When I first moved to Berlin, it wasn’t easy. I arrived with no job, no apartment and no idea of how difficult the two things were to come by in the city. I eventually found a place to live but spent over a year working in jobs that paid very little and struggling to get by. Once I had established myself a bit better, the next thing I needed to find was friends and a community, which also proved difficult. I didn’t seem to be able to make friends with Germans and ended up with international friends who were often only here for a limited time. When my friends left to go back to their corner of the world I was left feeling alone and like I had to start all over again.
I found my community eventually in 2012 in the occupied spaces on Oranienplatz and the Gerhard-Hauptmann-Schule. The people I met there were living in Germany as refugees. They gave me a new perspective on my difficult start in Berlin. We shared the commonality that we were all foreign in Berlin, but the big difference was that I had chosen to live here, whereas they had been forced away from their homes. Suddenly, those minimum wage jobs and hours spent apartment hunting didn’t look so bad and I felt guilty for ever having complained about something I had chosen to do.
It was clear that many of my refugee friends needed help with their paperwork. German bureaucracy is often a nightmare even if you’re not going through the asylum process so I really wanted to help my friends through it. Unfortunately, being a foreigner who had already made some major errors with the bureaucracy here, it was like the blind leading the blind and often after trawling through my friends’ seemingly endless paperwork I ended up more confused than when I had begun.
Last year I sat with Nebras, one of the founders of Daseinsfreunde, and we spoke about the situation for people seeking asylum in Germany. He had been through the process himself and said that if he had had a German person to help him with his paperwork and guide him towards his goals here, it would have been a faster, smoother and less stressful experience. We saw that many people arrived with goals in Germany but ended up being demotivated by all the hurdles they had to jump through. That’s where the idea of JumpStart came about.
The concept was to initially choose 5 people who had recently arrived in Germany as refugees and pair them with two local people who had similar interests or worked in a similar field to them. This way, they would have guidance and support every step of the way and would hopefully stay motivated to achieve their goals.
The JumpStart project began last Summer and a few weeks ago, I sat down with one of the JumpStart teams to see how the programme was going. What I learned about the impact of JumpStart over the course of our meeting was unexpected and enlightening.
The four of us sat together in the Egyptian-Morrocan restaurant, Baraka, in Kreuzberg, swapping nightmare flatmate stories, plans for Christmas and Syrian humour. We had all come to know each other through Daseinsfreunde but had yet to discuss the progress that had been made within their JumpStart team.
This JumpStart team consists of Linda, from the south of Germany, who has been living in Berlin for 5 years and is the project manager for JumpStart; Lilith, who has been in Berlin since she was a child and Ameenah, from Syria who arrived in Germany as an asylum seeker last year.
When I asked how the project was going, the reaction was unexpected. Ameenah’s eyes welled up as she said that, in Linda and Lilith, she had found her best friends in Berlin, friends she felt she had known for years. Our meeting took place during the horrific bombardment in Aleppo and things were understandably tough for Ameenah. She said a lot of people she knew here told her to stop watching the news and if she started to talk about what was happening in Syria, people would try to distract her rather than listen to her. What was special about Lilith and Linda was that neither of them stopped her talking or told her not to talk about it, they listened to her, and that was what she really needed. She was impressed that they kept themselves informed about the situation in Syria and showed strength when handling very difficult topics.
Lilith responded by saying that it was an honour that Ameenah felt that she could be so open with her, ‘we can’t relate to what she’s going through but at least we can listen, everybody should hear these stories so that they can understand what people are going through’. She added that Ameenah’s ability to still have a sense of humour was inspiring. It was clear that the three young women had formed a strong bond and that this friendship was as important to Linda and Lilith as it was to Ameenah.
After an emotional conversation about their friendship, I asked about Ameenah’s goals and if JumpStart had helped her achieve them. That’s when Ameenah pulled out a colourful mind-map of all her goals, which she had drawn with the support of Linda and Lilith.
Ameenah is an ambitious journalist who is already working on a freelance basis in Germany; Lillith could guide her with that because she also works in journalism. But Ameenah’s goals stretched far beyond journalism and just looking at her mind-map made me feel tired! ‘Most people tell me I’m trying to do too much but Linda and Lilith just keep encouraging me – sometimes they even add to the list!’
Linda and Lilith have been there for Ameenah through the bureaucratic process that refugees have to go through in Germany; attending Jobcentre appointments and helping her with filling out forms in German. They all laughed about how much the woman working at the JobCentre hated Ameenah at first and then ended up being so impressed by how driven she was that she offered her some work. Having arrived with no knowledge of the German language, Ameenah would have struggled without the help of Linda and Lilith, but they both admit that even though they are German, German bureaucracy still sometimes baffles them.
I finished the evening with a sense of much-needed happiness. Turning the news on in 2016 would give you the impression that the whole world was full of evil and greed but it is the small, sadly unreported, stories like this JumpStart team that help me see that there is still a lot of good in the world.
I began to wonder what my Berlin experience would have been like if I had had a JumpStart team when I was new in Berlin. Moreover, I thought about how the experience would have been for those who have been forced to flee their homes; if everyone who arrived in Germany seeking asylum had been paired with local people to help them through the process. One thing that was abundantly clear to me was that what started as a programme to help refugees, has inevitably become a programme that is creating friendships and helping local people to see the world, and even their own culture, from a different perspective. If this project could grow and spread throughout Germany it would ease the stress for refugees, and discourage fear and hatred from those unsure about the recent influx of foreign people in their country. This project is not a one-way street, after all, everyone’s life needs a little jump start every now and then.