Helping Female Refugees Build a New Life in Berlin

As Germany works to accommodate the more than 1 million refugees who arrived last year, Berlin politician Barbara Loth is leading the way with innovative programs to expand opportunities for female refugees.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Migrants and refugees wait inside a separate tent for woman and children at the central registration center for refugees and asylum seekers in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 4, 2016.AP/Markus Schreiber

As Secretary for Labor, Integration and Women’s issues in Berlin’s senate, Barbara Loth has earned a reputation as a champion of the rights of women and minorities. A big part of her job is to focus on the needs of female refugees, helping them settle in the city and making sure there are systems in place to protect them from domestic violence.

She could not be doing the job at a more challenging time. Last year, as the conflict in Syria forced millions to flee the country, more than 1 million refugees arrived in Germany. Authorities nationwide had to move fast to register and accommodate them. Many displaced people traveled first to Berlin, where they officially registered as asylum seekers, and Loth and her office found themselves dealing with drastically larger numbers of refugees, more than they had ever seen before, while still trying to maintain programs to help women and other minorities already living in Berlin. Even before Europe’s refugee crisis began, the city was growing at the rate of 40,000 people per year, Loth says.

Her initiatives include women-only German language classes with attached childcare, and a new Integration Buddy program, which pairs female mentors with refugee women to offer them support in their own language. She looks for guidance from immigrants who settled in Berlin years ago, and uses their experience and knowledge to reach out to recently arrived refugees.

Loth is also a vocal advocate of giving refugee women the resources they need to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, and connecting women to small business grant opportunities and special training courses.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Loth about what it takes to help refugee women make a living and build a life in Berlin.

Women & Girls Hub: What kind of support do you provide to female refugees in Berlin?

Barbara Loth: Female refugees are a vulnerable group, and our biggest task is to guarantee their safety. We passed a plan that specifically looks at women’s needs regarding housing and safety. We created separate housing facilities for female refugees. In co-ed refugee shelters, we made sure to provide separate women’s areas.

We also stepped up our response to violence against women. We taught women living in refugee shelters about programs and hotlines they can contact in case of violence. We tell them violence against women is not accepted in Germany in any situation, and we help them if they experience violence at a refugee shelter.

Women & Girls Hub: When it comes to education, how are you bringing more women refugees into language courses?

Loth: There are not enough refugee women enrolled in German-language courses. So, we have created special classes just for women, and we provide someone to look after their children. We’re seeing that more and more women come to these classes now.

We didn’t want them to think that we were dividing the men and women. But we saw that female refugees weren’t coming to co-ed classes, and they learn better in women-only classes.

The most important thing was that someone is looking after the children. So, in these classes, there is one room for learning and another room for the children. It’s like coming into an apartment. There’s a teacher for the women and a teacher for the children.

In many cultures, women don’t have the permission to go out and be in a class with men. We’ve seen, in these women-only classes, they are brave. They talk. They learn better when they see there are only other women.

Women & Girls Hub: What’s an example of a special initiative you’ve started to assist women refugees?

Loth: We have the Integration Buddy program. The buddy is a woman who goes into shelters where the refugees live and explains how we can help. She explains where to go and who to call if you have problem. Sometimes, the buddy goes with refugee women to the doctor. The refugees trust them.

The integration buddies have a mother tongue besides German, and we try to send them to shelters where they speak the same language as the refugees. So we’ll send an Arabic-speaking integration buddy to those shelters where there are mostly Syrian people.

I think it’s a success when the integration buddy helps a refugee woman get all the information she needs and they become friends. The refugee can use this information to integrate into German society. Since the integration buddy often shares the same culture as the refugee, she can better explain things.

For example, if a refugee woman fears sending her children to school or kindergarten, the integration buddy will say from her own experience, “I have children, and my children go to school. So don’t worry, you’ll see your child afterwards, and the children are happy in the school.”

Women & Girls Hub: How do you help refugee women who want to start their own small businesses and become entrepreneurs?

Loth: In Berlin, we have many projects to help women get jobs. We also assist them in self-employment opportunities.

We have a very good program for people interested in self-employment or starting a small business. We ask women refugees what they did in their home country and analyze their educational background to help them decide what they want to do in Germany. We inform them about their options and steer them towards special schools based on their interest. We call this mobile educational counseling, and we offer it to women directly at the refugee shelters and in the German-language classes.

Of course, you have to help with many steps along the way. The first thing is they have to learn German very fast; the second thing is that they can apply for grant money from the state if they want to start a small business.

Women & Girls Hub: Are there efforts to help women and children move out of temporary refugee shelters and into more permanent housing?

Loth: Berlin has placed an order for new mobile homes. After we are able to re-locate people to these homes, we have a big program to put the children into school and help adults find jobs and enroll in educational courses. But it will take another nine months to build these mobile houses.

We have special refugee shelters for women who are alone or with children, and we’re trying to set aside more of these. We try to move women out of larger refugee shelters and into these kinds of houses. At the moment, we only run two of these women-only shelters, because we don’t have so many empty places in Berlin. We also try to persuade private individuals to take refugees into their homes when they have space. We try many different methods, but it takes time.

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