Refugee Integration in Berlin: A Nation at Odds with Itself

 /  Oct. 23, 2017, 10:49 a.m.

Kite festival at the Tempelhofer Feld.

Walking onto the Tempelhofer Feld, it is easy to understand why the park has become one of Berlin’s most beloved green spaces. Teens speed down the former runways of the abandoned airport on skateboards and bicycles, couples picnic on the wide field, and high above—where airplanes once rose into the sky—kites soar in their place. Today, a kite festival has brought Berliners out of their respective neighborhoods and to the historic landscape of Tempelhof.

But amidst all the revelry, Tempelhof also serves as the backdrop for an increasingly contentious social debate: how to integrate the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Germany since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened German borders to refugees of the Syrian Civil War. That year, the distinction of “largest refugee camp in Germany” was added to Tempelhof’s extensive repertoire, raising the question: how did the Tempelhofer Feld’s role as a communal green space in Berlin contribute—or detract—from its effectiveness as a refugee shelter? And, more importantly, what does the refugee experience in Tempelhof reveal about the success of so-called Willkommenskultur, or “welcoming culture,” and “integration” in Berlin—or even in Germany as a whole?


Rewind to 2015, when the word Willkommenskultur first started dominating Germany’s political and social discourse. The world gazed in awe at the second German “wonder” as people lined up at train stations, handing out teddy bears and holding posters reading, “Welcome Refugees!” Polls at the time showed that Germans overwhelmingly supported Merkel’s decision to let in more refugees, with a stunning 96 percent claiming that “all those fleeing war or violence are entitled to asylum.” This was all in sharp contrast to images from other parts of Europe, such as the razor wire fence hastily built by Hungary along its border with Serbia in September 2015. Germans suddenly appeared more progressive than ever before, willing to “open their gates and their hearts” to those in need.

The worldwide awe inspired by Germany’s Willkommenskultur was due, in part, to the darker chapters of the country’s history. Before 2015, Germany’s attitude towards refugees was far less welcoming than many of its European neighbors. While countries such as France and Great Britain have—albeit at times begrudgingly—accepted immigrants into their societies, Germany has followed an altogether different approach: that of Gastarbeiter or “guest workers.” This program is most closely connected to the wave of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany in the 1950s to escape economic instability and satisfy a labor shortage in war-devastated Europe. As Gastarbeiter, the Turkish workers were expected to work for relatively low wages, saving the money to support their families back home. However, it was widely expected that the workers would return to Turkey after a few years. In making this deal with the Turkish Gastarbeiter, the Germans never viewed themselves as an Einwanderungsland, or “land of immigration.” There was no talk of “integration”—it simply wasn’t relevant. Only recently have many Germans begun to realize the extent to which Turkish families have become and will continue to be a part of German society. Until a few years ago, notions of “integration,” “new Germans,” and Germany as Einwanderungsland were almost non-existent.

So what caused the sudden change in public opinion? And, perhaps more importantly, did this change last?


Fast-forward to early 2016. Just after the rise of Willkommenskultur, eight Syrian refugees arrived in Germany, among them twenty-year-old Ali. Back in Syria, Ali had begun his studies at a university in Damascus, but was forced to leave the country due to the threat of being drafted into the war. After a few months in Turkey, the group decided to hazard the harrowing journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece in an attempt to make it to Germany, where they dreamed of finding homes and building new lives.

Upon arriving in Germany, Ali was first sent to the Sozialamt, or Social Service, to begin the bureaucratic process of integration. The program dictated by the Sozialamt was straightforward and uncompromising: each refugee received 135 euros (approximately $150) per month and a placement in a refugee shelter, where he would stay while his asylum application was processed. Ali and four of his friends were sent to Tempelhof.

“There were eight of us in one room, and we could only eat three times a day,” Ali recalled. “And you can only take a shower twice a week, and to get there you had to take a bus . . . there were no showers [in Tempelhof] when I was there.”


A gate separating the Tempelhof airport from the public field.

The conditions in the halls quickly became a topic of controversy in the media. In particular, the camp’s barriers and fences isolated the refugees and made it extremely difficult for them to learn German or interact with the outside world. But the problems with refugee arrival and accommodation in Germany go much deeper, pervading the refugee experience both inside and outside of the camps.

One of the most serious and frustrating issues is how long the first step of the integration process can take—most refugees sit in a shelter with nothing to do for nine months to a year before they receive an official allowance to stay and, with that, the right to work. Then, even after refugees have received their allowance, they still need to find work or schooling and a place to live, the latter of which can be extremely difficult due to systemic racism in the already-sparse Berlin housing market. Most refugees who have succeeded in finding both work and an apartment did so only with the help of German friends and volunteers, who both act as liaisons between refugees and landlords and help with the language learning process. Ali’s experience reflects many of these factors.

