Welcome to Germany

Europe is faced with a major humanitarian challenge. Strausberger Platz is right in the thick of it. And local residents are happy to help without fuss or quibble.

image courtesy of kallejipp / photocase.de

I’m sitting outside “a Mano”, my favourite Italian restaurant, having a chat with friends. My guests from Afghanistan walk past and the owner of the restaurant asks me who these exotic-looking strangers are. I tell them the facts: they are refugees who stayed with me for three nights before a friend of mine gave them her apartment. My friend is away on holidays, but she saw on Facebook that I had taken in guests and sent me a brief message: “I’m away. My apartment is empty, why don’t you let your guests use it.” She has never seen her new tenants and probably never will – she simply opened her door and offered refuge to people who arrived in Germany with nothing but their lives after a gruelling 4,000-mile journey: a family of five adults and three children, who walked across  Syria and Turkey and then travelled across the Mediterranean with 45 others in a rubber dinghy designed for 16 passengers. When the engine failed, the men had to get in the water and pull the boat for twelve hours until they finally reached the Greek coast. I know all of this is true because they showed me a video on their mobile phone.

image courtesy of Spectral-Design / Shutterstock.com

From Greece, they travelled on to Budapest and then got into the back of a small lorry: 53 people crammed together for seven hours without stopping, without water and sufficient oxygen. Only a couple of weeks ago, Austrian police found 71 dead migrants inside a similar lorry that had been abandoned by the side of the road. My Afghan refugees survived the journey and have now found a safe haven in my friend’s spacious flat, where they are visibly recovering. When I started telling the restaurant owner their story, I didn’t even get past the first sentence – as soon as I said “refugees from Afghanistan”, he immediately invited them in for a meal. Pizza on the house! His generosity reflects the prevailing mood across Germany. People are willing to help, no questions asked – including Strausberger Platz residents.

image courtesy of knallgrün / photocase.de

I have already given refuge to 33 guests from Egypt, Moldavia, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan. My neighbours on the same floor regularly look after the children of my guests and have brought in a giant box full of clothes to help them get through the winter. Another tenant simply left three bulky carrier bags outside the door after I had shouted to him in passing something about clearing out his wardrobe to help the refugees. Someone who lives in the house opposite brought over a mattress to make their makeshift camp more comfortable.

Three weeks into the crisis, I’ve got many more similar stories to tell. But the best thing about the willingness to help others is what it does for those who need our help. The father of one of the families who stayed with me looked as if he was in his seventies when they first arrived here ten days ago. Ten days later, you can tell that he is only in his fifties: his eyes are bright again and his gaze his frank, his face beams with joy, his wrinkles have reduced to an age-appropriate quantity. He has regained his dignity – the small miracle of Strausberger Platz. Because a man’s dignity is inviolable – wherever he lives, whoever he is. Ultimately, it’s not a miracle for a country to stand upright and welcome our fellow human beings with open arms – that’s just normal, that’s just what you do. None of us should ever forget that when we wonder why it’s up to us to act and do something. Being lucky enough not to have been born in Afghanistan or Syria is not a question of achievement or merit, it’s simply that: blind luck.