Report from Refugee Camp in Germany

Karen R. volunteers teaching Asian and African refugees German at a refugee camp in Dresden, Germany. She recounts her experiences there.

Refugee camp in Dresden, Germany

Refugee camp in Dresden, Germany

Sept. 12, 2015

Yesterday I went by to visit Ceebla again. My work colleague (J) had gotten together and organized a baby bed and they showed up there too to deliver it.

We knocked on the door and a young woman with a little baby (4 mos.?) answered. We explained as best we could and were greeted with smiles and welcomes. Jasmine’s little room immediately filled up with a whole bunch of Somalis. Quickly we greeted and introduced each other. It felt a bit like a college dorm. Newspapers were spread out on the floor, a single big plate of spaghetti with potatoes and meat was put in the middle and a tub with forks and spoons set down next to it. Ceeblal’s family and I sat down on the floor and we ate. We started talking about Somali vs. German food and the conversation took off from there. Two of the people spoke some English too, but conversations were careful because of language difficulties.

Then Kinsi (my friend who provided me with the introduction) came in with another woman and they joined the party. One of the Somali women, Sagal, was 7 mos. pregnant and speaks decent German. Kinsi told us she is one of the most ambitious of them all and wants to accomplish something here – I definitely got that feeling too. Anyway, it was a loud laughing party feeling with young positive engaged energy. The two pregnant women are both carrying girls and they said how good it is to be in Germany where they can be happy even though it’s not a boy. The men nodded in agreement.

Anyway, we organized meeting together at a street fair next week, made an appointment to look at the birthing room where Jasmine will deliver and did a German lesson. Overall a very very positive feeling. I wish such a contact opportunity on everyone who is worried about what will happen next with these refugees.

I always say, yes, rest assured, some crazy Islamic lunatics have snuck in (this is a prevalent fear here), and yes, we can rest assured that a bomb will go off in a train station sometime set by one of these people, but that’s how it is. These people are not going to do that, and they are the majority. Germany has been complaining for decades about their demographic problem: not enough young people to take care of the old people. Problem solved, I say!

Anyway, just my notes for now.

Sept. 15, 2015

I went to the birthing room today with Ceebla. You have to visit the rooms about two weeks before the due date for a check up and an introduction to the doctor and midwives, etc. Seemed very pleasant. Anyway, as we sat there, we started talking a little about our lives. I told her about my brothers and sister and niece, etc and she told me about her family. Her mother lives in Somalia with her daughter. (There’s one of those pregnancies

What they went through fleeing Somalia

What they went through fleeing Somalia

answered for; the other one really didn’t result in a live birth, whatever the reason. Her father and her husband (father of that child) were both killed in the war there. She showed me a picture of three young men in soccer uniforms. Those were her brothers and a cousin, I think. The cousin is dead. Then she told me she had walked from Somalia, through Ethiopia, Sudan and into Libya. In Libya, she crossed over to Italy in a boat. Eight people drowned on that trip, four children, two men and two women. Lots of shooting in Somalia and Libya. From Italy to Germany, and Germany is good. She came alone and met and married her new husband here in Germany. Pretty incredible.
When she was asked to sign a paper, a look of panic crossed her eyes. The doctor saw that and said I could sign for her and it needn’t be, but I don’t think Jasmine understood. She got out her ID and looked to see how to spell her name. She managed to chicken scratch out her first name. No last name. It didn’t matter to anyone though, and everyone was happy that the baby seems healthy and all could go well. I may very well be there for the delivery. I offered to come if she wanted me. I would feel quite honored.



Today was my first day in the refugee camp (or more precisely, next to it in the offices where the classes will take place) to volunteer as a German language teacher. Unfortunately, my voice is now officially shot and I cannot speak for longer than 5 minutes before it starts to weaken. I had already decided therefore that I would spend more time helping the teachers, develop curricula and provide teaching materials. I suspected that I was one of the better skilled ones in this department. Within 5 minutes of meeting the people, my suspicions were confirmed. The other teachers-to-be were nice, but shy and unsure.

I went to all the potential teachers and explained my idea. My plan, since I can’t speak anymore, at least enough to teach a full class, is to provide support and teaching materials. I certainly have the experience and now that I quit all my teaching jobs, I have the time. They were thoroughly delighted to hear that they might have support in this department. They had really no idea how this was going to work. No one did, to be honest. Anyway, I quickly established myself there and we waited.