“[For nine months] I didn’t do anything. But I’ve noticed that I’m more practical than many of the other [refugees]. I have friends who still only speak a few words of German.”

In Ali’s case, learning German was only possible once he left the loud, chaotic environment of the Tempelhof shelter and wandered the neighborhood, eventually coming across an American library where he could check out books and study. It was at this library that Ali met a young German student who has since helped him significantly with his German and navigating the housing market.

Sam Jourieh, a Syrian migrant who came to Germany in 2011, had a similar experience: he was “quickly integrated” into society after learning German with a German woman’s help over the course of just a few months. Together, they would go to cafés where Sam could just talk, and she would listen—something often impossible for new refugees in Germany, especially those who are stuck in shelters for extended periods of time. Without her help, Sam doubts that he would have been able to make the progress that he did.

Today, Sam works with refugees through multiple projects, including teaching karate and interpreting for refugees who still haven’t mastered German. In these positions, he tries to pass his experience on to the people he meets, but finds that similar challenges plague the majority of refugees: the length of time that bureaucratic processes take and the poor conditions in many refugee homes.

“The state wasn’t prepared at all [for the influx of refugees],” Sam said, reflecting on his experiences. “They just took people in. They were always ten steps behind the problem Without the people who were carrying signs, the state wouldn’t have made it.”


In downtown Berlin, a long, imposing brick building houses the Senate Department for Work, Integration, and Social Issues. Inside, Elke Breitenbach, the head senator of the department, sits at a table in her spacious office analyzing numbers. She works and speaks with an intensity that makes her passion evident—a passion which, according to her, the other Senate members have as well. The problems that still exist surrounding integration in Berlin aren’t due to a lack of trying, she says, but rather indicate the complexity and difficulty of the tasks set before the city’s government.

“The politicians and administration couldn’t solve the problem, even though everyone was truly giving it their all,” Breitenbach said. “For Berlin I can speak more concretely and say that we’ve truly had a political failure.”

Indeed, many factors have made politicians’ jobs harder, especially in Berlin. By far the most serious and pervasive issue is Berlin’s housing crisis, which reached a climax with the influx of thousands of refugees into the city. According to a 2017 study from the research institute Regiokontext, Berlin would need to have seventy-seven thousand more apartments than currently available in order to “relieve the already tense housing market” in the city. Unfortunately, the crisis seems set to get worse before it gets better as the population of Berlin continues to grow at a rate of sixty thousand people per year.

Solving the housing crisis and providing affordable living space for all Berliners, including the refugees, is at the top of Breitenbach’s to-do list. The first step in her plan to secure better living conditions for refugees is to clear out all of the emergency refugee shelters in Berlin, including Tempelhof. In pursuing this goal, the Senate has seen some success over the past year: in March 2017, there were nineteen thousand people living in one of the precarious shelters, while in September, that number was down to nine thousand. At Tempelhof, only a couple hundred residents remain.

Once the refugees have left the shelters, however, they need to have somewhere else to go—this is where other intricacies of Berlin’s bureaucracy can present a challenge to lawmakers. The relocation plan for most refugees is to move into Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte, community shelters, or Modularunterkünfte, modular shelters, two other types of refugee housing with higher standards than the emergency shelters. Gemeinschaftsunterkünfte, for example, have kitchens, whereas emergency shelters do not. Modularunterkünfte are normal houses, except that they generally contain rooms rather than full apartments, making the shelter more like a college dorm than a home. All of the shelters are fenced-in to protect refugees from right-wing violence. Creating all of these shelters, however, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Finding locations, hiring a provider and following guidelines during construction such as fire safety and water regulations all combine to make it a daunting task. 


An alley between the controversial Tempohomes, which are being built in the open space near the airport.

One new construction project that has caused controversy among Berliners is the replacement for the emergency shelter in the Tempelhof airport hangars: so-called Tempohomes that are being built right outside the airport, on the outer boundaries of the Tempelhofer Feld. Opponents claim that the construction of these Tempohomes intrudes on the shared green space of the field. They cite a 2014 law, written in response to government plans to build new apartments and small office buildings along the border of the Tempelhofer Feld. The law was passed by a popular referendum and forbid any construction projects on the field with the intention of preserving the green space for future generations. Now, many are criticizing the move to build the Temphomes in front of the airport as an infringement of this popular referendum, despite an agreement limiting the Tempohomes’ lifespan to just two years. According to the compromise, all of the homes must be removed by December 31, 2019.

