Monday, December 25, 2017

Refugee story from 2015

During the summer of 2015, about a million refugees from war-torn Syria and the surrounding area came pouring into Germany. For journalists, especially in Germany, this was a big deal. I mean, tectonic plates were shifting and the influx of people created thousands of story opportunities. How, for example, were the refugees fitting in? Where were they being housed? What problems were they facing? How had the journey been? The opportunities for stories were endless. 
Now enter me. The only real thought I had to myself during this time, journalism-wise, was, "Dude, if you don't write at least a few stories off this, there is something wrong with you." Well, in the end I did write a few stories related to the refugee situation, but I'm most proud of the one below.
A bit of backstory: around Christmas 2015, I would always pass this one particular area at the main railway station in Hamburg. It was this makeshift command post for refugees who were just arriving or stuck in limbo or just needed some help. What struck me about this command post was how ragtag, yet efficient it seemed. They had translators at the place, supplies, bulletin boards, and there would always be people manning the area, even around the clock. 
I became intrigued about the people working at this station. Below is a story I wrote about them. I had sent the piece on spec to the Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, the editor there said, "We are pretty well covered on the subject," and passed. All right. But here the story is. I thought it was worth sharing, even if two years have elapsed.
For the last five months, a small brigade of volunteers working at a makeshift aid station at the Hamburg Central Train Station has been offering various forms of assistance to the droves of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees who have been passing through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia to seek asylum.
The volunteers, most of whom are German citizens but some of them refugees themselves, translate for the newly arrived refugees, help them buy the proper train tickets and show them where they can get food and water. They also help the refugees solve the many unique problems that they face.
It has been well documented how kind and generous many Germans have been to the refugees who have been arriving in Germany from war-torn countries. But the aid station is a good representation of how grassroots and vigorous the effort to help the refugees often is.
“We just try to help the refugees however we can; the most important thing is that help is being given,” said Felix Brugger, 27, a volunteer at the aid station, which is located in the train station’s main entrance hall. Brugger made his comments after having just told two Afghani refugees which route they need to take to reach a particular city in Sweden.
Ever since last September, when Angela Merkel began allowing thousands of refugees to enter Germany, a couple hundred refugees have been arriving at the Hamburg Central Station each day.
Though the German government gives cash subsidies and other benefits to refugees who are in the process of seeking asylum in Germany, the refugees at the Hamburg train station are looking to go to Scandinavia, which means that the German government views them as “Transitfl├╝chtlinge,” transit refugees, and does not give them any special support.
But that’s where the volunteers at the aid station come in. The volunteers -- there are about 40 of them in total and they work in shifts -- know which shelters are open for the night, keep detailed lists of the trains leaving for Scandinavia, escort the refugees around the train station and constantly stay abreast of the border situations in Scandinavia. They also raise money for the refugees, so if a refugee gets in a major jam, there’s cash on hand to help him get out of it.
“We try to make things easier for the refugees,” said one volunteer, Sumane, a 19-year-old Hamburg resident with Iraqi heritage.
Though the effort to help the refugees at the Hamburg Central Station seems robust and well coordinated, it wasn’t always that way.
Only a few people helped the refugees when they first began arriving at the train station in September. Those helpers, said Brugger, just handed out bottles of water and put makeshift barriers around an area where the refugees had been sitting to give them a little breathing room.
However, in mid-September, it was rumored that members of a far-right political party were going to hold an anti-immigration rally in Hamburg, and fears over how those protesters might treat the refugee if they encountered them at the train station galvanized more people into aiding the transit refugees.
“After that day in September,” Brugger said, “the effort to help the refugees here just got larger and more sophisticated.”
Indeed it did. In October, the volunteers got several humanitarian non-profit agencies to set up large tents with soup kitchens just outside one entrance to the train station, so all transit refugees now have access to free meals and an enclosed place to rest. And in December, the volunteers raised enough money to rent several rooms in a nearby office building so they can administer services to the refugees in a nicer environment, guarded from the elements and away from the hustle and bustle of the train station.
Though the number of refugees who pass through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia has gone down since the winter began, it may rise again in the spring.