by Monica Lieschke
Executive Director, the Jane Goodall Institute-Germany 

It all started in August with a call to action on Facebook: That afternoon many more refugees than usual were expected at the main station in Munich – hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. The help of volunteers would be needed urgently.

There we stood as trains were delayed, waiting together with some 20, later 30 and finally 50 other people of all ages. It was a quiet but tense atmosphere, as if people sensed something historic was about to happen.

Suddenly they poured out of the trains: men, women, children - many carrying plastic bags filled with all of the belongings they were able to take with them. They looked so tired, so exhausted, yet so relieved. Shyly and almost unbelievingly, they looked into the applauding crowd. Some of us held up posters, on them written, “Refugees Welcome!” All of the children were given plush toy animals. Tired smiles shined everywhere and tears of joy flowed freely.

This was only 3 months ago. Since then, the stream of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and many other countries has not subsided. On the contrary, it has grown stronger with thousands arriving in Bavaria every day - some days, up to ten thousand!

For us, this was the start of several shifts helping at the main station. Later we began to help in one of the improvised “Welcome Centers.” The Red Cross has set up thousands of camp beds in the giant and ultramodern halls of the Munich Trade Fair Grounds.

The first weeks were chaotic and a constant struggle to get volunteers organized between Facebook, Doodle lists, and Info desks. What is needed and where? How many refugees are expected to arrive during the next night? Where can we get more blankets? 

It feels like a miracle that it somehow worked and is still working. People learned to organize themselves, cooperate, and be flexible. They discovered new talents and worked together with the police and other authorities. This was the first time many of the volunteers felt as if they were needed for a greater purpose, rewarded by contributing to something important.  

Tons of donated clothes and shoes had to be sorted, as well as food, toys, and medicine. We couldn't brew sweet tea fast enough for the arriving refugees, which we handed over with a welcoming smile and some friendly words.

There were, and still are, thousands of helpers - many of them young people and students. Some of them even work up to 16 hours per shift.

Other activities have taken place since the first arrivals of refugees. We helped reunite two Syrian brothers in Vienna and Munich who had been separated during their months of traveling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. We helped connect local people who offered special jobs to the Syrian refugees, such as producing Aleppo soap in Munich.

We had so much fun accompanying some 50 refugee teenagers, all of them minors, while they helped an elderly lady harvest her delicious organic pears from her orchard. The teenagers could hardly believe that so many pears, apples and other fruit just fell from the trees without anyone harvesting them, but that at the same time it was forbidden to pick them up without asking permission. There many things to learn about a new culture – for both us and them!

Activites like this are what the refugees need - to have something fun to do and learn the local language in the process. 

Our team from JGI Germany hope to become oriented in the new climate and learn more about the incoming populations. We are in the process of deciding how we can be of service to the refugees by inviting and integrating them into our community, especially after the NGO and government organizations finish their initial resettlement work. This is only possible when displaced people get legal asylum and refugee status.  

The social climate has changed with this huge challenge. It’s not only “Refugees Welcome” anymore, but also concern, skepticism, fear, and even aggression. This will be a long-term challenge for both locals and refugees, but it’s also a chance to encourage a peaceful and open society where globalization not only influences the economy, but also much more. 

Slowly new structures are being developed and becoming visible. As we figure out who is responsible for what and who could be an appropriate partner for various activities, we learn that mid and long term occupation commitments make sense. Planning is important when you work with people from a different cultural background who want to begin new lives, especially when many of them have been traumatized.  

In 2016, we plan to carefully begin and support new Roots & Shoots groups to involve refugee kids with activities like German lessons, cooking activities, musical explorations, experiencing nature, meeting animals, Land Art, and other creative activities. We want to create an environment where local and refugee kids can get to know each other without vocal language as the main form of communication, but rather through play and nature. 

Dr. Jane Goodall’s credo, “Every individual makes a difference,” will be our guiding light as we move forward to help the refugees.