While this agreement may seem to solve the problem, many still argue that the price of the project is too high and that the homes will turn into a Containerdorf, or “container-village,” which will simply isolate the refugees more and transform into a ghetto.

While Breitenbach and her party initially opposed the Tempohomes, Breitenbach sees them now as the better of two evils. “If we didn’t have this housing crisis, then I would’ve [acted differently],” she said. “But we’re in the situation right now where we can either leave these people in emergency shelters and precarious shelters, or we can move them into the Tempohomes. I’ll be glad when we can pull the people out of there.”

Regardless of controversy, while the Senate continues to work on how to better address housing issues in Berlin, the Tempohomes will stay, both in Tempelhof and in other parts of Berlin. The Senate will also continue working on several others issues, such as a Participation and Integration Law that would give minorities, including refugees, more say in their communities. But the work that’s going on in the Senate could take months or even years to complete. In the meantime, many refugees, such as Sam and Ali, continue to rely primarily on the support of German volunteers for integration. Breitenbach recognizes their efforts, and is grateful. “If we hadn’t had this civil society, this activist civil society, then we would’ve gone under,” Breitenbach reflected. “The civil society came over social media, out of nowhere, without bureaucracy, and they got it all together.”


“So when it all started with the wave of refugees, a lot of people started to think, what can I do?”

Ulla, a German retiree who now volunteers as part of a project to help refugees, remembered the early days of Willkommenskultur as days filled with hope and overwhelming willingness to help. She also recalled the somewhat chaotic nature of those days, as good-willed Germans scoured newspapers and advertisements around the city for ways to get involved.

“[I knew] that it had to be something that I enjoy doing, but I didn’t know what I could do. Then I read a report about the opening of a library here [in the Tempelhof Hangars], and I knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do. I could imagine myself working here,” Ulla reflected with a smile. “But it was hard!” she added, “I came three different times, because I knew I really wanted to help out here, and I thought, I’ll just go . . . but it takes a while to find, right?”

The Tempelhofer Feld has encountered such issues since its inception as a refugee shelter. While the park is a large, welcoming, open space, the airport feels angled, imposing and closed-off. To get to the hangars, one must leave the park and go to the part of the airport that borders the street, enter through one of the few openings in the surrounding gate, walk through the tunnel in the outer wall that leads to the airport, and then pass through security to get anywhere near the areas where the refugees live. On the one hand, the security concerns are rational—right-wing violence against refugees is not unprecedented in Germany, with over 3,500 violent crimes being committed against refugee homes in 2016 alone. On the other hand, however, fences meant to protect also isolate, making it even more difficult for refugees to interact with the outside world. Looking back on his time in Tempelhof, Ali recalled the time he wanted to invite his friend from the library over to visit, and she wasn’t allowed inside. The only ones allowed in, at least in the beginning, were volunteers and security guards. Besides that, “the only people who really knew [what it was like inside] were the refugees,” Ali explained.

It was to solve this very problem that the idea for the Begegnungscafe and Asylothek came about. The Begegnungscafe, or “Encounters Cafe,” is an informal cafe/lounge environment built within one of the unused hangars in the airport. In the words of Kathrin Gerstmeir, one of the founding members of the cafe, the space was intended to be “a place where encounters can take place . . . where refugees, Berliner and volunteers have the opportunity to come together, get to know one another and get rid of their fear of contact [with one another].”

Along with hosting multiple weekly workshops such as a bicycle repair club and a sewing club, the cafe was meant to be a place where any sort of community event could take place, or where people could simply sit, drink coffee together and get to know each other. In other words, the Begegnungscafe hoped to finally bring the outside world into Tempelhof. The Asylothek was inspired by a project of the same name in Nuremberg, which combines the German words for “asylum” (Asyl) and “library” (Bibliothek). The small library opened up in the same space as the Begegnungscafe and was meant to be a “place of learning” where refugees could go to practice their German, read books about Germany and Berlin, and even borrow books in their native languages.


Ulla (far left) with other volunteers and refugees in the Asylothek.

Ulla has volunteered in the Asylothek since May 2016. In the past year and a half of her work there, the Asylothek has gone from being a library to being a communal space and, more than anything, a network of friends. Initially, refugees living in Tempelhof would come to the library to practice their German and to get assistance on German language homework. After a while though, they came for the friends they met—Ulla is just one of many volunteers at the library, and many are students around the same age as the refugees. They joke around together, share advice for the various stages of “integration,” practice German, and occasionally go out on excursions together, such as a recent trip to Potsdam in August.

