Impact Journalism Day by Sparknews: A better world - No. 50

A room to call his own

Temporary roommates Constantin Thieme and a Syrian refugee, Hamad, who were introduced by the German organisation Refugees Welcome.
Temporary roommates Constantin Thieme and a Syrian refugee, Hamad, who were introduced by the German organisation Refugees Welcome.PHOTO: SPARKNEWS

BERLIN • When the Syrian army draft papers came in, his father told him it was time to get out.

So Hamad, a 24-year-old IT student in Damascus, hit the road for a perilous month and a half: through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France, then, last September, into Germany.

The German social services, overwhelmed, lodged him in a disused classroom with eight other men.

"If nine people are living in the same room, there will be problems. One person wants to sleep, another doesn't want to sleep, and so on," Hamad said.

An Internet-based group called Refugees Welcome (Flüchtlinge Willkommen)fixed his problems. It brought Hamad together with medical student Constantin Thieme, also 24.

 

Hamad now has a room in Constantin's apartment in the gentrifying Berlin district of Wedding. The two men first met in the kitchen. It was a short introduction. "We didn't actually say much. It was just obvious to me we would get along," Constantin said, as Hamad laughed in agreement.

Refugees Welcome was created in late 2014 by three young Germans - Mareike Geiling, Jonas Kakoschke and Golde Ebding. Their aim was to better house refugees often living in camps outside towns and cities, and therefore deprived of any chance to integrate.

It has six full-time staff and 60 volunteers, and has helped house some 290 refugees across Germany. Its success is spreading as far and wide as the refugees themselves, with national websites in Austria, Canada, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. There are more than 5,000 flat-shares registered worldwide.

After users register an available room, the charity connects them with local refugee organisations which have lists of registered asylum seekers.

Refugees Welcome can even help find ways to pay the refugee's rent, if needed. Constantin, for example, raised €500 (S$756) from Facebook friends while waiting for Hamad's paperwork to be completed by the government.

Co-founder Mareike Geiling, who hosts a refugee herself, said there have been growing pains because of the massive flow of refugees to Germany.

As political tensions around Chancellor Angela Merkel's open- door policy have grown, the souring public mood is another problem for this donation-dependent organisation.

However, Constantin said, opening up your home is the best way to overcome fears based on ignorance: "Hamad is totally not the stereotypical Arab man. He is very open-minded. I think, he is not the picture that is created in the media, or by some politicians."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'A room to call his own'. Print Edition | Subscribe