just a week, their mutual understanding has massively improved. After the meal, Abdulahi will step out to partake in the carnival celebrations.
“You will be the only sober person there,” Alexa warns. “And if it keeps snowing, we want to go sledding with you tomorrow,” her little daughter chimes in, shaping a spaghetti strand into a mustache on her face. He smiles. He promises not to be too late.