However, while volunteers have been responsible for the majority of integration “success stories,” their side of the story is not exclusively positive. Just like the refugees and government agencies, volunteers frequently have to put up with long bureaucratic processes that turn some away from getting involved at all. On the other end of the spectrum, volunteers who become extremely involved with refugees are often faced with depressing realities of the refugee experience that aren’t often known to the public. Ulla described one such case of a refugee who she worked with and became quite close with: “I like him a lot. But he comes from Iraq and is only ‘tolerated,’ which means that he has no right to stay. And he doesn’t want to do anything anymore . . . it’s horrible, but I can understand it.” As a volunteer, watching a person you’re working with lose motivation to keep trying is a depressing and demoralizing experience, as Ulla expressed. But that doesn’t stop her from describing the work as a success overall.

“Sometimes I’m depressed, thinking that it’s not doing anything . . . but then I think hey, maybe a little,” Ulla said. “I think if we help one or two people, then that’s already a lot.”

Not everyone is wholly uncritical about the wave of volunteers. Mohammed Jouni, a thirty-one-year-old former refugee from Lebanon who works at the BBZ, the Consultation and Care Center for Young Refugees and Migrants, expressed concern at volunteers’ lack of expertise and tendency to take on more than they can handle.

Looking back to 2015, Mohammed believes that there definitely was a sort of Willkommenskultur present in German society. “There were a lot of people who went to the train stations, gave out bread, teddy bears and clothes. That was . . . I think that for a lot of people, that was honest. They weren’t acting or playing, they truly had the feeling that they could change something now, and for the helpers who had been working on this for years, that was . . . wow,” he said. “The people just opened the borders and refugees came through. People claimed their freedom of movement. And that was truly a euphoric feeling.”

At the same time, however, Mohammed and his colleagues were critical of German attitudes surrounding Willkommenskultur, particularly the sense of moral superiority which the practice seemed to engender. Furthermore, it is important to note that Willkommenskultur in this form was a relatively short-lived phenomenon. “I think that many who helped back then are still helping today. Many others just left—for them, this was a high.”

Mohammad’s criticism isn’t meant to imply that volunteers’ work isn’t helping—rather, it’s meant to point out some weaknesses of relying on a non-professional, voluntary group to do the heavy work of integration. One such weakness is that, in contrast to more formal organizations like the BBZ and the Sozialamt, volunteers generally lack connections in the field of social work. Another weakness is that volunteer work is not obligatory—which means someone can theoretically step out at any time.

“I don’t want people to make decisions about my life because they’re nice, or for them to make me dependent on them, especially because once I’m dependent, a volunteer can say bye and leave, even though I need him. An official can’t do that.”

In order to solve some of these problems within volunteering, the BBZ holds volunteer training sessions where people can come to learn about the various resources that they have at their disposal, to learn more about the bureaucratic process for refugees, and to get support that they can lean on throughout their work. The BBZ and the volunteers both bring certain strengths to the table: the BBZ has organization, connections and expertise, while the volunteers are personable and can befriend the refugees as well as advise them. According to Mohammed, both will be made stronger the more they work together.


Zoom back out to where we started—the Tempelhofer Feld. Today, a grill party is taking place, organized by interkular, an NGO focused on the integration of young refugees in German society. This particular event is meant to bring a group of refugees together with a group of lawyers who work on refugee rights, with the goal of bringing the two groups into communication. And, of course, to have fun, eat food, and have a beer or two.

The grill party is a part of interkular’s larger efforts to turn the unique landscape of the Tempelhofer Feld into an inclusive space where Willkommenskultur is second nature. In pursuit of this goal, they frequently organize events such as grill parties, movie screenings, and intramural sports on and around the Tempelhofer Feld. In all of their work, interkular is focused on the question of how different groups in a society or a community come together. Or, as Dr. Dominik Haubrich, one of the co-founders of interkular, put it: “the question of how integration actually becomes possible.”

Like most groups operating in the field of integration, interkular has had some successes and some failures—they’ve hired many migrants to become part of their staff, helped a handful of refugees find housing, work and, education, and through the many events that they organize, they’ve created a small community in Tempelhof that is welcoming and diverse. In Haubrich’s eyes, the two biggest challenges that face the organization moving forward are funding, which they need to further expand their projects, and awareness, or Bewusstsein. By this, Haubrich refers to an awareness that integration is not just a process of getting a refugee set up in a new apartment or at a new job, although those are important factors. Instead, it must become a more multifaceted process, with people from all different sectors working on it at the same time. Furthermore, it needs to be made more natural. For Haubrich and interkular, “natural” integration simply looks like normal, everyday life—you go to an event, hit it off with someone, that person introduces you to an employer, and so on. The idea is to create spaces where natural processes like these can occur without being forced. This, of course, takes a long time to develop and to grow, but Haubrich is optimistic about the future of interkular.

