BERLIN – Last year, more than a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany. They quickly found themselves living in crowded camps and shelters while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. And according to the Women’s Refugee Commission, these centers are not adequately addressing problems that disproportionately affect women and girls.
“Often there are no separate living spaces for women and families and no sex-separated latrines or shower facilities,” according to the commission’s recent report. “Women and girls are vulnerable to rape, assault and other violence in these facilities.”
Germany’s minister of family affairs Manuela Schwesig has made the safety of women and children refugees a priority. Recently, she co-launched a pilot program in partnership with UNICEF and the German Red Cross in 25 refugee shelters across Germany.
“We need to better protect women and children in refugee camps against attacks,” Schwesig said. “Every case of violence, child abuse and rape is one too many. We need protection policies that are concrete and can be implemented well. Children and women need retreats, they should feel safe.”
Under this new initiative, trained social workers look for signs of violence and abuse inside refugee shelters, and offer heightened counseling and support to refugees. Unlike other camps and shelters, these accommodations have separate rooms with private bathrooms and locks for families with women and children.
“Children who have come here as refugees have to be treated as well as other children,” Schwesig says. “I want this to be a standard in all of Germany.”
Life in a Red Cross Shelter
More than 330 people, including 165 children under 18 years old, live in the Berlin Red Cross shelter where the initiative began. Formerly a senior citizen home, the multi-story building now houses refugee women, children and families.
However, while the Red Cross and German government officials praised the shelter, many of the women and girls living there tell a different story. Many say they feel safe, but there are other difficulties that no one has addressed.
Basima, who lives at the shelter with her children, says several people are crammed into each room, and the conditions have contributed to her depression. “For 10 days, we walked to get here, and we came to Germany for freedom and democracy. But there’s no democracy in the shelter,” she says.
“Many children and their families have to stay in [these] centers for many months,” says Katharina Kesper of UNICEF Germany, noting that more than 300,000 refugee and migrant children arrived in Germany last year.
The Red Cross shelter manager Iris Rehberg acknowledges these kinds of temporary accommodations are not suitable for children. “For many children, it takes a long time to start attending school, up to six months,” she says. “It’s time that’s lost in their development.” But she says it’s difficult to place families in apartments because of the limited availability of housing in Berlin.
School Brings Stability for Twin Sisters
For one pair of Syrian-Palestinian teenage twin sisters, life in the Red Cross shelter in Berlin has been particularly tough.
“The security guards treat us in a mean and rude way,” says 14-year-old Toulin, in perfect English. “They won’t give us any help, and if you ask a question, they pretend they didn’t hear you. Everyday, someone has a problem with the security guards. They shout a lot at the kids … They treat us like we’re prisoners.”
Her twin sister Yasmin agrees. “I wish they would treat people fairly and respectfully, in a nice way, even if they could just smile,” she says.
The sisters grew up in Dubai, where they attended an international school. When the United Arab Emirates didn’t renew their residency permits, they had no other option but to resettle in Europe. They spent their first week in Berlin in a makeshift camp on a basketball field. They’ve been living in the Red Cross shelter with their siblings and parents for a few months.
“We were shocked because they told us even if you’re in a shelter, you would only have to live there two or three months,” Toulin says. “We thought things were going to get better, and we thought we would get our house in a short time. We are very tired now because the process is very slow.”
For many refugee children, it’s the time they spend outside the shelter – at school – that they cherish the most. The sisters, who are in eighth grade, light up when they talk about their school, and say they’ve adapted well to academic life in Germany.
“The school is awesome,” says Toulin. “It’s a place where you can meet new people, make friends and be yourself. The teachers are very nice, and treat everyone in a fair way. I have a lot of friends there.”
However, the crowding and distractions in the shelter make it difficult to concentrate on homework. “There’s no space for me to study here, and there’s always a lot of noise,” Toulin says. “I can’t sleep, I can’t study, I can’t do anything. Even if I wanted to sleep, and tried to wake up later to study for my exams, I can’t because there’s always a lot of noise outside the room. It’s a very tough situation.”
That evening, the family invites their Syrian neighbors down the hall to their room for a dinner they bought at an outside shop. Everyone sits in a circle on the floor, dining on rice and molokhia, a hearty green vegetable dish popular in the Middle East. As the sisters feast, they laugh and chat in Arabic. For a brief moment, the shelter feels like home.