Young German entrepreneurs give refugees the space to integrate

Young German entrepreneurs give refugees the space to integrate

Editor’s note: This is the last article under our sustainability project, “Envisioning a sustainable future with youth,” powered by RadiciGroup. Our 12-piece series, which started in September 2016, covers Canada, France, Vietnam, China, United States, Lebanon, Italy, Finland, India, South Africa, Bulgaria, and now Germany, to shine a light on different youth initiatives around the world toward more sustainable living.

Students and refugees gather to enjoy food made by the welt_raum group. Credit: Claudia Greco

Students and refugees gather to enjoy food made by the welt_raum group. Credit: Claudia Greco

The steady flow of refugees into Germany took its people by surprise — the country was ill-prepared to provide housing or the necessary support for the influx of people, many of whom arrived through an ordeal by land or by sea. When a group of students from Zeppelin Universität noticed that most aid initiatives focused on short-term solutions, they took action, and welt_raum was created.

In 2015, about 600 refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in Friedrichshafen, a small town in the south of Germany, close to the Swiss border. Most of those who fled to the town, which houses Zeppelin Universität, were between the ages of 18 and 35.

The city was doing the best it could to provide emergency shelter and food under the circumstances. With the rise of the German Willkommenskultur (German for “welcome culture”), many were more than happy to provide food, clothing and other support. But these initiatives of classic charity, based on helping those in need, only provided emergency support. To the youth behind welt_raum, this set refugees apart as victims of war instead of new citizens who should be integrated into the community.

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“We thought that this stigmatization was part of the problem. We wanted to try something different by not helping explicitly but by just spending time together and creating added value for all involved,” explained Tim Robert Schleicher, a welt_raum co-founder.

In many ways, sustainability is closely linked to the concept of inclusion, which stands at the center of welt_raum. The key is creating and maintaining conditions that give present and future generations to opportunities to fulfill themselves. That includes social responsibility and empowerment of the less fortunate.

The name “welt_raum” means “space” in English. It’s appropriate, as its mission is to create an atmosphere of togetherness that allows for long-term welcoming. It aims to show the newcomers that they have the space to start over, get support through the community, which they can be a part of.

“Making the unlikely likely,” is how the company’s mission is described on their website. “Welt_raum enables humans to meet, share with and learn from each other by creating spaces defined through mutual appreciation and respect.”

It uses the available infrastructure at Zeppelin Universität and in the city. As the company was just starting off, they rented a room in a university buildings close to the accommodations for refugees and just went there to introduce themselves. In 2016, they created a learning community together with the university’s arts program — a joint project about living and learning together in a new concept of neighborhood. Members of welt_raum, now an officially registered association, are also creating language coaching and other shared activities.

The founders have since left the university, but welt_raum is up and running. Francesca Arduini and Philipp Reichle, both 20 years old, are part of the executive committee that consists of students and refugees alike. The pair study sociology, politics and economics at Zeppelin Universität and have been part of welt_raum since their first semester.

Just another day with the welt_raum team.

Just another day with the welt_raum team.

“We want to foster encounters. We want to provide a space where locals and refugees can meet at eye level which goes beyond conventional concepts of volunteer activities,” Reichle explained when asked about his reason for joining welt_raum.

Whether it’s board game evenings or after-school childcare, the idea is to help overcome inhibitions and create projects that everybody can contribute to. Welt_raum has also encouraged activities in local sports and music clubs, and regularly plans excursions to local tourist spots.

But this isn’t like a school field trip — all of the group’s activities are based on appreciation and acceptance, to create a relaxed atmosphere rather than a forced activity. The language barrier is sometimes problematic, but welt_raum has decided to make a virtue out of necessity.

“A lot of our activities work even without verbal communication,” Arduini explained. Her personal favorite is the so-called transcultural kitchen, which has refugees, students and locals cook and eat together. Former menus have included Eritrean cuisine or Swabian recipes native to the south of Germany. A small team cooks together and then serves the rest of the participants.  

“It’s great because you can actually work on something together. No matter what language you speak, sharing food literally brings all people together around a table,” Arduini added.

“Many of these events and activities lead to friendships,” Reichle said. “When that happens, there is no need to restrict activities to what welt_raum organizes. Some people have started meeting up at home to play PlayStation together!”

Though welt_raum has seen some success, the students’ work is not always easy — Arduini noted that sometimes, their work is “emotionally hardcore,” a sentiment echoed by Reichle.

Zeppelin Universität students spend time with refugee and immigrant kids on campus.

Zeppelin Universität students spend time with refugee and immigrant kids on campus.

"How do you react when a family is sent back to their country? Or when you listen to what they endured in their home countries?” Reichle said. Though he posed the questions rhetorically, welt_raum had to seriously consider them when beginning its work, eventually creating guidelines and a solution.

Each participant has to understand when distance becomes necessary, a subtle irony considering that their group’s name is German for “space.” The initiative has made it a priority to have regular sessions with the team, which allow for reflexion of what they have experienced. That can range from the best ways to get people involved to techniques for dealing with challenges.

“We’re trying to focus on what we have in common but sometimes it’s hard when our differences feel prominent or when we just cannot fulfill some of the expectations,” Reichle said.

The group also calls itself politically neutral, so they refrain from actively seeking publicity outside of promoting their initiative. The group members do not want to get caught up in current discussions on integration, cultural differences or border politics.

“We are now in a phase of transition,” Reichle said. With an ebbing flow of refugees and fewer people arriving in Friedrichshafen, their needs have changed and welt_raum is trying to keep up. Those who have been granted asylum move to their own apartments, making it more difficult to stay in touch. For those who stay in the city, it’s more important than ever to create options for long-term integration.

“We are right now trying to adjust to these new needs and create perspectives that allow us to stay in touch with people outside of the refugee accommodations while we still want to remain an open venue for anyone interested,” Reichle explained.

Related: Stigma and bureaucracy stop mentally ill Germans from receiving treatment

The two are particularly excited about welt_raum’s current project, which launched last fall in cooperation with a local high school and local integration courses. They plan to create a mentoring community with 30 university students and 30 teens that have come to Friedrichshafen as refugees.

In small groups, participants can either work on their respective language skills, tutoring or just spend time with each other. They hope this will facilitate job entry for the teens, but keep the program unstructured.

“It’s not really about what they are doing in detail,” Reichle said. “One group wanted to build a treehouse together. It’s much more about showing that support is there and that these encounters can be fun.”

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV

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