Last year, hundreds of Germans lined up to welcome and distribute food and water to the thousands of refugees who arrived by train and foot from the Middle East and Africa. They immediately self-organized via Facebook and created shifts around the clock. Doctors, organizers, and first-timers responded to radio calls for volunteers. So many donations were received, local and national media reported, that the police had to tell people to stop.
A rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the country since the arrival of about a million migrants and asylum-seekers has not deterred many from continuing to help in some form. About nine percent of Germans are still volunteering in some way, researchers have found; that’s roughly seven million people.
“My general impression is that the overall number did not change that much,” said Malte Bedürftig, co-founder of GoVolunteer, which connects projects and initiatives working in refugee relief and integration with people who want to help.
Although there are those who grew frustrated with the system or the refugees themselves, Bedürftig said, and there is an expected backlash generated by the recent Berlin Christmas market truck terrorism. In general, those who were ready to help in 2015 are still ready today, even if not in the same way.
“Initially people were going in there like crazy and sometimes investing 40 to 60 hours a week, which was unsustainable,” he said. “Many times, people had something close to helper burnout, sometimes I was also not too far away from it.”
Bedürftig, 33, comes from a German tradition of volunteering. Both of his parents are teachers and instilled in him the need to get involved and to help others.
When more asylum-seekers started to make their way to Germany, Bedürftig headed to a shelter. He wanted to meet the people behind the media stories that cautioned Germans of the big crisis they were facing.
He would sit with them in impromptu living rooms and listen to their stories. He also served their meals, cleaned their tables and took out the trash. In the beginning, everyone was scrambling to make sure people had enough to eat, a place to eat, clothes to wear.
“Public authorities and big welfare organizations were overwhelmed and not able to do this work by themselves and people accepted that because it was an exceptional situation,” Bedürftig said.
Neighborhoods organized themselves and started clothes and shoe drives. They volunteered when government officials said they needed people to help build beds and repurpose school gyms into emergency shelters.
But with time, as the number of arrivals decreased, those involved took a step back to reassess what was needed. Bedürftig used his experience in consulting to take care of tasks shelter employees didn’t have time for.
He coordinated an effort to build a library: “Where do we get the books from? How do we establish a book lending system, can we move the shelves if we need to?”And the volunteers asked asylum-seekers what kind subjects they were interested in. A lot had to do with family. What can I do for my children? How do I find work? How do I get out of the shelter? They wanted to know. So their task was to find answers to those questions.
Before he knew it, he had a network of 100 people asking him every week what was going on and where they could volunteer. This led him to co-found GoVolunteer last year.
“I’ve been surprised by the structures they have been building and continue to build,” said Dr. Ulrike Hamann, with the Berlin Institute of Migration and Integration Research at Humboldt University of Berlin. Hamann was among a team of researchers who produced a study in August about the state of refugee-related volunteer work in Germany.
Typically, there are coordinators and a working group for skills such as German language courses, bike repair courses, to work with children, for help with bureaucracy and official business, she said. “Sometimes there’s a group that helps to find work, another group that helps to find housing, so there have been incredible structures of support that are sustainable indeed and have been working ever since.” In some cases, asylum seekers themselves have stepped up to volunteer with translation or by joining other programs.
The Migration Hub Network, a Berlin-based nonprofit, worked with an outside organization to identify about 2,300 projects in Europe, most in Germany, created in the last couple of years to address the needs of refugees. The groups are vetting the projects to determine whether they are still active, what type of work they are doing and the impact they are having.
Initially, Migration Hub was designed to provide a working space for dozens of entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas on how to address the large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers reaching Germany. While many had a business or startup background, few had training around topics of human rights, said Ana Álvarez Monge, the group’s co-founder.
Instead, she said, they decided to not only provide a working space, but also guide those groups, create an inventory of what already exists to avoid duplicating efforts and foster collaboration.
“We want people and governments to understand how much work needs to be done and how much room still exists for collaboration and improvement,” Álvarez Monge said. They are moving into a bigger space, where they will also host talks and are in the process of opening other migration hubs in Germany and abroad.
Hamann, the volunteer study co-author, finds the continued level of enthusiasm astonishing. “Our study took place immediately after the events in Cologne, after New Year’s Eve last year,” Hamann said. Last year, women in Cologne filed close to 500 police reports of sexual harassment and 16 cases of rape against men said to be of Arab and north African origin. So far, 35 people have been charged as a result, and of those, 24 convicted, according to media reports.
“Media coverage helped create a hostile atmosphere against refugees, and volunteers and the welcome culture they engendered were almost invisible in the public discourse,” Hamann said.
“One of the hypothesis at that time was that the willingness to volunteer would decrease,” she said, “but it was, on the contrary, a situation where in February and March this year there were still a lot of volunteers which were willing to continue their work and not affected by that.”
One specific question in the study—done in cities across East and West Germany with varying unemployment rates—was whether volunteers were being harassed by right-wing activists as a result of their work.
And while some responded yes, Hamann said, they also found that there were those who were, for instance, opposed to the German anti-immigration movement Pegida in Dresden who decided to volunteer as a sign of protest.
Dresden has a list of 5,000 volunteers, she said, which was unexpected.
Bedürftig, with GoVolunteer, has also seen this opposition as a motivation to get involved. “A huge crowd here is worried about xenophobic tendencies,” he said, “about right-wing ideologies becoming mainstream, about silently accepting certain tendencies.”
People don’t want to remain silent, and one way of accomplishing that is by getting involved, he said. But the volunteering trend in Germany won’t be sustainable on its own.
GoVolunteer now works with more than 1,000 projects in 80 German cities and has about 40,000 users.
“Our mission is to create personal experiences because that’s basically the only way to reduce fear, to create a better understanding of what it means to have a diverse society and people who are in some aspects different but in others very similar to you and who at the end are just people,” Bedürftig said.
“We still have to involve new people so that you create a cultural awareness that is something normal to do this kind of activities,” he said. “It’s under way, but still you have to pay attention that it just doesn’t disappear.”