Shaking Hands
We were told 40 people were coming. Instead, about 60 people came, one single woman in the whole lot. They came in and the first few greeted us with handshaking (SOOO important here in Germany – a constant stumbling block of politeness even for Americans) and then after the 10th person, it faded off. I immediately jumped in and insisted that they all come and shake hands and say “Guten Tag” and encouraged everyone to join in. It was a good start and the mood was positive. It was a bit like at a wedding.


Order out of chaos

Anyway, a whole lot of chaos broke out as we had many more than planned, several languages in the room, and no idea what to do next. The first thing that was done was introductions of the teachers and welcoming for the participants. I spoke slowly and clearly, simply and in English and thanked them for coming. The other teachers were shy, some mumbled and none of them spoke simply. Room for improvement there. They all, however, expressed heartfelt excitement for starting the lessons. One Syrian who spoke good English translated. At the end, there was some muttering and he said that he now wanted to translate what the course participants had just said and thank us for our efforts. Very kind.

After a bit of standing around muttering, we finally decided we needed a list of names of the people and maybe their nationalities. A list was made and passed around. Not very useful because there were just too many and most of the entries were in Arabic. One woman who was sort of organizing the thing started a lesson based on a not totally suitable lesson plan that had been handed out. Still, better than nothing and off we went. She tried to teach them Hello, my name is… What is your name… I come from… Okay, not a bad start, but she kept mixing in English thinking it would help them and that only confused them. Nobody really understood but some order was coming into the mayhem because everyone was paying attention.

Finally a man who has lived in Germany for decades but is from the Arabic-speaking world, came in, talked to them, helped them understand the exercise and off we went. Then even more people came and this time a bunch of women and gaggles of small children. Each person had to stand up and say something. Off we went. At that point I jumped in fully and went to the back of the class where people weren’t getting it anyway. (I had been mingling the whole time before and talking and practising but not with full force.) When one boy got up and said the sentences loud and clear he got a round of applause. There was a boy with Downs Syndrome too.

I met a family with 4 children. The father immediately gave me to understand that his one boy, Achmed, is very little for his age (he was) but that he was 10 and needed to go to school. Yes, I said, I would mention that to the others. Another man told me he needed to take the ilts test right away. After a few minutes I understood. He meant the ILTS test, a test in English language proficiency. And learn German grammar, etc. immediately. He had interrupted his studies in Computer Science in Syria and wanted to continue as soon as possible. I could only take note of the situation.

Children Jumping with Excitement
I tried to sit and talk especially with the women. They were all eager and some were shy, but outnumbered and most of them busy with small children. One very young mother who looked more Central Asian than Arabic was quite forceful and outspoken. The small children were adorable. To them it seemed like this whole refugee thing was a big adventure – sleeping in tents with lots of people, eating in a cafeteria, sleeping on army cots, new languages – all very exciting. I had been going around shaking hands with everyone and practicing my name and country and they were jumping with excitement, sticking their hands out, smiling big smiles, just plain delighted with the whole thing.

Anyway, that’s how it continued for a while and suddenly, the time was way over and everyone went out. The first list signing was a failure because no one knew who had signed and who hadn’t so another list was made and they signed on the way out. Turns out at least 100 people, excluding the children had turned up.

At this point, I decided to turn my attention to three African looking men. They were looking sort of forlorn and when I approached them, my suspicions turned out to be right. They were really the only ones in that room who do not speak Arabic. I had read somewhere that within the refugee camps, the Africans (excluding North Africans) are the very bottom of the pecking order. They had not understood a thing and have probably have been feeling sort of left out since this whole crisis started. One of them spoke good English, the other two Eritrean only (my knowledge of languages that exist outside of Europe has been growing!) I spoke with the English speaker a bit and found out that Eritrean also has its own alphabet so they have a hard road ahead of them. He told me he had been an English and a history teacher in Eritrea. Anyway, I hinted that I would keep an eye on them and try to help them from getting lost in the mayhem.

I left needless to say on a high.

Still, there are two hundred people living in this camp alone. They are busy building more tents because next week 400 more people are coming to this camp. Dresden alone has several and this one is not the biggest. The people have been here for about 3 weeks and have not even been properly registered yet. That means three weeks ago they were sitting in boats crossing over to Greece and walking through all of eastern Europe.  The people here who are helping them, every last one of them, is overwhelmed and the flood has not stopped.

Categories: Europe

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