Interkular is only one non-profit working in a small corner of Berlin, but many of the successes and challenges that they face reflect the general situation in the city as a whole. In the past several years, the phenomenon of “integration” has evolved significantly through the stages of initial Willkommenskultur, reactionary anti-refugee violence, bureaucratic difficulties, and the small successes that have taken place mostly on individual and community levels. While government agencies try to solve the larger problems of workplace integration and shortages in housing, various projects across the city work to bring volunteers and refugees together. From interkular to the Asylothek, from conversation clubs for children to art centers for Muslim women, the offerings across Berlin’s capital seem to be boundless. Over the past two years, Willkommenskultur has gone from a hazy ideal chanted at train stations to a social process that is both flawed and complex. Change has proven to be painfully slow at times, especially for refugees for whom life seems to have come to a halt, but despite the challenges, Willkommenskultur has shown that it won’t simply fade away.

It is still too soon, however, to call integration a success—in fact, ever deeming integration a success or failure may prove impossible simply due to the complex nature of integration as a social phenomenon. When can a person ever be called “fully integrated” into a society, and what does it even mean to be “fully integrated”? To such questions, Breitenbach says simply, “We can say that integration is successful when we don’t need the word ‘integration’ anymore.” Haubrich of interkular agrees, adding: 

"Integration is impossible to measure. Integration is only measurable when it’s not working. Then you can measure it. And when integration isn’t working, the next question is, okay, what comes next then? Then you’re probably going to have conflict. You’ll have terror or parallel societies. You’ll have all of this stigmatization. That’s part of the challenge here. That’s also the beautiful part of it all. You can’t just say why you get along well with one person and not with another. But that’s what it’s about really—to somehow or another make people comfortable."


Germany’s parliamentary elections on September 24 acted as a litmus test to see where the nation stands today on this issue, two years after the initial wave of refugees. The German people stunned many onlookers and analysts from around the globe with their overwhelming support of an anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist, right-wing party, the AFD. The party received 13.5 percent of the vote, outperforming even the most partisan of predictions on their side and making them the third-most popular party in the country. Slogans on the AFD’s campaign posters were not shy in announcing controversial positions. One poster showed a pregnant woman and read, “‘New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” Another read, “Burqas? We like bikinis.” All were stamped with the AFD catchphrase: “Trau dich Deutschland!”, or “Germany, stand up for yourself!” which calls upon Germany to reclaim and defend its cultural identity.


Campaign posters. Top: “Decidedly against right-wing hate campaigns. The Left.” Bottom: “We must put integration into action, not sit it out. Choose Green.”


Vandalized AFD poster in Neukolln, a diverse neighborhood in Berlin. It reads: “‘Colorful diversity’? We have that already.” Crossed out and illegible is the AFD slogan, “Have courage, Germany!” The poster shows various ‘traditional’ stereotypes of German women.

This is a sentiment that has become increasingly widespread in the West as a whole over the past few years—the idea of “defending Western civilization” against outside influences that threaten to corrupt or destroy it. This debate has been reflected in European and American elections over the past few years with mixed results. The triumph of Donald Trump in the United States, as well as the initial strength of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration campaign in France, led many to believe that after an initial wave of sympathy for refugees, populism and nationalism would resurge and triumph in Europe and the United States. Others held up the defeat of right-wing parties in France and the Netherlands as a sign that the mentality in the West was indeed changing, and that the West would refuse to succumb to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Germany’s election is less clear in its lessons. While the AFD received a surprising amount of seats—a result which will no doubt affect policies regarding refugees in the country—Angela Merkel and her party still retain a firm grip on power. Furthermore, many of the other minority parties, while they didn’t receive as large of percentages as the AFD, put out strong pro-refugee slogans during their campaign, including, “We must put integration into action, not sit it out.” Rather than revealing a unified Germany or indicating the clear victory of one side of this debate, the German election showed a nation at odds with itself. More than anything, the German election has shown that the question of integration is still a dynamic one, one that is still in the process of being decided.

In the meantime, however, the testimony of Germans involved in integration at various levels shows that a sort of “awareness” for Willkommenskultur is starting to develop in Germany. Only time can tell whether it will triumph or fail—and with it, the idea of multiculturalism as a whole.

Alexandra C. Price

Alexandra Price is a third-year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As the 2016 recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent a summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not writing for the Gate, Alexandra loves to study foreign languages, read, and take long bike rides around the city.


<script type="text/javascript" src="//" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>